August 28, 2012

Past and present: Memes, lies and doublethink in a post-truth America

By Lee Cole–

“…To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the party was the guardian of democracy…” – George Orwell on “doublethink” from “1984”

Doublespeak has been a part of American politics since our nation’s inception. Our politicians have always been able to come up with creative half-truths, near-lies and ingenious maneuvers for skirting the fact of the matter. But our propensity for doublethink and doublespeak has reached epic, Orwellian proportions in the 2012 election. While both sides have made questionable statements and tiptoed around the facts, the Romney campaign and the Republican Party’s personal propaganda machine, Fox News, have taken things to a new level of outrageous, unabashed dishonesty. The lies emerging from the Romney camp and the Republican Party have become so brazen and shameless, that news organizations that might still be considered somewhat fair and balanced may have to rethink their coverage of the election.

George Orwell wrote “1984” as a warning; although a Socialist himself, Orwell saw how things had gone in the Soviet Union and was appalled by the totalitarian regime there. The greater portion of the novel deals, thematically, with truth and lies and what it means for something to be true. He shows us, adroitly, how lies can be used as a subtle, and often not-so-subtle, form of oppression by spreading fear and manipulating the masses. It’s no exaggeration to say, at this point, that Fox News is tantamount to the Ministry of Truth in “1984.” While it may have been up for debate in past years whether Fox News was actually an engine of propaganda for the Republican Party and big corporations, it’s safe to say at this point we can be sure.

I watch Fox News more than any other 24 hour news network and this should be a testament to its brilliant business model and strange allure. I watch it for a number of reasons, comedic effect not least among them, but primarily because it makes me feel something (in this case a profound sense of anger and incredulity) whereas when I watch CNN, or as it’s soon to be called, the Twitter News Network, all I can feel is mind-numbing boredom. The folks at Fox News have discovered that the rules of journalism were never written in stone and were always merely unspoken rules of dignity and accountability in the profession. Taking advantage of this, they throw caution and reasonability to the wind and run stories that rile up conservatives and con them into thinking Godless, commie liberals are trying to take their guns and Bibles.

While the internet age has given us a wealth of information and connected people in ways that were never possible before, it has also ushered in what might be called the “age of the meme.” A meme, quite simply, is an idea. Like its biological counterpart – the gene – a meme replicates itself and operates through survival of the fittest. What makes a meme fit? It’s potential for popularity and reiteration in the current cultural environment. As it turns out, the more a meme is repeated, the more people begin to believe it’s true.

One example in recent memory is the vague notion that Barack Obama is somehow a Communist-Atheist-Muslim, who was born in Sudan. Chain emails have been circulated since 2008 regarding both President Obama’s citizenship status and various harebrained conspiracy theories about caliphates and ancient prophecy. In fact, according to a recent poll by Gallup, 18 percent of Republicans believe, with confidence, that Barack Obama is lying about his faith and that he is in fact a secret Muslim.

The rationale seems to be that if you repeat a lie enough times, it will start to attain a certain “truthiness” as Stephen Colbert would put it. Mitt Romney, whose campaign slogan at this point should be “I’m not Barack Obama!” has upped the ante when it comes to this kind of strategy in recent weeks. He continues to insist that President Obama cut $716 billion from Medicare, when in reality the situation is far too complex for Romney’s absurdly oversimplified whiteboard chart.

The “cuts” Romney refers to do not affect patients in any way, but rather are reductions in how much money private insurance plans can receive through Medicare Advantage (they are currently overpaid by 20 percent, compared to traditional Medicare) and reductions in reimbursements hospitals will receive (reductions agreed upon by healthcare providers with the caveat that the money they will receive from the 30 million previously uninsured patients will be enough to make up for it). In no way will the Affordable Care Act negatively affect Medicare recipients. The Romney/Ryan Medicare voucher plan, however, will affect recipients in a profound way.

A recent Romney ad has made additional dubious claims about Obama’s policies, claiming that he removed the work requirement for healthcare. President Obama himself pointed out in a recent press conference:

“What he’s arguing is somehow we have changed the welfare requirement — the work requirement in our welfare laws. And, in fact, what’s happened was that my administration, responding to the requests of five governors, including two Republican governors, agreed to approve giving them, those states, some flexibility in how they manage their welfare rolls as long as it produced 20 percent increases in the number of people who are getting work.”
Once again, Romney’s claims are patently false, yet he’s called the news media’s bluff and continues to disseminate lies. And why not, when he can get away with it? The only places of note where anyone has responded and discredited Romney’s tactics have been opinion programs and forums, such as the very section in which this article will appear. Meanwhile. Fox is happy to lend credence to any and all of Romney’s misrepresentations of fact.
What I’m arguing is that regular news programs should start hammering the Romney campaign for misrepresentation of the truth. If every day on the Nightly News and Good Morning America anchors exposed these lies for what they are, maybe Romney would have a harder time convincing us of their truth value. But as Rachel Maddow commented recently, we have entered what she calls “a new era of post-truth rhetorical norms.”

Consider for instance Glenn Beck’s favorite “historian” David Barton, who has basically rewritten American history to make deistic, enlightenment-influenced founding fathers like Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison, all of whom were devout proponents of separation of church and state and often disparaged Christianity, seem like modern day Bible belt fundamentalists. Despite widespread repudiation by legitimate historians (Barton doesn’t actually have a degree in history and went to a bible college), his views continue to be legitimated by Republican politicians. If he isn’t an example of Orwell’s fiction come to life, I don’t what is. Jon Stewart, in what one imagines must’ve been an attempt to seem unbiased, gave Barton a softball interview earlier this year. Stewart routinely gives legitimate guests a hard time, like the late, distinguished writer and polemicist Christopher Hitchens, but is chummy with hacks like Bill O’Reilly and Barton.

This “let’s all hold hands and be friends” attitude is no longer viable, and reasonable people like Stewart can no longer, in good conscience, go out of their way to seem unbiased. To say that the lies emerging from the left are as common or as outrageous as the lies coming from the right is simply no longer true. MSNBC is not the counterpart to Fox News as Stewart suggested in his “Rally to Restore Sanity” – in fact it’s not even close. The truth is not always located halfway between two extremes. When the political spectrum is pushed far in one direction, sometimes the radical position, beyond the newly defined “center,” is the correct position.

As if all this weren’t enough, Romney commented on Friday, August 24th that he was born in the U.S. and that no one has had to check his birth certificate, to thundering applause. When asked directly, he says that he believes President Obama was born in the U.S., but that doesn’t really matter. He knows that all he has to do to get his base riled up is make the vague suggestion that our President is a fraud. Furthermore, he knows he can get away with it.

While CNN and evening news broadcasts are going out of their way to seem unbiased, Fox is mounting an all-out assault on Obama and the Democratic Party, all the while claiming with a straight face that they are the ones being fair and balanced. The result is a total perversion of the truth – a skewed understanding of what is actually happening in the world. This is no longer Cronkite’s America. It’s Murdoch’s.

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Photo courtesy oregonstate.edu

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