Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Are we entering the fact-free century?

America appears to have a lying problem. It’s hard to come to any other conclusion when looking at the string of easily disprovable untruths that have come out of the mouths of mainstream politicians during this season's Republican presidential primary.

The fact that these untruths have mostly gone unchallenged is an alarming reflection on American society. When you look at both the amount and the sheer audacity of the lies told on the campaign trail, and the fact that little to none of it has been challenged, it's truly bewildering. It would appear some kind of pseudo-reality is gaining an increasing foothold in the United States. And it leads to a disturbing question - is this a phenomenon that is unavoidable for the world at large in the internet age?

This week US presidential candidate Rick Santorum, polling second in the race to become the Republican nominee, told an audience, “I was just reading something last night from the state of California. The California universities – I think it’s seven or eight of the California system of universities - don’t even teach an American history course. It’s not even available to be taught. Just to tell you how bad it’s gotten in this country, that we’re trying to disconnect the American people from the routes of who we are.”

Just a five minute search on the University of California website reveals that this is completely untrue. It’s not even a little bit true. Not only does every university in the California system offer American history courses, but all UC bachelors programs actually require students to take one.

Dutch killing machines

Of course this is only the latest in what has been two years of wild untruths coming from Mr Santorum. Perhaps the most interesting one to Europeans would be his assertion earlier this year that in the Netherlands, 10% of all deaths are from euthanasia – and 5% of those deaths are involuntary euthanasia. Old folks in that country wear bracelets that say “do not euthanize me,” he told an audience in January. “Elderly people in the Netherlands don’t go to the hospital, they go to another country, because they’re afraid because of budget purposes, that they will not come out of that hospital if they go in with a sickness.” (video below).


Assisted suicide has indeed been legal in the Netherlands since 2002. But other than that, there is not one statement in this video that is not a lie. In 2010, the last year in which data is available, doctor-assisted suicide (which includes termination of life support) made up 2.3% of deaths in the Netherlands. No case of involuntary euthanasia has ever been documented. And there is no evidence that any ‘do not euthanize me’ bracelet has ever existed.

But as usual, the American mainstream media left the claim completely unchallenged. In fact the only journalist to ask Santorum’s campaign about this was a Dutch journalist. The answer, given by his campaign spokesperson, was sadly typical of the American right. It doesn’t matter if the facts weren’t correct, because it’s what Mr. Santorum feels. Watch her answer below, it’s astonishing. The Santorum campaign has never acknowledged that what he said wasn’t true or apologized for it. And why should they? After all, the only person asking them about it is one Dutch journalist.


From a European standpoint, it’s incredible that a mainstream politician could get away with saying something so demonstrably untrue and outrageous. All politicians stretch the truth a bit, but I can’t think of any example of, say, a British politician saying something so demonstrably untrue and getting away with it.

Now, you can argue that Mr Santorum isn’t a serious politician. It looks almost certain at this point that Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, will get the Republican nomination. But Santorum is a former US senator, he’s won ten states so far in the primary and for awhile it was looking like he could get the nomination. Regardless of whether he ever had a realistic chance of winning, he is still being treated as a serious candidate. So why is a serious candidate allowed to flat-out lie with such impunity on the campaign trail in the United States?

Pseudo-reality

When you look at the tally Mitt Romney, the supposedly ‘serious’ candidate, lies just as much as Santorum – albeit not as outrageously. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show has been compiling a list of all the untruths emitted by the Romney campaign during the course of the campaign, and it is now in its 11th volume. I’ll spare you the exhaustive list, but I invite you to check it out.

But when Ms. Maddow, presenting this list on her program, had the audacity to call Mitt Romney a “liar,” there was a furious reaction. It is still considered a cardinal sin for anyone in the media to call a politician a “liar” in America, even when the person is demonstrably, habitually lying. The New York Times public editor spelled this out in an unusaly frank way in an editorial in January, asking readers, in earnest, if American journalists "should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about." Such a question would seem extremely bizarre to a European audience.

And so we enter this bizarre situation – a timid American press tiptoes around the bizarre alternate reality that politicians, mostly on the right, have created. We exist in their world now. And even when some journalists call them to account, vast swathes of the public will continue to believe the untruth, even when confronted with evidence that it is untrue. Because as many people distrust the media as distrust politicians.

What does this say about America as a society, that the country has become so willing to accept easily disprovable, outrageous lying as part of normal discourse? Have we truly entered the “fact-free society” predicted by Leonard Pitts? How can a Democracy function in such an environment? I would imagine it can’t, and it won’t.

I cover politics in Europe and I can say with some confidence that the type of bizarre distortions of reality we’ve seen in the Republican primary just wouldn’t fly here – at least certainly not in Western Europe. Yes politicians can stretch the truth here, but I can’t imagine a leadership candidate in an EU member state just wildly making assertions that another country involuntarily euthanizes 5% of its population each year. If they ever did, they would not be a mainstream politician for much longer.

But how far away are we here in the old world from this kind of bizarre pseudo-reality? The information revolution has come here as well, with all its promise and perils. There is a lot of false information floating around out there on the internet, as much here in Europe as anywhere else. As a journalist covering the European Union I can attest to that. Some of the things people write on the web about what the EU does are just bonkers. But it’s all floating around out there online, lending it an air of credibility. And I hear people, particularly British people, make the most bizarre claims about the EU in casual conversation based on something they've read on the internet.

The difference of course is that mainstream politicians here in Europe probably wouldn’t base a stump speech around something that they read in a forwarded email. In the US, this has become par for the course. Is the US just in the vanguard of a new era where any untruth can be excused by the explanation “I read it online," as Santorum did with his University of California story? 

Perhaps this is the century we're living in now. But if it is, then the fundamental requirement for a democracy - an educated citizenry - has failed. It's a frightening thought.

(Photos by DonkeyHotey, Spanaut)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

so true!!

Michael said...

Is it at all surprising that what are effectively faith-driven politicians place more emphasis on what they believe to be true than what the facts or evidence show?

Anonymous said...

Rachel Maddow criticizing someone else for lying? That's funny given her rather distant relationship with the truth. Check out

"Maddow Flat Out Lies About S&P’s Downgrade Explanation: 'Not Because There's Too Much Debt'"

http://newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2011/08/07/maddow-flat-out-lies-about-sp-s-downgrade-explanation-not-because-the

"Rachel Maddow Lies to Leno About Republican Campaign Contributions"

http://newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2011/02/23/rachel-maddow-lies-leno-about-republican-political-contributions