Photo credits, clockwise from upper left: Kristine Wook, Cristina Eisenberg, Nathen Domlo, wusa9.com
By Margaret Randall
I wrote this in 2020, before the end of the Trump presidency, before it became so obvious that his lies were not random rantings but carefully designed pieces in a web of deception calculated to create the alt reality that he needed to consolidate power. We got rid of Trump on November 3, 2020, but this essay can be read as a map to just one of the dangerous elements he injected into our culture. Its usefulness survives.
If there is human life one hundred years from now, and analysts refer to our time, it may well be dubbed the Age of Lies, after the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. Or, like the eras in the mist of prehistory, the Cretaceous or the Jurassic, they may call it the Period of Lies. For this to happen, those analysts would have to retain some understanding of what constitutes truth, and how to sort the misleading definitions from what really was. This may be difficult because lies beget lies and the habit of truth is (sometimes permanently) eroded.
Even today, as we simultaneously read or listen to descriptions of our lives that we know are patently untrue, even as we inhabit an utterly different reality than the ones falsely depicted, our actions too often demonstrate a tendency to believe what is said or written about us rather than trusting and defending our own experience.
From the distance of time, an appraisal will be more difficult.
One important thing to understand about lies is that power perpetrates and protects them. When power is curbed, we have far fewer lies.
Let’s look at some examples. I will limit myself to the United States, although it is clear that this society is not unique in its ability to deceive. Take such a basic issue as income inequality. There’s the well-worn lie that anyone who works hard can succeed. If you’re poor, it is because you are lazy. These days, even the once-middle class knows this is not true. And in the United States, most of us call ourselves middle class.
Literally every minute the obscenely wealthy have more and the poor less. By 2016 the world’s richest one percent had more than the remaining ninety-nine percent. But we don’t need statistics (too often taken out of context or misrepresentations themselves) to show us what is happening. The pain is palpable.
Every politician promises to fix this injustice in some way or another and almost all of them lie when elucidating their positions. Those on the left offer exuberant promises; how many times have you received a mail in your inbox claiming “McConnell Out!” as if the Himmler of the Senate had already been defeated—or would be with one tiny financial donation from you? The right has no shame about piling lies upon lies. Those who aspire to political office promise to create jobs, punish some corporations deemed “too big to fail,” redesign our tax system or close its obvious loopholes, attract business, or any one of a dozen other proposals. Those who show themselves to be dismissive of the poor are criticized by most of us, those with the most inclusive rhetoric applauded. Meanwhile, income disparity grows and the jobs that are created pay less and come with fewer benefits. Only 3.8% of American workers are unionized today, and a thousand schemes cover up the fact that the rich continue to stockpile money to the detriment of those whose labor creates it. The COVID-19 crisis has thrown the world into health and economic turmoil like few of us have seen in our lifetimes. It remains to be seen what lies this crisis leaves in its wake.
Almost every politician, irrespective of the political party to which he or she belongs, devises clever ways of talking about these problems. Every one of them promises change but fails to mention that change will only come about if a majority in Congress votes for it and the president signs it into law. Once in office, campaign promises are forgotten, and the nature of the US political structure makes compliance all but impossible. The lies have unfolded bit by bit, until the public doesn’t know who or what to believe.
Within this panorama, all sorts of subsidiary inequities continue to exist and deepen. Women earn eighty-one cents for every dollar made by a man, and our “invisible” labor in the home remains unpaid. Minority populations (some of which will soon be majority) continue to earn less and have more restricted access to higher-level positions. COVID-19 has exploded these figures; as I write in December 2020, 30 million US workers have lost their jobs.
Public education becomes poorer, and outlandishly expensive private schools train new generations of moneyed leaders, who learn to lie with much greater sophistication. Those most affected often vote for those whose policies are least concerned with their interests—because the lies are presented with such conviction. And the lies continue to accrue. Have you ever wondered why Social Security is called an entitlement, when it is money that we ourselves have earned throughout our working lives and which has been subtracted from our paychecks?
Complicated studies, statistics, polls, and advertising campaigns weave a fabric that is convincing but dishonest. No wonder so many are disinterested in voting, when flagrant lies, voter intimidation, gerrymandering, and obscene amounts of money so often determine the outcome of our elections.
Another area rife with lies is the population’s health and wellbeing. The truth is the United States has two healthcare programs that have generally proven their efficacy over the years: Medicare and the Veterans Health Administration. Both have problems; both could be streamlined and improved. But rather than model a system of universal healthcare on one of these largely successful plans, we have allowed our fabricated fear of “socialized” medicine and our pandering to insurance and pharmaceutical companies to keep us on the profit-making track. Simply extending Medicare to every citizen, beginning at birth, would do the trick. We could pay for universal coverage by eliminating the overly complicated for-profit system in place today, with its mountain of paperwork and ample opportunity for graft. The COVID-19 crisis laid bare the terrible inequities in our healthcare system. As always, those at the bottom (doctors, nurses, orderlies, retired healthcare professionals) have stepped in heroically to try to save lives.
How to educate our children has descended into a similar morass of cover-up and deception. Following George W. Bush’s ill-conceived No Child Left Behind Act, we hoped a new administration would seriously address a situation that has our nation ranking lower each year in its ability to teach its youngest members to think. But an over-emphasis on testing continues to hobble our educational system. During the Trump administration we suffered a governing clique that intentionally kept our children uneducated. There is a great deal of damage to be undone.
