Ways of Living With ‘Alternative Facts’: An Anecdote

6 Feb



A couple of nights ago I went to see A Quiet Heart, a fine film about a young Jewish woman, an accomplished pianist from Tel Aviv who had come to Jerusalem, apparently to get away from her family and former boy friend. She moved into an apartment in the ultra-Orthodox part of the city where acute hostility is exhibited toward more secular Jews and local Christians connected with a nearby monastic church. The film was being shown at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, and was a special selection in the ‘sidebar’ devoted to Israeli films and sponsored by the strongly pro-Israeli NGO, Anti-Defamation League, or ADL. As was the case for all films at the Festival, someone from the sponsors or Festival staff makes a brief introduction to the audience. In this case an ADL staff person gave some helpful background information. He made a closing comment that showing a film set in Jerusalem was especially appropriate in 2017 as it was ‘the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the city.’


At the time I was struck by the oddness and insensitivity of such a remark, which from my perspective, was a completely unfamiliar way of acknowledging the impact of 1967 on Jerusalem. I had recently been attuned to the importance of 2017 as tragic anniversaries of the Balfour Declaration (1917), Partition Resolution (1947), and the 1967 War (1967). As I reflected on what 1967 meant from a Zionist/Israel perspective, the conquest and unified control of Jerusalem was a natural way of perceiving, as were the accompanying exclusions of international law (Israel was unanimously instructed by the UN Security Council to withdraw from the city to the pre-war borders with small negotiated modifications) and the Palestinian people (as if they had no claim to Jerusalem, and hence were invisible). It should be expected that contrasting meanings would be attached to the importance of 1967 by most Israelis and Zionists on one side and by those who identified with the Palestinian national struggle on the other side.


Is there a right and wrong about such differing perceptions? On one level, no, merely different ways of ‘seeing.’ On other level, yes; it is a matter of whether to validate the status quo as authoritative or to allow international law and UN authority to have the last word. Dialogue, especially if among equals, can let us see and feel as the other, possibly narrowing differences, or at least raising consciousness of their existence. In ideal form, Martin Buber’s I-Thou spirit of meeting the other suggests the true nature of an authentic quest for an understanding of otherness than transcends our own deeply conditioned and inevitably partials perceptions.


At the same time, if the circumstances that underlie the contrasting perceptions are hierarchical or oppressive, then it is deeply misleading to suggest that both sides are equally responsible for the unhappy situation that prevails. The side in control, in this instance Israel, is primarily responsible for treating Jerusalem as appropriately and permanently unified under Israeli governmental and political control in 1967. This Israeli insistenc defies international public opinion as well as some elementary precepts of international morality, although it reflects the current realpolitik reading of the situation.


This brings me inevitably to Kellyann Conway’s reliance on ‘alternative facts’ to validate the White House claim that Donald Trump’s inaugural crowd was bigger than that of Barack Obama. She was contesting contrasting pictures shown by CNN and other media outlets in which even the most casual observer could tell that Trumps crowd was by far smaller. Of course, only a narcissistic lack of self-esteem would lead someone to be foolish enough to call attention to such a discrepancy. The childish comparison of inaugural crowd sizes would have totally disappeared from public consciousness by the next moon had not Trump thrown a fit. With the help of that feisty provocation, ‘alternative facts’ a seemingly trivial controversy has been given a prominent and likely permanent place in American political discourse. Poor Ms. Conway, normally a refreshingly coherent and informed advocate of Trump’s worldview, will now likely be remembered above all, and maybe only, for this one extravagant trope that so blatantly crossed the line of plausibility! Or possibly for pointing to ‘the Bowling Green massacre’ as evidence that the media was guilty, as Trump complained, of underreporting terrorist incidents. This time Ms. Conway didn’t rely on alternative facts but on no facts. As she admitted a couple of nights later, there never was a Bowling Green massacre, there was simply no such event, but this did not inhibit her from repeating the absurd contention of her boss that the media downplays terrorism. From my angle of vision the opposite complaint could much more plausibly be made.


