The Weak Case for Ignoring Big Lies

The Atlantic‘s David Graham is unhappy with me. No, not me by name, but me as one of the “liberals” who have “gleefully” publicized the results of another poll showing an awful lot of Republican voters saying they don’t believe the president is a Christian. And Graham is really unhappy with Public Policy Polling for asking Republicans in Mississippi and Alabama about it in the first place.

It is Graham’s very strong conviction that repeating big lies like Obama’s alleged subscription to Islam is the reason they maintain currency. After all, Brendan Nyhan says that’s the case. So when conservatives in this country seem to say and think crazy things, liberals should keep their mouths shut about it, because in the end, according to Graham, the only thing that really matters is how people vote, not the reasons they cite.

There’s only one pretty large problem with this high-minded theory: even if liberals stop noticing that many conservatives say or think crazy things, conservatives themselves keep saying and thinking them, without our help. A very good example is the “death panels” smear about health care reform, a very big lie that, best as I can tell, originated with famed agitprop artist Elizabeth McCaughey, then was picked up in a floor speech by Rep. Michele Bachmann, then went viral from Sarah Palin’s Facebook page.

Liberals did little or nothing to spread this lie. Indeed, it was such a big, obvious lie that most of us ignored it until it became obvious it was being believed by a very large share of the population.

And this was hardly a unique phenomenon.

David Graham must be one of the few people in America who have not at some point been on the receiving end of one of the ubiquitous right-wing big lies (you know, Obama is about to outlaw religious radio and TV broadcasts, ObamaCare has a gigantic Medicare premium increase for seniors embedded in it, Obama is preparing concentration camps for conservative opinion-leaders, etc.) that are constantly being circulated via email and social media outlet. By and large, people who do not live in the fever swamps ignore these things. They do not stop being circulated, however, nor do they stop being believed by the people circulating them.

For sheer volume in big lying, there is no one quite like the 2008 vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party. Her latest big Facebook post is an endless litany of lies, half-lies, innuendoes, slurs and smears aimed at the president, all apparently motivated by a brief Obama campaign internet ad that mocked her incoherent tirade over the weekend saying Obama wanted to return to pre-Civil War racial divisions, which in turn was part of the Breitbart enterprise’s bizarre barrage of slurs based on 1991 video of the then-law-student Obama introducing Derrick Bell at Harvard.

Now you can, and many have tried to, make the case that liberals should just ignore Palin, and deny her the oxygen of celebrity, and particularly deny her opportunities to play the martyr. But it is difficult to ignore someone to whom other conservatives so regularly pay obeisance, and impossible to deny her “oxygen,” since the very existence of her opponents is a sufficient reason for her to regularly explode onto TV screens and assume the podium in a hundred forums. And ignore her as you might, her poison keeps spilling into the political bloodstream.

So at some point, you simply have to start challenging the lies, and trying to establish some common basis of facts on which liberals and conservatives can compete with their different opinions of what to do about those facts. If you don’t, then the lies become “opinions” and the lie-based “opinions” become facts (e.g., the non-existence of climate change) for vast numbers of people, and before you know it, you are having to argue with people over things like the religion of the president of the United States or his place of birth–even as David Graham chastises you for feeding the lies by mentioning them.

It’s enough to make you want to lie down.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.