American Elephants


Did You Ever Stop to Consider the Differences Between Fact and Opinion And Why it Seems So Hard to Find the Truth? by The Elephant's Child

Daniel Boorstin was an American historian at the University of Chicago, who became Librarian of Congress in 1975 and served for the next 12 years. He was a prolific author and was awarded most of the prizes ever offered to authors, the Pulitzer, Bancroft, National Book Award for Nonfiction and National Book award for History. The book I have in hand is Democracy and its Discontents, and he writes of odd things like: what is Opinion, and do we have too much of it.? To which a good many people would immediately shout “Yes!”

But that’s not really true because we are constantly looking for more opinion, but we’d prefer some that agrees with us. And opinion has taken something of a nasty turn in the wake of the “can you top this” leftist hatred of Donald Trump. Boorstin begins, “in the beginning “opinion” was a synonym for uncertainty—for a notion grounded in personal preference (rather than fact)”

Until the rise and triumph of liberalism in Europe, “opinion” was closely identified with error, and to say that something was “mere opinion” was a way of saying the notion was hardly worth taking account of.

Then, by the late eighteenth century, when representative government, Protestantism and modern liberalism had taken firm root in Western Europe, “Opinion” acquired different overtones. “Opinion ” was frequently qualified by such words as common, general, or public, and shifted from its uncertainty or error-prone quality to something else—to its power. Here was a hint, too—in the age of the Baron de Montesquieu, David Hume,Adam Smith, and Edward Gibbon—a hint of the rise of the new social sciences, which were less intent on moralizing than on describing the forces at work in society. Gibbon, for example in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, traced the currents of public opinion as forces in ancient history. In that descriptive age, writers began to characterize this force as if it were something newly discovered and perhaps only recently created. Accordingly, Christof Wieland, the German man of letters, in 1798 wrote that public opinion was

oo0an opinion that gradually takes root among a whole people:  oooespecially among those who have the most influence when they ooowork together as a group. In this way it wins the upper hand to
ooosuch an extent that one meets it everywhere. It is an opinion that ooowithout being noticed takes possession of most heads, and even
oooin situations where it does not dare express itself out loud it can be ooorecognized by a louder and louder muffled murmur. It then only ooorequires some small opening that will allow it air, and it will break   oooout with force. Then it can change whole nations in a brief time and ooogive whole parts of the world a new configuration.

I had never stopped to consider “opinion” as a separate entity, for today the “news” and “opinion” are mostly one and the same thing. Yet often what we search for are “facts”– something solid, proved to be true. And so we have “fact checkers” whom we cannot depend upon anyway, because what they say has probably been politicized. Boorstin died in 2004 at the age of 96, but I wonder what he would say about opinion today.

With the proliferation of websites, blogs, social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all the others, and space offered on most websites to comment on the opinions featured, and on the opinions offered in other peoples comments – there’s a lot of opinion out there, much of it vulgar, scatological and insulting. I do read comments, and I’m often startled by the public fury, and the need to give the worst possible insult to a stranger. I’m troubled by a lot of it, of the Nazi, racist, sexist, white supremacist type, and a little puzzled by those who take such violent, vulgar exception to what a stranger thinks in a country where free speech is treasured.




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