Truth and America have a long, interesting relationship. We cherish it. We celebrate it. But we can’t seem to agree on it.
It’s even mentioned early in the Declaration of Independence: “truths.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
Most Americans hail that sentence. Yet it was crafted, in part, by men who held slaves. So right off the bat, from 1776, what our government said and what it did had some distance between it.
This, by the way, is true of most governments. Which is why some people got very antsy last week when Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced the creation of something called the Disinformation Governance Board.
The purpose of this board, he said, would be to counter misinformation, mostly spread on the internet. He didn’t exactly say what. He didn’t exactly say how. But in this polarized era of left and right, he didn’t have to. The name of the thing — Disinformation Governance Board — was enough.
Lickety split, vocal critics, mostly from the right, likened it to George Orwell’s “1984.” In that book, the Ministry of Truth is a massive government organization involved in media, news, books and entertainment. It ensures that the information people get reflects not what is accurate, but what the government wants them to believe.
You can see where this is going.
The danger of censorship
Many Republican lawmakers loudly warned that this new board was the Biden administration’s attempt to shut down contrary voices on things like COVID-19 or Hunter Biden’s laptop.
And it didn’t help that the person the National Security Agency put in charge has previously, yes, dismissed contrary voices on COVID-19 and Hunter Biden’s laptop.
Her name is Nina Jankowicz. She is 33. She is an author and researcher who tweets, and recently expressed concern over “free speech absolutists” on internet platforms. If the NSA wanted criticism, they couldn’t have picked a better target than Jankowicz.
There is even a TikTok video of her singing about misinformation to the tune of the “Mary Poppins” classic, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious:”
“It’s how you hide a little lie, little lie, it’s how you hide a little lie…”
It’s cringeworthy. If emails sent in college can get you fired, this video should be cause to choose someone else.
But then, should the position exist in the first place?
I’m guessing most people would say no. Left or right, most of us have a healthy distrust of the government. If you’re on the left, ask yourself how a “Disinformation Governance Board” formed by Donald Trump would sit in your stomach. (The truth is, he actually established one under a different name: the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Bad idea then. Bad idea now.)
Why? Because any such agency would yield dangerous power to shut down, block or remove access to voices it deemed unreliable or suspicious. Using what criteria? Facts? Facts can be manipulated. Science? There are many schools of scientific thought. Lies? If everyone who lied was to be removed from social media, there would be no social media.
Sure, scratching out human trafficking sites might be an act we’d all agree upon, but there are thousands of others that we would not.
Just as democracy dies in darkness, truth can only live in light. Righteousness relies on that light to illuminate even the ugliest parts of our society.
There is a reason why even some Jewish people defended a Nazi group’s right to march in Skokie, Illinois, back in the 1970s. They felt the principle of free speech was sacred, and the ugliness of the Nazi way would be exposed by the bright light of a free, democratic society.
That was a brave stance. No one wants to give hate any oxygen. But the alternative, a government that decides what can and can’t be said, seemed worse.
What exactly is the truth?
Since then, it appears we have changed. In retreating to our left and right corners, we have fallen under the spell that “our side” of the government should shut down “their side” of the populace.
Have we forgotten that, of all the institutions in the world, governments might rank highest in manipulating the truth? If they didn’t, they’d keep all their campaign promises. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t spin wars.
If they didn’t, we in the U.S. wouldn’t cringe at words like Teapot Dome, My Lai, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, Weapons of Mass Destruction or Jan. 6.
Do we really want a government agency judging our truth? Which truth? Not long ago, you’d have been canceled for saying cloth masks weren’t great protection against COVID-19. Now the CDC admits that.
News shifts. Perceptions change. No one — not even Congress or the president — has access to all information all the time.
Yes (and this is an undeniable truth) the internet is a game-changing landscape where voices from around the world are suddenly at your fingertips. It is challenging to know what is accurate and what’s not.
But that just means we have to become smarter. More discerning. It doesn’t mean we should turn our judgment over to a government agency, or a 33 year-old director with already stated prejudices.
The power to silence voices in a polarized environment is tempting. It’s also scary as hell. Americans are better than that. We are smarter than that. We don’t need Ministries of Truth or Disinformation Governance Boards.
We just need to demand more of ourselves, to work harder, become better educated, listen to both sides, and remember what Emerson said: that truth is the property of no individual, but is the treasure of all.