The Uses of Hyperbole

Exaggerated doomsday forecasts are false, regrettable, inevitable, and possibly necessary.


For nearly 20 years two themes have kept re-appearing in my journalistic work: The hippies are mangling facts, and Vaclav Klaus isn't the free marketeer he claims to be. What this has to do with F.A. Hayek and global warming I'll attempt to explain in a minute.

First a little personal history. Back in 1990, a couple dozen students at the University of California in Santa Barbara went on a hunger strike to demand the creation of an ethnic and gender studies requirement for every undergraduate. I wrote a long feature for the college daily about the two-decade history of this particular curricular push and in the process quickly came to realize that a nine-point "fact" sheet being passed around by the self-starvers was filled with exactly nine gross misrepresentations of the truth. So I wrote a follow-up column, using as a framing device Martin Luther King's revolutionary "Letter From Birmingham Jail" (with its admonition that nonviolent protest be carried out only after a full collecting of the "facts," cleansed of the would-be protesters' biases). A movement based on lies, I concluded, sowed its failure from the get-go. For this I was accused of missing the forest of racism by obsessing on a lone tree of protest; of being part of the problem, not the solution. It was the kind of charge that would become familiar.

Later that year I headed to Prague, where I was fortunate enough to cover the remarkable transformation from Brezhnevian totalitarianism to a market-based democracy. By early 1992, it became clear to all the anti-commie California hippies and brainy young Czechs at our expatriate newspaper (not to mention a majority of the more buttoned-down foreign correspondents in town) that Vaclav Klaus, the Hayek-quoting economist turned finance minister turned prime minister, talked one game for his adoring international audiences of center-right think tankers while playing altogether differently back home. The man who agitated from the beginning for a "market economy without adjectives" governed by inserting multiple adjectives into his reform policies, such as slow and reluctant. Klaus put the brakes on basic reforms that the Hungarian Socialist Party had accomplished by the mid-1990s: selling state banks, creating a bankruptcy law, liberalizing the property market.

Letting Klaus dine out on his Milton Friedman rhetoric, rather than his decidedly mixed record of post-communist economic policy, seemed as wrong as letting lefty protesters perpetuate easily disproved myths. But are both really worth condemning?

During the same time that I was first probing the rich chasm between reality and rhetoric, there was a conflicting pleasure gnawing at my professional soul: the nearly bottomless reservoir of fandom I had (and still have) for the 1960–74 work of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, a man never confused with a stickler for accuracy. Thompson, whose writing is infinitely more complicated than his caricature suggests, nonetheless perfected a kind of high-wire technique of novelized quotations and artistic hyperbole, wherein (for example) paragraph-length quotes from Hell's Angels members are reproduced from situations where tape recorders were extremely unlikely, and sportswriters are condemned as "a rude & brainless subculture of fascist drunks." (For a great disquisition on the contemporary misuses of the word fascism, see Michael C. Moynihan's "Crying Wolf" on page 50.) As George McGovern campaign director Frank Mankiewicz famously said of Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, it was the "least accurate yet most truthful" of all the books written about the 1972 presidential race.

How does one square an anal, nitpicky regard for the facts with an equally high regard for certain journalists (including known fabulists such as New Yorker great A.J. Liebling) who sometimes didn't even pretend to care about the things? The short answer might be that you can't. A more elaborate semi-dodge is that the ecosystem for political journalism and discourse needs to be recognized as containing several distinct, if overlapping, subcategories, ones that shouldn't necessarily disqualify the practitioners from polite society. And hyperbole—including the kind inevitably less refined than Thompson at his best—deserves its place under the sun. So does crude partisan rhetoric. (My favorite example of the latter breed was an early '90s campaign poster from Klaus' political party, showing a red line through a left-hand turn sign, under the slogan "No Left Turns.")

Klaus himself illustrated the benefits of these gradations in a lecture he gave in May at the pro-market Competitive Enterprise Institute's annual dinner in Washington, D.C. Describing how he and his group of fellow economists first discovered free market ideas during Czechoslovakia's brief window of intellectual openness in the late 1960s, Klaus put the progression of new influences thusly: American Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson, then Austrian "creative destruction" pioneer Joseph Schumpeter, then libertarian philosopher-hero F.A. Hayek, then 1984 author George Orwell. This is no random order.

Samuelson is a welfare-state economist rooted in the tradition of John Maynard Keynes. Schumpeter was more radical, not just championing capitalism's destructive tendencies but predicting that the free market would ultimately choke on its own successes. (Under communism, Klaus reported, the notion of anyone equating capitalism and success was almost indescribably thrilling.) Hayek then moved the ball with his massively influential text of economic hyperbole, The Road to Serfdom. Hayek's thesis—that manifestations of collectivism even in market-based democracies lead inexorably down the road to tyranny—is powerful, still timely, and not (it turns out) strictly true. But as a warning shot across the bow of Western statists and a galvanizing jolt for politicians and thinkers worldwide, this bit of exaggeration has done more good than a million perfectly fact-checked white papers.

The final eye opener in Klaus' progression was, of course, that definitional piece of hyperbole: a dystopian novel about totalitarianism. One that more than a dozen former subjects of communism have described to me as the single most accurate portrayal of their lives.

The traditional defense of predictions that end up missing the mark is that 1) it's hard to predict the future, 2) at least the prediction served as an alluring first taste with which to wash down more timeless truths, and 3) maybe the dour prediction itself influenced events so as to prevent it from coming true. All these contentions are plausible. But there's a problem: The same arguably could be said about the sky-is-falling shouters on the other side, including the tribe that has been the bane of free market economists for the whole 40 years of this magazine's existence: doomsday environmentalists.

The first step in establishing consistent standards in judging rhetoric is to recognize that you can't. We are all of us hypocrites, easily believing the fantastical claims thrown at our adversaries while giving those on "our side" a comparative free pass. Like politicians calling for federalism, critics who aggressively pick nits are usually more opportunistic than principled, although that doesn't lessen the valuable service they provide in holding modern-day journalists to a higher standard of factual practice than the novelistic columnists of yore. What remains a moving target is correctly identifying the flavor of expression, knowing the messenger, and deciding based on personal taste whether a work is worthy of attention, scorn, or indifference.

Which is why I won't be getting my climate science analysis from Vaclav Klaus. The very first paragraph of his new polemic, Blue Planet in Green Shackles, is an advertisement for Klaus' typically crude political goal of caricaturing the opposition beyond recognition. "One exceptionally warm winter," he claims, inaccurately, "was enough for the environmentalists and their followers to draw far-reaching conclusions on climate change." It's the literary equivalent of a no-left-turn sign. Your mileage may vary.

Matt Welch is reason's editor in chief.