Thursday, May 20, 2010

"On Further Consideration..."

If you’re a regular person like myself, impressed by quick-mindedness, a lofty position and personal magnetism, it is easy to be bowled over by a well-turned aphorism tossed off by a charismatic phrasemaker. On its first hearing, the proclamation sounds delightful and insightful. A private revisiting, however, may leave you going, “Wait a second…”

Two exemplifying examples:

Example Number One

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time."

This declaration was offered by Sir Winston Churchill in a speech he delivered to the British Parliament in 1947. (I looked it up.) In its construction, it calls to mind the mirth-inducing witticisms of Oscar Wilde, along the lines of, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

It is also interesting to note that Churchill wraps up his pronouncement with a conversational flourish.

“…from time to time.”

Kind of casual like, like he’s enjoying a pint with the boys down at the pub. If he hadn’t spoken these words in Parliament, you can imagine Old “Winny” buttoning his bon mot by bringing a cigar to his lips, his gesture camouflaging a self-satisfied chuckle.

Churchill’s observation has the advantage of self-evident wisdom. Fascism had recently been tried, and had stunk up the place. Soviet communism didn’t look any better. A monarchy? “Off with his head?” That was pretty much a thing of the past.

Despite its frustrations and disappointments, democracy was clearly the most satisfactory arrangement of the bunch. Britons nodded, admiring “Our Winston’s” ever so clever turn of phrase, and got on with the business of muddling through.

However, for serious thinkers who gave his pronouncement a second look, there really isn’t much to get excited about. I mean, when you get down to it, all Churchill’s saying is,

“Our form of government may be a D-minus, but everyone else’s is an F.”

To which the serious thinker might respond,

"So what? It’s still a D-minus."

In a pleasing demonstration of mock humility, democracy’s weaknesses are acknowledged, without apology, regret or suggestion for reform. In the “Form of Government” competition, we took the Gold, our prevailing argument:

We stink less than everybody else.”

When you think about it, there’s not really much there. Churchill’s declaration simply – and only momentarily – makes you feel better.

Example Number Two

This one is more current, popularized (if not coined) by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and kept alive by the liberal criticism of the conservative talkocracy.

To wit:

"Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts."

Wow, there’s a chastening rebuke for you. Moynihan, the fair-minded’s noble surrogate, has called these black-hearted miscreants at their dastardly game.

Unfortunately, he’s incorrect.

Of course you’re entitled to your own facts. That’s what debates are about, people pitting their argument-supporting facts against the facts of their opponents, in an effort to win an acknowledgement that their facts are more persuasive.

Why do they bring in “expert witnesses” at trials? To offer dueling sets of facts. We have facts. The other side has facts. Let the jury decide which facts they, not believe, because, ideally, the facts presented to them are all valid, but let them decide which facts more reasonably support the most appropriate (and, hopefully, most just) legal outcome.

A husband and wife have a fight: “You’re not attentive”, complains one spouse, backed up by laundry list of unassailable evidence. The other spouse responds, “You’re not supportive”, offering equally indisputable evidence backing that point. To win the dispute, each side has accumulated its own facts, selected facts without question, but facts nonetheless.

Who says they’re not entitled to them?

Moynihan had it wrong. Everyone is entitled to their own facts. What they’re not entitled to is their own fabrications, which they shamelessly promote as facts. That’s what Moynihan should have said. It's undoubtedly what he meant. But he didn’t say, "Everyone is entitled to his own facts, but not his own made-up facts", because it’s nowhere nearly as memorable.

Everyone appreciates a well-turned phrase. But a well-turned phrase resonating with an enduring truth, now we’re talkin’.

As regards to the foregoing pronouncements,

"Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on me again, but even more so, because you already fooled me once."

I guess I don’t have it.


Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

It seems the age of the great aphorism has passed. You can't use those one-liners much anymore, they sound as authentic as an American's British accent. A shame, because there is wisdom in many of them.

I recall reading Winston Churchill's great lines in high school, and some of them would guide many a politician. He said something like this, for example: Jaw-jaw-jaw is better than war-war-war. Discussing architecture, for example, he observed that first we make our buildings, and then they make us.

Not sure what's going to replace aphorisms, but one-liners from movies seem to be winning.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they should not get away with calling them facts.