Q: Who the…? How..? What can we…?
A: I know, I know.
My friends have been doing a lot of sputtering lately. I hear a lot of half-finished sentences, a lot of questions trailing off into incredulous silence. Someone seems to have taken the cosmic dial marked “absurdity” and cranked it all the way to the right. What can those of us still grounded in reality do about it?
It’s a tough time to be a word person.
With people doubting even long-established facts, the very building blocks of a wordsmith’s trade threaten to become meaningless. It’s as if someone decided that instead of making bricks out of stone—or whatever bricks are made of—we’ll now make them out of papier-mâché and pretend it’s the same thing.
You can stand there shouting about engineering and the immutable laws of nature until you’re blue in the face. But you’re not going to reach the people who’ve decided that facts don’t matter. Until, perhaps, their papier-mâché chimneys go up in smoke.
Oh, who am I kidding? When that happens, they’ll just blame the logs.
If it seems like the world has turned upside down, that’s only because it has. Or it’s well on its way. And so I’m reminded that the song the British played when they finally surrendered to George Washington’s army was called “The World Turned Upside Down.” That feeling of unreality marked the start of our nation; I hope it doesn’t also mark the end of it.
[Speaking of pesky facts: Wikipedia says this story may be apocryphal, as there’s no contemporary evidence of what music was played.]
I’ve just started reading Neil Gaiman’s essay collection, The View from the Cheap Seats. His 2013 essay called “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” offered lots of prescient advice:
“There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a postliterate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but these days, those noises are gone: words are more important than they ever were.”
Why? Because “We navigate the world with words” and
“People who cannot understand each other cannot communicate.”
I soon proved that point myself.
My Breakfast With a Racist
On my way home from church on Sunday, I took myself out to brunch at my favorite local diner. That’s where I met the racist. Well, “met” in the sense that he popped up in my Facebook feed. Since I was reading the Gaiman book on my phone, I saw the notification at once. And I was in the mood to ask questions.
Yesterday, an acquaintance of mine posted the Washington Post article about the Trump Administration having “fired” the head of the DC National Guard, effective the moment Trump is sworn in. While we were collectively scratching our heads about why anyone would fire a security professional in the middle of a high-security event, someone on the thread commented that “everyone knows” the Washington Post is “fake news.”
In the past, I’ve avoided engaging in political debates with people I don’t know. But not talking doesn’t get us closer to a solution. So I decided to try something: I asked a question:
“I’m just wondering—honestly wondering—what causes you to think the Washington Post is ‘fake news.’ The paper has been around for well over a century and has a distinguished history of reporting, including 47 Pulitzer prizes. I’m not being snarky or sarcastic. I would truly like to know what qualities convince you that a news source is accurate and what convinces you that a source is fake. Thanks.”
Sadly, I never got an answer. Today someone else started up on the same thread, refuting the claim that Breitbart is a “white supremacist” news organization. He asked for examples of white supremacist content and people obliged by posting links some of the vilest racist screeds on the site. Still he insisted they weren’t “white supremacist.”
It seemed another question was in order. I posted, “Perhaps we should ask you for your definition of ‘white supremacist.'”
“A white supremacist is someone who believes whites are superior to the other races, and should therefore rule. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood is probably the most famous white supremacist in US history.”
So in his definition it’s okay to deny civil rights to black people, LGBT people, people of different religions…as long as you don’t also believe “whites are superior to the other races, and should therefore rule.”
And notice how he tried to pivot the conversation to an entirely different topic—Margaret Sanger’s racism. He later tried to paint the entire Planned Parenthood organization as being as reprehensibly racist as its long-dead founder. See this NPR “fact check” for the, well, facts.
Well, I suppose there are parallels. The original Mr. Breitbart is dead, and by some accounts his organization has become even more reprehensible than he was. This article in the Los Angeles Times last summer quoted a former Breitbart editor:
Breitbart’s chairman, Steve Bannon, has turned the site “into Trump’s personal Pravda,” editor at large Ben Shapiro, who is based in Los Angeles, said in a statement on his resignation. “Andrew built his life and his career on one mission: fight the bullies. In my opinion, Steve Bannon is a bully, and has sold out Andrew’s mission in order to back another bully, Donald Trump.”
Watch for the pivot
But the larger point is the pivot: When I (and others) tried to hold the poster account for Breitbart’s corrosive racism, he pivoted to attack Planned Parenthood. What does one have to do with the other?
Even if—for the sake of argument—Sanger had been a racist and Planned Parenthood continued to support that world view lo these many decades later…that has absolutely nothing to do with Breitbart publishing white supremacist-leaning
“fake news”—seriously, let’s just call it what it is: propaganda.
I commented that many people in the past held reprehensible views but I’m more concerned with people in the present trying to shove their reprehensible views into our laws and institutions. He countered with more arguments about Planned Parenthood “targeting” black neighborhoods.
I’m afraid this story doesn’t have a happy ending, dear Reader. Despite my best efforts , I was never able to initiate a dialogue with the racist. I learned nothing about how we can help reunite people with the truth.
When I left the conversation the racist was still wedded to his propaganda sites (CNS news among them), still dismissive of the reputable news organizations (like NPR) I offered in return, still completely blind to the way his own white privilege skewed his worldview.
The right’s propaganda machine digests crumbs of facts and turns them into piles of manure. How do we convince distrustful people that the media sources they trust are actually feeding them a load of crap? If our only tool is words, I’m not sure we can. But we can’t give up, either.
The best we can do
Keep asking questions and keep telling the truth. Always go to primary source documents. Don’t just accept someone’s interpretation of a report—read the report yourself. That way you’ll be able to see how the “news source” has edited or twisted it to suit its own agenda.
And watch out for the pivot, friends, because it means you’ve cornered the other person, used up all of his flimsy arguments. If all else fails, keep reminding them of that.