Having spent seven months living outside of Washington, D.C., I'm still getting used to a couple of things. One of them is having friends for whom politics, American politics, simply does not exist. I drove a friend to the airport last night, and we happened to be flipping through the satellite radio channels, when my friend asked me, rather nonchalantly, "so when is the government going to start collecting the guns?" My friend is a liberal who has no exposure whatsoever to right-wing talk radio. But he hasn't read a newspaper in years, by his own admission. He doesn't have the time or inclination to engage in politics. It is simply an "other" to him. It took him a week to hear about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
So I was surprised to hear him ask a question whose premise is absurd. I told him as much. "It's just what I heard," he said, not remembering precisely where the hearing had taken place. "Politics is a luxury, Marc. I don't have time for it, and it has no impact on my life." Being a pundit, it's easy to generalize from one example, so here goes: It never really occurred to me that a consequence of deliberate lying by one side in politics could be a truth virus that spreads way, way, way behind the orbit of anyone who follows politics.
I know who's saying that the administration is coming after guns: Rush Limbaugh. It's only logical, says Rush, that Joe Biden, an "avowed leftist," would be talking about "executive orders" because "we know... full well that that's what they would do if they could. Make you give up your gun. It's not a mystery. It's not a supposition. It's not a wild theory." Of course, then Limbaugh concedes that the executive orders could well be used to make guns harder to get, "maybe confiscating them, who knows." Now: There is no way in the world that facts will get in the way of certain precincts who deliberately demagogue an argument in order to make people angry. Getting people angry releases them from their obligation to be reasonable. And so they indeed default to the fear that has been pounded into them by the NRA: That Democrats not only do want to confiscate their guns, but they can and will. The specter of government power, which of course liberals love, is being abused.
There's no way to respond to this sort of an argument. It is not an argument about whether limiting access to high capacity magazines will work toward a particular end. It is not an argument about whether gun trafficking properly belongs to a particular set of prosecutors. It is not an argument about the distinctions among semi-automatic assault rifles. It says nothing about ammunition. It is not an argument, actually. It is a set of words designed to make people afraid. Republicans got their butts handed to them in the last election for this type of thing, and even though liberals can't resist the same easy fearmongering, Republicans do it more and do more damage with it.
They do it to such effect that my poor friend, who knows nothing about politics, would hear somehow that what is really true is something that is preposterous. I was stuck in the Beltway for far too long, not really thinking too much about how unreality memes spread. But I guess, in hindsight, the same thing has happened with climate change. It makes me wonder about the news delivery system in America, which is supposedly quite liberal. The way we arrive at facts is often as stubborn as the facts themselves.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- Why so many Christians won't back down on gay marriage
- California's epic drought
- How to be the star of a cocktail party where you don't know anyone
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Peter Thiel, and the not-so-secret secret of innovative success
- 13 Urban Outfitters controversies
Subscribe to the Week