I’m not talking about a lie told to spare somebody’s feelings, saying “oh, what a cute baby!” as you’re thinking the opposite. It’s a slippery slope, of course, sparing feelings as a bullet-proof justification for a lie, but I am talking about a different category of lie, really, the outright denial. This kind of lie, which insists something that happened never happened, erases all possibility of resolving the underlying issue that gave rise to the lie. It destroys trust, once it is uncovered. The damage that this kind of lie does, and how many harms radiate out from it, is our subject today.
On a political level the lie is as powerful in America as it ever was, maybe even more so. With tribal loyalties in America at a high water mark, issues are no longer discussed based on the underlying realities that cause the actual problem. All political issues are now summarily disposed of by reflex, without analysis, according to the color of the hat you wear, the color of the money you stand to make or lose if the issue goes one way or the other.
Millions recoiled from anything the Black President did, even if what he did was implement a long-time conservative dream like the PPACA, Obamacare, which greatly expanded the market for the private health insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies who remained free to pursue profit from illness without undue competition from gigantic government programs that could kill their corporate bottom lines. We now call the lies that support this kind of mindless opposition “alternative facts,” the fruits of our “post-truth” culture. The good and bad of the PPACA, what was actually accomplished for its intended beneficiaries, how close it brought American health outcomes to the standards of the other wealthy nations, what needs to be tweaked to make it better, is all beside the point. You support it 100% or you want to repeal it 100%. Those who hate Obama believe that anything with his name on it must be destroyed. Those who love him, same deal, but the opposite.
Annoying and disgusting as they are, I am not even thinking of the demonstrable lies being constantly told by our supernaturally thin-skinned Commander-in-Chief. We are no longer surprised when he is revealed as a pathological liar, contradicting his ever-changing legal team’s assertions at every step. I see this person as the embodiment of something he had no hand in creating, a familiar type he was born, booted and spurred, to be, the cancerous chickens coming home to roost– there is nothing unique about him except for his undeniable genius as a shameless self-promoter. So I will respectfully leave this divisive motherfucker out of my meditations on lying, tempting as it is to cite some of America’s current head CEO’s more grotesque untruths.
When my father was still fighting for social justice, in the early 1970s, there was a riot at a Brooklyn high school. My father’s team went into the school and brokered peace between warring student factions. A year or two ago I read the New York City Division of Civil Rights’ report on the riot. To my amazement, they were not seeking to lay the blame for the riot anywhere in particular. In this rare moment in our history, around the time of the first massive Earth Day celebration, public officials were earnestly seeking to understand the causes of the strife and how to improve things so that, to the extent possible, groups stopped hating each other. Or, at least, to understand things enough, and make enough changes, to end the violence between the ethnic groups involved.
The report describes how black students bused in from their segregated, low income Brooklyn neighborhoods were congregating at local hang-outs on the main thoroughfare of the slightly more upscale white neighborhood near the school. There was escalating friction with local residents and business owners. Several factors that contributed to the violence at the school were set out and discussed in the report. The report was filled with analysis and nuance. It was a sober, fair attempt to understand and solve the underlying problems that led to the riot. As I said, it was a rare moment in our history.
Much more common is to simplify, vilify and righteously hate. You see, the problem is not segregated living, segregated schools, institutionalized inequality, fear, anger, prejudice, pressures caused by these things. The simple answer is that the riot was caused by unruly blacks, or angry whites, or whatever your simple-minded, self-serving Trumplike answer is. Once you have your idiotic answer, implement policies that flow from it. Privatized prisons come to mind, in the nation, long a beacon of freedom and democracy, that leads the world in incarceration, and, naturally, incarceration for profit. The death penalty for dealers of illegal drugs ought to solve America’s drug addiction crisis, wouldn’t you say?
We are no longer expected to see the big picture, only the tiny part of the picture our attention is being directed to. Look, there’s a photo of a black student punching a white kid in the face. In the fucking face! End of fucking story, as far as the person holding up that photo is concerned. Another pundit has a photo of a group of snarling white students surrounding a cornered black female student. Again, a snapshot used only to argue that there is nothing left to argue about.
