Fake news! Climate change is a hoax! Vaccines are evil! And other disturbing (and increasingly common) attacks on reason
Last year, the president’s defender Rudy Giuliani went full Orwell when he declared on national television that “Truth isn’t truth,” and objective facts are “in the eye of the beholder.”
Such language epitomizes the era of President Donald Trump, who has told thousands of lies in office as regularly as a normal person says “hello,” and has demonized inconvenient facts as “fake news.”
Politicians frequently spin or shade issues or events to their advantage. But the wholesale denial of objective reality is something new, especially from the highest elected official in the land.
We’ve been veering toward this dangerous terrain for some time. A senior adviser to President George W. Bush made a famous comment to writer Ron Suskind for a New York Times Magazine article. At the time, the statement seemed to personify the hubris and folly of unnecessary, costly wars and lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The aide dismissed people living “in what we call the reality-based community,” who believe that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”
“That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the aide continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality …. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Bush supporters also employed lies in the swift-boat attacks on Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s Vietnam War record in 2004. Before that, in the 2000 Republican primary election, they spread rumors that Sen. John McCain’s adopted daughter, Bridget, was McCain’s illegitimate child with a black prostitute. That one cost McCain the South Carolina primary and perhaps the nomination.
In the age of Trumpism, the debasement of reality itself has taken on a more sweeping and sinister character.
This ranges from overstating the size of his inauguration crowd to claiming the president can rewrite the Constitution, and denying human-caused climate change is real. The first misstatement goes to the heart of a needy personality. The latter two endanger our republic and our planet.
Ahead of November’s elections, Trump and Republicans used lies to stoke fears of an “invasion” of illegal immigrants, and minority vote fraud.
With lies as the new currency of political discourse, the only “reality” becomes signaling to one’s political tribe.
The castoff from facts isn’t confined to the right, a political radicalism often still going by the quaint and misleading name “conservatism.” The American left has its own blind spots, although they are not as dangerous to the planet or democracy.
This is America 2019. And Seattle, with its Big Tech brains, renowned university and higher-than-average number of adults with college degrees, isn’t surrounded by a wall. It must live in this changed nation, one where a significant portion of the electorate has contempt for such blue outposts. The consequences range from lost federal funding and a gamed Census to poisonous federal policies. Living in this America won’t be easy.
America’s experiment with self-government, even with the “original sin” of slavery, grew out of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and the science of the time.
The Declaration of Independence famously states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
For most of the nation’s history, aided by high levels of literacy, a majority of Americans believed in the same set of facts and reality.
“From the time when the exercise of the intellect became a source of strength and of wealth, we see that every addition to science, every fresh truth and every new idea became a germ of power placed within the reach of the people,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his 1835 book “Democracy in America.”
To be sure, a minority always was swayed or temporarily beguiled by myths and conspiracy theories: the Freemasons, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s lists of communists in the government, the myriad tales surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the 1969 Apollo moon landing “really” being carried out on a Hollywood soundstage.
For most of us, these tales came from demagogues, cranks and kooks.
Also, the warnings about the risks to free societies from lies are long-standing.
“Half a truth is often a great lie,” Benjamin Franklin wrote in “Poor Richard’s Almanack.”
No one captured a nightmare world based on falsehood better than George Orwell in his classic “1984,” a dystopian novel published in 1949. From Orwell’s evocation of the totalitarian superstate of Oceania, new words entered the language: doublethink, thoughtcrime, newspeak and Big Brother.
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength,” Orwell wrote as guiding axioms of Oceania.
Especially after witnessing fascism and communism up-close in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell saw how propaganda and language could be effective weapons.
After Trump’s election, “1984” became a best-seller again.
At least in the past, however, mendacity had a limited shelf life in America. One could not fool all of the people all of the time.
Lyndon Johnson was punished for the “credibility gap” over the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon was forced from the White House for the Watergate cover-up. Bill Clinton avoided removal from office over a scandal involving a lie but became only the second president in history to be impeached.
Time after time, a tipping point came when the republic righted itself.
This time might be different.
In 2017, a poll commissioned by the Economist magazine found that 70 percent of Republican respondents trusted the president more than they trusted The New York Times, The Washington Post or CNN.
“Republicans now loathe mainstream media outlets so much that many would stoop to unconstitutional means to silence them, if given the chance,” the magazine wrote.
To Trump, journalists are “enemies of the people.” This Stalinist construct has been used by every authoritarian.
Vilification of the mainstream media allows those in power to undermine factual reporting — what Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame said was the definition of good journalism: the best obtainable version of the truth.
This essential element of a self-governing society has been compromised by right-wing media such as Rush Limbaugh and other radio talkers, and especially by Fox News. That began in the 1990s. It has been supercharged in recent years by the internet and social media.
It reached alarming heights in the 2016 presidential election, when thousands of Russian bots and hackers infiltrated Twitter and Facebook, spreading misinformation.
