I travelled from California to Texas to visit family for Father’s Day this past Thursday, and missed viewing the third public session of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol while I was in flight. No worries, once I landed, a few minutes of review of my Twitter notifications quickly gave me the key points of what I had missed, and then I watched a replay of the full session on my laptop that evening.
So I was quickly up to date on the new horrors publicly disclosed about past (and alas, future) attempts to overthrow the government of the United States. Call me silly if you like, but for some strange reason, this is a topic I feel it is important to stay informed about.
Then Friday evening I found myself sitting with some people at a table at a lounge in Fort Worth, and my Twitter notifications again started popping up on my phone. When I went to read them, one of the people at the table asked me what I was doing. I told him I was looking at my Twitter notifications. He asked me why, and I told him it was because it updated me on the news. He asked what kind of news… and I told him that at the moment it was mostly news about the insurrection.
And that started us plunging down a rabbit hole of one of the more bizarre evenings I have had in quite a while. While I often see disinformation published on social media, I must admit I am rarely in-person with people who live in world based on “alternative facts.” This evening I faced a deluge of misinformation so rapid and so great that I quickly thought my head would explode, coming from people who are not stupid, but were sometimes dreadfully misinformed about important issues, while also lacking self-awareness of it.
On social media it is easy to just ignore it. In real life, I wasn’t quite prepared for how to handle it. I was in Texas, so I guess I should have expected it.
I should state that at least there seemed to be a shared reality at the table that Donald Trump was a disturbed individual who had legitimately lost the 2020 election. But from there, things diverged significantly from empirical reality.
Let’s focus on just three of what I thought were the most egregious “alternative facts” I was presented with that evening. Each of the lies was on a completely different topic, yet they are connected in a way that is quite disturbing and illustrative of the high degree of cultural dysfunction present in America today.
In the FIRST LIE, I was advised that the events of January 6, 2021 hardly constituted a real insurrection, because the people rioting at the Capitol were not really terribly dangerous, they posed no real risk of taking over the Congress, it was just random people without a plan, hardly anyone was killed, and none of the rioters had guns.
Of course that is ALL wrong. An insurrection doesn’t require that its participants have guns. Several rioters did in fact have firearms and dozens more wielded knives, bats and other real and makeshift weapons. There were pipe bombs left at the RNC and DNC offices near the Capitol. While there were many random participants in the riot, there was also a contingent who had put in significant prior planning and effort into infiltrating the Capitol to delay the certification of the election and possibly kill or injure the Vice President and members of Congress. They got within about 40 feet of Mike Pence, and if it were not for Pence’s determination to complete his duties that night and the quick-thinking of a Senate aide who removed and protected the certified Electoral College ballots, the delay in the count could have resulted in a successful coup, throwing the election back to the House, yielding a different outcome than produced by the Electoral College and popular vote, and a true constitutional crises.
As Teri Kanefield noted on Twitter, referencing the article “Proud Boys Led Major Breaches of Capitol on Jan. 6, Video Investigation Finds” in the New York Times: “the plan was to make it look like a bunch of schmucks sent by Trump got out of control and stormed the Capitol. In fact, the breach was engineered by the Proud Boys, operating as a paramilitary, using the crowd as stooges.”
And as we are learning through the Committee hearings, the insurrection of January 6 was itself just one aspect of a much larger scheme to overturn the election… a coup that nearly succeeded in 2020, and for which plans are currently being openly and brazenly shared to make sure the next coup won’t fail should a Democrat be elected President in 2024.
Where did this individual’s chain of disinformation come from? Well, there is a vast network of people who put great effort into spreading lies and distortions like these. One of the most prominent is a fellow named Tucker Carlson, who hosts an entertainment show on FOX News that is not fact-checked, is designed to mislead, and has little connection to reality.
“”Just to be clear on terms, an insurrection is when people with guns try to overthrow the government,” Carlson said during his June 10 segment. “Not a single person in the crowd on January 6 was found to be carrying a firearm. Not one,” Carslon said.” (See: Tucker Carlson is wrong. Firearms, other weapons were found at the Capitol on Jan. 6 )
And the conversation that evening continued, with an ongoing litany of alternative facts being shared on diverse topics. And that brought us to the SECOND LIE worth discussing, in which we were advised that it was a myth that General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States Army during the Civil War, was not in favor of slavery, and in fact he had not owned any slaves himself, and was not a racist.
And again, the truth is the exact opposite of this. What was true was labelled a myth, while what was offered as truth was in fact a false myth. Here is the reality of the situation, with quotes from Adam Serwer’s column in The Atlantic: The Myth of Kindly General Lee .
