Pat Stuart

Newspaper Columns



Cody Enterprise, 24 December 2023

Once more, here we are at a tipping point, the country… 


…neatly split, ready to move right or left–toward a totalitarian regime or along the path of our flawed democracy.  We’ve been at serious divides before.  The Revolutionary War and the Civil War immediately come to mind.  Both of those times, like now, people held polar opposite beliefs.  This time it’s not to the degree of armed conflict (although there are those who would be happy to participate and those who already tried) but to one of electing a president who has said he would like to be a dictator, suspend our fundamental democratic freedoms, replace civil servants with his loyalists, and … well, you’ve heard it all.  About half of us seem to want that.  Half don’t.

The History of Fake Things

A book titled “The History of Fake Things” about lies in the post-truth era reminded me of one factor among the many that led to this situation–lies.  It’s not that our era has a corner on political lying.  We can just disseminate them faster and farther.  Still … .  The author, Walter Scheirer, argues that lies are a social necessity, their nature and spread the result of culture not technology.  He says we all rely on our lies … our myths, as he calls them … to make sense of what happens around us and to force fit events into our own personal narratives and beliefs.  I’ll buy that in part.

Certainly, there’s a lot of truth there.  A lot of sophistry (irony intended), too.

The book brought to mind the work of two men who will never make the history books, two men who for a time occupied a small office next to mine.  They called themselves Covert Action warriors.  We called them the Bobbsey Twins, so-called not because they resembled each other (one was tall, skinny, and red-headed; the other short, blocky, and swarthy) but because they thought the same.

(Photo by Diane Picchiottino)

Fakery …  Covert Action … Alchemy

Covert Action?  In essence, they created propaganda—doctored facts, as they said.  They were in the business of creating myths and destroying the spin the opposition used.  The two of them were word alchemists, could take a simple, straight-forward story and turn it into knots.  Then, with a few graphics to serve as a wink and a nod–as magical as the touch of a wand–a new “truth” would emerge, one more appealing than the original.  Sometimes, their version caught on and altered the course of events.  Success meant consequences.

How happy they would have been if they’d had the internet and social media as tools.

There’s a lot of people around doing the same thing now.  But we don’t need them or the Bobbsey Twins, do we?  Everyone can play this game now.  Take the 2020 election.  Despite the fact that some 50 courts of law have ruled against cases of election fraud brought by Donald Trump and his allies and despite the fact that election officials across the country have called that election the fairest ever, enormous numbers of Americans believe the opposite.  The Bobbsey Twins would have been proud if they’d set that one in motion.

“The trick is finding what people want to believe, then give it to them,” they would say.

And, so it goes.  “The History of Fake Things” calls this “participatory fakery” or collective mythmaking.  Here’s an example from the run up to the Revolutionary War.  It concerned the shape-shifting of the “Boston Tea Party” event.  Fact:  it happened but was a reaction not to the imposition of a tax but the reduction of one.  The reversal of these facts in the telling enraged both colonials, who felt put upon, and the British Government, which believed itself challenged.  The result we all know—a mass and long-lasting belief that an unjust tax sparked a righteous American revolution–participatory fakery.

Everyone shades the truth in one way or another.  Lies are everywhere.  Those same lies have consequences.  Back then, the British lost a colony.  Now, the Ukrainians are losing their lives, because Russians believe that Ukraine belongs to them and that they’re saving Ukraine from fascists.  A mix of half-truths and lies.  In the Middle East, the Israeli Zionists believe that the Palestinians stole Palestine from them centuries ago and want it all back.  There’s only a small kernel of truth there.  Still, it’s why they feel justified in evicting and killing today’s Palestinians.  Here’s another one:  everyone involved in a war is told/believes that the other side kills babies (and, often, both sides do).  Yes.  And, so it goes.  Lots more people are willing to kill and are, in turn, killed, all justified by our myths.  Consequences.

How to stop this cycle?  We all believe some myths, sometimes.  We have to; we’re made that way, but there are consequences for belief.  The trick is a dose of healthy skepticism.  Easy.  Right?

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