Alexandria, VA – “Opinions don’t affect facts. But facts should affect opinions, and do, if you’re rational.”
– Ricky Gervais
The 1950s seem a lifetime ago. It was a time when veterans returning from World War II went to college free-of-charge courtesy of the US Government. Many purchased their first homes built on tracts of land developers dubbed the “suburbs.” Science and technology put satellites into orbit.
It was also a time of hiding under our school desks doing “duck and cover” drills or running down into homemade backyard bomb shelters in the event of an “atomic” attack by the USSR. Add to that the power of fearmongering engineered by the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, and his staff aide, attorney Roy Cohn, who were hell-bent on outing communists and homosexuals in the government. McCarthy, relying on the imaginary investigations of Cohn, alleged thousands of “reds” and “pixies” had infiltrated the State Department, the Department of the Army, other government agencies, and Hollywood ranks.
It was also when television replaced radio in many living rooms, and many successful radio programs transitioned to television. One of the most popular television shows that moved from radio was the police drama Dragnet, which first ran from 1951 to 1959. It was so popular that even the theme music is legendary; the first four notes of the theme song and you can feel the noir-detective style, the clipped delivery, and phrases that survived to be parodied to this day. The most famous and quoted line of dialogue that Webb uttered was, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
That one line, delivered hundreds of times, is more applicable in America today than back then. Today, our daily media consumption is loaded with opinion, innuendo, and propaganda that we view and then repeat (or “retweet”) with reckless abandon. And if the production quality is excellent, looks professional, and is quick and easy to access, it is absorbed as gospel. Therein lies the problem.
Discerning fact from opinion takes a cautious, curious, open approach and even more analytical ability to allow information that is alien to our personal belief systems into our rapidly closing societal minds. Few of us can mentally exercise this way. Those who do tend to be from academia, boob-tube or online “experts,” or the talking heads, all-wise and weighty, but boring and often self-serving, Ted-Talks included.
But I believe the most successful are the satirists or stand-up comedians. They are, by nature, critical and observational. We can absorb and accept what they say because the substance of their craft is discussing universal truths and delivering them in a palatable way – with humor.
Generations have all had comedians/satirists who were considered unique to their times but possessed universal and timeless wisdom. In recent history, we’ve had Dick Gregory, Steve Martin, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, Robin Williams, Nichols and May, Ernie Kovacs, Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, and Bill Maher – all of whom took us to the razor’s edge of acceptability and had us examine our beliefs or supposed “truths” circumspect, while we laughed.
Ricky Gervais is one such comedian who possesses the ability to serve up an unpleasant truth, scraping a nerve while tickling our funny bone. The writing-acting-directing-producing one-man brain trust behind The Office and Afterlife, Gervais’ stand-up is often a stroll down Philosophy Lane for a serious look at our beliefs as we laugh. His delivery-of-the-absurd often leads us to re-examine ourselves because he quite obliquely asks us to.
In Grevais’ recent stand-up program Humanity, he said, “You can have your own opinions. You can’t have your own facts.” Then flashed his roughish grin and waited a beat for it to set in.
Perhaps, because of his look at the absurdity of the world around us, and his predecessors above, I have gained a fresh appreciation for the difference between opinion and fact.
The fresh, freestyle of satire in the 1950s ushered in a movement to re-examine what we perceived as fact and what really was a fact, a trait we should nurture and cherish.
Your opinion may be that the natural give-and-take of nature itself will take care of the Earth. Some people support the opinion that the Earth has been here for upwards of 4.5 billion years and what we do now will have little or no impact on the planet’s future. Their opinion is that we must further the world economy to support and sustain Earth’s current inhabitants, which takes precedence over sacrifices to secure a healthy planet.
Whatever your opinion is of Greta Thunberg, it takes a back seat to fact. If you don’t think that human beings have a visible, negative impact on the environment—whether you believe the world is heating up and it’s our fault or not—the fact is that something or someone is melting the polar ice caps.
Ask a polar explorer. Ask any person who went to college in the 1950s and participated in the popular fraternity gag of stuffing frat brothers into a telephone booth to get into Ripley’s Believe it or Not. It was supposed to be funny. Ask them what it was like in that phone booth. They’ll tell you it was stuffy and damn hot. You can’t put 22 frat boys into a phone booth and not feel the temperature rise. Even breathing gets tough.
The same trick applies to cramming Ringling Brothers circus clowns into a Volkswagen. It’s the same environmental result. Small space, lots of people, oxygen gets scarce. That’s a fact, Jack.
It’s the Economy, Stupid.
When economic times get tough for companies, the modern-day knee-jerk reflex to enhance current quarterly revenues is to cut the payroll, putting employees on the streets. The opinion is that it makes the company stronger, so it’s good for the economy.
The facts belie that opinion. The old phrase “There’s no free lunch” applies here. You can pay me now or you can pay me later. Cutting payroll is an immediate fix with long-term economic plagues. Payroll costs were passed to the taxpayer, resulting in that most hated and despised effect – higher taxes. Besides, when people have money in their pockets — they spend it. When they don’t – they don’t. This has been proved time and again through history and most recently during the 2008 economic disaster.
It’s on the internet, it must be true.
This is my favorite item related to opinion disguising itself as fact. QAnon, Roger Stone, Vladimir Putin, Alex Jones, and Robert Kennedy, Jr. all practice the black art of media manipulation, and all for different reasons. They have their opinions of what they consider truth, have harnessed social media to fog the ethernet (airwaves for you older folks), and bring only certain items to light to “prove” their points. If the opinion is masterly presented, slick, uses creative social media platforms, and is easy to access and re-transmit, the more it appears to be a fact. This alone is potentially the most dangerous to address and hardest to defeat.
As we look forward to the next binge-able Amazon series, eagerly-awaited sci-fi sequel, future Grammy-winning streaming album, or even during the next election cycle, remember to keep this in the back of your head—and it could be either Jack Webb or Ricky Gervais speaking:
“Just the facts, ma’am.”