Robert E. Lee was a slave owner and white supremacy was one of Lee’s most fundamental convictions. Lee betrayed his country, and was “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black.”
“When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.””
“The white supremacists who have protested on Lee’s behalf are not betraying his legacy. In fact, they have every reason to admire him. Lee, whose devotion to white supremacy outshone his loyalty to his country, is the embodiment of everything they stand for. Tribe and race over country is the core of white nationalism, and racists can embrace Lee in good conscience.”
And where did this lie about General Lee come from? Serwer notes: “Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one. That ideology is known as the Lost Cause, and as the historian David Blight writes, it provided a “foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system.””
And so the conversation continued, until we came to the THIRD LIE. At first it seemed rather innocuous, but then I realized it was a REALLY BIG LIE, because it provides cover for all the other lies. Someone said something along the lines of “I wish I could find real news. There really isn’t news anymore. All there is anymore are opinions.”
But of course this is just false. Those who gaslight constantly work to create doubt in reality and a belief that there are two sides to everything, even basic facts. They revel in making us weary from the debate. They call real news fake and fake news real, and the end result is that people who don’t know how to differentiate between bullshit and reality start believing that everything is opinion.
When the notion of objective facts and truths disappears and everything becomes opinion, it then becomes “only a matter of opinion” if different lawyers and politicians can’t agree on whether or not the Vice President can or cannot unilaterally decide to pick the winner of a Presidential election, because, you know, we are each entitled to our own opinion.
But that isn’t so. We are not entitled to our own facts. And there are actual FACTS, there is TRUTH, there is EMPIRICAL REALITY, and there are plenty of opportunities to see, hear or read NEWS from journalistic sources that make a real effort to check their facts and issue corrections in the rare instances when mistakes are made. Whether or not some people involved in the January 6th insurrection had guns or not is a verifiable statement of fact, not opinion, as is whether or not Robert E. Lee owned slaves.
When I watch CNN news segments, or read articles on The Atlantic, for example, I can do so knowing that the facts offered are nearly always true because a rational and thorough process is in place to actually check them. Of course, CNN and The Atlantic also offer a lot of opinion (things that cannot be objectively proven as true or false), and I don’t always agree with those opinions.
Contrast this with someone who listens to FOX News and other disinformation sources, where information presented as fact is commonly false, and opinions are often extrapolated from those falsehoods. Without even having a foundation of facts to fall back on, it isn’t surprising for some to adopt the attitude that everything is opinion.
So how do we fix this? A single misstatement of fact can be corrected. But when a person’s head is filled with years upon years of disinformation programming, there is no real way to fix it quickly, especially when the feed of disinformation continues in an unrelenting deluge from FOX, social media, and “celebrity personalities” with nefarious agendas.
Stifling free speech surely isn’t the answer. Realizing that our educational systems are broken and have failed to teach a large segment of the population how to differentiate between truth and propaganda would be a good first step. But figuring out how to improve our educational systems in the future won’t be easy, especially in a society filled with so many vocal bad actors who actively strive to prevent our schools from doing so.
One of the best things we can do on an individual basis is to try to be as unrelenting in sharing truth as others are in sharing propaganda and bullshit, and to do it without employing the overly dramatic or sensational tone of the alternate reality people.
That’s why the fact-based “Letters from an American” each day from historian Heather Cox Richardson are so important. Her Facebook page connects to 1.5 million followers, her Twitter feed to 338,400, and her substack page to many more. Each day I and many others share her columns broadly, and they seem to be reaching many people who don’t have the time to otherwise follow the news closely each day.
It is true that when we share this kind of information, we are often “preaching to the choir.” Those who read the information tend to already exist in the same reality as we do, while those who live in a world of alternative facts find the cognitive dissonance too great to digest the content. If they respond at all, it tends to be with diverting whataboutism comments or ad hominem attacks.
But still, over enough time, some people will learn, change and grow from what they read. And in a world filled with constant gaslighting, sharing truth also helps each of us be steadfast in our knowledge that what is real is truly real, and that the gaslighting disinformation is not.
To paraphrase and expand upon the recent quote from the fearless Liz Cheney: there will be a day when those who lie, gaslight and knowingly spread disinformation will be gone, but their dishonor will never be forgotten.
I may not agree much politically with Liz Cheney, but she is setting a courageous moral example that all of us can learn from.
As a proud son and father, I wish all my readers a happy Father’s Day. It is a good day for each of us to think about the kind of legacy we will leave behind after we are gone.