When it comes to politics, a serviceable lie is often preferable to an inconvenient truth.
Those who survive and thrive in government service learn that sugarcoating disasters, deflecting blame, and attacking your opponents with false accusations are standard operating procedure, and the ever increasing partisanship of our news media and public discourse make this easier than ever.
We are seeing all three of these in play right now with the reactions and inactions in response to the catastrophic train derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, which has become a master class in ignoring a desperate problem that is guaranteed to become more desperate with time. The half-hearted and desultory efforts in place to help this stricken community stand in stark contrast to the massive relief offered to other states—and other countries—faced with similar disasters. However, many Americans have been led to believe the official story that everything possible is being done, and few seem outraged by the abandonment of the victims of this disaster.
Big Lies work because our tendency to believe what we want to believe makes us susceptible to the lure of outlandish falsehoods. As Mark Twain once observed: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
It should, therefore, not be a surprise that our leaders lie to us. A lot. And we often believe them.
This problem is further compounded when the truth is routinely denounced as propaganda. Perhaps the best recent examples of ostensibly undeniable truths concern our experiences with the Covid-19 pandemic.
We were told so many lies: We needed to shelter in place for only two weeks to “bend the curve” before returning to our normal lives, mandatory face masking provided protection against transmission of the virus, the virus did not escape from a Chinese lab, the vaccines ensured immunity with no adverse side effects, and to question the government’s response or not “follow the science” meant you were a conspiracy theorist.
To the surprise of no one except the Covidian true believers, none these supposed truths has stood up to scrutiny and study, but they were relentlessly propounded in order to justify an unprecedented abolition of our civil and human rights—as well as government spending on a scale never before seen in American history.
Strategic, unashamed, outrageous lying is a slippery proposition sometimes used by slippery politicians to justify the unjustifiable.
Lies that are used to obscure the truth continue to be a problem, and the continued stymying of inquiries and investigations into the Covid-19 response does little to restore our tattered faith in our nation’s leaders, but we have also been plagued by another problem that is far more pernicious: The lies that are never corrected because they are necessary to cover up the malfeasance or underhanded motives of those who seek or hold power.
Governments lying to the governed is, of course, a problem as old as civilization itself. Although we would like to believe America is immune from this problem, those of us with a few gray hairs clearly remember the fakery of the attack on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin that justified the start of the Vietnam War and the non-existent “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that served as the pretext for our invasion of Iraq in 2003.
More recently, the Department of Justice swallowed the many lies of what was clearly a dirty trick by the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee that planted fake news stories about Russian collusion in order to cripple the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s campaign—and later his presidency. Although it might seem the case that turnabout is fair play in terms of the doubts now expressed about the election of Joe Biden, the accelerating corrosion of trust that plagues our nation today is a reminder that the harms caused by the habits of telling lies and spreading false rumors are a cancer on our democracy. In the long term, we all lose due to these political shenanigans.
Absolute truth and honesty is, of course, impossible where human beings are involved, but the numerous lies that now prevail throughout our institutions of governance, business, mass media, and education have become both too obvious and too damaging.
Hard truths should always be preferable to beguiling falsehoods, and we must hold those who mislead us for personal and political gain accountable for their lies because, if we do not, the future for America is grim.