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In January 1980, Mary McCarthy appeared on Dick Cavett’s talk show to promote her latest novel. When the conversation drifted to “overpraised” writers, McCarthy trained her fire on playwright Lillian Hellman, whom she had disliked for at least three decades.
“Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,’” McCarthy said, repeating a claim she had made in an earlier interview.
This time Hellman fired back, suing McCarthy for $2.25 million, but died before the case could come to trial.
McCarthy’s quip might have been the most devastating line ever said questioning a celebrity’s honesty – at least until the Washington Post cataloged the falsehoods told by former President Donald Trump: “By the end of his term, Trump had accumulated 30,573 untruths during his presidency — averaging about 21 erroneous claims a day.” (New York City’s former deputy mayor, Alair Townsend, once said, after tangling with Trump, “I wouldn’t believe Donald Trump if his tongue were notarized.”)
But even tens of thousands of lies are a drop in the bucket on social media, where misinformation is weaponized to drive engagement and achieve political ends. In a new series on “the poisoned public square,” CNN Opinion is putting a spotlight on the menace of deliberate falsehoods.
As Nicole Hemmer wrote, the latest flood of misinformation stems from the rise of the Delta variant: “The near-total breakdown of hope for a return to normal has also highlighted and fueled a wave of misinformation about the pandemic and the vaccines designed to end it. From groundless conspiracy theories that the vaccines contain microchips or alter people’s DNA to deliberate falsehoods about vaccine deaths and mask side effects, the pandemic misinformation industry is thriving in the US, more than a year and a half after the pandemic began.”
The business of lying about medicine, Hemmer noted, goes back to the medicine shows of the 19th Century: “Kickapoo Indian Sagwa could do it all: heal the blood, the liver, the stomach and even the kidneys. Purportedly based on a proprietary blend of ingredients developed by Indigenous healers – and patented by White salesmen – sagwa was sold in the late 19th Century as a panacea: you drank it to cure whatever ailed you.” In 1905, an investigation by a writer for Collier’s magazine revealed the truth about patent medicines – they were full of “alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics… and in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud.”
Lies about the 2020 election are flourishing, even though every single piece of legitimate evidence affirms Joe Biden’s victory over Trump. The former president is so exercised about Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s refusal to try to overturn Biden’s narrow victory in his state that he suggested Democrat Stacey Abrams would make a better governor.
Trump’s startling words had Dean Obeidallah marveling that he for once agreed with him. “Has hell frozen over? Are pigs now airborne?” wrote Obeidallah. “Trump is 100% correct about Abrams. But his comments … weren’t about the truth that the political powerhouse, who’s the former minority leader for the Georgia House of Representatives, would be excellent in Kemp’s position. It was all about his anger at Kemp – which reveals so much about how dangerous the GOP is to our democracy under Trump’s leadership.”
Geoff Duncan, the Republican lieutenant governor of Georgia, pointed out that “Trump did not lose because of voter fraud or his conservative policies. Biden is sitting in the White House today because voters grew tired of Trump’s erratic behavior, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.” For Republicans, “the upcoming elections cannot be a discussion about the past, unless we want to continue losing.”
In a book publishing this week, former Trump spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham says, “Casual dishonesty filtered through the White House as if it were in the air conditioning system.” In other words, wrote Frida Ghitis, it was a “culture of lies and deceit.” The shelf full of Trump tell-all books carries “enormous weight today as we see Trump and his acolytes laying the groundwork to try to capture the presidency in 2024, apparently at any cost. Viewed in this context, they are dark portents.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell is trying to win back GOP control of the Senate in next year’s midterm elections. Former Vice President Mike Pence is traveling the country, possibly in preparation for a 2024 presidential run. Yet, as Michael D’Antonio noted, it “seems like no one has told them that Donald Trump owns the GOP… a recent CNN poll found that a majority of Republicans say that supporting Trump and his Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him are important aspects of being a member of the party.”
At 12:01 am Friday, the US government did not shut down. That was one crisis averted, but another looms later this month when the government could run out of its authority to borrow money. If the debt limit isn’t raised, catastrophe lurks. Economist Dean Baker wrote that the US wouldn’t be able to “cover its normal expenses, including Social Security payments, salaries for government workers and interest payments on the debt,” with incalculable harm to America’s global standing.
