Fellow writer, Hema Vasavada, responded to my blog about the rhetoric of war with this op ed piece she wrote for the Moscow Pullman Daily News. I think it is well worth sharing as a part of our on-going exploration of the cause of the nation’s on-going crisis.
In 1963 the partial completion of Bhakra Nangal Dam in northern India brought electricity and irrigation to many villages. A few years later, before election the opposition party told the villagers that the ruling Congress Party is taking electricity from their water, thereby rendering the water “bad.” The opposition party knew this wasn’t true, but for many farmers and villagers the story became their truth.
During election seasons half a century later, it is not the uneducated villagers, but an educated populace in the U.S. (and India) who are told untruths and half-truths. It is not a mistake when the initiators of stories know their words are false. Those who propagate the stories may later retract them, or say they were being sarcastic, but when repeated on media, the stories become believable.
For the last five years Donald Trump perpetuated the myth that President Obama was born in Kenya. The “Birther” theory was debunked in 2011 after the President produced his long-form birth certificate. However, doubtful seeds were planted and many people still believe Obama was born in Kenya. In 2012, then presidential candidate, Romney bragged that he was born in Michigan and no one has asked for his birth certificate. Last year a Republican friend forwarded me a story about the President and First Lady going to Kenya for his high school reunion.
On September 16, Trump announced that President Obama was born in the United States. Did he know it while “investigating” the birth records of the president? Was he convinced about the President’s citizenship after the proof he was asking for was provided? If so, he didn’t correct his previous statements until recently. He also took credit for bringing a closure to the issue by forcing President Obama to produce a long-form certificate. He then blamed the origination of birther movement on then presidential candidate Clinton.
Untrue words hurt–whether they are about Senator McCain’s “love child,” Secretary Clinton’s “stroke” and mental state, Obama’s religion, Muslims celebrating and dancing after 9/11, Obama being the founder of ISIS or Ted Cruz’s father playing a role in President Kennedy’s assassination.
This has happened on the liberal side as well. There have been rumors about Trump’s nervous breakdown and institutionalization, and the “snorted look” on debate night. Still, the liberals who started these stories didn’t announce them as facts. They added the qualifiers, “I believe,” or “Could he?”
When opinions are announced as facts, even after they are retracted, many continue to believe and pass on the false version. Before the first presidential debate, Trump and his surrogates suggested that the moderators and others shouldn’t fact-check during the debate. They know that by the time the facts are checked, untrue words are set in many minds as truths.
The year 2008 was a good campaign year when the candidates treated each other with respect. Then Senator Barack Obama praised Senator McCain for his service to the nation even when he criticized him for his policies. Senator McCain enlightened a woman who asked him about Obama being an Arab Muslim by saying that although Obama’s views on policies were different, he was as American as they were.
Although words may not hurt the way sticks, stones or guns do, false words have a long term impact. Just as Donald Rumsfeld said about “known knowns” and “known unknowns,” there are “known truths” and “known untruths.” When “known untruths” are presented as “known truths” it causes problems. It hurts the victims and fosters false ideas in the minds of those who hear or read them.
* * *
We are all now living the harm those false words have done since 2016. Thank you, Hema for reminding us of the warnings we, despite our outrage, were helpless to stop. It’s time we started educating young and old in the power of language and the responsibilities of self-government.