In 2010 Senator Bernie Sanders reported the following:
Bank of America received a $1.9 billion tax refund from the IRS last year, although it made $4.4 billion in profits and received a bailout from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department of nearly $1 trillion.
The facts are correct, yet the statement is a lie.
In 1969, just after Woodstock exploded with muddied teens and psychedelic music, I entered the 7th grade at John Burroughs Junior High School. Like many schools of the time, there were still a few gender-specific courses: for the girls that meant Home Economics (largely cooking and sewing) and for the boys, a sequence of “shop” classes. Each 7th-grade boy spent ten weeks in four such classes; I took my turns through metal shop, wood shop, electric shop, and print shop.
In electric shop, taught by Mr. Ryan, I received a “D.”
Right about now I expect that you’re filling in the rest of the narrative (even if subconsciously). I wouldn’t be surprised, for example, if you were questioning my skills. A “D,” after all, is practically failing. What must I have done? Blacked out the school? Started a fire?
Before you jump to any conclusions, allow me to add a little more information: I received an “A” in metal shop, and a “B” in both print shop and wood shop.
Now your unconscious assumptions are likely shifting. Perhaps you’re now questioning Mr. Ryan’s abilities as a teacher. After all, if I could get through those other courses—particularly wood shop—with not only my limbs intact but having built something well enough to get a decent grade—then I couldn’t be quite that incompetent, now could I?
Let me give you the rest of the story behind that electric shop grade. Early in 1970, I woke up one morning with burning chest pains that not only refused to go away, but soon got worse. Diagnosed with pericarditis (an inflammation of the sac around the heart), I was hospitalized briefly, after which followed a rather lengthy stay at home. My mother watched over me; my stepfather weekly brought me the latest issues of whatever comics graced the newsstand: Thor, Captain America, Batman, Green Lantern. I read a lot, and when the comics were finished I turned to more solid fare including The Hobbit, A Wrinkle in Time, and the unabridged versions of Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. My sister (two years ahead of me in school), went around to my teachers and brought me my homework; I did my best to stay current with the assignments.
All of this happened just about the time I started electric shop, a course where home-schooling lacked practicality.
I recovered in time to spend the last two weeks in Mr. Ryan’s class, where he kindly reviewed some of the basics with me, then apologetically explained why he could give me no higher a grade than that “D.”
When writers write, when they attempt persuasion through prose, they necessarily make choices. There is little attempt to provide all the information a reader might want or need. Such completion would be both limitless (and therefore impossible) and counter-productive to the needs of persuasion. We pick and choose what we want to say, trusting that readers will fill in the blanks the way we want. But, as you’ve seen in my facile example, context matters and, if part of the prosaic goal is to educate, to provide objectivity, then it matters importantly.
I’ve recently been involved in two discussions that have made me question the commitment we often have to context, and to reaffirm my own desire to provide as much as I can. The first had to do with the Sanders statement that opened this article, the one that I called both factual and a lie.
Two things were instantly clear to me as I read the item: it is largely context-free, and it aims to demonize Bank of America—such is the narrative I built and, I’m convinced, the one Sanders wanted me to build.
However, when you add context the narrative shifts. Bank of America did receive a $1.9 billion tax refund, but if you look at surrounding years you will find that Bank of America paid $420 million in taxes in 2008, $5.9 billion in 2007, and $10.8 billion in 2006. The bank’s effective tax rates for those latter two years (both during a solid economy) were 29% and 34%, respectively, hardly the picture of a corporate demon trying to dodge responsibility. Sanders’ statement also conveniently leaves out the fact that the bank repaid the entire $45 billion TARP loan in 2009, the same year under accusation. And as for the claim of a $1 trillion bailout… well…let’s just say there’s a lot of missing context there, too, much of it having to do with the Fed, overnight lending, and even more arcane economic topics....
The second example is more recent: just days ago Susan Rice withdrew her name from candidacy for Secretary of State. Rice, who had come under fire for her statements surrounding the Benghazi terrorist attack months earlier, had faced clear and present opposition from Republican Senators, led by John McCain, Lindsay Graham and Kelly Ayotte. Finally, when it became clear that confirmation would be at best a brutal battle (and, at worst, a debacle), Rice pulled her name, stating that
I didn’t want to see a confirmation process that was very…disruptive because there are so many things we need to get done as a country and the first several months of a second term president’s agenda is really the opportunity to get the crucial things done.
Her withdrawal was seen by some on the left as a capitulation to those ornery Republicans, the ones that couldn’t buy a clue, the ones that have nothing better to do than say “no” to anything President Obama proposes. "The noble Democrats, blocked again," seems the prevailing liberal narrative goes. On MSNBC, Richard Wolffe called it “part of a witch hunt,” and over on Facebook I saw quite a few comments like this one:
I really wish she would have hung in there. Those Republican wind bags are full of hot air.
She is a patriotic American. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are you kidding me? They are really angry men.
But then there’s that whole thing about context: when you introduce even just a little bit, things don’t look so black and white anymore…
When Justice Lewis Powell announced his retirement from the Supreme Court during Ronal Reagan’s second term, Senate Democrats made clear that they planned to oppose any nominee that Reagan brought forward, and began actively lobbying all their members to stand firm. When Reagan finally announced Robert Bork as Powell’s intended replacement, Senator Ted Kennedy was on the floor of the Senate less than one hour later to announce his vehement opposition, declaring that
Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.
And we know what happened. Reagan didn’t pull Bork’s name, but Bork’s confirmation was resoundingly defeated, with only two Democratic senators voting in the affirmative. The episode was so divisive that Bork’s name actually became a verb, a word meaning “to defeat… through a concerted attack on the nominee's character, background and philosophy.” So much for noble, open-minded liberals.
When you add in such context, it’s easy to see that what McCain, et.al. were doing vis-à-vis Rice’s nomination was in fact quite normal. They weren’t behaving as the obstructionist Republicans; they were behaving as the obstructionist opposition. And the opposition—regardless of party—often plays this way.
Still, people will believe what they want to, and will ignore the need for context.
Alfred North Whitehead, English mathematician, logician, and president of the Aristotelian Society from 1922-23, said this:
I have suffered a great deal from writers who have quoted this or that sentence of mine either out of its context or in juxtaposition to some incongruous matter which quite distorted my meaning, or destroyed it altogether.
Today, with social and standard media outlets echoing context-free messaging twenty-four hours each day, Whitehead could just as easily have substituted “I have suffered…” with “We have suffered…”
Context gets lip service; it’s regularly claimed but always selected (and often absent). The two examples above remind me of its importance. As the New Year comes around, I’m making an early resolution: context, always, and as thoroughly as I can. And I ask that you make a similar resolution: demand the context, always, and as thoroughly as you can.