From time to time our nation experiences great loss. Think 9/11. Think Katrina. Think the assassination of JFK. Most such occasions are sudden, dramatic, explosive. We are stunned into silence and lean toward each other, huddling together for comfort, for confirmation, for consolation. Such losses bring us together.
Today, we face an equally devastating loss. Unlike other devastating losses, however, this one is coming upon us gradually, quietly, stealthily, cunningly, making off with one of our greatest treasures. And this loss is tearing us apart.
The treasure now disappearing from our common life is respect for the truth.
And in its place has emerged a sadistic delight in spreading The Big Lie.
What else could possibly account for the persistent reinforcement of blatant untruths and smarmy innuendo now poisoning cyberspace? How else to account for the umpteenth lurid e-mail repeating the falsehood that Barack Obama can’t produce a valid U.S. birth certificate? How else to account for the durability of any of the other dozen toxic e-mails that circulate endlessly despite the fact two minutes’ research on the internet reveals them as nothing but rancid baloney?
Now, I know enough history and have studied enough political campaigns to understand that ugly attacks and blatant distortion of opponents’ records are a longstanding tactic employed by office-seekers. All’s fair in love, war, and politics, it seems. So a couple of months of malarkey swirls around just before an election to befuddle the gullible, voters do their best to sort out the truth, cast their ballots, and then it’s back to normalcy. Those elected commence governing together—the minority settling into a combination of cooperation and “loyal opposition”—and the rest of us go back to work. So, isn’t all of today’s mudslinging just more good fun, keeping a grand old American tradition alive?
Alas, it seems not. For one thing, it’s not a transient pre-election phenomenon any more. This is a 24/7/365/perpetual campaign that toxifies the national atmosphere non-stop. For another, it’s no longer just a game played by candidates and their handlers. Now, thanks to the ubiquity of the internet and e-mail, everyone can play. The spread of disinformation and outright lies whirls through cyberspace at the speed of light, literally. Ironically, many of these blatantly false messages feature a reassurance automatically affixed at the bottom of the e-mail page by some filter that screened it en route from the sender to me: “No virus was found in this message.”
It’s all virus. All the time. And the virus is killing us. Every time someone forwards a message designed to breed fear or contempt or mistrust, the sender gets sicker and the recipients get infected. Every time a forwarder is too lazy (or intentionally dishonest) to check the veracity of such a message by logging onto www. snopes.com or some similar internet lie detector, the disease spreads. And every time a recipient fails to challenge the sender to cease and desist the contagion, our integrity as individuals and as a society dies a little more.
In today’s world of viral communications, one day that integrity will be diseased beyond recovery. Perhaps soon. As with bodily infections, there surely must be a point at which the disease is simply too widespread, too toxic, too lethal for vital organs to survive. And then the loss becomes incalculable.
There was a time when only those who lacked education or were congenitally gullible fell victim to death by deception. But the poison-pen e-mails I get today come from very well educated people who, for whatever reason, deliberately choose to behave as uneducable. And by promulgating hateful lies they have chosen not to investigate and dismiss, they lose any claim to our respect.
To make matters worse, many imagine themselves as high-minded patriots, electronic Paul Reveres, spamming out warnings of the death knell of our nation. In the ultimate irony, they seem ignorant of the fact that their false warnings are themselves the principal agent of communal death now abroad in the land.
There is a world of difference between “loyal opposition” and “treason”. One quails at the prospect of ever applying the label “traitor” to any fellow citizen. Yet it is all I can do to resist sometimes, when considering both the intent and the effect of those who fill our common life with blatant lies spread for no purpose other than to promote the failure of our elected officials and destruction of our national unity.
By contrast, the hallmark of America’s tradition of “loyal opposition” is speaking a purportedly higher truth, accompanied by constructive criticism that offers an alternative, presumably superior, course of action to fulfill America’s greatness. Anyone who circulates material failing to meet that noble standard must ask themselves what label they deserve.