Dateline: May 31, 2018 By Stephen James
Falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart. ꟷThomas Jefferson
President Donald J. Trump passed the 3,000 lies threshold recently, as reported by the Washington Post. He has told 3,000 verifiable lies since taking office in January 2017. This is remarkable primarily because his approval rating has gone up during the last year to 42%, comparable to Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Harry Truman, and higher than Jimmy Carter at the same point in their presidencies.[i] Some pundits claim that the lies erode the prestige of the presidency, or that a boy crying wolf syndrome will afflict the president so that he will not be believed in a genuine crisis. But so far, the 3,000 lies have seemingly had no effect on his standing. His spokespeople manage to repeat the lies, or explain them away, also with seemingly no consequence. And most disconcerting, millions of Americans acknowledge that these are lies, but consider loyalty to the president, and possible future political or economic benefit as more important.
How do the lies of the present age affect our society? What’s wrong with a little lie once in a while? Christine Todd Whitman, former Republican Governor and former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency said, “We are seeing the norms that underpin our society being eroded.”
The end result of a relentless chipping away at objective truth is an undermining of what historian Yuval Noah Harari calls our “imagined order.” In his landmark book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), Dr. Harari says:
“Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths. Our personal desires thereby become the imagined order’s most important defences. For instance, the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries.”
The underpinnings of our society are fictions, and as such, are fragile. They are not part of the physical universe, but are invented imaginings, fantasies that we reinforce with myths and stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves, that appear in entertainment, news reports, literature, and history books. The imagined order exists in the shared imaginations of millions of people. Institutions like capitalism which depend on made-up origins of ancient trade and a “free market” fantasy are essentially fiction-based, commonly held mental constructs of reality that members of our society share as immutable laws of nature. Simply stated, they are not objectively real, like a tree or a virus, but it is essential to the functioning of our society that they are shared and tacitly accepted.
Some of our society’s core values or fictions, imagined ideals, and invented truths that all members accept and believe:
Individualism – each person is unique and special. It ignores the fundamentally social nature and success through cooperation that has powered humanity through our history as a species.
Equality – everyone is treated the same. We know this is not true. Justice, healthcare, infant mortality, longevity, education, and opportunity all depend on one’s social class and wealth.
Work – the basis of respect and power; idleness is a threat to society. But work is being done more and more by machines. What will be our individual value when there is no work for us to do?
Progress – the notion that we are moving linearly toward a better and better future through modernization, science and technology. This underestimates the scope of human destructiveness and irrationality. Progress, while benefiting the few, may be an environmental disaster for everyone else.
Competition – a magical force behind progress to be preserved and enforced, characterized in the “Be Best” platform. Obviously not everyone can be “best.” Some will have to settle for being better or merely good.
Achievement – getting things done, planning and setting goals. But the greatest satisfaction comes from doing, from being fully engaged, and from “flow,” a highly focused mental state, not from an end result or achievement.
These values are fictions that adapt and change over time, but remain essential to the imagined order. They are individually debatable, but together form a set of aspirations, an American Utopia if you will, providing a definition of what it means to be an American.
Donald J. Trump’s great discovery was that he could lie about Barrack Obama’s birth and birth certificate, lie about hiring private detectives to comb Hawaii for the truth, and no one would call him on it. He could audaciously lie day and night, and not only not suffer any consequences, but eventually get rewarded. The press was complicit in it. They chuckled and privately tsk tsked all the way to the bank while the Donald received millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity and the sitting President of the United States was bullied and finagled into producing not one, but two versions of his Hawaiian birth certificate.
What we have now is a presidential administration that has learned and profited from that initial experience three years ago. It lies daily, and bullies anyone who speaks up. Why was comedian Michelle Wolf attacked for her 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner jokes about the administration’s lying? Because she spoke the truth. Joe Lockhart, press secretary for Bill Clinton’s administration said, “Politics is an imitation game. If it works for Trump, others will try it.” Attacking truth tellers and lying relentlessly may become the norm. That is, as our society comes to expect and accept it, the administration’s lying has become, in the words of some observers, “normalized.”
The problem is that lying on this new grand scale eats away at the fragile social fabric.
- Traditionally Americans believed that despite being driven by human frailties, the US government will inevitably do the right thing. The lies undermine that shared belief.
- Americans have historically accepted the first amendment as bedrock: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” When the president and his apologists maintain that the press is reporting fake news, that the press has become “unhinged”, an “enemy of the people,” and is composed of “dishonest people” the shared belief in the essential need for a free press is weakened.
