When I was a kid, there was a common schoolyard taunt—“It’s a free country!”—usually uttered when one had been caught out doing something that was wrong, bad, stupid, not done, beyond the pale, going to get one in trouble. It was meant to be a defense, a staving-off of criticism.
Last week I read a comment on a New York Times story. Seems there is a right-wing meme going around that Obama’s mother-in-law gets an enormous pension because she watched the girls while he was in the White House.1 When the commenter informed his poorly informed social media friend that this myth had been debunked, the friend replied, “This is America and you can believe what you want.”
Actually … that’s not a good idea, but it is, in fact, what seems to be happening. Americans who haven’t had to exercise their brains since they left high school have lost their ability to think critically. And then when confronted with all this evidence of their poor choices (All. This. News.) they cry, “This is America and you can believe what you want!”
Or “fake news.” Or, simply … “I disagree.”
One reads that polls are showing our *president’s approval ratings dropping. But not among his hardcore base of supporters. About Donald Jr.’s release of incriminating email, the Washington Post reported,
The Gallup Poll’s tracker has found Trump’s approval among Republicans steady, since February, at 85 percent. Last week, before the new email was revealed, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found 73 percent of Republicans unwilling to believe that the president had colluded with Russia; just 4 percent said he might have done so illegally. …
For many conservatives, the rumble of scandal news on CNN, MSNBC and national newspapers is easily dismissed. On conservative media, from Reddit to Fox News, the story has largely been covered as a conspiracy theory. Monday night’s prime time shows on Fox, which ran after the contents of the email had been reported by the New York Times, largely covered the story as a sideshow.
It’s astonishing to me, but otherwise intelligent people—people known to me personally!—are desperate, it seems, to believe this is all nothing, while my bullshit detector has been going off like our NOAA weather radio during tornado season—loudly and often.
I’ve got an old friend who used to like me until he realized I was a Democrat. He disagrees with my point of view, of course, even though I’m careful to stick to the facts. But a few days ago I realized the basis of our entire problem in seven words. He posted, on Facebook, an opinion piece from a far-right website. (I’m not going to link to it.) And I commented:
“This article is devoid of facts.”
To which he replied, “I disagree.” Ah. The It’s a Free Country Defense.
This article—which could best be described as hate-filled vitriol—was full of lies, kernels of truth twisted to impugn “libtards,” and only looked back in time (Obama, Clinton) to place blame for All This [Current, Bad] News, rather than looking at the source of it.
Your facts are suspect, my friend told me, because he knows I’m a Democrat and thus—because he believes what websites like Breitbart, Right Wing News, Daily Wire2 and uncountable others say about people like me—I am anti-American, Not Good People, and so on.
It’s OK to have differing opinions, I told him, but your facts still need to be, you know, facts. (The devil on my right shoulder reminds me: this is America, and he can believe what he wants. The angel on my left says if we reason together like sane humans, perhaps he will listen.)
I suggest a thought experiment: substitute “trump” for “Obama” in this opinion piece; would he still believe it as truth? Or would he then call it fake or biased? He’s drawn to articles like this because they confirm his bias and because he doesn’t like the actual news he’s hearing right now. He’s admitted as much: All This News about Russian hackers and spies is making him nervous. He’s been “researching” it, but only within his own bubble.
But when I tell him he should trust the American press—the press that hires actual, college-trained journalists3—he stops me. These are my facts.
At this point I realized I’m an idiot to continue to respond but I did anyway. I’m an editor; he knows this. As a professional editor, I told him,
I would never let you cite this article to prove a point in your manuscript about the American press because it’s so clearly slanted and uses inflammatory language. And, again, because it is an opinion piece, not reportage, though it leaves that distinction up to the reader.4 And I’m not saying that because of my politics. For twenty-five years I’ve worked in the Christian industry, twenty of them in the Christian book-publishing industry, which tends to be deeply conservative, so the nonfiction books I have worked on have been deeply conservative (look at my website and you’ll understand this; I have a portfolio). And yet these publishers hire me over and over and over. Why? Because I am a professional, ethical editor who does not allow her politics to interfere with her work. Because I use my professional knowledge and understanding of the way words work to protect their authors from leaving themselves open to the sort of criticism I am leveling here, while still saying in their books things I often disagree with. Because I make sure the publisher is not going to have to remove already-printed books from circulation because of something stupid and potentially subject to litigation discovered inside them. It is possible for a person to be ethical and still know her business. So when I say this article is absent facts, it isn’t because of politics, it’s because I’ve done my research.
My friend said he’s not interested in research, particularly. The This Is America And You Can Believe What You Want Defense.
