If there is human life one hundred years from now, and analysts refer to our time, it may well be dubbed the Age of Lies like the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. Going much farther back into the mist of prehistory, they may call it the Period of Lies, like the Cretaceous or Jurassic. Of course for this to happen those analysts would have to retain some understanding of what constitutes truth and how to sort impressive advertising from what really was. This may be difficult because lies beget lies and the habit of truth is (sometimes permanently) eroded.
Even today, as we simultaneously read or listen to descriptions of our lives that we know are patently untrue, even as we live an utterly different reality, our actions too often demonstrate a tendency to believe what is said or written about us rather than trust and defend our own experience.
From the distance of time, an appraisal will be more difficult.
One important thing to understand about lies is that power perpetrates and protects them. When power is curbed, we have far fewer lies.
Let’s look at some examples. I will limit myself to the United States, although this society clearly is not unique in its ability to deceive.
Take such a basic issue as income inequality. There’s the well-worn lie that anyone who works hard can succeed. If you’re poor it is because you are lazy. These days even the once middle-class now knows this is not true. Literally every minute the obscenely wealthy have more and the poor less. This week a statistic flitted across our nightly news: by 2016 the world’s richest 1% will have more than the remaining 99%. But we don’t need statistics (too often lies themselves) to show us what is happening. The pain is palpable.
Every politician promises to redress this injustice in some way or another and almost all of them lie when elucidating their positions. Liberals offer vague plans; conservatives rail against “class warfare.” Those who aspire to political office promise to create jobs, punish some of those “too big to fail,” redesign our tax system or close its obvious loopholes, attract business, or any one of a dozen other misleading proposals. Those who show themselves to be dismissive of the poor are publicly criticized, those with the most inclusive rhetoric applauded. Meanwhile, income disparity grows and the jobs that are created pay less and come with fewer benefits. Only 3.8% of American workers are unionized today, and a thousand schemes are cover-ups for the fact that the rich continue to stockpile money to the detriment of those whose labor creates it.
Within this panorama, all sorts of subsidiary inequities continue to exist and deepen. Women earn 77 cents for every dollar made by a man and their “invisible” labor in the home remains unpaid. Minority populations (some of which will soon be majority) continue to earn less and have more restricted access to the higher-level positions. Public education becomes less relevant, and outlandishly expensive private schools train new generations of moneyed leaders, who will have learned to lie with more sophistication. Those most affected often vote for those whose policies are least concerned with their interests—because the lies are presented with such apparent conviction. And the lies continue to accrue. Have you ever wondered why Social Security is called an entitlement, when it is money we ourselves have earned through years of work?
Almost every politician, independent of the political party to which he or she belongs, devises clever ways of talking about these problems. Every one of them promises change. Once in office, campaign promises are forgotten, and the nature of the US political structure makes compliance all but impossible. The lies have unfolded bit by bit, until the public doesn’t know what to think. Complicated studies, statistics, polls, and advertising campaigns weave a fabric dishonest but convincing. No wonder so many are disinterested in voting, when flagrant lies and obscene amounts of money so clearly determine the outcome of elections.
Another area rife with lies is the population’s health and wellbeing. We currently have a president whose greatest effort has been to reform our healthcare system. While it is true that President Obama’s healthcare initiative has provided access to several million previously uninsured Americans, forcing many to buy into a program they cannot afford, the truth is a reform which includes those elements most responsible for profiting on pain—the pharmaceutical and insurance companies—is doomed to mediocrity and subject to challenges.
The simple truth is that the United States has two healthcare programs that have proven their efficacy over the years: Medicare and The Veterans Health Administration. Both have problems, both could be streamlined and improved. But rather than model a system of universal healthcare on one of these largely successful plans, we have allowed our fabricated fear of “socialized medicine” to keep us on the profit-making road. Simply extending Medicare to every citizen, beginning at birth, would do the trick. We could pay for universal coverage by eliminating the overly complicated for-profit system in place today, with its mountain of paperwork and opportunity for graft.
