Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s view that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts” has been quoted more in this year of budgetary back-and-forth than at any time since Moynihan first said it (if indeed he did), never without a condescending smirk. But the smugness is unwarranted. Whatever its epistemological merits, Moynihan’s bon mot is, as a political matter, false. In a democracy, you most certainly are entitled to your own facts, or, put a bit more precisely, to the rough-and-ready model of reality you form from experience. To say otherwise is to make deference to some factual arbiter a precondition for political participation—and that arbiter will, likely as not, be a bought lobby or a bureaucracy. If we insist too strongly on Moynihan’s view of the matter, adulthood will become a lot more like childhood.
Plausible untruths were always flying around when I was a kid in Massachusetts.
I lived across the street from an overweight bully we’ll call Kevin Malarkey. Kevin’s conversational repertoire consisted of various half-truths he’d heard somewhere and then embroidered a bit. Of the nearby town of Swampscott, he once told us, “You know why it’s called Swampscott? Because there was an Indian who lived there named Scott Swamp!” When conversation turned to the relative merits of presidents, only two or three of whom we could name, Kevin chose Dwight Eisenhower. “He stopped a guy who was trying to take over the world,” Kevin explained. “His name was -Hi-yah-Hitlah!” Kevin had a theological bent, too. He liked to drag Jesus into the argument somehow, so he could feel better about beating you up if you said, “That’s not in the Bible,” or otherwise expressed skepticism.
There was little need to bully me. Credulity was my middle name. One Saturday morning, my father came upon me as I fought back tears. I was sitting on a circle of shag rug that my parents had put on the pebble-patterned Formica floor of the family room, which got freezing cold in winter. It used to be assumed that there would come a moment on Saturday when kids actually got up from in front of the television and did something else. By 11 o’clock or so, cartoons on the main VHF channels gave way to programming for sad and idle adolescents and old people: English shows, candlepin bowling, how-to demonstrations. Only 4 of the 13 spots on the clocklike VHF dial were occupied by real programming; the others just hissed and showed “snow” as you turned the dial past them with a loud thlonk, thlonk—slowly and cautiously, lest you break the TV set. But sometimes there were interesting things on the 70-channel UHF dial, which was almost deserted, with channels only every dozen numbers or so. It was there that I stumbled onto professional wrestling.
I was hooked. Cripes, what a bunch of scoundrels. There was Chief Jay Strongbow, with his dread “tomahawk chop.” There was the Japanese “Professor” Toru Tanaka (I imagine the imputation of intellectualism was supposed to render him loathsome to those viewers too young to remember World War II), along with his henchman Fuji. And there was bald, psychopathic George “The Animal” Steele (who would “chew the turnbuckle” on the ringside ropes, although no one ever felt the need to explain what a turnbuckle was, and I have never found out).
Only one of these wrestlers could I consider rooting for. This was the Puerto Rican Pedro Morales, relatively decent, taciturn, gentlemanly, and therefore—according to every cartoon and children’s movie I’d seen up to that point—destined to win. I watched as he stepped into the ring with Toru Tanaka. But no sooner had the bout begun than something went terribly wrong. Fuji, standing behind the ropes, reached into a large bag marked “SALT” and started throwing something into Pedro’s eyes. Pedro was blinded! Worse, the referee didn’t even see it! Then the Professor got out the dread “foreign object.” The ref didn’t see that, either! You could never tell what exactly this foreign object was—on a grainy black-and-white screen it looked something like a children’s thermometer . . . Oh, no, no! Pedro was staggering around holding his eyes and howling and now the ruthless Tanaka . . . At that point, my father appeared in the doorway with a snow shovel. “Ah, professional wrestling,” he said. “You know it’s fake, right? They’re actors.”
I took a whole roomful of cold air into my lungs. “Yeah,” I said, with a bit more yelp in my voice than I had intended. “Yeah, I know it’s fake!”