In this, the Information Age, truth was supposed to be the great product of the times. Spread at the speed of light, and majestically transparent, the world of irrefutable truth was supposed to be available at the click of a key.
The internet was to be like “Guinness World Records,” conceived by Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of the Guinness Brewery, when he missed a shot while bird hunting in Ireland in 1951. This resulted in an argument between him and his hosts about the fastest game bird in Europe, the golden plover (which he missed) or the red grouse. The idea for a reference book which would settle that sort of thing was born — and which could help promote Guinness and settle barroom disputes.
The first edition was published as “The Guinness Book of Records” in 1955 and was an instant bestseller. You might have thought there was a thirst for truth as well as beer.
Despite the Supreme Court’s repeated rejection of any suggestion that the presidential election of 2020 was fraudulent and that it wasn’t won by Joe Biden, the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has called a rare special session of the Texas legislature to pass a restrictive voting package that will likely include the power for the legislature to overturn any election result it deems fraudulent.
This is happening across Republican-controlled states. They are ready to fix something big that isn’t broken.
Abbott has called the special session because the Texas legislature — thanks to the Democrats denying him quorum in a parliamentary procedure — didn’t get what amounts to a rollback of democracy in the regular session. Second time lucky.
What these Republicans are doing is equivalent to forcing men to wear blinders so they don’t stare at naked women on our streets, even though there are no naked women on our streets. Better be sure.
Behind all this refutation of truth is the Big Lie. It is promoted, cherished, and burnished by former President Donald Trump and those who swallowed his brand of fact-free ideology. The Big Lie is with us and will cast its shadow of pernicious doubt over future elections down through time. The loser will cry fraud and state lawmakers will, under the new scheme of things, be entitled to overturn election results, violating the will of the people to serve their own political goals.
Mark Twain wrote a short essay in 1880 entitled “On the Decay of the Art of Lying.” If Twain were alive today, he might be tempted to retitle his work “The Ascent of the Art of Lying.”
The extraordinary thing about the Big Lie is its blatancy; the fact that it has been found untrue by the courts and by every investigation, yet it rolls on like the Mississippi, unyielding to fact, unimpeded by truth.
The Big Lie is an avalanche of political desire over democratic fact. It introduces corrosive doubt where there is no justification. It is a virus in the body politic that may go dormant but won’t be eradicated. The host body, democracy, is weakened and the infection can flare at any time, triggered by political ambition.
Historically, there have been primary sources of information and tertiary sources of doubt or refutation. For example, some believed the oil companies were sitting on a gasoline substitute that would convert water to fuel. That is a falsehood that has been spread since the internal combustion engine created a need for gasoline. It was believed by a few conspiracy theorists and laughed off by most people.
When the fax machine came into being in the mid-1970s, there were those who thought that the Saudi Arabian regime would fall because information about liberal society was getting into the country. Instead, Saudi conservatism hardened and there was no great liberalization. Today Saudis are online and there is no uprising, no government in exile, no large expatriate community seeking change. Truth hasn’t overwhelmed belief.
It is an awful truism that people believe what they want to believe, even if that requires the suppression of logic and the overthrow of fact. Gradually all facts become suspect, and the lie fights hand to hand with the truth.
As newspaper people joke, “Don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story.” Democracy isn’t a good story; it is the great story of human governance. And it is being subverted by lies.