We keep hearing a recurring refrain these days: How can people not accept facts and deny reality? Why do people believe that election officials are lying about the election being fair?
Why indeed? While the current crop of “denied truths” seem incomprehensible to most Americans, it is just our latest preferred fiction.
Let’s start close to home. When settlers expanded into New England they needed a rationalization for their actions. They couldn’t very well say “We have to murder everyone who tries to prevent us from stealing their land” as it would clash with their religious views and the teachings of Jesus. Instead they raised cries about unprovoked assaults threatening their innocents. They told themselves the lie that native peoples were savages who need to be extirpated from the earth. Then they could feel that they were doing the Lord’s work as they burned towns and murdered “indians” whenever possible.
In what is now Vermont, there was a complex set of societal, ecological and spiritual relationships that governed the actions of the native peoples. These relationships between each other and the land had served them well for generations. However, litigious speculators like Ethan Allen wanted to make profits by “buying” and “owning” massive tracts of that land. He created a lie to convince the courts that native peoples, if they ever even lived here at all, certainly were not “settled” in any sense and since they didn’t build “houses” and despoil the forest, shouldn’t have any land rights. The courts agreed. A new fact was born; empty land can be granted to white people by the “Crown”; these grants were to enjoy the full protection of the law.
Enshrined in our Constitution is the lie that black people are only 60 percent of a human. This agreed upon norm was reinforced over the next 150-plus years by numerous court rulings “proving” that black Americans were inferior/naturally born slaves/couldn’t govern themselves and other notions settled by law that we know to be bald faced lies. Only by degrading black, brown and indigenous bodies to be seen as sub-human can we murder, rape and disenfranchise them to the extent that we have and still do.
In 1917, “peace” president Woodrow Wilson had cajoled Congress into entering World War I. Conscripted troops were shipped to various locations. At the same time a deadly virulent flu had appeared, finding its way to some of the basic training camps in America and taking a terrible toll on the troops. But Wilson’s government worried that knowledge of this outbreak in the military would extinguish the already sluggish enthusiasm for the war, so they kept the news of the flu secret, even as they shipped men around the country and then across the ocean to fight. Every country involved in the conflict shared Wilson’s attitude that it would hurt the war effort to reveal the danger. When the flu reached Spain, it found a country not involved in the war. The press was allowed to report on the ravages of the flu in Spain; the world finally learned about the pandemic which was wrongly dubbed the “Spanish Flu.”
After World War II, Americans looked to the white-coated scientists to show us the latest discoveries and facts. Having previously extolled the virtues of lead and asbestos for home use, now they were shilling for all sorts of chemical wonders. In the early ‘60s, the drug maker Richardson-Merrill, despite knowing the dangers, employed doctors to calm fears about thalidomide which caused terrible birth defects. And don’t forget — more doctors smoke Camels than any other brand.
We were also fighting a war in Vietnam in order to “save us from communism.” Execution of that war involved lying about the illegal bombing of Cambodia, destroying the stability of that nation and allowing the Khmer Rouge to come in and murder millions.
In 1989, George H.W. Bush launched “Operation Just Cause” to take out Manuel Noriega, who had ceased being of use to U.S. intelligence. On day two of the invasion, the lying propaganda operation called Radio Havana reported on a mass grave of 300 people killed in a U.S. bombing raid. U.S. reporters “embedding” with the invasion force didn’t notice the bombed neighborhood or the mass grave. The Cuban reports were ignored. About three weeks later, buried in the middle of the New York Times, was a short article about the “discovery” of a mass grave of around 300 people in a Managua neighborhood.
The Times didn’t rest on their delayed news laurels. Some years later, Times reporter Judith Miller latched on to a convicted internationally known liar, Adam Chalabi, to write breathless reports about Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. These reports, along with Colin Powell’s disgraceful lies presented to the nation on the same topic were instrumental in getting public approval for George W Bush’s war on Iraq that killed over a million and birthed ISIS.
These are just a few examples of Americans choosing to believe a lie when the truth is inconvenient. So why would we expect them to act any differently now?
Our reliance on lies to live by are not because we are evil and vile creatures. Probably, 17th century Yankees weren’t murderers at heart. But the knowledge that they were murdering and robbing as a matter of course was too much to handle emotionally. The trauma that they were inflicting and that was being visited back upon them in retaliation was more than their collective consciousness could absorb. When faced with overwhelming traumatic events our brains shut down the frontal cortex where the reason lives and go directly to the amygdala that triggers a non-reasoned and non-negotiable flee, fight or freeze response. America and other countries that have become powerful through war and subjugation have developed a collective trauma response that denies reality and instead embraces a lie, allowing the continuation of a toxic norm.
As long as we prefer to choose to believe a lie that rationalizes our horrific actions, then we are condemned to repeat these actions and never emerge from an endless cycle of inflicting harm and being harmed. The terrible void that we feel in such a senseless and cruel world will never be filled. Somewhere deep down inside, we feel on some level that how we have currently organized ourselves is a terrible failure. Our society is disintegrating as a result.
Our job is not to “correct” the false notions of those who believe Trump’s lies. We must seriously address the collective trauma that controls us. Trauma can be healed. Brains can be re-wired when given a safe environment in which to function. It’s not easy. But if we want to really change our miserable collective psyche, it’s not optional. We have rallied together to support war, but have never been good at choosing difficult paths that stress empathy and understanding. Bucking up, holding our emotions inside and carrying on is exactly what is killing us, slowly but surely.
We can choose to face our trauma, or we can continue to watch the United States slowly devolve into a morass of inequality, grief and dysfunction. Even the billionaires who have profited from exploiting and manipulating our system have no happiness. Just ask the current occupant of the White House.