One of the burdens of our democracy is the power that repetition too often has over reality.
Lobbies representing special interests revel in how quickly the act of repeating a pure falsehood can turn it into a glistening factoid. This has been true for a long time, but never more so than in recent years.
Fox News mastered this tactic in American politics with its repetition of lies -- whether about President Barack Obama's background or John Kerry's military service. There is no apology, no pretense of being interested in the actual truth. The goal of Rupert Murdoch and his minions is not to engage in reasoned debate, but to get extremists frothing at their mouths -- that is the art of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.
Contemporary folklore is so driven by electronics that people continue to believe the lie, often with hysterical intensity. The ability of the Internet to make something "go viral" only feeds into the fervent paranoia found at all extremes. This is exactly what Andrew Breitbart did with the heavily edited footage of a speech by Shirley Sherrod, which made it seem as if she discriminated against white farmers.
Since the 1930s, the power of popular media to distort has been well-known. Drum majors for injustice such as Adolf Hitler were almost immediately aware of what falsehoods were possible, and the propaganda machine of Joseph Goebbels was the finest the world had seen -- even more toxic than Fox News.
Having grown up in California during the 1950s, I became aware of how the killing fields of lies were open to any persuasion -- for example, the right-wing nuts of the John Birch Society. They did not stutter when claiming that President Dwight Eisenhower was a communist puppet or that, if we were not careful, one day we would see Soviet troops parachuting into our backyards.
At that time, there was no Fox News, no Murdoch, no Koch brothers; the Republican Party had not yet submitted to a Southern strategy that turned rednecks into elephants. The party, under Richard Nixon, appealed to those white Southerners disgusted by the fact that the Democrats had force-fed constitutional law below the Mason-Dixon Line. Inevitable alliances beyond color were thus delayed.
Since then, the Democrats lost the South and have yet to win it back. That was the first thrust of the Republican revolution. The second came when President Ronald Reagan dramatically brought off changes in the tax code that essentially took all financial responsibility off the rich.
I remembered Reagan when he was governor of California and took the position that science and religion should be taught in the public schools as different interpretations of the origins of the world. That was a bucket of intellectual slop to the extremists on the religious right.
Back then, the country was bollixed up by the Vietnam War and the lunatic excesses of the Black Panthers, the Weathermen and those preaching a bloody revolution.
Cooler heads eventually prevailed. Jerry Rubin turned right and ended up on Wall Street, but eventually died in what seemed a melodramatic joke: He was run over while jaywalking in Beverly Hills.
Huey Newton's brains were blown out by a crack dealer sick and tired of the ex-Black Panther leader demanding free drugs. As we learned in the '60s, those who claim to live by the gun might find themselves dying by one.
Some of the smoke and mirrors of that era no longer work. The recent congressional race in upstate New York's 26th District is a shining example. The Democrat Kathy Hochul won despite strong Republican opposition. This was not as dramatic as gunshots and riots, but it may have announced the ending of something. Hochul's main contender, the Republican Jane Corwin, was exposed as a Medicare hawk who'd bought into the right's most flagrant lies about our social safety net.
When American voters learn the difference between what they are told and what Republican legislators really intend to do to their entitlements in order to protect tax breaks for millionaires, billionaires and their corporations, they do not like it -- and they will vote against the elephants, as they just did.
Republicans say that they were misunderstood and that they had absolutely no intention of shearing away Medicare. It will take a lot of fancy footwork to prove that.
But don't count them out. Lies have many more than nine lives in American life. We all know the truth of that.
Stanley Crouch can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.