June 9, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
At the heart of ‘the culture war’? Lies
Once you see the pattern, you see it everywhere.
“The culture war” is so familiar I don’t need to explain what it is. It has been part of the Republican Party’s rhetorical repertoire since at least Robert Taft’s time. What most people do not understand, however, is nearly every moment in which “the culture war” flares up—over abortion, guns, sexuality, etc.—is rooted in a lie. If more people understood the centrality of lying to “the culture war,” more might understand the goal of the GOP’s “cultural war” repertoire is making some Americans seem illegitimate.
Consider the case of Mara Gay, a member of the Times’ editorial board.1 She was on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Tuesday. The subject of table discussion was Max Boot’s new op-ed in the Post on how too many people in this country are still underestimating the dire threat posed by the Republican Party to democracy and the American union.
The takeaway: So much of what counts as “debate” begins and ends with what liberalism’s enemies say liberals say.
Joe Scarborough, the co-host, said there’s a need to stop being surprised by the GOP’s antidemocratic posturing. Gay agreed. “We need to start taking it seriously,” she said. When it comes to creating an independent bipartisan body to investigate the sacking and looting of the United States Capitol on January 6, she said the Democrats in the United States Congress should stop asking for the GOP’s permission and act alone.
“The reality is that we have a large percentage of Americans … who continue to believe their rights as citizens are under threat by the simple virtue of having to share democracy with others,” Mara Gay said. “I think that as long as they see Americanness as the same, as one, with whiteness, this is going to continue. We have to figure out how to get every American a place at the table … [and] separate Americanness—America—from whiteness. Until we can confront that, this is really going to continue.”
Gay illustrated her point with an anecdote: “I was on Long Island this weekend,” she said, “and I was really disturbed. I saw, you know, dozens and dozens of pickup trucks with explicatives [sic] against Joe Biden on the back of them, Trump flags, and in some cases just dozens of American flags, which is also just disturbing … Essentially the message was clear. This is my country. This is not your country. I own this.”
Here’s the tip jar!
It was this anecdote that made news, not the context the anecdote was attempting to illustrate. More accurately, it was the lie about the anecdote that made news. And it’s such lies, I contend, that constitute the foundation for virtually all “culture war” discourse, whether about “political correctness,” “cancel culture,” “wokeness” or anti-racism. With rare exception, all national debate over topics of interest to the liberal cause rest on countless small sedimentary layers of falsehood. Making it much worse, in my view, is a Washington press corps knowing the truth, but not speaking it.
Here’s what made the news Tuesday, all day. Headline: “NYT, MSNBC’s Mara Gay: ‘Disturbing’ to see ‘dozens of American flags’ on trucks in Long Island. Subheadline: “New York Times board member: There needs to be conversation about ‘Whiteness’.” The media source was Fox. Fox’s headline was repeated by expected outlets, such as the New York Post and National Review, but also surprising outlets, like Yahoo News and RealClearPolitics. And, of course, Breitbart: “Times columnist Mara Gay said Tuesday that she noticed trucks with American flags and was ‘disturbed’ by what she saw.”
The key here isn’t just repeating the lie. It’s getting a response to the lie, as a result of the repetition, and then getting a third-party to respond to the response. (Again, Fox: “NYT panned for Mara Gay defense following her ‘disturbing’ American flag remarks: ‘Every word here is a lie’.” Who accused the Times of lying? A senior editor at The Federalist who was, you know, lying.) Once this pattern has been established, there exists a legitimate controversy worthy of the press corps’ attention as well as of public debate between opposing views from across the spectrum. All that might appear to be natural, normal and healthy except for this fact: The entire discourse is based on a lie.
This pattern is everywhere once you see it. It’s present even in matters of more complexity than what a Times editorial board member did or did not say. Since Joe Biden took office, we have seen numberless attempts to examine “cancel culture,” “wokeness” or anti-racism. Most have been from the point of view of their critics, not their practitioners, or worse—they are predicated on the small sedimentary layers of misrepresentation, distortion and lies about them. The takeaway: So much of what counts as “debate” begins and ends with what liberalism’s enemies say liberals say.
They lied about what she said, thus detaching the issue from history, thus making her seem to confirm what they already believe to be true without proving it, which is she hates America. Yet Gay’s comments were grounded in patriotism.
Lying is a bug, though. Ideology is the feature. Liberals like Mara Gay can’t be right about America, but critics can’t turn to history to prove it, because history points in the direction of Mara Gay being absolutely right. So they lie about what she said, thus detaching the issue from shared reality, thus making her seem to confirm what they already believe to be true without bothering to prove it, which is she hates America.
