Once upon a time, there was an established order to things. People with large brains and the ability to distill reams of complex information with dexterity and ease were assigned leadership roles. Scientists, doctors, teachers, writers and so on. But somewhere an inversion occurred, and professional liars came to power.
I have a theory about when exactly this happened. I date it from the 1980 American election, when Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were vying for the U.S. presidency. I was inexplicably obsessed with the election for my entire year in Grade 7. I remember feeling completely assured that there was no way the American people would elect some third-rate actor for their highest office. Turns out I was wrong. Even as a child, my first thought when the election results came down was, “What the f**k!?”
I have been repeating that experience ever since. The question of how woefully unqualified folk keep getting elected is a weird one, surpassing international boundaries and generational shifts. Old Ronnie Reagan turned out to be a most adept fabricator, maintaining that he wasn’t fully aware that the U.S. was trading arms for hostages in the infamous Iran-Contra scandal.
The former president’s denial was a bit of masterful soft-shoe shuffle: “A few months ago I told the American people that I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.”
Actors deal in fantasy, which usually works out for a while. Well, actually it’s still working out pretty well. But maybe the tables have finally turned on the lying liars and the lies they tell.
When U.S. top doctor Anthony Fauci finally snapped after being grilled by the likes of Republican Sen. Roger Marshall for hours, he spoke for many exasperated people when he got caught on a hot mic saying, “What a moron! Jesus Christ.” Like most rational creatures, being subjected to a barrage of non-stop misinformation was enough to send him around the bend.
So why are the hardened bullshitters so widespread at the moment? Perhaps because doing the work of governing, science and education is hard, whereas making shit up is easy and fun, if you’re built that way. It’s also been wildly successful.
Even if you get caught, and then caught again, the strategy seems to be to keep lying, but make it bigger. No, even bigger than that! Make it a towering colossus of lies, a teetering spire of falsehoods to tickle the very vault of heaven. Once you reach the top, sprinkle on some more for good measure.
But the mighty edifice might finally be in dangers of toppling. The likes of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the creep formerly known as Prince Andrew, and even Doug Ford and his ridiculous Barbie-sized snow shovel have been called out. Women are also being held accountable for making shit up; Marjorie Taylor Moron got bounced from Twitter and many people heaved a great sigh of relief.
So can you only fool the people for so long before they begin to get wise to the ruse? Perhaps, but don’t get too excited just yet. Waiting in the wings is probably a whole new crop of better fabricators, fabulists, marketing professionals, whatever you want to call them.
The last batch — Boris, Donald, Randy Andy — weren’t even particularly good at it, and they pretty much romped along without many repercussions at all. So, we might want to learn how to sort the factions of fictionalizers before they regain an even tighter grip on power.
Truly great liars are probably never caught, or if they are, they can be resurrected by the blinding application of more lies. Putin and Stalin are a case-in-point. There are even people saying well, perhaps there are positive aspects to Hitler that we overlooked.
Why is it that when the stakes are so high, people will vote for leaders who can’t or won’t separate fact from fiction? The old Spiderman saw that “with great power comes great responsibility” comes to mind. But when super villains are running the show, that notion goes sailing out the window, trailing a long cartoon “AIEEEEEEEE!!!!” behind it.
Comfortable lies are easier to take than harsh truths. But at some point, you would think that enough would be enough, and the sheer insult of being misled time and time again would get up people’s noses.
But if you live within lies long enough, it’s like jumping up and down in a muddy pond. It gets harder to discern what's really going on down there in the muck.
Clarity requires time, calm and stillness, and there’s not a great deal of that in the political or cultural realm. Or anywhere.
The entire point of social media is to keep people angry about being lied to, even as they’re on a platform whose stock and trade is falsehood unchecked. Meta-mendacity, if you will. In the midst of all this sound and fury — clicking and scrolling in search of evidence of large-scale conspiracies — more homely fictions are taking place. Boring stuff like eliminating voting drop-boxes, making it more difficult to cast an absentee ballot.
In Salon, author Arnold R. Isaacs resurrected an essay from 2018 about the power of lies to add what he learned since then. It’s not good.
Isaacs asserts it’s actually a whole lot easier now to tell ongoing massive fibs and simply get away with it, in part because of a more crowded and chaotic media landscape, and perhaps because lying doesn’t carry the tinge of mortal sin anymore. It’s just the cost of doing business.
But the large-scale effect of lying is cumulative and corrosive. Battery acid for the soul, drip dripping away until it wears a hole where one’s conscience should be. How else to explain the systematic dismantling of things we supposedly hold dear, like democracy?
Isaacs writes: “When people like a politician’s lies better than they like the truth, it’s tough to change their minds, and even after lies are proven false, they can remain a powerful force in public life.”
When leaders have finally and irretrievably lost the faith of the people, whether it’s in politics, education, health care or other positions of authority, what then?
I’m not going to lie. Historically, it’s not good, by which I mean horrendous. Populist leaders, massive suffering and a couple of world wars. In the face of this, whether we humans can change our habit of deception remains uncertain, even if everything depends upon it.
To mangle T.S. Eliot’s immortal line, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whopper.
Read more: Politics