Without getting carried away with glee, it is helpful to remember that our daily existence tends to be dominated by alternative facts. Lawyers make a living by the careful selection of those facts favorable to their client, while ignoring or downplaying those that are unfavorable. And all of us nearly all the time, whether consciously or not, are coming up with our preferred menu of facts. The interpretation of facts is what creates the social and political fabric of life.


Yet there is a distinction between Ms. Conway’s alternative facts and those that are the stuff of nightly news debates, Her use of alternative facts flew in the face of what seemed to be a public truth, almost undeniable from the perspective of reason, and hence seemed more a ‘lie’ than an ‘interpretation.’ Crossing such a line weakens public discourse in a democratic society, turning politics into a deadly game in which the unaccountable whims of the leader amount to a death sentence imposed on innocence. Without the protection of innocence, there is scant prospect of justice. And so we are led to think that slaughtering political language might properly be viewed as an impeachable offense.



12 Responses to “Ways of Living With ‘Alternative Facts’: An Anecdote”

  1. Fred Skolnik February 6, 2017 at 11:51 pm #

    There are no alternate facts concerning Jerusalem. Jordan had annexed the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in 1950 and promptly denied Jews access to the Western Wall in defiance of the armistice agreement. There were no Palestinians in this equation. And the UN Security Council certainly didn’t “instruct” Israel to withdraw unilaterally from the city or anywhere else. In addition to calling for “withdrawal from territories,” it called for “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” Not one before the other, not one without the other, not one instead of the other. BOTH. The Arab answer at Khartoum, to the UN, to the world, to Israel, was: no negotiations, no recognition, no peace.

    Your idea that the Balfour Declaration and the UN Partition Plan were “tragedies” implies that the State of Israel should not exist. This is as presumptuousness as your notion that the Arab conquest gave the Arabs sovereign rights over the entire Middle East, and maybe Spain and Persia too to your way of thinking,

    • Gene Schulman February 8, 2017 at 9:30 am #

      There are plenty of alt.facts concerning Jerusalem. No need to go into them here. This hasbarist would never acknowledge them anyhow.

      I’m not sure what Richard’s idea implies, but I don’t mind going on record in believing that Israel as a state as it is should NOT exist.

      • Fred Skolnik February 8, 2017 at 9:07 pm #

        You are confusing claims with facts. Facts are ascertainable. Labeling whatever you can’t deal with “hasbara” is a copout.

  2. Gokce February 7, 2017 at 12:29 am #

    Hi Richard!

    Interestingly, this alternative fact approach doesn’t seem to be a one-time occurrence, being followed by the “Bowling Green Massacre” gaffe only after a week. Having seen how the Turkish government is able to manipulate the facts as they like through social and the mainstream media, this was worrisome for me. My concern is that the Trump administration might discover the potential of this deeply troubling maneuver and adopt it to confuse the public, discredit the media and bash their critiques or opponents.

  3. Beau Oolayforos February 7, 2017 at 2:07 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    It seems that we may add to Ms Conway’s resume her statements about the ‘Bowling Green Massacre’. If she is as coherent and informed as you say, it will be interesting to see how long she lasts at this job, with such a boss.

    It shouldn’t be surprising that someone who was so inveterate about the birther nonsense would obsess so badly about inaugural crowd sizes. Even for a tall man, the “small man’s complex” can apply, mentally. Pity that the LOTFW is doodling on twitter while refugees drown & die, though Breitbart might tell us it’s their own fault, or that they’re terrorists anyway.

    On the bright side, we can still laugh at the Newspeak, and Big Brother can still be held up to ridicule. This whole Washington thing has a distinct, exhilarating Watergate feel to it.

    • Richard Falk February 7, 2017 at 7:51 am #

      Thanks for reminding me of the ‘Bowling Green Massacre.’ I will take account of the fact that ‘alternative facts’
      may be a state of mind rather than a one-off ill-considered delusional observation. With greetings, Richard

  4. Elaine McGillicuddy February 7, 2017 at 7:41 pm #

    Thanks for this, Bruce et al!

    What a powerful last sentence!


  5. Kata Fisher February 11, 2017 at 8:48 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    I just reflected on Alternative Facts, too. And how incredibly I made my self laugh! Its a form of indulgences — I guess.

