Politics in America is increasingly devolving into a team sport. Distinguishing between right and wrong, truth and lies, isn’t as important as scoring points against the other side and ultimately winning.
In this context, “winning” isn’t necessarily chalking up a victory for the United States and its people. It’s about advancing the fortunes of a political party or ideology, irrespective of morality and ethics, and ultimately, how that sort of victory impacts the nation at large.
It hasn’t always been this way. Through most of my life (I’m 62), one could count on politicians from the two major political parties coming together to solve the nation’s problems. While party-line votes happened, legislators from one party frequently crossed over to vote with the other. Bipartisan voting blocs were common, and support for across-the-aisle cooperation and negotiation was not considered a deal-breaker for a party candidate in a state or federal level primary election.
On the most important issues facing our nation today, however, party-line voting is the rule rather than the exception, and fealty to the party (or frequently, an extreme wing of the party) appears to rank as a higher priority than love of country.
Yet, my oft-repeated “politics as a team sport” analogy falls apart when it comes to lying and cheating. Even in the most competitive athletic endeavors, cheating is frowned upon. Not so in the partisan/ideological wars raging today in the United States.
Spend any time at all on social media, and you’ll get dizzy from all the distortions and fabrications displayed in political memes. And soon the dizziness will be replaced by sadness when you realize that many of these memes are carefully designed to look legit. The intention isn’t satire or parody; it’s a bald-faced attempt to pass a lie off as the truth in order to reinforce an existing bias and bring about some sort of action – a social media share, vote, a campaign contribution, whatever.
Yet, I’m sorry to state, the willingness to say anything, the truth be damned, is not confined to the Republican Party and its chronically dishonest standard-bearer Donald Trump.
Recently, I’ve noticed that people on “my side” of the political/ideological aisle – left of center – have been manufacturing and posting intentionally dishonest memes. This likely is not a new thing, but rather I’m just noticing it more now.
Two of these dishonest memes caught my attention this past week.
One of them shows a picture of Donald Trump as a much younger man, and underneath is a “pulled quote” labeled “Donald Trump, People Magazine 1998” that reads:
“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”
I had seen this one several times before but never bothered to check it out. I should have. Turns out that Trump never made this statement. I found several fact-checking sites – including the president’s hated CNN – that called the attribution of this statement to Trump false.
Another dishonest meme featured U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, the bonehead Texas Republican who recently got swept up in the sex scandals on Capitol Hill.
This meme shows Barton on C-Span, with the overlaid quote: “Wind is a finite resource, and harnessing it would slow the wind down, which would cause the temperature to go up.”
This one isn’t totally false, since in a congressional hearing in 2009, Rep. Barton did quote authoritative scientists making the argument that large-scale energy generation from wind may slow the natural transfer of heat from warm areas to cooler areas. That’s the passage where the “wind is a finite resource” phrase appeared, though the actual statement said “wind energy,” and itself was part of a scientist’s quote that Barton was referencing.
The overall context of Barton’s actual statement in the congressional hearing – arguing that wind energy may be a significant contributor to global warming – remains incorrect and asinine. It’s just not as jaw-droppingly moronic as the quote in the widely circulated meme.
In other words, the anti-Barton meme is a distortion intended to mislead in pursuit of a political cause.
Telling lies to achieve a political goal can’t help but taint that cause. And it only makes it worse when defenders of dishonest memes try to pass them off as satire or parody, as the anti-Trump Facebook group “We Resist” did recently with the Trump meme slamming Republican voters. The group introduced the well-circulated meme with the line, “When satire hits too close to reality…”
Not surprisingly, that vague qualifier failed to discourage viewers from believing the fabricated statement by Trump, as confirmed by many of the comments under the meme (“not FAKE; he said this on ‘Oprah’”; “I saw the video that since the election has disappeared”; “I seen the interview”; “fake but accurate”; “look up this interview; it’s real”).
Other commenters defended the meme as obvious satire, though the fact that so many people believed it – and went on to vociferously defend its accuracy – suggests that if intended as satire, it was a dismal failure.
Many folks confuse satire with propaganda. The former is funny and thought provoking but not intentionally misleading; the latter intends to use fabrications and distortions to further a cause. Somebody who writes something as satire without caring who believes it or not is cynical beyond redemption and no better than a cheap propagandist.
In the case of the Trump meme, you can bet the farm that many thousands of the people who saw it believe it to be true (it had been shared 22,693 times as of Tuesday morning).
The worst thing about the fabricated anti-Donald Trump, anti-Joe Barton, anti-Roy Moore, anti-whoever memes is that they are so unnecessary. The historic record is full of idiotic or hateful statements by these guys. Trump is the king of stupid, dishonest, bigoted, outrageous statements, producing them almost daily.
Why fabricate a quote for our president when he’ll happily gift-wrap one at a moment’s notice?
Monday in the Oval Office, with infamous Indian-killer President Andrew Jackson looking down approvingly from his portrait, Trump said this to a small group of elderly Navajo veterans (code-talkers during World War II):
“I just want to thank you because you’re very, very special people. You were here long before any of us were here. Although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her ‘Pocahontas.’” He was referring to the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Since that gratuitously racist statement, Trump has been roundly condemned by Native-American and other groups.
HERE’S A TIP. IF YOU’RE scrolling down your Facebook or Twitter feed and see a political quote that makes you feel good, that reinforces your existing opinions, follow the old rule, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.” With about 15 seconds of research (Google a sentence from the suspect meme), you’ll learn whether it’s true or not. If it’s false, state so on the post, provide a link to an appropriate fact-checking site.
By all means, do not pass on the lie. That only demeans you as a person and a citizen, and chips away yet another piece of whatever good remains in American politics.