We’re no better than our enemies when we misrepresent the facts
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted one of those attempts at a photo meme on his Facebook page. It was of a bulbously double-chinned Chris Christie, purporting to quote him from an appearance on CNN in which he said: “If I am elected president I will go after marijuana smokers and the states that allow them to smoke. I’ll shut them down big time. I’m sick of these addicts, sick of these liberals with no self-control.”
Only Christie never said those words — and certainly not on CNN.
In a call-in right-wing radio show hosted by Hugh Hewitt, Christie said, “We have an enormous addiction problem,” and that “the states should not be permitted to sell it.” Nothing about liberals. Nothing about self-control. Those were lies.
I pointed out to my friend that this was not an actual quote by Chris Christie. His response: “He says stuff like that all the time.”
A few weeks later, I saw another photo meme on a different friend’s Facebook page. This was of Louis Gohmert, perhaps the least qualified person ever to sit in Congress and decide laws since he’s far too stupid to even read them and understand what they mean. The man really should be sent to remedial kindergarten and not the Congress. Anyhoo. This meme quoted Gohmert as saying he “thinks a lot about gay sex.” He then went on to make a typically dumb statement about how, if left on a desert island for 100 years, gays would die out since they don’t reproduce. Did Gohmert make bigoted, ill-informed statements about gay sex? Absolutely. Did he say any of the words quoted in that meme? Not a chance. But it didn’t matter to that friend, either. It was, in his view, “close enough.”
And here in lies my major quibble with the quality of political discourse as we now practice it in America: It is not, in fact, a discourse. It is instead position-taking based upon faulty, misleading and outright untruthful information.
This is not news to followers of politics. Not at all. Sarah Palin invented — through her own social media platforms — the entire concept and phrase about “Obamacare death panels,” which never existed in any form, but became a part of the political discussion. Fair-minded progressives would point out that this was made up, though unfair and imbalanced FOXNews wouldn’t hear of it, and repeated the myth as if it where’s Obama’s main doctrine, a plan by the Kenyan-born Muslim communist at eugenics. It’s been five years, and “death panels” still lingers in the public consciousness. And Liberal Democrats still pull out their remaining hair to rage against the political machine about misinformation, disinformation and lies that pervert the process.
And then they turn around and do the same thing.
There is an old, trusty adage that one must “fight fire with fire.” I bet sure most firefighters would tell you that water and sand usually do a better job, but let’s forget about that for a second. Democrats have never been at a loss for having their own ways of phrasing and crafting a message to highlight their opponents’ weaknesses, to minimize their own, and to steel the positives in their message. Excoriating the enemy with clever linguistic tricks and rhetoric is time-honored. Frankly, it’s what we writers frequently do.
But I’m not talking here about characterizing one’s position as extreme and another’s as moderate, or shining the best light on one’s own ideas. I’m talking about lying about quotes and acting like the lie is justified. I am talking about propagating known falsehoods about another candidate, another party, an opposition group, and twisting it beyond recognition while pretending it is fact. Pardon my naïveté, but I thought progressives were better than that.
I foolishly thought that when I pointed out the errors of these memes to my friends, they would quickly disavow them if not take them down right away. But no: They embraced the now common, Trumpian practice of doubling down. They cleaved to the errors and defending them as, I suppose, speaking to a “higher truth.” Of course, the higher truth that they refer to is likewise based upon these mistaken premises. When your entire dialogue is merely a catalog of falsehoods about your opponents, at what point does the reality settle in and mean something to you? When we put up a photo of Chris Christie and quotation marks around words that we attribute to him, on specific dates and in specific media, knowing that’s wrong, we haven’t won any battles, we’ve merely contributed to the dumbing down, the name-calling, the schoolyard taunting quality of American politics.
It would not be difficult to find reams of direct quotes from Chris Christie that would hoist him with his own petard. Likewise Louis Gohmert, who is a hardworking factory of lies. You want grist for your political hate mail? The facts are out there. Let’s take them to task on the facts. But when we just pander to our own feelings and desires and what we want to believe, we can’t then attack the other side for doing the same.
When we present opinions under quotation marks; when we rewrite history to suit our own needs; when we compromise our own values in order to score fleeting and hollow victories against perceived enemies, we are no better than the opponents. And then, when our opponents accuse us of lying and misrepresentation, we have to concede, “Yep. We did it. So what?”
And that’s when we lose. It’s when the American people lose. It’s when the political system gets beyond the control of intelligent people wanting to be informed voters and falls to the hands of who has the loudest megaphone, the largest checkbook, the meanest barbs. Without a claim to moral or at least ethical superiority, we lose an important arrow in our quiver and distort the democratic process. It’s difficult to criticize a system that doesn’t represent the people’s interest when the people aren’t representing their own.
Note: The person who posted the Chris Christie meme informs me that he later removed the post from his page.