National security has become another dangerous catchall for far too many political lies. Fear is absolutely the best way of keeping the lies afloat. The messages alternate: one moment there is “credible proof” of a new attack about to be unleashed, the next we are told not to worry; the illegal observation and search-and-seizure to which we are subject is keeping us safe. A state of continual tension, laced with racist profiling and a new tolerance for the use of lethal force on the part of our guardians of law and order, produces nothing more nor less than bedlam, continuous war, illegal torture, collateral damage that no longer shocks a battered public sensibility, and a false sense of security. A largely hidden digital invasion of every aspect of our lives has rendered us more and more vulnerable to a lying system.
The lies become easier, more acceptable, more embedded in the national psyche.
Art exposes the lies a system perpetrates. In art—music, poetry, theater, the visual arts—we can often find truths that government officials would prefer we do not know.
What we have needed, since long before 9/11, is an honest, in-depth conversation about America’s role in the world, the ways in which our country has actually given birth to and armed some of the forces now aligned against us, and how a change of policy might lead to sustainable peace. We need an honest assessment of our own war crimes, even as we pontificate against those committed by others. Many nations—South Africa, Chile, Guatemala, Uruguay, Argentina, Peru, Bosnia, and Rwanda among them—have established peace and reconciliation commissions or tried those charged with atrocities. These efforts have allowed people to begin to replace the lies with truth. The United States needs to embark upon such a journey. Without it, memory cannot be made whole.
Human beings everywhere want the same things: freedom, peace, dignity, work, food, shelter, health, a future. The first step on the road to these is truth: identifying the perpetrators (giving them first and last names, as sexual abuse survivors have learned to do), allowing the victimized to speak, and rewriting the Official Story. Only human exchange, on a level playing field, can make this dream reality. For the United States only humility and self-examination, not its ongoing bully stance, must be realistic first steps.
But humility and self-examination don’t go with the web of lies. And today an even bigger, more urgent issue demands our attention: global climate change and the rapid depletion of necessary resources such as clean water, food, and air. Without a sustainable planet, income inequality, inadequate healthcare, broken education, even the ravages of violence and war, all take second place.
Governments and international organizations have been talking about climate change for decades. But with rare exceptions, the issue has functioned as a political football more than an undeniable threat. Science clearly shows that human-produced carbon emissions are increasing the earth’s temperature, melting ice caps, causing mega-storms, and raising sea levels to alarming degrees.
In most discussions, the powerful are privileged and feel entitled. But despite their belief that their children and grandchildren will somehow escape a doomsday scenario, in the long run the powerful are as vulnerable as the powerless. The former will be able to hold out a bit longer. The latter will suffer first. We are talking about losing humanity here, and also about what humanity has produced: art and literature, music, scientific advances, knowledge, and mystery. And we are talking about every animal, insect, and tree.
The stakes have never been higher.
And the lies have never been more expertly woven. So-called impartiality is the watchword of our time. Climate change deniers are given a place at the table alongside the scientists whose research warns of imminent danger; the myth of equal representation allows the lie of doubt to linger. Protecting power has become the mantra by which we live. The poor and disenfranchised are expendable.
A single lie, if well-constructed, often proves difficult to walk back. A web of lies, conceived, produced, and sustained by the most powerful governmental, military, and corporate structures known to history, is much more complex and can be much more difficult to expose.
But not impossible.
Dictatorial or authoritarian leaders, for a time all-powerful, have been defeated. Think of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Cheney, or Trump. Small armies of brave resisters sacrificed everything to a cause they knew was urgent. Resisters attracted resisters. Good won over evil, truth over the lie.
Authoritarian political systems have crumbled. The Catholic Church, with its untouchable Vatican, long condoned and protected an all-powerful hierarchy, the abuse of women and children, and a code of law aimed at controlling great numbers of the faithful. A few courageous voices, many of them belonging to those very women and children, initiated a struggle against the lie and today hold out hope for millions.
Throughout the world today, women are standing up for gender equality. The #MeToo movement has gone viral, demanding accountability from men who routinely use and abuse women simply because they feel entitled to do so. The year in which I am writing this, 2020, showed women’s fierce determination in massive marches and rallies on International Women’s Day, March 8th. And in Mexico, on March 9th, women staged a Lysistrata-type protest by refusing to leave their homes. Millions remained inside, not even using social media. They are estimated to have cost the country well over a billion dollars. They were protesting the femicide that murders ten Mexican women a day.
We are witnessing a slow, uneven, but sure dismantling of criminal practice.
In all areas of human endeavor, determined thinkers and doers use education, organization, constitutional law, well-reasoned argument, and a truth that is easily recognizable to break through the façade of lies.
At the beginning of this piece I evoked an Age or Period of Lies, like the Age of Reason or the Jurassic Period. In times of extreme trauma, those who choose integrity are often motivated, at least in part, by thinking about how they will be able to answer when their children ask them what they did when the great lie threatened life. What will be said about our era if we are not able, as a people, to stand up to those who are destroying us?
Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Change happens when someone and then many decide enough is enough and take the first step. Change happens when someone dares to point out that the emperor isn’t wearing anything. And others notice—perhaps a few at first, then many, and then many more.
(from Thinking About Thinking, to be published in September 2021 by Casa Urraca Press, Abiquiu, New Mexico).