Posted by Robert Hockett
When Bill Clinton's notorious 'It depends on what the meaning of "is" is' became something of a 'meme' in the late 1990s, I was struck by two things. The first was that Clinton was actually being forthcoming in saying this in the context in which he said it; for he went on in the same deposition to explain that on one plausible understanding of 'is' in the question addressed to him, the answer would be x, while on the other plausible understanding the answer would be y. The second thing that struck me during this episode was that everyone's taking Clinton's locution as emblematic of a penchant for dissembling was itself emblematic of something: namely, that Clinton had evidently long since developed - indeed, probably earned - a reputation for dissembling, and that this enabled even his attempts at parsing in good faith to stand in as infamous exemplars of parsing in bad faith.
I think something much like this is at work in the current 'alternative facts' imbroglio chez Kellyanne Conway. On the one hand, it seems to me that what Ms. Conway meant to say here was that there are competing estimates of crowd size, and that the Trump White House has elected to endorse an estimate other than those being endorsed by the major news outlets - not that Donald Trump is a devotee of possible worlds semantics and has decided somehow to inhabit a world other than the one we inhabit. On the other hand, the immediate indignation and derision that Ms. Conway's 'alternative facts' locution has elicited is emblematic of something disturbing: namely, that this White House already has developed a reputation for choosing which alternative accounts of things to deem 'facts' on the basis not of criteria we ordinarily employ to find truth, but of what happens to suit them on the given occasion. It engages in 'fact'-labeling, in other words, not in good faith, but opportunistically.
This is worrisome enough in a campaign. In a government, it is not for long possible - not on any 'possible world.' Let us then hope for a very quick course-correction.