- As the Justice Department pursues the truth about the Russian and other foreign governments’ connection to the 2016 election, it is operating within the fundamental American belief in the rule of law. Law enforcement, despite its human possibility for bias and error, was traditionally respected, at least by the white majority, as intent on justice, not political outcomes. When the investigation is declared and believed to be a “witch hunt” this basic belief is undermined.
- Tribalism, as we have reported in this space, justifies all manner of behavior. America has always had tribal divisions based on region, income, and ethnicity, but there was a common shared belief in what Harari calls the “inter-subjective” imagined order. Tribalism encourages belief in one tribe’s fictions even if they oppose the traditional American fictions. What is now articulated in one tribe’s TV, radio, social media, or newspaper outlets, supersedes what is accepted as reality in the others. “Alternate facts” describes a fiction that ignores hard data, like photographs and good-faith estimates of the size of the crowd at the 2017 presidential inauguration, and substitutes a lie that appeals to one tribe’s expectation. Tribal truth for all American groups is replacing empirical evidence as an acceptable norm.
- “Truthful hyperbole,” co-author Donald Trump’s famous phrase from The Art of the Deal, describes a strategy of deliberate exaggeration to achieve a goal. In Trump’s tweets and bombastic rallies, truthful hyperbole has become expected and dismissed as not being news.
- Critics of the president are immediately attacked as politically motivated, are automatically disbelieved by Trump apologists and supporters, and their objections are marginalized into irrelevance. The great tradition of American loyal opposition has been crippled and may become an endangered species.
As Dr. Harari says, “All cultures are in flux.” They change sometimes slowly, sometimes more quickly. But as social scientist Sheldon Solomon says, “There comes a point in all cultures where they’re just no longer believable.” Cultures that rely on fantasies that strain credulity are in danger of collapse.
A virus can infect a population the way the influenza virus killed over 500,000 Americans in 1918. A meme can also affect a population, albeit in a nonphysical way. By meme I do not mean the new pop definition referring to captioned photos on the Internet that are intended to be funny; I mean the broader, original concept created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976), an idea, behavior, symbol, or style that spreads from person to person like a virus within a group or a gene within a species.
In the physical world genes compete for survival, and equally importantly, continuation through distribution. Similarly, memes compete for survival and continuation in a culture. Memes that proliferate less successfully may become defunct, while others may survive, spread, and even mutate. And like a virus, they can be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts, while being successful on their own terms.
All cultures are changeable, and ours is no exception. For example, in my lifetime it was acceptable for African Americans to be denied employment and access to lunch counters based on their skin color, and for women to be denied employment and home mortgages based on their gender. Those ideas competed with and lost out to ideas of tolerance and equality that were also embedded in the culture. But even though times have changed, the existence of Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movement are evidence that the changes are still in flux. The equality memes are still competing in our culture to define what is considered improper conduct toward women or to define justice for African Americans.
With the decline in religious influence on ethics and morality, our relativistic society struggles to define truth, right and wrong. Different groups attempt to consciously and purposefully propagate their morality memes into the public discourse and social awareness. For example, the idea that facts matter competes with the idea that it is justified to twist the facts to suit political and economic success. These memes compete for social attention and relevance with both unrelated memes and contradictory memes. The outcomes of these struggles are not inevitable. The fascistic memes that took over Italy and Germany prior to World War II seemed unthinkable at the time. Could America succumb to something equally troubling?
It has been long understood that American politicians sometimes lie. It was always assumed that they were mostly honest people of good character, but had to lie on occasion for national security reasons, to keep state secrets, or to protect military actions or the lives of spies, for example. The post-Watergate generations of Americans have a more cynical attitude about politicians lying than some previous generations may have had, but considered it reprehensible just the same. But this level of acceptance of lying by politicians and government goes beyond post-Watergate cynicism.
We may be living through a cultural revolution. Constant government lying being acceptable is a meme that has carried throughout half of the American culture like a virus. And like a virus, it can mutate and evolve to affect the rest of the culture. The present idea that the President of the United States could lie publicly 3,000 times in his first year and a half in office, be supported by the White House staff, the Cabinet, and half of Congress, and that that notion is acceptable to half the population based on their tribal loyalty, is a dramatically different meme from what has gone before. It alters the imagined order governing the lives of all the members of our society.
It is not an exaggeration to wonder if the American character is at stake. Wholesale lying by our government threatens the shared belief in what it is to be an American, and the fundamental existence of the nation.
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Stephen James is a member of The Writers Collective. He is the award winning author of American Stew: Hope in a Toxic Culture, is the president of Contemporary Heroism Initiative, Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, and is a member of the Ernest Becker Foundation and the New York Society for Ethical Culture. He is a producer of communications media in the New York area.
[i] FiveThiryEight – https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/