Yet Gay’s comments, more than anything else, were grounded in love of country. The anti-democratic forces threatening us are the same ones that sacked and looted the United States Capitol, and as long as being white is seen as the same thing as being a legitimate American—as long as being non-white is seen as the same thing as being an illegitimate American—our democratic union will always face threats from the inside.
Gay never said she was disturbed by flags. She said she was disturbed by the historical fact, symbolized to her by the side-by-side flying of Trump flags and American flags, that “a large percentage” of white Americans continue to look at her Black and wise and beautiful face and refuse to see her as a legitimate American. That Fox and others lied about what she said is a continuation of the history that disturbs Mara Gay, and while that’s bad enough, she said, there’s something else even more concerning.
“I think there is a large percentage of my colleagues in journalism who are invested in some way in pretending that this isn’t the threat that it is,” Gay went on to say. “That is a real concern. The Trump voters are not going to get on board with democracy, but they’re a minority. You can marginalize them long term. But if [her colleagues in journalism] don’t take this threat seriously, we’re all going to be in bad shape.”
Not this Editorial Board!
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
Why won’t “the media” change its own culture and respond responsibly? Why won’t “the media” stop treating lies as if they are truth? I watch MSNBC for hours every evening and see this pattern repeated regularly. I read the Washington Post, NY Times, Sacramento Bee, and LA Times every single day. They often treat the lies as if they are truth. “The press” has adopted a binary, win/lose, sports competition model instead of the “seeking the truth” commitment that is at the heart of press freedom in the United States. As my press consumption illustrates, I always thought the press was the arbiter of truth, not the amplifier of lies. Coverage of democracy has truly become like watching sports with play-by-play and color commentary. You are on Team Red or Team Blue. This is going to destroy democracy.
Yes, there’s a problem, but it stems from the dawn of Fox News 25 years ago, which defined itself by being the voice of conservatism on TV, that is, filtering “news” purposefully to provide a contrarian narrative for the sake of being contrarian. Talk radio already had the model down, but wasn’t reaching the masses. Like the frog who doesn’t realize he’s cooking in the pot, they were able to creep into the public conscious by straying from the facts a little bit at a time.
While newspapers had tended to take a left-leaning (NY Times) or right-leaning (Wall Street Journal) view, TV news once seemed to rise above the fray. Remember Walter Cronkite? Besides, the FCC required them to be “honest, equitable, and *balanced*” though something called the Fairness Doctrine, which was abolished in 1987 and never applied to cable news.
Once Fox came along, the rest of the media doubled down on the journalistic ethic we have held to for at least a century: Show that you are “impartial” by giving both sides of the argument. So, it’s even harder now for them to abandon both-sides-ism, although they’ve gotten better “thanks” to Trump’s constant lies–but that does not make most journalistic organizations “blue.”
Once again, we can thank RW media for spreading that narrative–and doing it effectively because the stupid “legitimate” media distributes the message following their call to be “balanced.”
On the one hand, I wish MSNBC was a true counterweight to Fox, because a full-time network is required to counteract the screams from Fox, but they can’t bring themselves to throw out journalistic norms the way Fox does.
Since Newsmax and OAN News have taken TV commentary further into crazy (not right in the political sense), Fox has gone there, too. Brian Stelter of CNN did reporting that backs that up in the newly released paperback version of his book “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.”
I’m nauseous now after writing this because our democracy is already on life support, and there’s no end in sight. (A pox on Joe Manchin.)
Times like these I really miss Cronkite. It can be argued he single handedly ended the Vietnam war, simply by virtue of reporting the truth.
Nearly everything now is framed in right wing talking points. Remember when the press kept asking if the Biden administration was going to pack the court? Republicans packed the court. Why would any news agency use the Republican frame when they knew it wasn’t true? Our local news reported that Congress was stalled on the Jan. 6 commission. Not Republicans but a deliberate effort to cast all congress as nonfunctional. They followed up with this little gem: “Republicans believe the commission will be partisan.” They didn’t follow that up with the two Michigan Republicans who voted for the commission. They didn’t think it was partisan. Honestly, I’m sick of calling editors and news producers about this. It’s like racism, it’s so ingrained in the press now many don’t even know they’re doing it. Someone referred to the way the media gets sucked into Republican false narrative as a self licking ice cream cone.
Pickup trucks full of flags. Welcome to life under The American Taliban. And they’re fast becoming just as deadly too.
Great points. The culture wars of my youth were put on my radar by the “moral majority” attacking music and art. Those attacks were all based on dishonest and incurious interpretations of content – just like the “lies” you describe above. Only back then, storming our capitol would have sounded like madness to everyone on both sides.