They Think They Can Bully the Truth
Cousin to the noun dictator is the verb dictate. There are among us people who assume their authority is so great they can dictate what happened, that their assertions will override witnesses, videotapes, evidence, the historical record, that theirs is the only voice that matters, and it matters so much it can stand tall atop the conquered facts. Lies are aggressions. They are attempts to dictate, to trample down the facts and those who hold them, and they lay the groundwork for the dictatorships, the little ones in families, the big ones in nations.
Black Lives Matter has shown us policemen who continued to insist on their version of events when there is videotaped evidence to the contrary, or when physical evidence and eyewitnesses contradicts their account of events. You realize that they had assumed they could dictate reality, because for decades they actually had, and they were having a hard time adjusting to reality dictating back. As one of the Marx Brothers quipped long ago, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” The police assumed it was neither our eyes nor the evidence.
In February of 2015, two San Francisco policemen shot a 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, to death. All the bullets entered him from behind—four went into his torso through his back—but they claim they shot in self-defense because he was rushing them. They did not face consequences, for lying, or for taking the life of a young man trying to get by in a strange land. Two months later, in North Charleston, South Carolina, Walter Scott was shot by a policeman while he too fled. He too died of bullets to the back, but his killer claimed self-defense in an account that differed dramatically from the videotape (which appears to show him planting a weapon on the victim after he had fallen) and eyewitness accounts. Scott’s killer got a 20-year sentence.
That victims will remain voiceless was the presumption behind much of the sexual abuse that’s been uncovered in the #MeToo era. Getting away with it is the same thing as assuming that no one will know, because your victim will be intimidated or shamed into silence, or that if he or she speaks up they can be discredited or menaced back into silence, or that even if they don’t shut up no one will believe them because your credibility crushes theirs. That yours is the only version that counts, even if you have to use savage means to make it so. Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow reported of former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s four victims, “All have been reluctant to speak out, fearing reprisal.” But it was he who faced reprisal in the end, because the rules changed, because a critical mass of women broke the silence and the system that perpetuated that silence, because the media that largely ignored or trivialized these stories began to take them seriously.
Most of us think of truth as something that arises from facts that exist independently of our wills and whims; we have no choice in the matter, but we also believe in some sort of objective reality—either a thing did or did not happen, a sentence was or was not said, a substance is or is not poison. (And yes, I read lots of postmodern theory once upon a time and know all the counterarguments, but you know what I’m talking about.) What’s clear now is that most is not all, that a minority of us think that they can enforce a version that is divorced from factuality, and they always have. It corrupts everything round them and the corruption begins within them. Somewhere inside they know that they are liars and that they are imposing compliance to lies.
There are lies subordinates tell to avoid culpability, but they tend to be about specific things—I did not eat the cake, I did not show up late—while these fact-bullies can take charge of whole categories, as when a menacing father insists that his whole family pretend that everything is fine and they adore him. Gaslighting is a collective cultural phenomenon too, and it makes cultures feel crazy the way it does individual victims. That we are supposed to pretend that mass shootings and the epidemic gun death rate have nothing to do with the availability of guns is insane. That there is nothing to the Trump team’s dozens of covert contacts with Russian regime figures during the campaign and the Mueller investigation is a baseless witch hunt is a counterfactual agenda being pushed by sheer aggression from the Republicans and right-wing media and some supposedly left-wing darlings.
This summer we are once again witnessing the indignation that arises in powerful men when it turns out other people have things to say and that they might be listened to and believed. Congressman Jim Jordan is outraged that nine former wrestlers report that when he was the assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State, he knew but did nothing about their sexual abuse by the team doctor. It’s not a wrestling match he’s likely to win, but he seems to be unable to conceive that he’s not the boss of this story. (He tweeted on July 11 that CNN is contacting former staff and interns and “getting desperate,” as though this thing called reporting was both outlandishly unfamiliar and transgressive—“How can you ever trust such #fakenews?” he concluded.) Defenders of Darla Shine, racist conspiracy-theory-pushing wife of former Fox honcho Bill Shine (now the new White House communications director), claim that she is being smeared by having her own words recirculated. How dare you repeat things that I said! How dare you not let me rewrite what did and did not transpire!