I am quite familiar with this selection of a single incendiary image to end a conversation. My father was a master of this. During one heated exchange he insisted I had no defense for my actions because I had impermissibly entered the kitchen of a rented hall and therefore anything that happened after that, including the physical assault on me, was strictly my fault. It didn’t matter that I’d received prior permission to go into the kitchen, from the person in charge. There was no discussion possible, it was rage against rage. It only ended when I extended a finger and smartly popped it against my father’s nose, a warning shot.
Something happens and there is a moment of truth. I once smoked a little weed with a friend (and, like Obama, we both inhaled). When we got back to his house his wife asked us if we’d smoked. My friend immediately said “no” as I was saying “yes”. My friend had an excellent and irrefutable reason, as far as he was concerned, for lying to his wife. My admission of a simple fact was apparently mortifying for him, made him look like a goddamned liar. The resulting angry confrontation that took place between us had nothing to do, as far as either of us was aware, with me not lying to support his lie. The argument was based on all kinds of confused emotional stuff, the impulse to lie versus just saying the true thing never came into it.
In fact, it is only now, years later, that I even see the simple yes or no question, and my abject failure to back my friend in a necessary lie, as related to the ugly fight we had. No punches were thrown, but I can tell you it was as ugly a fight as I have ever been in, including ones where punches were actually thrown.
A lie that forecloses discussion? It’s like a government that keeps a program top secret, a program that permits the arguably legal torture of suspects in the event that they are actually connected to terrorist organizations. Slogans are advanced as irrefutable justifications for why this secretive program must be kept top secret. These foreigners being roughed up in our name hate our freedom, quite possibly. The revelation of proof of war crimes, kept secret by the chain of command, is regarded as treason when somebody like Chelsea Manning makes them public. Same slogans: revelations of these things that inevitably happen in the fog of war are weaponized by those who hate our freedom. No punishment is harsh enough for a traitor like that, say a good proportion of our nation’s true believers, even as the cool execution of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers is regarded as a trifle. Like however many Mi Lai massacres there may have been during our long, bloody mistake in Vietnam. Nothing to fucking see here! Support our troops!
The examples are too many, and too ubiquitous, to catalogue. The harm these lies do is hard to calculate. It radiates outward from the shameful source of the lie in ripples that have no end. It ends intelligent discussion before it can even start. The lie may confer a strategic advantage at the moment it is told, but it will be deadly for intimacy, among those naives who still hold a quaint value like “honesty” in high esteem.
Here is how it works. This thing happened that is … I’d have to say humiliating to me, potentially infuriating to others. I make up a story to make it appear non-humiliating, non-infuriating. What is the harm to that? I’m trying to avoid friction, strife, keep the peace, save us all from a truth that is, to some, humiliating, regrettable, sickening. What is your problem with my impulse to improve on the horrible situation on the ground with a harmless variation on the truth that makes things better for everybody?
The thing that makes it worse for everybody (with the possible exception of the person who appears to benefit from the lie) is that the actual facts of the case have been completely removed from the conversation by the lies. Nobody thereafter has any chance to gain any insight into what happened, and all that flowed from what happened, because what actually happened is buried, will never be the topic of discussion. Cause and effect are completely uncoupled, events are now simply a mystery of the Human Condition. The lie erases any possibility of understanding. Not to mention, to those aware of the lie, the erosion of ongoing trust.
There was a lot of whining recently over the remarks of Michelle Wolf, comedian, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an annual theatrical event as phony and disgraceful as any in our culture. A female comedian had insulted the female press secretary in a joke that said the press secretary burns the truth to create her “smoky eye”– a reference I took as relating to how somebody throws “shade” on somebody by giving an evil side glance, a move the embattled press secretary is known for. I may have been way off in my interpretation. The comment was construed on Fox as a vicious attack on the press secretary’s looks, a woman on woman hate crime. It was pointed out by the other side, disloyal commies who hate our freedom, that according to his supporters only the president is allowed to comment on how women look, call certain women fat, ugly bitches. They played a half dozen recent clips of the president doing just that. The whole irrelevant argument over “comedic good taste” makes me want to politely projectile vomit.
