Truth and the American Way

From Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. He leaves out a big issue:

You remember the old joke? Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and tells the children of Israel: “Children, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I bargained him down to 10. The bad news is that adultery is still in.”

Well, I’ve got bad news and worse news: We’re now down to nine.

Yes, this was a historic four years — even one of the Ten Commandments got erased. Lying has been normalized at a scale we’ve never seen before. . . .

I am not sure how we reverse it, but we’d better — and fast.

People who do not share truths can’t defeat a pandemic, can’t defend the Constitution and can’t turn the page after a bad leader. The war for truth is now the war to preserve our democracy.

It is impossible to maintain a free society when leaders and news purveyors feel at liberty to spread lies without sanction. Without truth there is no agreed-upon path forward, and without trust there is no way to go down that path together.

But our hole now is so deep, because the only commandment President Txxxx did believe in was the Eleventh: “Thou shalt not get caught.”

Lately, though, Txxxx and many around him stopped believing even in that — they don’t seem to care about being caught.

They know, as the saying goes, that their lies are already halfway around the world before the truth has laced up its shoes. That’s all they care about. Just pollute the world with falsehoods and then no one will know what is true. Then you’re home free.

The truth binds you, and Txxxx never wanted to be bound — not in what he could ask of the president of Ukraine or say about the coronavirus or about the integrity of our election.

And it nearly worked. Txxxx proved over five years that you could lie multiple times a day — multiple times a minute — and not just win election but almost win re-election.

We have to ensure that the likes of him never again appear in American politics.

Because Txxxx not only liberated himself from truth, he liberated others to tell their lies or spread his — and reap the benefits. His party’s elders did not care, as long as he kept the base energized and voting red. Fox News didn’t care, as long as he kept its viewers glued to the channel and its ratings high. Major social networks only barely cared, as long he kept their users online and their numbers growing. Many of his voters — even evangelicals — did not care, as long as he appointed anti-abortion judges. They are “pro-life,” but not always pro-truth. . . .

Israeli Bedouin expert Clinton Bailey tells the story about a Bedouin chief who discovered one day that his favorite turkey had been stolen. He called his sons together and told them: “Boys, we are in great danger now. My turkey’s been stolen. Find my turkey.” His boys just laughed and said, “Father, what do you need that turkey for?” and they ignored him.

Then a few weeks later his camel was stolen. And the chief told his sons, “Find my turkey.” A few weeks later the chief’s horse was stolen. His sons shrugged, and the chief repeated, “Find my turkey.”

Finally, a few weeks later his daughter was abducted, at which point he gathered his sons and declared: “It’s all because of the turkey! When they saw that they could take my turkey, we lost everything.”

And do you know what our turkey was? Birtherism.

When Txxxx was allowed to spread the “birther” lie for years — that Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, was actually born in Kenya and was therefore ineligible to be president — he realized he could get away with anything.

Sure, Txxxx eventually gave that one up, but once he saw how easily he could steal our turkey — the truth — he just kept doing it, until he stole the soul of the Republican Party.

And, had he been re-elected, he would have stolen the soul of this nation.

He and his collaborators are now making one last bid to use the Big Lie to destroy our democracy by delegitimizing one of its greatest moments ever — when a record number of citizens came out to vote, and their votes were legitimately counted, amid a deadly and growing pandemic.

It is so corrupt what Txxxx and his allies are doing, so dangerous to our constitutional system, but you weep even more for how many of their followers have bought into it.

“Lies don’t work unless they’re believed, and nearly half the American public has proved remarkably gullible,” my former . . . colleague David K. Shipler, who served in our Moscow bureau during the Cold War, said to me. “I think of each of us as having our own alarm — and it’s as if half of their batteries have died. Lots of Txxxx’s lies, and his retweets of conspiracy fabrications, are obviously absurd. Why have so many people believed them? I’m not sure it’s fully understood.”

That is why it’s vital that every reputable news organization — especially television, Facebook and Twitter — adopt what I call the Txxxx Rule. If any official utters an obvious falsehood or fact-free allegation, the interview should be immediately terminated, just as many networks did with Txxxx’s lie-infested, postelection, news conference last week. If critics scream “censorship,” just shout back “truth.”

This must become the new normal. Politicians need to be terrified every time they go on TV that the plug will be pulled on them if they lie.

At the same time, we need to require every K-12 school in America to include digital civics — how to determine and crosscheck if something you read on the internet is true — in their curriculum. You should not be able to graduate without it.

We need to restore the stigma to lying and liars before it is too late. We need to hunt for truth, fight for truth and mercilessly discredit the forces of disinformation. It is the freedom battle of our generation.

Unquote.

It’s not very surprising, but a crucial issue Mr. Friedman left out is the tendency of reality-based journalists, including those who work for the nation’s best newspapers, to strive for impartiality and balance even when dealing with liars, and to report lies as if they are simply controversial opinions. 