The lie that has kept this from happening has been crafted over a generation or more. Insurers use the word choice to keep us believing we need them as middlemen. The pharmaceutical companies badger us with commercials in which the lies inherent are evidenced by their own long lists of possible side effects (often including death). I can remember a time when it was considered inappropriate for companies dealing in health, finance, or the law to advertise; they were expected to embody an integrity that held them to a higher standard. Today the lies have penetrated every arena.
A barrage of lies, blaming any perceived or real problem that exists in Canada, Great Britain or another country with universal coverage on a boogey man called socialized medicine, has been enough to keep US Americans from trying a system proven to deliver. Every office-seeker addresses this issue. The anti-Obama contingent has spent millions ridiculing his reform. And as it does, the bill itself is such a mishmash of half-measures and worrisome gaps that some of us are thoroughly exhausted by a battle based on subterfuge.
How to educate our children has descended into a similar morass of cover-up and deception. Following George W. Bush’s ill-conceived No Child Left Behind act, we hoped a new administration would seriously address an issue that has our nation ranking lower each year in its ability to teach its youngest members to think. But an over-emphasis on testing continues to hobble our educational system. New Mexico presents a particularly dramatic example. And, nationwide, we have had to deal with a lack of funding for our public schools, disrespect for our teachers, revisionist textbooks, attacks on ethnic studies programs, creationism posing as science, endemic bullying, campus killers, and so much more.
Here in New Mexico the odds are stacked against good education. Our state legislature just confirmed a Secretary of Education with neither experience nor expertise. Through both Martinez administrations, we have become accustomed to the burden of officials whose goals are subservient to the whims of a woman more interested in national name recognition than in alleviating the state’s profound problems. Could it be that we don’t want our young people to learn to think? If they did, they might expose the lies. Or are we really out to destroy a system of public education that, after all, was designed to give every child access to the truth? On March 2, 2015, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of New Mexico students walked out of their classrooms, protesting a particularly egregious mandated test called PARC. In most cases their parents supported the move. Despite all the power plays rigged against them, many are no longer willing to consume the lie.
In a similar vein, thousands of citizens have protested the Albuquerque Police Department’s rampage of shootings that, over the past ten years, have left 37 dead. The power wielded by a Mayor who stands by his Chief of Police no matter what, has so far managed to protect the renegade cops. But if we keep up our vigilance and oversight, I have no doubt that eventually we will be able to put a stop to the brutal policing that only gives our honest cops a bad name.
National Security has become another dangerous catchall for far too many political errors. It has shown itself to be the most effective way to keep every citizen afraid. Fear is absolutely the best way of keeping the lies afloat. The messages alternate: one moment there is “credible proof” of a new attack about to be unleashed, the next we are told not to worry; the illegal observation and search and seizure to which we are subject is keeping us safe. A state of continual tension, laced with racist profiling and a new tolerance for the use of lethal force on the part of our guardians of law and order, produces nothing more or less than bedlam, continuous war, illegal torture, “collateral damage” that no longer shocks a battered public sensibility, and a false sense of security.
And perhaps it is here, in the realm of national security, that we can most clearly see the ways in which the world of government is guided by different rules than those that control the individual; and where power determines who is punished and who made a national hero. I can remember a time when whistleblowers were honored for their courage, their words taken seriously. Now, if they threaten governmental or corporate business as usual, they are hunted down, called traitors, imprisoned or worse. Yet here, too, there is a glimmer of rebellion. This year’s Academy Awards judged Citizenfour, a film about Edward Snowden, the winning documentary.
Art often exposes the lies a system perpetrates.
I could make similar analogies about the corporate media, fossil fuels vs. sustainable energy, gun control (the NRA is a powerful liar), and payday loans—the list is almost endless. A misguided kid who holds up a gas station can still go to prison for years, while Martha Stewart serves a few months for white collar crime and then gets her television empire back. A major corporation is too big to fail, while an example is made of every individual caught.
The failure to hold major criminals accountable for their crimes—whether they are banks or individuals—also perpetuates this atmosphere of lies. When people cannot investigate those who have betrayed them, when they cannot try the guilty, decide on punishment and deal with loss, both personal and collective memory suffer. A nation unwilling to look honestly at its most egregious crimes and bring those responsible to justice allows its own history to become a lie.