It’s kind of like the Bill Cosby case—in which a surprising number of people seemed to be willing to believe that ten or twenty or thirty or eventually more than fifty women, most of whom were strangers to each other, were lying rather than that their idol was. It seemed to be less about the facts in the case than their conviction that he should be able to outweigh them, the way the person with the mic can shout down the crowd. Feminism, like many other human-rights movements, has been a process of amplifying voices until they can hold their own and of solidarity so that small voices can be cumulatively loud enough to counter the dictators. Thus have so many recent cases—from Fox News CEO Roger Ailes to Harvey Weinstein—been built by many other women coming forward to support the testimony of the woman or women who broke the ice.
In 2014, singer Kesha sued to be released from her recording contract on the grounds that her producer, Dr. Luke, aka Luke Gottwald, had raped and otherwise abused her and that she had almost no creative control over her own music (a year earlier, her fans started a Free Kesha petition). Gottwald and the corporation refused to release her from the contracts she signed in her mid-teens, so there was a trial that brought more attention to the situation—when she lost, she remained stuck with him, hostage to a man she seems to dread and loathe. Now, four years later, he’s suing because “Gottwald’s music career will never recover from the damage she has caused.” By speaking up when his assumption seems to be that a superstar singer with a series of #1 hits would remain voiceless. But also, if you assume that Kesha is telling the truth (and I find her credible), Dr. Luke and his backers are blaming her for what he did, or rather for not keeping it secret. They assume he had a right to impunity, which is a right to do what you like and dictate the reality around it, a right to confront no competing versions, even from the other parties involved.
Meanwhile, the radio host who groped Taylor Swift at a meet-and-greet and then sued her for saying so and getting him fired (he lost) complains he’s afraid to talk to women (perhaps because talking to a woman and grabbing a woman’s ass are apparently so hard for him to tell apart, a kind of confusion we’re hearing about from many men who are now “afraid to talk to” women). He says says he wants to tell her, “How can you live with yourself? You ruined my life.” That seems to be his way of saying that he was shocked to find that one of the most powerful figures in pop music had a voice and people believed her when she used it. During the trial that may be her greatest performance to date, Swift noted that contrary to accusations and long-established conventions, she had no responsibility to protect her assailant: “I’m not going to let you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions—not mine.” She was going after the assumption that no matter what he did, she has to keep life pleasant for him, by keeping her mouth shut.
Politifact published a timeline of White House positions on Trump’s alleged one-off sexual encounter with Stormy Daniels, a rollercoaster of denials and admissions of things that were denied, and other contradictions. What’s noteworthy was that she signed, just before the election, a standard nondisclosure agreement: a contract to pay a woman to be silent so that a man’s version of reality might prevail. These things often happen when unequal status or menace alone don’t enforce the desired silence; Daniels also reports being threatened by a man who approached her and her child in a parking lot: “That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.’”
Lies require enforcement. Harvey Weinstein used nondisclosure agreements and armies of lawyers, spies from Mossad, threats to people’s careers and reputations, and the aid of a lot of others at the Weinstein Company and beyond to keep his high-profile victims silent, but he also had help from a society that traditionally silenced and discredited women. Long ago I wrote in my essay “Men Explain Things to Me” that credibility is a basic survival skill; the police have assumed that they have more than the people they target; men have assumed they have more than women. Despite everything going on in electoral politics, we are in era of leveling out who has this precious asset—or perhaps what’s going on in Washington is the backlash. Credibility is not inherent; it’s present in our own priorities and assumptions about who to believe. And those who are silenced beforehand don’t even get a chance at credibility.
More and more I come to see the compulsive, frenetic pace of lies by the president as a manic version of that prerogative of dictating reality. It’s a way of saying, I determine what’s real and you suck it up even if you know it’s bullshit. He has abandoned credibility for dictatorial power. When you’re a star, they let you do it, and the size of your stardom can be measured in how much you can force people to accept—or pretend to accept—contrary to their own intelligence and orientation and ethics. This is, after all, the liar who at CIA headquarters on January 21, 2017, told hundreds of CIA employees—skeptics whose profession is the collection and verification of facts—easily disproved lies about the size of his inauguration and the state of the weather the day before.
