One of my morning routines is listening to The Daily podcast from the New York Times. I listen as I get ready for the day. I always learn something new and it helps me keep abreast of the world. I, like you, rarely read an actual print newspaper any more.
One recent broadcast struck me because it was addressing how Russia (not a 400 pound man on a bed in Des Moines) interfered in our 2016 elections and how they are currently employing the same tools to interfere in 2020 elections. What struck me most about the many ways in which Russia spreads disinformation in an effort to reap disorder in the US (hacking DNC emails and most recently Burisma aside) was that they are following the same model they use on state media in Russia: When anything controversial arises, Putin releases a wide array of answers seeped out over a period of days to confuse the listening audience.
This is the model Trump and his administration has followed since Sean Spicer took to the podium and insisted that Trump had the largest inauguration crowd ever. Most Americans who still have eyesight know that Spicer was telling a big old fib. Those who refused to admit it, simply were okay that Spicey was lying. What did it matter? It was silly to make a fuss over crowd size. But the issue was never about crowd size – it was about the lack of integrity. It was about Sean Spicer’s unabashed willingness to lie through his capped teeth and insist that he was right and all our eyes were wrong. Anyone who has ever watched a Glenn Close movie knows how such lying can make a person doubt themselves, doubt reality.
Which is the whole point.
Now we can all admit that Trump’s crowd size doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. But when that same Spicer approach is applied to something like the killing of Iran’s top-ranked general, or the number of American soldiers wounded or KIA in a missile attack, well, what American is willing to overlook the harm done to our troops?
Trump and his administration make it look at though they don’t have a game plan but deception has always been the game plan. Lie. Deceive. Divert.
Soleimani needed to be killed because: Day 1: There was an imminent unidentified threat to America and Trump swooped in and stopped it. Day 2: The Embassy was a target. Day 3: Four Embassies were at risk. Day 4: The general was a bad dude for a very long time. Day 5: Trump doesn’t need a reason to kill people. He can stand on 5th Avenue and kill whomever he likes and we can’t do jack shit to stop him.
A week later and no one is talking about how the US president ordered a hit on another country’s top general just because he felt like it.
Social Media moves information so much faster than any of us can process. We are not computers after all. We are people. We get exhausted in ways machines never do. The reason Trump has been so successful in dismantling our government, our very country, is because he moves on many fronts, like Sherman did. Only he’s not just burning down Atlanta. Trump is burning down the country with the help of a lot of people every bit as willing as Spicer to go before the American public and straight up lie to them.
McConnell and Graham may lead the pack, but make no mistake about it, there is a passel of people willing to tear down this country, to defy every rule of law there is in order to stay in power. They simply do not care one iota about integrity. It means nothing to them. The mistake we as voters make is assuming others care the way we do. They don’t.
And the reason they don’t care is because we do not have shared values.
While reading an excerpt from Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean (Ohio University Press), I happened upon a passage by Bell Hooks that has me pondering this matter of integrity. If you are unfamiliar with Bell Hooks, she is a Kentuckian who went to California for her education and ended up staying there for some decades before moving back to the hills of Kentucky. In her essay, A Constant Mourning, Hooks describes herself as an ecofeminist, which I take to mean a woman whose outlook in life is shaped by her connection to the land.
Bell Hooks was raised up in what she calls the “backwoods” of Kentucky. In Tennessee, we just referred to it as “the holler.” But make no mistake, they were one in the same – isolated places where folks forged communities that sustained generations of families.
Hooks credits that community as the foundation for her life’s work: “Early on in my life I learned from those Kentucky backwoods elders, the folks whom we might now label Appalachian, a set of values rooted in the belief that above all else one must be self-determining. It is the foundation that is the root of my radical critical consciousness.
“Folks from the backwoods were certain about two things: that every human soul needed to be free and that the responsibility of being free required one to be a person of integrity, a person who lived in such a way that there would always be congruency between what one thinks, says and does.”
I don’t know what happened to Mitch McConnell other than maybe he apparently wasn’t reared up in Kentucky’s backwoods. There is nothing at all congruent in what McConnell thinks, says and does. As my Tennessee friend Gordon liked to say: He will piss on your leg and tell you it’s raining.
Granny Leona would just call Mitch McConnell a “no count” as in “That man ain’t no count.”
Corruption, as we all know, begins first with the willingness to be deceptive. A person has to discard any shred of integrity before they can don the shroud of deception. You cannot be a person of integrity and be corrupt. One repels the other. But you can be a corrupt person and regard yourself as a person of integrity.
In his book People of the Lie, Scot Peck denotes that people who are doing the wrong thing will go to extreme lengths to convince themselves that they are doing the right thing. For the corrupt person, the deception begins first within one’s self. It has to start there. Deception – whether one is talking about the crowd size at an inauguration, or the killing of another – demands that a person disavow themselves first and foremost of any allegiance to truth.
And the problem with a life of deception is that it becomes like a house of mirrors, you never know which one is a true reflection of who you are. Everything in life becomes distorted. It can be difficult to find yourself again, if you ever do.
That’s true for nations as well. When our leaders collectively engage in deception (or a cover up) it is difficult to know who we are as a people, as a nation. There is nothing congruent about what anyone is saying, doing or thinking. About the only thing for sure we can be sure of is that we will awake each day to more chaos and disorder.
Which is the point for those seeking to control us.
The timely admonition of Bell Hooks remind us of who we once were, of what was once our shared values as a nation: In the not too distance past, we were a people who believed that all people have the right to live free. And that with such freedoms came the responsibility of being people committed to living lives of integrity, to ensuring that there is consistency between what what we say we value and how we live out those values.
We can’t continue to claim we value the Constitution and the Rule of Law while we devalue it everyday.
We can’t continue to claim we are a people of faith, when we use our powers to instill fear in others.
We can’t claim to be followers of Jesus, while seeking ways daily to do harm to others.
As the Scriptures say: “If we claim that we experience a shared life with him and continue to stumble around in the dark, we’re obviously lying through our teeth—we’re not living what we claim.”
The responsibility of being a free people depends first and foremost on our commitment to being people of integrity.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Christian Bend, the story of a holler, (Mercer Univ Press).