  6. Rabbi Ira Youdovin February 13, 2017 at 4:57 pm #


    I’m glad to hear that your recuperation is proceeding well. In the words of the Jewish tradition, I wish you refuah shleimah, a complete and speedy recovery.

    Two responses to your post of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF).

    By innuendo, you misrepresent the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s role in selecting the Israeli films shown. As you say, ADL is a SBIFF sponsor, one of more than two dozen local, national and international organizations and businesses ranging from the Australian giant UGG Boots to local restaurants and motels. But ADL has no influence in selecting films for the Israeli section, called Kolnoa, the Hebrew word for a movie theater. While ADL is strongly pro-Israel, it pursues a vast and diverse social justice agenda in the United States and throughout the world. This is reflected in its sponsoring a documentary on migrant farm workers in California in this year’s SBIFF.

    Films for Kolnoa, which comprises only seven of the more than two hundred films screened, are chosen by a two-person panel: a non-Jew who is full-time SBIFF staff, and a Jewish professor of literature and films at the local university. He was one who introduced the movie you saw, not an ADL staffer. When I asked him about his introduction, he explained that by referencing this year as being the fiftieth anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification, he intended to draw attention to the many issues that remain unresolved, such as the one in the film. This is typical. Kolnoa films are often critical of Israel. If memory serves, you’ve cited as least one of them as supporting your views.

    And with all due deference, may I suggest that the prime example of “Alternative Facts” in the Middle East today is insisting that the jihadist objectives unambiguously affirmed in the Hamas National Covenant do not represent what the organization believes. This view seems even more unreasonable now that the militant extremist Yehiya Sinwar from Hamas’ military wing has been selected as the organization’s leader.

    Rabbi Ira Youdovin

    • Richard Falk February 13, 2017 at 5:23 pm #


      I appreciate your good wishes, and even your more knowledgeable approach to the Koinoa films.

      I do not agree about ADL. It has caused gratuitous trouble for professors on this campus, especially William Robinson,
      taking the form of Abe Foxman exerting pressures on the university administration. I am not sure about the details of the
      pressure exerted, but it tried to depict Robinson as guilty of anti-Semitic behavior because of criticism of Israel made
      during the attack on Gaza in 2008-09. And it has been similarly critical of me.

      I also find strange your interpretation of describing 2017 as the anniversary of ‘Jerusalem’s reunification.’ It seems most
      directly understood as in keeping with Netanyahu’s claim of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel and as erasing any
      sign of a Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem.

      Finally, we have been over this ground in the past. I too disapprove of and dislike the language of the Hamas Covenant, but
      to reduce Hamas to that document when their leadership has moved on in many different ways, seems to me to be ideological
      and essentialist thinking that is convenient as a way of confining Hamas to ‘the terrorist box.’ which serves Israel’s territorial
      ambitions rather nicely. I agree that the Covenant should be part of the Hamas reality, but it should be weighed in a balance with
      other elements, especially their abandonment for over a decade of armed struggle as their basic strategy, which has been diplomatic
      and shifting to a political track.

      with best wishes,


  7. Rabbi Ira Youdovin February 13, 2017 at 5:02 pm #


    I don’t know where “Your comment awaits moderation” comes from. I did not write it.

    If you wrote this to me, I respectfully ask where my comment violates standards of decency.


  8. Fred Skolnik February 13, 2017 at 9:56 pm #

    I will only add, once again, that in the matter of “interpreting” what Hamas wants and how Hamas will act, the conclusions of armchair quarterbacks and other amateurs is next to meaningless, Israel has professional intelligence officers who speak the language, follow the internal dialogues, are fed by sources within Hamas, and know how to “interpret” the information they receive and certainly do so objectively. I myself am far from being an expert in Arab affairs but it is next to impossible for anyone with the slightest understanding of what Hamas represents not to realize that it is as unlikely for Hamas to relinquish the God-ordained dream of getting everything, meaning the State of Israel itself, as it is for the religious settlers to give up the dream of getting Judea and Samaria, which is to say, it is impossible unless they relinquish their faith. The difference is that Hamas is very likely to take over any Palestinian state that comes into being while the settlers are very unlikely to take over the State of Israel. This is admittedly my opinion but it is at least based on intimate knowledge of the country and its people and is not a product of bias one way or the other.

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