I have spent hours and hours over the last months responding patiently to my friend on Facebook. Sometimes he asks me to tell him why I believe what I believe. Sometimes he leaves a snarky (or fact-free) comment about something I’ve posted, and I respond with as much sanity as I can muster while resisting the urge to do otherwise. Now I feel as if he is simply disgusted by me and has been trying to trip me up or reveal me as misguided and/or stupid.
So I told him,
If you can’t or won’t trust the institution of the established American press (the ethical kind that labels some pieces “opinion” and keeps the op-ed pieces separate from articles that report current events) … if you can’t or won’t trust the institutions of the American legal system (when both the unfettered press and the rule of law are specifically provided for in our Constitution!); if you can’t or won’t trust the institution of the American intelligence community (which has been diligently tracking the events of the current situation for some years, even when it didn’t know enough to connect the dots), then I think we have nothing left to say. I’m truly sorry.
We leave it there, aside from my parting shot: I don’t care if you’re partisan.5 I do care if you’re repeating lies.
The current *president has declared in many tweets that the so-called mainstream media (those institutions I’ve mentioned) is the enemy of the American people. But aside from the fact that this is how fascists get their start (discrediting the press, then declaring it the enemy, then taking it over so there is only one message, and so on), American patriots—those of us who were raised to respect this country and still believe in its ideals—should know that the Founding Fathers felt the press was so important they called it out in the First Amendment. No, the press is not an enemy of the American people.
What is the enemy of the American people is fake news, pseudo news, heavily slanted news like InfoWars, Breitbart, and on and on. Fox Not-News. It’s created a subgroup of people who are uninformed, brainwashed, intellectually lazy and uncurious … and like my friend, they actually believe the mainstream media are lying to them, when in fact it is “their own people” who are keeping the truth from them.
I know I’m repeating myself here, but it’s true: it’s fine to have differing opinions but facts are facts. It would behoove the electorate to learn how to discern them.
Well, it’s a free country, right? At least for a little longer.
• • •
The Constitution specifically selected the press, which includes not only newspapers, books, and magazines, but also humble leaflets and circulars, to play an important role in the discussion of public affairs. Thus the press serves and was designed to serve as a powerful antidote to any abuses of power by governmental officials and as a constitutionally chosen means for keeping officials elected by the people responsible to all the people whom they were selected to serve. Suppression of the right of the press to praise or criticize governmental agents and to clamor and contend for or against change, which is all that this editorial did, muzzles one of the very agencies the Framers of our Constitution thoughtfully and deliberately selected to improve our society and keep it free.
—Justice Hugo L. Black, in Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214 (1966)
• • •
1 Sometimes the people who make this stupid stuff up don’t really think it through. If she’d actually been put on the government payroll, there would have been universal outrage among the wingnuts long ago. But then even as I was writing this, I was introduced to another wingnut theory that claims the Obamas borrowed children from another couple in order to get elected. Because Michelle is a man, apparently. Because there are no photos of her pregnant. (Um, there are no extant photos of me pregnant either.) That I have not seen this stuff up till now is an indication of the sheltered life I lead. 🙂
2 It’s actually Daily Wire whose op-ed pieces he was posting. They are truly astonishing to someone like me who only reads establishment press—hate-filled and vitriolic, with lots of “they do this, they do that” meant to be divisive, to push the reader into outrage against “them,” who happens to be me. My friend is mild-mannered but I suspect this anger is how he actually feels. And not just my friend! Lots of people. It’s kind of scary.
3 Regardless of what you think about the mainstream press and its college-educated journalists, I believe it is genuinely trying to do a fair job of reporting the news, unlike the partisan press (Breitbart et al), which calls its output “news,” but which is actually propaganda. Although my friend has a college degree himself, he’s been brainwashed by this right-wing media to think colleges are bastions of liberal professors who are out to brainwash the innocent children of good Republicans and turn them into (shriek) liberals. (Yeah, but it’s a liberal arts school, right?) No, I tell him, they’re just trying to teach kids critical thinking, logic and reasoning, to be intellectually well-rounded, and so on.
4 The Post, the NYT, and other reputable news sources clearly label opinion as such.
5 I was raised to believe two heads are better than one, that we need a conservative opinion at the negotiating table alongside the progressive opinion.
UPDATE: On the afternoon I posted this (23 July 2017), Jim Wright—a political analyst and top-notch bullshit detector, posted on Facebook: “New White House Communication director Tony Scaramucci said neither he nor Donald Trump accept the US Intelligence Community’s assessment that Russia attempted to interfere in the presidential election. The President of the United States of America, rejects the assessment of the United States Intelligence Community.” This is precisely the This Is America And You Can Believe What You Want Defense I cited earlier. Trump doesn’t like the assessment of his intelligence sector, so he’s going to disagree, and then try to discredit it.
UPDATE 2: It’s still interesting, even if Scaramucci only lasted ten days in the job. Ha.