Impeachment Clarified

Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, a conservative who hasn’t joined the cult, wrote a column called “The Party Of Lying Liars” (which sounds a lot like Al Franken’s 1996 book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right). Some thoughts from Ms. Rubin:

When listening to [our president] and fellow Republicans throw around accusations against Democrats and the media or advance defenses for [his] impeachable conduct, there is a better than even chance they are misleading, if not downright lying [I’d say the chances are closer to 95%]….

On procedure, they’ve lied about the depositions (routinely used in investigations), claiming they violate “due process” or amount to a “Soviet-style” star chamber. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) lied in claiming she was prevented from asking questions. [According to the rules, it wasn’t her turn yet.] … Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) falsely claimed not producing the whistleblower violates [the president’s] Sixth Amendment rights [the 6th amendment only applies to criminal defendants, and the president isn’t one of those (yet)]….

At times, Republicans deliberately ignore evidence in front of their eyes. They seem to have settled on the theory that Trump never communicated to [Ukraine president] Zelensky that aid was tied to investigations of Biden, Burisma and [the] crackpot theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election, a theory first suggested by ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin himself]. Trump, however, raised these items in the phone call (“I would like you to do us a favor though”), as we know from the rough transcription [which he bizarrely claims exonerates him]….

Republicans’ lies are so numerous and obvious that one requires only a minimal amount of fact-checking to see that they lie because they have no truthful factual defenses nor valid constitutional argument. The facts are the facts: Trump conditioned aid to an ally in a war for its sovereignty on production of dirt to smear a political rival. He has refused to allow key witnesses to produce documents or to testify, thereby obstructing Congress. He has sought to intimidate and threaten witnesses including the whistleblower and [Ambassador] Marie Yovanovitch, sending out the message you will be targeted and smeared if you provide evidence against him.

As for the Constitution, we know that “bribery,” enumerated as one of the grounds for impeachment in the parlance of the Framers, includes asking for … personal favors in exchange for political acts [whether or not the favor is granted]. That is precisely what occurred here. Obstruction and witness intimidation are obviously “high crimes.”

House Republicans have become so invested in crackpot theories, bogus procedural complaints and constitutional illiteracy that they will never recognize the president’s wrongdoing. They are as incapable of upholding their oath, which requires impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors or bribery…. Both [the president] and his House enablers are unfit to serve, since personal and political considerations obliterate their ability to detect the truth and thereby to uphold their public obligations. It would be refreshing if House Republicans simply admitted [the Toddler] violated his oath but they are unwilling to abide by theirs and remove him. The candor would be preferable to the non-stop lying.

It remains an open question as to whether Senate Republicans are willing to ignore and distort reality so as to avoid voting to convict a president of their own party. Unfortunately, we find it highly unlikely that more than a few (if that many) would concede that [the president] and the right-wing echo chamber that protects him have been spinning a web of lies for nearly three years.

Unquote.

Yes, it’s unlikely that enough Senate Republicans will agree to remove him from office –unless they make it a secret ballot. That would give the cowards enough cover to dump him. But it still makes perfect sense to publicize more of the president’s offenses. 

It would also make perfect sense for the House Judiciary committee to write separate articles of impeachment based on the findings of the Mueller investigation and subsequent disclosures. Mueller invited Congress to impeach the president. No president should ever get away with what this one did to obstruct an investigation. But Mueller wasn’t a great witness. If he had delivered his congressional testimony more clearly and more forcefully, the president probably would have been impeached already. There is still time to remind the voters that the Ukraine scandal isn’t the only reason he get rid of him (and allow him to become a criminal defendant).

In Case You’re One of Those Citizens Who Want to Keep Track

Amy Siskind, a former Wall Street executive, is documenting the odd and troubling things happening in Washington. She publishes a summary every week. Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post wrote about her efforts:

[In November] Siskind began keeping what she calls the Weekly List, tracking all the ways in which she saw America’s taken-for-granted governmental norms changing in the [DT] era.

The project started small, read by friends and with only a few items a week.

By Week 9, though, the list had gone viral.

“It blew up — I had 2 million views that week,” she said. “People were responding like crazy, saying things like, ‘I’m praying for you.’ ”

As time went on, the list grew much longer and more sophisticated. Here are three of her 85 items from mid-June:

●“Monday, in a bizarre display in front of cameras, Trump’s cabinet members took turns praising him.”

●“AP reported that a company that partners with both Trump and (son-in-law) Jared Kushner is a finalist for a $1.7bn contract to build the new FBI building.

●Vice President Pence hired a big-name “lawyer with Watergate experience to represent him in the Russian probe.”

Now, in Week 32, every item has a source link, and rather than just a few items, there are dozens. (Her weekly audience usually hits hundreds of thousands, she said, on platforms including Medium, Facebook and Twitter.)