He told them, “And the reason you’re my first stop is that as you know I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth. Right? And they sort of made it sound like I have this feud with the intelligence community.” Which he did, since he’d compared them to Nazi Germany a few weeks before, but he tends to praise to their faces those he attacks behind their backs, as he’s just done with British Prime Minister Theresa May (and then denied the earlier statements; the Washington Post’s headline read “Trump denies he said something that he said on a tape that everyone has heard.”). One imagines that he has since childhood never been held accountable; it seems more than possible that after a lifetime of this he’s convinced that he actually dictates reality, or rather that it doesn’t exist, or only exists at his whim, that he is as freefloating in a void of unaccountability as the blimp in his image was in the air over London. That is, that he’s a nihilist.
His lying is sometimes regarded as a distraction or an annoyance, but it is a dangerous thing in itself, and he is himself a product of a system of producing and enforcing lies. This week we saw him lying, again, about the Russian role in making him president and corrupting our election; he surrendered to Putin in public with the latter as the victor in a cyberwar both men insist we pretend did not happen, a war they had perhaps just discussed in secret. Trump also insists that we take Putin’s word over that of US intelligence, the world’s news agencies, the Mueller investigation, and a lot of senators and congresspeople. The thing to remember here about an assault on truth is that it’s an assault.
His followers have had their minds weaponized by decades of Fox News and right-wing pundits promoting conspiracies and denying crucial phenomena, including the valuable role immigrants play in our economy and the urgent reality of human-caused climate change. The country is now in a sort of civil war, and part of what is at stake is truth and facts in the form of history, scientific fact, political accountability, and adherence to the law. In “The Prevention of Literature” George Orwell wrote that, “A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened… Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”
The internet has produced its own form of informational relativism. Facebook is now taking heat for its refusal, amid what is supposed to be an informational clean-up, to ban InfoWars—which, among the other conspiracy theories it’s pushed, claimed the Sandy Hook massacre of children was a hoax and the teenage Parkland mass shooting survivors were “crisis actors.” Asked about the continued presence of InfoWars, Facebook News Feed head John Hegeman said, “I think part of the fundamental thing here is that we created Facebook to be a place where different people can have a voice. And different publishers have very different points of view.” That some of them are libelous and destructively false doesn’t seem to faze him (Sandy Hook parents, six of whom are suing InfoWars, have received threats from people who InfoWars directed to believe that the massacre was “a hoax to take away your guns”). This is a consequence of internet companies pretending they’re neutral platforms rather than information organizations with the responsibilities that have always come with that role. This is the result of their desire to serve any product to any customer, as long as it’s profitable.
Meanwhile Safiya Umoja Noble’s new book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism proposes that one driving force behind Charleston church mass murderer Dylann Roof’s racism was Google. Pacific Standard’s James McWilliams reports in a piece on Noble’s book that Roof did a search on “black on white crime” and was directed to a website by the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist website promulgating lies. Google owns YouTube, which the Wall Street Journal reported last winter offers recommendations to viewers that “often present divisive, misleading or false content.” Tech critic Zeynep Tufekci noted, their “algorithm seems to have concluded that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with—or to incendiary content in general,” and it gives them what they want or think they want, whether or not it’s good for them or us or the record. The most powerful corporations on earth have, in other words, concluded that lies are profitable and pursued that profit.
As Hannah Arendt famously said, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” Making those distinctions, doing the work to be clear, is resistance. It consists in part of supporting and reading good news outlets (including the newspapers whose financial basis has been undermined by the internet), and being informed both about the news they report and the historical background to the current crises to be found in books (and in universities, which makes it worth noting that the value of a humanities education is also under attack; one of its values is making people thoughtful sifters of data who are well-grounded in history). It consists of maintaining your capacity to fact-check and sift and evaluate information and your independence of mind. Solidity and steadfastness are key to resistance, and clarity, about who you are and what you believe. Principles are contagious, and though we need direct and dramatic action, the catalytic power of myriad people standing on principle and living by facts matters too. It means holding yourself and those around you to high standards not only of truth but of accuracy.
Equality is also a weapon against lies. Harvey Weinstein could assault dozens of women because they were not equal to him, in power or in the ability to determine reality. Accountability is a system in which no one is too powerful to answer to others’ versions. If the privilege of dictating leads to dictatorship, then the obligation to be accountable leads to its opposite. Producing that accountability even on a small scale—with police watchdog groups, with support for this victim of sexual assault or that target of racism, with fact-checking and a commitment to accuracy even in your personal conversations—is resistance that matters. The job before us now is to produce it on a national and international scale, with a force that cannot be overcome by lies.
July 17, 2018