Stunningly, one of President Donald Trump’s top aides made it sound like the provably false assertions of fact delivered from the White House pressroom podium, the microphone of the free world, were simply “alternative facts.”
But news organizations used words like “lies” and “falsehoods” in their headlines to describe the same pieces of information and data, confirming a dispute over the number of people in attendance at the president’s inauguration ceremony Friday.
Of course, “alternative facts” are not facts, as NBC News anchor Chuck Todd pointed out to Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Mr Trump in the White House. But the numbers presented by the White House aren’t about anything important, so I suppose we should forgive this slip.
But dispensing inaccurate or misrepresentative data from that podium isn’t really a good idea. After President George W Bush said Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction, his credibility may never have recovered. So, whether the crowd at Mr Trump’s inauguration was the biggest in history will remain in dispute, since there are no official estimates available (estimates are based on bird’s eye photos and don’t come from the government).
What kinds of alternative facts can we expect from this administration in the future?
Well, as I fully expect Betsy DeVos to be confirmed as US secretary of education, I’ll start there. She can be expected to tout the idea that school voucher programs in one form or another will give “every” child an opportunity for a world-class education, regardless of “ZIP code,” “family income,” or “color of their skin.”
Voucher programs draw money that taxpayers believe will go to support public schools and send that money, at the direction of the parents of students who decide to enroll in private schools, to those private schools, which are mostly affiliated with a major religion.
Alternative facts will practically come out of the woodwork. We will be told that Catholic schools in our cities are doing a great job (a regular old fact) and that more money to them from policymakers is justified on the basis that competition from those private schools will drive the neighborhood public schools to improve—a straight-up opinion, supported not by fact but by wealthy people and corporate entities. The White House press team can be expected to present this “information” as an alternative fact in the near future.
Other alternative facts would make me shudder worse, of course. The government could tell us that “the crime and the gangs and the drugs” are on the rise, as if we were living in some sort of dystopian fantasy right out of the Divergent series. Oh wait. Mr Trump already told us that from the steps of the Capitol in his inaugural address.
In fact, violent crime has been going down for years, although murder has increased recently in a few cities. We need to do better, as we need to do in many areas of government besides policing, like public schools, the environment, child care, health care, and so on. But “alternative facts,” as Ms Conway called them, won’t help us get better.
We need accurate pictures of reality. If we want convenient representations of a fantasy, we can easily drive to a movie theater.
Look, lots of public neighborhood schools are in trouble and are not serving the students who attend them. Maybe charter networks can help; maybe the Catholics or the Jews can help. And where money is needed, for the sake of those children, money should be sent.
But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this is helping to improve our public neighborhood schools, which are accountable to democratically controlled boards of education and to our governments. Private schools educate kids; they don’t make our public schools better.
We will have to decide, as a public, what we want to do: Do we want to improve our public schools or shut them down? Taking voucher money away from public schools and sending it to private schools will not make those public neighborhood schools better and is likely to shut them down while preserving the independence and non-transparency of the private schools.
On the other hand, sending money to neighborhood public schools doesn’t usually help make them better either. That’s because education is about more than money. When business people like Mr Trump or philanthropists like Ms DeVos are in charge of the goals, profit numbers are going to look good. They know how to do that.
What they have shown an inability to do is educate children, the millions and millions of children attending public schools in a wide range of schools across America.
Don’t fall for the line, and stay on guard as alternative facts are presented from the centers of our government.