A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.
Source unknown (ironically, this has been falsely attributed to many sources, including Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, and Winston Churchill)
After undergoing a pretty tough cancer surgery last month, it’s time to return to my Friday feature that is examining the work of Dr. Timothy Snyder in his book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
Although it was my original intention, I obviously won’t have completed all twenty chapters before the American election next week. But even if the mid-terms turn out to be a powerful sweep defeating the most malignant of the anti-democracy factions threatening us (alas, this is a long shot), the danger is still very strong, and will continue to be for some time, I fear.
So I hope that these posts will continue to bolster our discernment and clarity about where we are, what is actually happening, and what we can do about it.
And to those of you who are dropping your subscriptions because you dislike my “political” opinions, best of luck to you, no offense taken.
For better or worse, my seership extends beyond the Tarot cards. I am and always have been strangely prescient about our country’s political and historic context. I can see where we are, where we have been, and where we are headed, and I feel that offering this, too, is how I may serve the greater good.
So thanks for hanging in there, and for your encouragement, even though this is certainly not wildly popular or “feel-good” stuff.
In the second half of Dr. Snyder’s book, he begins Chapter 11 by calling out P45 in the most chilling and direct way so far.
First, as he did in more detail in Chapter 10, he tackles the age-old question of “what is truth?” He notes that despite the faux hipness of cynicism and slipping “along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference,” there is such thing as fact and truth.
It is vital that we understand that we do have the power to discern facts, and it is this core ability that helps define ourselves as individuals. Despite all efforts to befuddle this, ultimately undermining our faith in ourselves, we humans are intelligent and even young children know the difference between lies and truth.
Furthermore, the strength of our personal empowerment to know the difference between truth and falsehood is the foundation of “our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society.”
That is why those who investigate, helping us to distinguish facts from deception are builders of a strong, healthy community.
Conversely, this is why those who oppose, subvert, or prevent scrutiny of the facts are corrosive to our well-being.
He explains, “The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant…
“During his campaign, [P45] claimed on a Russian propaganda outlet that American ‘media has been unbelievably dishonest.’
“He banned many reporters from his rallies, and regularly elicited hatred of journalists from the public. Like the leaders of authoritarian regimes, he promised to suppress freedom of speech by laws that would prevent criticism.
“Like Hitler, [P45] used the word lies to mean statements of fact not to his liking, and presented journalism as a campaign against himself.”
As we know, in the time since Snyder’s book was published, this virulent tactic has grown more shrill and pervasive. As a result there have been attacks on journalists and even deaths to prove its power.
Once upon a time, Snyder reminds us, political theorists like Hannah Arendt “took comfort in the inherent power of facts to overcome faleshoods in a free society.” In particular, she wrote about how the lies that were told to escalate the war in Vietnam finally came unraveled, thanks to the relentless investigative work of boots-on-the-ground reporting.
However, what neither she, nor other scholars of that time anticipated is the extent to which the internet has supplanted human contact in how individuals suss out fact from fantasy.
Snyder writes of the stark changes that turned up in the 2016 election campaign:
People going door to door to canvass encountered the surprised blinking of American citizens who realized that they would have to talk about politics with a flesh-and-blood human being rather than having their views affirmed by their Facebook feeds.
Within the two-dimensional world, new collectivities have arisen, invisible by the light of day — tribes with distinct worldviews, beholden to manipulations.
(And yes, there is a conspiracy that you can find online: It is the one to keep you online, looking for conspiracies).
That’s why print journalism is more important than ever before.
Print vs. Screen
When news is simply an echoed sound bite, of an echo, from an unknown source (and more and more, we are discovering that the original sources may have been carefully curated misinformation from hostile foreign powers), it is no longer news. It is propaganda.
Snyder writes, “We need print journalists so that stories can develop on the page and in our minds.”
He challenges us to question what is really happening when P45 throws around derogatory opinions like claiming women are lazy, belong at home, that we are “slobs,” “pigs,” and “dogs” and that it is permissible to sexually assault us.
