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The Toxic Legacy of Fake News

Back in the early 1980s, a group of us were sitting around a restaurant table discussing current events and baseball when one of the men suddenly asked us all to guess which country in the world produced the most rice. He said he had heard this statistic on the radio while driving to work the previous day.

When we all predictably guessed China, India or Japan, he gleefully informed us that we were wrong. It was the good old USA. Even though we Yanks don’t consume anywhere near the amount of rice the Asians do, we are, nonetheless, the most prolific and efficient agricultural nation in the history of the world, and accordingly, we produce the most rice. We may not eat much of it, but we export a huge amount.

I didn’t believe him. Not because he was unreliable or because I was an expert on grain production, but because it defied reason. For one thing, only a few states (e.g., Louisiana, Arkansas, my state of California) even had rice under cultivation; for another, China and India (where I once lived) not only had triple our population, but most Chinese and South Indians subsisted on rice diet. We enjoy Rice-A-Roni and Rice Krispies, but that’s about it, no?

So when I went home and looked it up in the almanac (this all occurred in pre-Internet days), it was no big surprise to find that the United States wasn’t even in the Top 10. As might be expected, China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Philippines, et al, dwarfed our rice production.

But when I reported to this guy what I’d found, he was not only astounded, he was demoralized by it. And what rocked him to his core wasn’t that the U.S. didn’t grow the most rice. Rather, it was that he had heard this bit of erroneous information on the public airwaves, which meant that people on the radio—people with the authority to inform other people—were broadcasting false information.

Granted, this fellow may have been a bit “unworldly,” but he confessed to honestly believing that transmitting false facts on the radio was “illegal.” Whoa. That he had lived through the Vietnam war, and had thus been exposed to government lies about body counts, President Diem, the bombing of Cambodia, the Gulf of Tonkin, etc, etc, etc, makes one wonder how he could have remained so naive.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. Incredibly, our president appears to have invented his own preposterous, self-serving epistemology. Call it solipsism, call it flim-flam, or call it “situational ethics,” but Trump has figured out that so-called “facts” have lost so much of their potency, everything is now in play.

Not that politicians haven’t always fudged numbers when it suited them, but Trump has raised the sperm count to the point where nothing can be confirmed or validated without it appearing to be “agenda-driven.” If it weren’t so dangerous and filthy, it would be a brilliant, if stunningly cynical, political ploy.

Consider: Trump claimed the crowd at his inaugural was way larger than it was. A silly lie. He insisted none of his business enterprises had ever gone bankrupt. A trivial but annoying lie. He said the U.S. is the most heavily taxed country in the world. A big lie. And he regularly claims never to have made certain statements even though there is video proof of him doing so. He audaciously denies it and moves on.

But here’s the scary part. Long after Trump leaves office, we’re going to be dealing with the dreadful legacy of fake news. If one cannot confirm or validate a position by resorting to numbers (e.g., if scientists hadn’t been able to convince the public that smoking was injurious to our health), where does that leave us? How do we proceed?

You want to trust the data, fine. You have your facts, and I have my facts. You have the right to your opinion, I have the right to mine. Climate change is a hoax. The majority of illegal immigrants in this country are murderers and rapists. The U.S. DOES produce the most rice. Because statistics can be manipulated, why trust them?

Someday, “fact” will become the new F-word. It will be taboo. And when that day comes, I hope I’m old and senile, and being hand-fed Rice Krispies while watching Judge Judy.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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