“This is a game of chicken,” Baker argued. “Mitch McConnell wants the Biden administration to pay a big price to get him on board on increasing the debt ceiling.” The standoff is “ridiculous” and so is one potential solution Biden could adopt: “Due to a technicality in the law, the Treasury Department can print a platinum coin and assign a huge value to it – say, $1 trillion – and sell it to the Federal Reserve Board. This would get around the need to borrow.”
As Jamelle Bouie wrote in the New York Times, “there are 51 votes” in the 100-member Senate to raise the debt limit, secure voting rights and reform policing in America. “Of course, the Senate does not run on 51 votes. Instead, members must assemble a supermajority to do anything other than appoint judges, confirm nominees and pass certain spending bills. Pretty much everything else must go through a protracted and convoluted process that makes a mockery of the Senate’s reputation for debate and deliberation.”
In the long run, the most significant battle in Washington this week might have been within one party, rather than between Democrats and Republicans. Speaker Nancy Pelosi contended with strains among Democrats over Biden’s twin priorities – a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion social spending package. Progressives are holding the bipartisan bill hostage in return for a commitment from all Democratic senators to pass the bigger bill.
Three prominent progressives, Pramila Jayapal, Katie Porter and Ilhan Omar, argued that “the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act are two parts of a whole, so they must be passed together.”
They wrote, “The Build Back Better Act provides childcare to women who have been pushed out of the workforce. It funds free community college and affordable housing. It finally expands Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing benefits for our seniors. And it takes meaningful action on climate change – funding millions of green jobs to build our energy future.”
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West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have been the two Democrats holding out against the $3.5 trillion plan, which would raise taxes on corporations and high-income earners. Three Rockefeller heirs who are the children of former West Virginia Gov. and US Sen. Jay Rockefeller wrote that Manchin is hurting his own state’s interests. But “by supporting the reconciliation bill, he can help unlock economic opportunities, more resilient infrastructure and a more sustainable future for our state and our country.”
In the Washington Post, Henry Olsen praised Manchin for seeing that “the nation’s fiscal situation is too dire to unnecessarily add to the country’s debt burden.” Olsen argued that Manchin also correctly disapproves of the sweeping social impact the legislation would have. “Reengineering the fabric of American life is modern progressivism’s whole point. Its adherents believe that the nation is in crisis — a climate crisis, a systemic racism crisis, an economic inequality crisis.” But can they convince the nation of that? Democrats, Olsen wrote, “expected a landslide” in the 2020 elections, but emerged with a thinner majority in the House and the slimmest possible one in the Senate. “A 50-50 election never augurs radical change.”
The heat is on Sinema, with her state’s Democratic party threatening a no-confidence vote if she opposes Biden’s spending bill. SE Cupp said that’s a mistake: “When a party villainizes its moderates, questions a lawmaker’s loyalty for not voting in lockstep, threatens their future, trust me – bad things happen.”
A lot is riding on the decisions of Manchin and Sinema, Lincoln Mitchell pointed out. “Failure to pass this legislation will damage an already vulnerable President Biden and deprive the Democratic Party of a major accomplishment it can present to the voters in both the 2022 and 2024 elections. In other words, any Democrat who does not support this deal, protestations about fiscal responsibility or pressing the pause button notwithstanding, is playing directly into GOP hands.”
Julian Zelizer: Democrats are fighting for their political lives
A Covid pill
For once, the Covid-19 news was mostly positive this week – infections and hospitalizations are trending lower in the US, vaccine mandates are working and there was hopeful news Friday about an experimental pill that pharma giant Merck says could cut the risk of hospitalization or death in half.
“If the results hold up to scientific scrutiny, this is very big news indeed,” wrote Dr. Kent Sepkowitz. “Effective pills given to outpatients could make a large difference for several distinct groups: for people with mild illness, it could prevent progression to more severe, even life-threatening illness, as the study apparently shows; provide an alternative approach to prevent severe disease in vaccine-refuseniks and vaccine-non-responders (those with severely weakened immune systems); and potentially protect those with recent close exposure to an active case (studies already are underway to examine this last possible use). Still, there are issues that could limit the use of the pill: “cost, side effects, drug resistance, use in pregnancy and, most of all, practicality.”
