Truth (and Big Lies)

Reality? The Manukau Harbour

The big lie. The big steal. For months now I have been down the rabbit hole of US politics.

I have always been a student of the US. From my childhood home just 12 miles from the border I have watched that place with horror and amazement for all my life. In 2019 while visiting a friend I watched MSNBC, a US tv ‘all news all the time’ channel for the first time. The invention of the 24 / 7 news services (CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC) in the early years of the new millenium changed the news and arguably politics. With a form of sport casting breathless presentation of events the viewer becomes involved in the struggle. At times merely watching is exhausting. The talking heads look good, sound good and, if I am on the right station, explain why I am so caught up in the story. They explain but cannot tell me how the story will end. So I have to keep tuning in. I have faith that they will let me know the outcome (whatever that might be) as soon as they can but in the meantime they are standing by to update me.

And over the last few months with Trump messing up the usual story, anticipation was almost unbearable – waiting for November 3 was like waiting for Christmas. But then that wasn’t the end of the story. Because of the BIG LIE. Trump refused to accept defeat. And so the story kept on going. With all of his tweeting, the tension kept building. Like the big guy said – January 6 – it will be wild. And it was!!!

At least Lewis Carroll didn’t pretend that Alice’s adventures were true. The Big Lie is true in the sense that it is true that it is a lie and that it is big in that it is not an easy statement about reality to believe. The Big Lie, by definition, is not true. It neither corresponds nor reflects reality. The Big Lie is not, however, simply an untruth. It is a social phenomena of incredible power.

The phrase, the Big Lie, is attributed to Adolf Hitler “to describe the use of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously” []. Hitler’s fabricated reality was based on antisemetic tropes. According to Hitler’s Big Lie, Germany was not defeated in WWI but rather was forced or persuaded to surrender by powerful Jews who were conspiring to destroy the German people. Feeding on existing antisemitism and extraordinary economic hardship, this Big Lie festered for ten to fifteen years, gained political traction amongst 30 to 40% of Germans and exploded into the Third Reich’s murderous regime of extermination. Like the ancient Blood Libel [], Hitler’s claims were ridiculous fantasy. It is not clear whether he even believed them to be true. The point though was that enough Germans believed and used this belief to justify murdering millions of people. Like the Salem witch trials hundreds of years earlier, fantastical stories built on lies fed mass hysteria and the unspeakable cruelty of the mob. What is true is that Big Lies can destroy many lives – the lives of those who believe as well as the lives of those targeted by falsehoods. Truth matters.

There are many big lies – some like smoking tobacco is good for your health – have been debunked by science but others – like the unregulated market provides economic efficiency – are harder to dispute. To a certain extent the problems are metaphysical – what is reality? How do we know what we know? And what are the limits to knowledge. Philosophy, ontology, epistemology and even religion enter the mix. So it goes – those interested in the issues keep talking while everyone else believes what their friends and families seem to believe. Fantasy, delusion, and ignorance shape politics.

The Big Lie in US politics is, of course, Trump’s victory. The election was stolen. There was fraud on a massive scale. And so on.

While it is not hard to find folks who believe that US politics are corrupt. Money buys power. No questions. But the election in 2020 seems to have been one of the better run affairs in many years. No evidence of election irregularities, let alone massive vote rigging, was presented to the American people.  Over 60 judges, some Trump appointees, threw out legal challenges to the election results for want of any proof of electoral misdeeds.  Most observers agree that the official result reflects the will of the majority of voters. Millions more Americans voted for Biden than for Trump – not that this matters in the US Presidential election – but it does support his legitimacy.  Biden also received more votes in places that mattered – in swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia.   Biden won the Electoral College vote and the Presidency.  The truth is Biden won.

The Big lie is that Trump was robbed. The problem the US has right now is that the truth must win out. For if the Big Lie is allowed to fester – it will continue to justify many evil deeds.