In his poem “To Elsie,” William Carlos Williams wrote, “The pure products of America/go crazy.”
I have thought of that poem a lot lately.
Our national unreality over the past several years escalated to a fever pitch between the November election and the most recent impeachment routine, with a hefty dose of an insurrection thrown in on Jan. 6 just to make everything as real as it could possibly be.
Nothing that has happened since then has changed that reality — no matter how rational President Joe Biden’s White House tries to be.
The starting point has to do with defining the problem. The first element is that a vast number of people have come to believe things that are not true.
It started with Donald Trump’s lie that then-President Barack Obama was not a United States citizen. Now, it is the lie that Trump had the election stolen from him.
A significant minority of people in the United States believe these falsehoods.
Their belief in things that are not true extends into the nether reaches of QAnon, whose prevailing concept is that a massive conspiracy of Democrats are pedophiles and perform rites in which they drink the blood of children.
The problem also extends to the misguided and dangerous thinking of those who see themselves as Oath Keepers or Proud Boys and have defined for themselves an imaginary dedication to a Constitution that they invented and use to work out their sense of grievance and anger.
The second element is that ordinary people are acting on impulses driven by irrational and emotional reasoning.
On Jan. 6, we saw people from ordinary walks of life in the United States act on this unreality. Among them: real estate agents, insurance adjusters, lawyers, off-duty cops, and other such largely middle-class people made up the mob — the kind of people you might have met at a barbecue.
Five people died, hundreds were injured, and some elected officials were chased into bunkers with people coming after them — including the vice president and the speaker of the House.
The deepest element of the dislocation from reality lies in the ardent yearning of so many white people to return to the world that existed before women’s rights and civil rights, when white men were always in charge.
Trump’s slogan, “Make American Great Again,” is about a return to this era.
The world as it was after World War II, when so many boomers like Trump and Biden grew up, will never come back, although it still exists in many pockets. On the whole, this world is gone forever — a fact that remains a source of sorrow, fear, and anger for many white people.
The deaths of despair — from addiction and suicide — that afflict the white community in America are one stark illustration of that loss.
Another illustration is the Jan. 6 insurrection.
* * *
Our country’s embrace of unreality was not spontaneously generated. It came from lies spun at the highest levels.
The lies depend on forms of media that create megaphones for people who market these lies. This media landscape is so powerful that many of us now question what is true or not true, and what is or isn’t the right thing to do.
So if you are an ordinary guy who is strongly against pedophilia and have been given to believe that a secret state is running a child-trafficking enterprise in the basement of a popular pizzeria in Washington, D.C., you load your weapon and drive there to try to save the children.
Maybe it’s not really your fault that you did that thing.
For years — decades, maybe, by this point — you have been hearing multiple times a day, and now not only on television but also Facebook and Twitter, that you can’t trust what you read in the “mainstream media.” So you become predisposed to believing the people who are telling you about a high-level operative named “Q.”
You lacked the kind of reason that might have questioned the reality of the heroic mission you had defined for yourself — and then you wound up in prison for four years.
That’s how it works now. People hear or read or watch things that are not true, and then they act on them. A lot of people have stopped believing in vaccines, for example, even though vaccines are the main reason life expectancy has increased in the last century or so.
The outright lies are a real problem, and the fact that the liars have had platforms so accessible over the past several years is part of what brought us to the state we are in.
Trump on Twitter was a national thing. When he tweeted, people marched on the Capitol. That is the social media world. But Trump’s lies are only part of the problem.
The former president is a pure product of — and prime perpetuator of — America’s blurred understanding of reality, and he would never have been anyone at all if the press had not devoted so much coverage to him during the 2016 primary season and if he had not been enabled after that by so many Republicans in state legislatures and in Congress.
In a post–World War I poem, William Carlos Williams’s friend, the great poet Ezra Pound, called the British politicians who had created four years of total carnage “liars in public spaces.”
I am thinking that these two poets’ respective lines go together perfectly: we have liars in public spaces, and the pure products of America go crazy.
* * *
There is a lot of talk now about divisions and unity, and the idea of finding civil ways to talk across the conflicts that separate us. These are good thoughts — the ideas of authentic listening, empathy, finding pools of agreement on which understanding can be built.
We can have civil conversations about things like tax cuts or minimum wage or immigration policy. But you can’t talk to someone who ardently believes in things that are simply not true, like the lies about Obama’s birthplace, or that the election was stolen, or that Trump had nothing to do with the Jan. 6 insurrection.
When bands of groups are roaming around with high-powered weapons and believe that they, not the forces of law and order, are keepers of an oath to the Constitution in the service of insurrection, there is no civil conversation to be had.
There is no easy solution to the larger problem, which is that liars can speak in public spaces through the megaphones of the press and social media. But one thing that is clearly working so far is to take the megaphone away from the liars who push the falsehoods that disconnect people from reality.
When Trump lost Twitter and Facebook after Jan. 6, it took away his megaphones. He may find or build other ones, but they never will be as global and powerful as those two are. His power is still real, but his voice has been muffled.
When Parler was cast away by Google, Apple, and Amazon, it stopped being the white supremacist, militia-oriented version of Facebook. Now, the site is barely visible, though it is trying to come back.
The cancellation of easy platforms drives extremist right-wing social media underground, where its most noxious, hateful, and fringe ideas have lived for years. And not everyone will follow the liars there or be willing to use new tools and services like Tor and Telegram.
When the voting-machine companies sued Fox News, Newsmax and OANN for billions of dollars, claiming damages for defamation, that legal action put these propaganda sources on notice. The court cases are solid, and the right-wing channels are running scared. They took steps to wash their hands of the lies they had aired.
These developments suggest that the loosening of our collective grip on reality might be tamed by making its sound softer and less visible. By turning the volume down and making this false universe less accessible, maybe it will become less real.
And maybe in the process, reality will come back into focus.
* * *
That leaves the problem of the mainstream press and how it will deal with the more subtle lies and deception of people in official positions — the true liars in public spaces.
Every real journalist is inculcated in the basic principles of accuracy, fairness, and objectivity, but these attributes are shaped in powerful ways by the prevailing culture.
That’s why it took so long in the 1960s for editors at The New York Times and Newsweek to believe what their reporters were telling them about what was really happening in Vietnam.
When the human impact on climate first became an ongoing news story, for a long time mainstream publications were careful to include the perspectives of climate-change deniers, in the interest of balance. That trend stopped only a few years ago.
It took almost two years for mainstream publications to describe Donald Trump’s utterances with words like “untruths” or “factually false”; even so, the word “lie” has still barely been used.
The question now for the mainstream press will be how to deal with new lies and new liars in public spaces, and whether they will continue to sell stories that are not true.
Part of the dark magic of seeding the dialogue with lies is that that decision brings eyeballs. Donald Trump knew that better than anyone, and others have learned from him.
Recently, we have seen the madness of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, with presenters spewing lies and attendees worshiping a gold idol of Trump.
The fact-checking by the diligent reporters of the mainstream press to catch the lies and all the pictures of the people who attend — how crazy is it to have a gold statue of Trump? — won’t make much difference to the folks who get their news from right-wing propaganda or the dark corridors of Telegram.
We are still a yard or two away from really telling the truth in the mainstream press, but maybe we are getting there.
In the meantime, this unreality has thrown our country into a cold civil war. The dangers to people of color, whether Black, Latino, Asian, or South Asian are real. The danger to the fabric of democracy is even deeper.
The press needs to do a better job in reporting the story, and maybe it will. I am watching for it.