As you’ve no doubt noticed, things have gotten messy lately. And I don’t mean you-need-to-clean-your-room messy, I’m talking about full-scale, five-alarm pandemonium, as if we’d all just learned that the Earth's been dislodged from its orbit and is falling into the sun. Not pleasant, obviously. But extremely energizing.
And no one is more energized than comedians and bloggers like me who like to lace posts with a bit of humor. These days, we’re never short of material. To name just one rich resource of public merriment, there’s Kellyanne Conway. One of the most powerful people on the planet — she ran the President’s campaign and is now his closest advisor — she gave us all a chuckle on inauguration day by dressing as Sargent Pepper.
Two days later, Conway was asked to explain White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s “provable falsehood” inflating attendance at his boss’s inauguration. Conway said Spicer was delivering “alternative facts.” The phrase “alternative facts” was greeted with astonishment and great gusts of laughter by many and instantly became part of our vocabulary. The term is often called “Orwellian,” referring to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, in which a totalitarian regime insists the populace use only government-approved language as part of a program to limit freedom of thought. References to Orwell became so prevalent that sales of 1984 shot up 9400% to the top spot on Amazon.
Apparently Conway simply couldn't resist giving us another juicy example of “alternative facts” that are easily shown to be lies. She insisted, in three separate interviews over five days, that the Muslim ban was justified by the “Bowling Green Massacre,” an incident that never took place. Residents of Bowling Green, Kentucky walked around snickering about it for days and cheerfully launched cottage industries making “I survived the Bowling Green Massacre” t-shirts and buttons. Naturally, a storm of tweets and memes ensued, letting us all get in on the fun.
And the reason we know any of this is because we still have freedom of the press in America.
I grew up hearing stories about countries behind the Iron Curtain where the only “news” was Soviet propaganda.
You’ll notice there isn't any actual Beatles music in the film, and the “facts” are mostly false and always full of political innuendo. If propagandists went to this much trouble to disseminate misinformation about a band, what bigger whoppers were they telling about the serious stuff? But then, what else would you expect when a totalitarian regime controls the media?
Like the Soviets, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco suppressed Beatles’ music because it didn't express conservative values. A Spanish musician once told me with enormous glee about the glorious day he got his hands on a bootleg cassette of a Beatles album. “We spent the entire week rehearsing, and on Saturday night we played all their songs at a dance.” The crowd went wild. Take that, Franco and the Thought Police!
Choosing what music we play and speaking the truth are just two of the many rights Americans take for granted. But lately there have been troubling developments.
“Democracy depends on a free and independent press, which is why all tyrants try to squelch it,” wrote journalist Bill Moyers. “They use seven techniques that, worryingly, [the President] already employs.”
Sounds more like what you’d expect from the Kremlin than the Oval Office, doesn’t it? Among the many dismaying things about Putin’s intimate role in American politics is his track record of suppressing the press. When it comes to freedom of information, Russia is ranked 148 out of 180 countries tracked by Reporters Without Borders. The USA is currently 41. (Note to self: check our rank in their next report.)
While some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seem uncomfortable with muzzling the media, others praise it. “Better to get your news directly from the President,” says Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican. “It might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”
Freedom of the press is one of those things you never fully appreciate until you lose it. I’ve visited Eastern Bloc countries where people lived under totalitarian governments that denied them such basic rights as voicing opinions or singing songs they loved, let alone publishing news stories that revealed a politician’s dishonesty or a government cover-up of uncomfortable truths. With all its many imperfections, the American press remains a vital source of information and dissenting opinion, so essential to a free democracy that it is protected by the US Constitution.
When the world gets messy, we need more truth, not less. Our ancestors knew they wouldn’t survive long if they insisted that winter was summer and planted crops in the wrong season. Our parents’ generation was appropriately skeptical of “Your check is in the mail,” and “Of course I’ll respect you in the morning.” Truer than ever is the old joke: "How do you tell when politicians are lying? Their lips are moving." Luckily, we still have what Michael Moore calls "The Army of Comedy," which includes not only Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Melissa McCarthy and Alec Baldwin, but each one of us. Through the power of our own social media, we can circulate compelling political satire that makes us laugh, makes us think, and makes it a lot harder for government officials to get away with unvarnished lies.
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