The idea, she said, came from her post-election reading about how authoritarian governments take hold — often with incremental changes that seem shocking at first but quickly become normalized. Each post begins with: “Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember”…

“It’s scary to look back on the early weeks and see what we’ve already gotten used to,” she said. Examples: a secretary of state who rarely speaks publicly, the failure to fill important positions in many agencies, a president who often eschews intelligence briefings in favor of “Fox & Friends.”

“We forget all the things we should be outraged about,” Siskind said.

Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and author of the PressThink blog, called Siskind’s efforts “a service that is thoroughly journalistic and much needed.”

The lists “help people experience the history that is being made and keeps them alive and alert to the dangers of eroding norms,” Rosen said.

In their user-friendly format, he said, they are “one way of dealing with an overload of significant news, a surplus of eventfulness that allows things to hide in plain sight simply because there are too many of them to care about”…

She posts the list on Saturday on Facebook and Twitter, and Sunday on Medium after working on it for 15 or 20 hours a week.

In a similar vein, The New York Times published a piece this weekend called “Trump’s Lies”:

Many Americans have become accustomed to President Trump’s lies. But as regular as they have become, the country should not allow itself to become numb to them. So we have catalogued nearly every outright lie he has told publicly since taking the oath of office….

There is simply no precedent for an American president to spend so much time telling untruths. Every president has shaded the truth or told occasional whoppers. No other president — of either party — has behaved as Trump is behaving….

We have set a conservative standard here, leaving out many dubious statements … [but] we believe his long pattern of using untruths to serve his purposes, as a businessman and politician, means that his statements are not simply careless errors.

We are using the word “lie” deliberately. Not every falsehood is deliberate on Trump’s part. But it would be the height of naïveté to imagine he is merely making honest mistakes. He is lying.

The list begins on January 21st (“I didn’t want to go into Iraq”) and ends on June 21st (“We’re one of the highest taxed nations in the world”). You won’t be surprised to see it’s a long list. If they provide the number of lies, I missed it.

The Times is actually late to this effort. Just as he did during the campaign, Daniel Dale of The Toronto Star is keeping a running list of false things DT says. The list was last updated on June 22nd. It was a big day because DT had a campaign rally in Iowa the night before (isn’t it strange that the President is holding campaign rallies when the next Presidential election is more than three years away? I bet Amy Siskind has mentioned this.)

The Star‘s list has 330 unique entries so far. There’s also a handy search mechanism that allows you to sort his false statements by topic. 

Dale also covered DT’s rally on Wednesday night (“It was just like old times”):

[DT] insulted Hillary Clinton. He insulted Chicago. He attributed a sensational claim to an unnamed buddy of his.

He floated a confusing proposal, promising to change welfare law to something that sounds identical to current welfare law. He executed a dizzying shift in rhetoric, applauding himself for appointing a former Goldman Sachs executive after railing against Goldman Sachs. And he revealed an unbaked plan — to turn his hypothetical giant wall on the Mexican border into a power-generating “solar wall” that would reduce the hypothetical reimbursement bill he still insists he will be sending to Mexico.

More than anything, though, he made things up.

By the way, members of DT’s adminstration and a few Republican politicians are trying to defend the Senate’s healthcare bill. They’re using the only available method: lying about it.

The Scariest Disaster Movie Ever, Plus Some Philosophical-Psychological Analysis

Coming soon to a country near you:

bullshitnado_trump

This terrific poster is from an article at Daily Kos. 

The article at Daily Kos is a summary of another article: “On Bullshit and the Oath of Office: The ‘LOL Nothing Matters’ Presidency”.

The thesis of both articles is that the Orange Menace doesn’t simply lie. He shovels bullshit at an alarming rate. 

And what is the difference between lies and bullshit? The authors cite the distinction made pretty famous by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt:

Lying [is] an act undertaken intentionally to obscure the truth and which therefore must be performed with a knowledge of the facts… Bullshitting [is] an act undertaken without any relationship to truth whatsoever.

Hence, when the Orange Menace claims he was always against the war in Iraq, he might be lying. He knows he wasn’t against it, but wants us to think he was. Or he might be bullshitting. He doesn’t remember what he thought about the war and doesn’t care. Today he says he was against it. Tomorrow he might say he was for it. It’s all bullshit.

Personally, I don’t find Frankfurt’s distinction very helpful. But if pressed to decide, I’d say the O.M. is more of a liar than a bullshitter. The evidence is that his falsehoods are always self-serving. He doesn’t simply make stuff up to fill the air. He makes stuff up that he thinks will make himself look wonderful.

People find it hard to believe he’s merely a liar because he’s such an obvious liar. Rational observers can’t believe anyone outside of an institution can lie so blatantly, so they conclude that he doesn’t know what’s true and what isn’t. 

I conclude that it really doesn’t matter. He lies and bullshits and is mentally ill.