The lingering social costs of the pandemic can’t be ignored, wrote Jill Filipovic. “A new survey of 65,000 US workers from McKinsey and LeanIn.org found that a whopping one-third of women said they were considering quitting their jobs or reducing their hours. Female workers were more likely to say that they were burned out. And more of them were discouraged now than they were in the early, shocking months of the pandemic,” Filipovic noted. “The survey reveals that the US has utterly failed its female workers. And that too many men have also failed women – as bosses, colleagues, partners and co-parents.”
Ashish Prashar: This group has a lot to lose when the Covid emergency ends
CNN senior political analyst Kirsten Powers joined the ranks of our regular columnists this week with a look at a “remarkable and soul-baring new book.”
“At the age of 35, Kate Bowler was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Doctors predicted that at best she had two years to live – essentially handing the Duke Divinity School professor a death sentence,” Powers wrote. “Since then, she’s been on the receiving end of a maddening collection of cringey cliches presumably meant to encourage her, but which have only made her already terrifying situation more difficult.”
Six years later, Bowler’s new book – “No Cure for Being Human” – raises questions about how we view other people. “Bowler, a historian of self-help, is fed up with ‘toxic positivity,’ which she defines as ‘an overemphasis on the idea that our mindsets determine our reality.’”
As Powers noted, “It’s nearly impossible to live in America and avoid the trite admonishments to ‘think positive!’ when you lose your job or that ‘everything happens for a reason’ when you go bankrupt from medical bills, even though you have health insurance.”
The generals speak
Congressional testimony by military leaders cast a harsh light on the ending of America’s longest war. Peter Bergen wrote, “Top American generals warned President Joe Biden that the Afghan military would collapse. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in essence on Tuesday that both former President Donald Trump and Biden had botched negotiations with the Taliban – and the net result of the US actions was a ‘logistical success but a strategic failure.’”
“Even the most senior US generals couldn’t defend the debacle that has unfolded in Afghanistan during the past several weeks, a disaster owned by President Biden, even if it was teed up by President Trump’s ill-fated ‘peace’ negotiations with the Taliban that culminated in the Doha agreement.”
R. Kelly convicted
When R. Kelly was convicted Monday of racketeering and sex trafficking, Treva B. Lindsey thought of the degrading 20-year-old sex tape “that in my view, featured the rape of a teenage girl.” Kelly denied allegations related to the tape, but Lindsey wrote that, “I couldn’t help but think back to how the world reacted in 2001 when the tape surfaced and in 2002 when it was copied and sold. The way the Black girl on the tape was erased from her own story never left me. In fact, it was a defining moment in my journey to understand the multitude of ways Black girls are devalued.”
“It incenses me that it took nearly three decades’ worth of allegations for the criminal legal system to offer some semblance of accountability for the harm this man caused,” wrote Lindsey, who expressed hope that this “can be a galvanizing moment for those who want to join the fight to end sexual violence against Black women and girls.”
Erwin Chemerinsky: Justice Sotomayor tells the truth about the Supreme Court
Nicole Hemmer: Britney Spears’ bid for freedom comes at a crucial moment
David Love: What Congress’ total failure on police reform means for communities
Isha Sesay, Masai Ujiri, Gbenga Akinnagbe and Liz Agbor-Tabi: Where is the outrage for Ethiopia?
Julian Zelizer: Controversial Obama presidential library is a cause for celebration
Elizabeth Alexander: The big problem with America’s monuments
Lawrence C. Levy: Bill Barr was right about the suburbs
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was one of the books that made British author Roald Dahl a favorite of young readers around the world. It was also one of David M. Perry’s favorite books. “As a nerdy Jewish kid in Indiana and Tennessee in the late 1970s and 1980s, I had far better relationships with books than I did with other kids. If I liked a book, I read it again, and again and again.”
So it was disturbing when he learned “that Roald Dahl hated Jewish people like me… And we know he was an anti-Semite because he said so… In 1990, months before his death, he summed it all up by saying, ‘I’m certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic.’”
Netflix announced last month that it had bought the rights to Dahl’s stories to create a “unique universe” of content.
Perry observed, “The Dahl family has apologized for Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism, but the question remains, for readers and viewers, for TV producers and writers: what might it mean to eat the fruit from this poisoned tree?”