Objectivity and Credibility

Most of the people reading this post will be friends and family who have received my political emails for the past five years.  If you don’t fall into that category, however, you have most likely stumbled across this blog by accident.  Maybe 34 is your favorite number and your dog’s name Justice; you wanted to find out what hooligans had stolen your rightful domain name.  Or perhaps you conducted the same Google image search that I did last week, looking for a banner featuring Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Cesar Chavez (I still think it’s awesome that we found one).  Whatever the reason, you’re here, and I figure it’s incumbent upon me to tell you a little bit about the perspective from which I’ll be writing.

I don’t believe any writing is “objective.”  I have held that view since tenth grade, when Mike Levy and Jack Schneider decided to use Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as my history textbook.  I highly recommend Zinn’s entire first chapter, but I’ve tried to capture in the following excerpt the argument that fundamentally altered how I read anything from that point forward:

…The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) – the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress – is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders…My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different…The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people…not to be on the side of the executioners.

…[T]his book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: ‘The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.’

That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.

What I continue to find so striking and compelling about what Zinn writes is not that I agree with his perspective.  I do – I love the idea that it is the job of thinking people to adopt the perspective of the disadvantaged as much as possible – but what I really respect about Zinn is that he states his opinions upfront.  That meant I could agree or disagree with his conclusions based on the merits of the case he presented.  I didn’t need to try and discern his biases and agenda because he told me what they were.  That chapter, to me, instantly made Howard Zinn the most credible writer I had ever encountered.  It also made me skeptical of anyone claiming to deliver an objective assessment of facts.  Whether we’re aware of them or not, our values and assumptions dictate what we say and when we say it.

Right after Glenn Greenwald broke his first story on the NSA, articles popped up asking whether Greenwald could be called a journalist.  They argued that Greenwald’s espoused views on civil liberties and Edward Snowden make him different from traditional reporters engaged in “the dispassionate reporting of facts.”  It is precisely those reporters who proclaim they are dispassionately reporting facts that we should view with skepticism, however.  As Matt Taibbi writes, “journalists can strive to be balanced and objective, but that’s all it is, striving.”

NYU professor Jay Rosen is more forgiving of journalists who try to report objective truth, calling their brand of journalism “politics: none.”  But he calls Greenwald’s brand of reporting, in which the writer’s perspectives are clearly stated for the reader, “politics: some,” and writes that, “if you’re persuaded that transparency is the better route to trust, politics: some is the better choice.”  So, to be fully transparent, here is my brief overview of the perspective I will be writing from in all my posts on this blog:

I believe a just society is one in which all its members have all basic needs met and equal opportunity to succeed.  The current state of the US and the world is incredibly far away from this ideal, and as Chris Hayes argued in Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, equality of opportunity will never be achieved while we allow a gross inequality in outcomes. Correct policy lies not somewhere in the middle of two opposing points of view, but in whatever measures will help us achieve this ideal.

That is my approach to political issues.  I hope that’s helpful as you read this blog.

Update (9/8):
Conor Friedersdorf has an interesting article on Syria that examines press objectivity.


Filed under Philosophy

5 responses to “Objectivity and Credibility

  1. Kristen

    I love Ayn Rand for the same reason! She believes we are all born of great gifts and when we live in a society of equal opportunity to use those gifts to our best ability, utopia will be reached. I read a lot of her essays on “Objectivity” in HS that helped me come to a similar conclusion about my views on a just society. You might find them quite interesting. [I have not read her fiction]

  2. I haven’t read a ton of Rand, but from what I have read I find her more representative of a dishonest version of “politics: none” than “politics: some.” For example, Rand ridicules the idea that everyone should have something as basic as “[t]he right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation…” under the guise of rational argument when it’s really just a selfish value judgment (Man’s Rights). Not only is her logic incoherent on this issue and many other related political value judgments she makes, but she also calls her extreme promotion of selfish behavior “moral.” I’m pretty unimpressed with people like Rand who suggest that ethics is about what “is” rather than what “ought” to be (“Is”-“Ought” Dichotomy). And I’d like to hear her try to justify how equality of opportunity is possible in an unregulated marketplace – I think the two are quite clearly incompatible. Ultimately, the fact that Rand labels her philosophy “objectivism” illustrates the exact behavior I’m critiquing.

    • Kristen

      Interesting…. I studied her for years and used her to win many a debate competition under the value criterion of “equality of opportunity” in an “ought” imperative. I have the completely opposite interpretation of her than you do! Interesting!!! I was always defending the individual however versus society. The way I interpreted her was that in a moral society, everyone has equal opportunity to fulfill their highest potential. Again, I’ve never read her fiction- I just used her biographical documentary and essays on objectivism. I read her as a critique of government.

      • I find an intractable conflict between these two arguments:

        1)”in a moral society, everyone has equal opportunity to fulfill their highest potential”

        2) a completely laissez-faire economic system is moral

        Our society is and has been for known history far removed from a system that grants equality of opportunity, so Rand’s espoused position on equality of opportunity is dishonest given the policies she advocates – they actively work against that ideal.

        Even in theory, I believe the Chris Hayes book I linked above argues convincingly that you can’t simultaneously have substantial inequality of outcomes and equality of opportunity. They’re fundamentally at odds with each other.

  3. Hi Ben! I agree that none of us have objectivity with respect to access and/or ability to report comprehensive data. The facts, objective and independently verifiable, are the place to start in any “historical” account (any reporting of what happened in any area of life). But that’s the first challenge, yes? Areas that Zinn and any social activist embrace have obfuscated comprehensive facts that the 99% cannot easily access.

    So what do we do in good-faith effort to understand and communicate the facts in our self-expression to contribute for a brighter future?

    Zinn filled-in gaps for a more comprehensive factual account, and thereby exposing HUGE lies of omission (and sometimes commission) in our controlled accounts by corporate media/government/money to tell us about the past and present.

    Social activists can, and should, do the same.

    After, and only after, competence with the facts can be documented, then and only then are we free to consider what our best comprehensive factual accounts mean and what we should do about them.

    It’s certainly a challenge, and worthy of blogs as “hobbies” 🙂

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