What is lost to most in this “argument” over what a comedian may or may not say, what is funny and what is just sick, blah blah blah, is that we are currently refueling Saudi fighter jets and bombers, in the air, that are raining death on the civilians of Yemen. That a secret global kill list is maintained and acted upon at the sole discretion of the American president, and that list may include any American citizen the president designates an “enemy combatant”. That environmental protections are being rolled back every day, that civil rights are once again under forceful attack, along with public housing, along with a record number lifetime appointments to the federal bench. That we have a seemingly lawless administration in power, corruptly sharing the public wealth in an open and notorious manner, brought to office in large part because the Democratic party insisted on running their anointed, wildly unpopular candidate and turned a deaf ear to what was actually going on in the country. The DNC insists, with idiotic certainty, that it was the Russians who turned the election, cost them the White House in 2016. But for the evil Putin, you know…
Trevor Noah interviewed Michael Hayden last night. Hayden, like James Comey, is a guy long high up in covert operations now flogging a “tell-all” book. Like Comey, he’s suddenly seen by millions as a good guy because we currently have a villain from Batman, with his own eponymous fortress of evil, as the chief executive and this former high public official is very critical of the boss. Hayden’s book is called something like “The Attack on Intelligence”, a clever double entendre.
Noah asks Hayden about Russian interference in the 2016 election and Hayden gives a superficially thoughtful answer. Russia is incredibly sophisticated in their skills at public manipulation, says Hayden, they literally wrote the manual on this kind of thing. What Russia did was far worse, far more insidious, than anything our CIA ever did to interfere with another country’s internal politics, according to Hayden. That would include, apparently, assassinating democratically elected foreign leaders, orchestrating violent protests, funding U.S. friendly rebel groups, and sometimes death squads, with money from the local drug trade, bombing, invading and occupying countries on a series of weak, or openly false, pretenses.
You see, Hayden points out with a winning smile, America loves freedom, but Russia, heh-heh, they are masters of freedom hatred and are very, very good at it. End of story, nothing more to see here, nothing to do but buy the book. “Available now,” says the great Trevor Noah, holding up a copy of Hayden’s book as the “applaud” sign lights up, the studio audience applauds and they cut to a commercial.
I love Trevor and have no ax to grind regarding him or his great show. It is simply the way it is here in mass media America. Fame sells books. It doesn’t really matter so much what you are famous for, as long as the public relations firm does its job, makes you and your book look irresistible. Don’t you want to hear what West Wing insiders actually know about the president’s personal life? Isn’t it fascinating that a career politician whose unprecedented, unfounded (and unprincipled, for that matter), misleading public disclosure, days before the 2016 election, had a definite effect on the outcome of that contest between two historically hated candidates is now doing the circuit of talk shows as a kind of hero because he is standing up to the man he helped elect, who then fired him?
We Americans have a famously short memory and almost no attention span, and this is by design, as far as I can tell. That lack of attention is handy for those who profit from our inattention, our snarling about celebrity personalities instead of open public debate on the issues that matter most, like the foreseeable end of our inhabitable planet. Add in the unchallengeable corporate right to conceal, withhold, classify, assert numerous legal defenses to prevent publication, prevent most lawsuits, and you have a perfect storm. We do terrible things, in secret, then describe these things in modestly heroic terms that even a distracted seven year-old can understand.
The PR industry knows exactly how to do this. The spinmeister’s battle. According to your preference, grievance, tribal loyalty (three factors pithily cited by Hayden for our current political impasse) you will come down firmly on one side or the other. There is no space in between those two sides, you are either with us or against us, you either love freedom or you’re with Hitler. Unless, of course, you are one of those very fine people who love freedom and also admire Hitler. In that case, just make sure to wear an American flag pin. The swastika is held in bad taste by those who… well, why even go there?