Lies can price lives. Our deceitful and dishonest political tradition wants to alter.
We live in a time of history that requires clear, honest and scientifically sound answers to existential threats like the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. But as great as the need is, we see so many instances where elected officials and policy makers fail to adequately address the great challenges of our time. We see that science gives us answers and approaches, but all too often these lifelines are brushed aside or ignored. Too often our elected officials fail us by evoking artful ingratiation and dishonesty about real solutions.
I was honored to serve in Congress and then to become Chancellor – and now President – of my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts. In government and higher education, I have been guided by Robert F. Kennedy’s belief that the meaning of life is to help make the world a better place in meaningful ways. Today I believe that it is more important than ever that we pursue policies and actions that we know are in the public interest and are based on fact. Too much is at stake to do anything else.
We see that science gives us answers and approaches, but all too often these lifelines are brushed aside or ignored.
We have been taught the meaning of the truth from our earliest days. The Bible tells us: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”, and the Prophet Muhammad urged us to “tell the truth, even if it is bitter”. Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, remarked, “This is a moral universe and one has to take into account the fact that truth and lies and goodness and evil are things that matter.” Finally, the preamble claims one of America’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence , the existence of essential, “self-evident” truths.
People have never fully embraced the concept of telling the truth, which can be painful, uncomfortable, and embarrassing. In her book Democracy and Truth: A Short History, Sophia Rosenfeld, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that the relationship between democracy and truth has always been troubled. But she also writes that the “crisis of truth” that we see today exceeds everything that has existed before. There is a new willingness to turn the truth on its head and wield the weapon of deception whenever it suits.
There is a new willingness to turn the truth on its head and wield the weapon of deception whenever it suits.
Let’s just say the name: Donald Trump. In any discussion of a post-factual world and a new willingness to accept fraud as the modus operandi, our former president is the proverbial £ 800 gorilla. According to the Washington Post’s fact checker team, Mr Trump uttered 30,573 falsehoods during his presidency – an average of 21 falsehoods a day. While Mr Trump’s deceptions came in all shapes and sizes, he will be particularly remembered for his claim that the 2020 elections were stolen.
No matter how tall Mr. Trump is, it may be painful to hear that it’s not just about him. As Andrew Higgins noted in the New York Times earlier this year, “Lying as a political tool is hardly new.” And the political right has no monopoly on deception. Glenn Kessler, who has headed the fact checker team since 2011, told an interviewer: “Both parties will manipulate the truth if they believe it will give them a political advantage.”
Surely other American presidents have lied. Lyndon Johnson spread so much disinformation about the Vietnam War that journalists invented a new term and said the president had a “credibility gap”. Richard Nixon assured the nation that no member of his government was connected to the Watergate burglary. And Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a false statement to the public that a plane shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 was conducting “weather research”. The United States eventually had to acknowledge that the U-2 aircraft was on a spy mission, and Eisenhower later called the initial lie his “greatest regret.”
But Donald Trump took deception to a new level, in part through his ability to communicate directly with millions of Americans through social media. This ability to wage verbal war without regard to taste, truthfulness, or the dignity of the presidency made him a powerful political force. At the same time, the shrinking size and importance of the news media in the digital age have made it difficult to play their traditional role as watchdogs.
How lies can cost lives
Why is it wrong to lie? Because it hurts our feelings? Because our parents and teachers told us not to?
These are good reasons to guard against deception, but lying large-scale by public leaders is even more alarming because it has the power to pervert public order and even end lives. That’s my point when I was studying the tobacco industry as a Congressman in the 1990s.
Smoking was and is the leading preventable cause of death, killing nearly half a million people annually in the United States. Globally, the number of smokers has risen to 1.1 billion, with tobacco smoking causing nearly eight million deaths each year, which is one in five deaths among men.
Lying on a grand scale by public leaders has the power to pervert public order and even end lives.
When confronted with the tobacco industry, I met an opponent who was ready to tell fairy tales about their product and the risks involved. The tobacco industry’s deceptions were evident when three industry CEOs told Congress in 1994 that they did not believe that nicotine was addicting. This testimony was amazing as at that point companies had a thorough understanding of the many health risks that tobacco posed. Thirty years earlier, a lawyer for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. clearly stated in a confidential memo: “We are … in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug.”
In 2006, thanks in part to our efforts in Congress, a federal judge imposed numerous sanctions on the tobacco industry. But the industry’s disinformation campaign took a massive toll. Public understanding has tarnished, regulation has been delayed, and many people have fallen sick or died as a result of the industry’s desperate and fraudulent tactics. Some say that “the truth hurts,” but lies kills.
We see deception and dishonesty in many areas, not just politics and government. For example, while the anti-vaccine movement includes people who are driven by their sincere beliefs, it has also spawned a multi-billion dollar “anti-vax” industry, including many who are not true believers and solely for the money use gained through the sale of books and videos through to alternative medicines and “miracle cures”.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate recently identified the so-called “Disinformation Dozen,” a list of 12 people responsible for creating up to 70 percent of all fake anti-vaccine messages on social media. The person who tops the list has woven deception into a $ 100 million empire.
Time is running out
So how do we stand up for the truth? Some good ideas have come up in the past few years.
- As Los Angeles Times business columnist David Lazarus wrote in January: “It is fascinating to look at some of the laws in place to deter false claims in the business world and to consider – even as a thought experiment – how such laws can be used as a template for the limits of misleading political speech. “
- The Pro-Truth Pledge, formulated in 2016 by the authors Gleb Tsipursky and Tim Ward, encourages politicians – and everyone else – to behave truthfully and to protect the facts and be courteous.
- Professional sanctions can also work. A few months ago, an appeals court in New York State suspended Rudolph Giuliani’s bar license, claiming he made “false and misleading” statements about the 2020 election while serving as Mr. Trump’s personal attorney.
- Concerned citizens are mobilizing at the grassroots level to challenge and refute disinformation on social media on topics ranging from Covid-19 vaccines to climate change.
Ultimately, we need leaders who lead. We need leaders who have the moral fiber to control themselves and others, and who are able to work out solutions to social and economic problems that can create fertile ground for demagogues.
Lies don’t die with every passing cycle of messages. They are like poisoned fruits that litter the landscape. Earlier this year we all saw the halls of Congress trampled and democracy attacked. Without question, the outrageous acts we saw on that infamous day were sparked by people willing to turn falsehood and deception into weapons.
It is up to all of us to face those who would jeopardize life and democracy. We still have time, but the clock is ticking.