And the lies become easier, more acceptable, more embedded in the national psyche.
What we have needed, since long before 9/11, is a truthful in-depth conversation about America’s role in the world, the ways in which our country has actually given birth to and armed some of the forces now aligned against us, and how a change of policy might lead to sustainable peace. We need an honest assessment of our own war crimes, even as we pontificate against those committed by others. Many nations—South Africa, Chile, Guatemala, Uruguay, Argentina, Peru, Bosnia, Rwanda to name just a few—have established peace and reconciliation commissions or tried those charged with atrocities. Testimony provides a measure of relief. Retribution and amnesty can move forward. This has allowed people to begin to replace the lies with truth. The United States needs to embark upon such a journey. Without it, memory cannot be made whole.
There is no doubt that the massive attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 were horrendous crimes, or that the terrorist beheadings of journalists and others are criminally insane acts. But waging war has never been the answer, and waging the sorts of wars through which the United States has chosen to retaliate has only made matters worse.
Human beings everywhere want the same things: dignity, freedom, food, shelter, work, health, a future. The first step on the road to these is truth: identifying the perpetrators (giving them first and last names, as sexual abuse survivors have learned to do), allowing the victimized to speak, and rewriting the Official Story. Only human exchange, on a level playing field, can make this dream reality. For the United States only humility and self-examination, not the continued bully stance, must be realistic first steps.
But humility and self-examination don’t go with the web of lies.
And today an even bigger, more urgent, issue demands our attention: global climate change and the rapid depletion of necessary resources such as clean water and air. Without a sustainable planet, income inequality, inadequate healthcare and broken education, even the ravages of violence and war, take second place.
Governments and international organizations have been talking about climate change for decades. But with rare exceptions, the issue has functioned as a political football more than as an implacable danger affecting us all. Science clearly shows that human-produced emissions are increasing the earth’s temperature, melting ice caps, causing mega-storms and raising sea levels to alarming degrees. In most discussions, the powerful are privileged and feel entitled. But despite their belief that their children and grandchildren will somehow escape a doomsday scenario, in the long run the powerful are as vulnerable as the powerless. The former will be able to hold out a bit longer. The latter will suffer first. We are talking about humanity here, and also about what humanity has produced: the great natural and human-made wonders, art and literature, music, scientific advances, knowledge and mystery. And we are talking about every animal, insect, and tree.
The stakes have never been higher.
And the lies have never been more expertly woven. So-called impartiality is the watchword of our time. Climate change deniers are given a place at the table alongside the scientists whose research warns of imminent danger; the myth of equal representation allows the lie of doubt to linger. Protecting power has become the mantra by which we live. The poor and disenfranchised are expendable.
A single lie, if well-constructed, often proves difficult to unravel. A web of lies, conceived, produced, and sustained by the most powerful governmental, military and corporate structures known to history, is much more complex and can be much more difficult to expose.
But not impossible.
Dictators, for a time all-powerful, have been defeated. Think of Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet, or Cheney. Small armies of brave resisters sacrificed everything to a cause they knew was urgent. Resisters attracted resisters. Good won over evil, the truth over the lie.
Authoritarian political systems have crumbled. The Catholic Church, with its untouchable Vatican, long condoned and protected an all-powerful hierarchy, the abuse of women and children, and a code of law aimed at controlling great numbers of faithful. A few courageous voices, many of them belonging to those women and children, initiated a struggle against the lie and today holds out hope for millions. We are witness to a slow but sure dismantling of criminal practice.
In all areas of human endeavor, determined thinkers and doers use education, organization, constitutional law, well-reasoned argument, and a truth that is easily recognizable to break through the façade of lies.
At the beginning of this piece I evoked an Age or Period of Lies, like the Age of Reason or the Jurassic Period. In times of extreme trauma, those who choose integrity are often motivated, among other things, by thinking about what they will be able to answer when their children ask them what they did when the great lie threatened life. What will be said about our era if we are not able, as a people, to stand up to those who are destroying us?
Change happens when someone, anyone, decides enough is enough, and takes the first step. Change happens when someone dares to point out that the emperor isn’t wearing anything. And others notice—perhaps a few at first, then many, and then many more.