It is the long, painstaking work of serious journalism to uncover why six of P45’s companies were run into bankruptcy, and how his “enterprises have been financed by mysterious infusions of cash from entities in Russia and Kazakhstan.”
Although, as Snyder explains, we can get answers to these concerns from a variety of media, the screen is more prone to “the logic of spectacle. When we learn of one scandal, it whets our appetite for the next.”
In a very subtle, but inevitable way, the daily fix of drama and ugliness builds an air of expectation and dark entertainment.
Thus, he argues, if we “subliminally accept that we are watching a reality show rather than thinking about real life, no image can actually hurt [P45] politically. Reality television must become more dramatic with each episode.”
Professional, Tenacious Journalists Needed
It’s easy to post and repost articles. But he reminds us, “researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money. Before you deride the ‘mainstream media,’ note that it is no longer mainstream. It is derision that is mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult.”
Snyder also grieves over the prevailing spirit of wanting our news to be delivered for free. This disastrous business model was begun in the early days of the “New Media” of the internet, and it has been killing off good news outlets ever since.
Although P45 would have the world believe that professional news outlets are folding because they are obsolete and liars, the truth is that hard-nosed investigative news takes time and resources. (It took a full year of long hours, single-minded focus, and complex, important articles before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein could get a judicial response to the Watergate story).
But finding people who are dedicated to integrity, honesty, and doing the deep digging that big stories often require is not easy these days.
Especially when the public begins to think themselves well-informed by simply helping themselves to the free headlines of the day without much care as to where they are coming from. When people don’t understand the need for thoughtful reading (or else don’t have the attention span or skill set for that), it is a perfect storm for the collapse of thorough fact-checking, complexity, and nuance.
And those are the components absolutely necessary to a functioning democracy.
The Fundamental Threat
Václav Havel, one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century and famed dissident of communist Eastern Europe in the 1970s wrote in his treatise, The Power of the Powerless, “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.”
Truth is powerful, and its constant, insistent corruption by the parties now in power should reveal, if nothing else, how threatened they are by it.
Snyder concludes this chapter with a passionate warning for each and every one of us. We are, he declares, each of us publishers in this day and age. Therefore you and I bear a responsibility for the wider public’s sense of truth.
If we are serious about seeking the facts, we can each make a small revolution in the way the internet works. If you are verifying information for yourself, you will not send on fake news to others.
If you choose to follow reporters whom you have reason to trust, you can also transmit what they have learned to others. If you retweet only the work of humans who have followed journalistic protocols, you are less likely to debase your brain interacting with bots and trolls…
Although we may not see the other person in front of his or her computer, we have our responsibility for what he or she is reading there. If we can avoid doing violence to the minds of unseen others on the internet, others will learn to do the same.
And then perhaps our internet traffic will cease to look like one great, bloody accident.
Truth matters. It exists.
Lies matter. They need to be called out.
What words are being used and why? Is there a “migrant caravan” moving through Mexico? Or, as it was rebranded just yesterday, is it a “foreign army?” Most impartial observers would agree it is more accurate to say they are a crowd of desperate, downtrodden “asylum seekers.”
The justice department wants to change the terminology from “undocumented immigrants” to “illegal aliens.” Why?
Are our military troops being deployed to fight against “rocks?” Or “weapons?”
Understand that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Take responsibility for what you pass along.
Ask. Keep asking. Keep reading. Keep thinking.
And by all that is holy and dear to you, for the future generations, and for the future of freedom in this country — VOTE.
Just finding your way here? Thanks for joining us, and also for sharing with your friends.
If you’d like to go back and re-read from the beginning, no problem:
Introduction to Freedom Fridays
Freedom Fridays: Lesson One – Do Not Obey In Advance
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Two – Defend Institutions
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Three – Beware the One-Party State
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Four – Take Responsibility for the Face of the World
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Five – Remember Professional Ethics
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Six – Be Wary of Paramilitaries
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 7: Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 8: Stand Out
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 9: Be Kind to Our Language
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 10: Believe in Truth