The American press didn’t have a spotless record in the past. Reporters softened the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. Walter Duranty of The New York Times became an apologist for the show trials and crimes of Stalin in the 1930s.
But more often than not, reporters got it right, from uncovering the ghastly conditions in slaughterhouses to forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal. Investigative reporter Ida B. Wells documented lynchings, creating a movement that eventually brought nationwide attention to this horror.
That was when a consensus of Americans believed the same reality, valued science and expertise, generally held the same moral center.
Now right and left live in their own realities. This makes compromise — the essential ingredient of self-government — impossible. The only other time America was so divided resulted in the Civil War.
Studies show that readers’ and viewers’ own biases affect their perceptions of particular news stories or news organizations. The more extreme their views, the less they trust stories that go against their prejudices.
Nowhere is this more destructive than with climate change.
Studies published in peer-reviewed journals indicate that 97 percent of climate scientists believe in human-caused climate change. Not only that, but this planetary threat is getting worse faster than had been feared.
If 97 percent of the cardiologists I visited thought I needed heart surgery, I would have it.
Yet although 70 percent of Americans accept that climate change is happening, so-called deniers often get equal coverage in news stories. Action is stymied by well-funded misinformation campaigns and politicians bought by the fossil-fuel industries.
Trump, who withdrew the United States from the Paris accords, called climate change a hoax perpetrated by China. Many of his supporters agree.
Meanwhile, the internet allows a daily fire hose of distractions to keep us from focusing on issues that are life-or-death. Mendacious memes from the fringes become Republican talking points.
The working press simply lacks the tools to fight back against the phenomenon. The usual “both sides” approach to coverage, attempting objectivity, doesn’t work when one side is consistently lying.
A republic established during the Age of Reason is highly vulnerable to today’s attacks on reason.
No wonder in her 1951 book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exists.”
Capital-T Truth, of course, is a word best used with care.
“True ideas are those we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify,” philosopher and psychologist William James said. “False ideas are those we cannot.”
Even so, the meaning of truth has been debated by Western thinkers from Aristotle to Freud. The chapter under that heading in Mortimer Adler’s book “The Great Ideas” takes 25 small-print, closely spaced pages.
Also, history is an argument without end, and rightly so. We keep learning about the past. Harry Truman, the last president to lack a college degree, said, “The only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know.”
Yet in the post-truth era, how we view reality is more important than ever.
This is almost as malleable in solid blue regions as it is in Trumpist country.
For example, many Seattleites take it as “truth” that the police are routinely brutal and biased. They believe that rising numbers of homeless people are a result of the city’s economic success, not because of City Hall’s ever-rising and poorly overseen spending on a complex and multifaceted problem.
The left often thinks of groups, not individuals. “Diversity” means different ethnicities, genders, sexuality, but does it also mean different life paths and viewpoints? Does it include older people, the disabled, conservatives and religious believers?
In Seattle, an unusually fortunate city, we don’t have problems (some self-inflicted). Each is a “crisis.”
The leftward lens is distorted by what historians call the anachronistic fallacy, projecting today’s perspectives and values onto moments in the past. Good luck having a conversation about the Civil War with a liberal.
To some on the left, America is a uniquely evil nation — there’s your American exceptionalism. No matter that President Barack Obama reminded us that things were getting better, that this is the “most prosperous, most progressive era in human history” — in no small part because of American leadership.
Liberals are slightly more anti-vaccination than conservatives. No matter that childhood immunization is a great and proven scientific leap that saves lives and protects the general population.
A zeitgeist, even in educated Seattle, is not synonymous with truth. Yet being willing to seek truth in all its messy complexity is essential to finding it.
And here’s another disconnect: Is it wise to situate a growing metropolitan area in a major earthquake zone, in the shadow of an active volcano?
Living in a post-truth world won’t be easy.
Gold-standard government data, including the Census, are at risk of politicization by the Trump administration.
Data itself are vulnerable to manipulation, hence the familiar quote, “lies, damned lies and statistics.”
Corporations, enjoying unprecedented power in our Digital Gilded Age, can lie and distort. Corporatespeak, beyond further degrading the language, can be used to conceal hustles and corruption. So can spreadsheets and algorithms. Knowledge is increasingly a trade secret.
Newspapers are struggling, with vast swaths of the country lacking even one local paper. Without serious journalism, which costs money, wrongdoing thrives and democracy is trampled. It doesn’t matter how much “information” people have, especially when so much is disinformation or distraction.
One election or many will not heal our national schism or the threat of lies, cynicism and nihilism.
Good advice comes from diplomat George Kennan, writing at the onset of the Cold War:
“Our first step must be to apprehend, and recognize for what it is, the nature of the movement with which we are dealing. We must study it with same courage, detachment, objectivity and same determination not to be emotionally provoked or unseated by it, with which doctor studies unruly and unreasonable individual.”
At the least, we can hold close the embers of reality and reason, and pass them along until this new Dark Age passes. And hope it does so quickly.