Little Lies of Context and Their Big Effects

Interesting example below of the death by a thousand papercuts warping of reality we now endure daily.

Image for post
Image for post
Screenshot of shared C-Span video, showing Sanders alone in House in 1991. The caption reads “…here is Bernie Sanders — alone — addressing the empty chairs of our elected officials long gone home on the need to prevent the first gulf war…”

Everyone who watches C-Span knows this is not a Jimmy Stewart moment. It’s what reps do as a CYA move to get into the record. You’re not standing alone, you’re reading into the record at a point where it has no real impact. If I read the date here correctly, the vote happened several days before. This is theater.

There’s nothing wrong with that of course. Reading into the record after hours is a venerated tradition. But the framing of the video makes it seem like the House is empty because Sanders was the sole person standing up for this, and implies that his Democratic colleagues voted for a war and then went home.

In reality, neither of these things are true. Whatever your opinions about the first Gulf War, it was opposed by a strong majority of Democrats. Sanders was not alone at all. I mean, even Joe Biden, over in the Senate, was giving angry speeches against the bill, and he was joined by 47 other senators, almost all Democrats. In the House, the Sanders vote against the bill was at most a footnote — the independent candidate voted with the Democrats against the bill, joining 179 other representatives, including the Democratic House leadership of the time (Foley and others) and future House and Senate leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Here’s a full list of the opponents that Sanders joined:

Abercrombie
Alexander
Andrews (ME)
Andrews
Annunzio
Anthony
Applegate
Atkins
AuCoin
Beilenson
Bennett
Bonior
Boucher
Boxer
Brown (CA)
Bruce
Bryant (TX)
Bustamante
Cardin
Carr
Clay
Coleman
Collins (IL)
Collins (MI)
Conte
Conyers
Costello
Cox (IL)
Coyne
DeFazio
DeLauro
Dellums
Dicks
Dixon
Donnelly
Dooley
Dorgan (ND)
Downey
Durbin
Dwyer
Early
Eckart
Edwards (CA)
English (OK)
Espy
Evans
Fazio
Feighan
Flake
Foglietta
Foley
Ford (MI)
Ford
Frank (MA)
Gaydos
Gejdenson
Gephardt
Gibbons
Gonzalez
Gray
Guarini
Hall (OH)
Hamilton
Hayes (IL)
Hefner
Hertel
Hochbrueckner
Horn
Hoyer
Jacobs
Jefferson
Jenkins
Johnson (SD)
Johnston
Jontz
Kanjorski
Kaptur
Kennedy (MA)
Kennelly
Kildee
Kleczka
Kolter
Kopetski
Kostmayer
LaFalce
LaRocco
Lehman (FL)
Levin
Lewis (GA)
Lipinski
Long
Lowey
Manton
Markey
Martinez
Matsui
Mavroules
Mazzoli
McCloskey
McDermott
McHugh
Mfume
Miller (CA)
Mineta
Mink
Moakley
Moody
Moran
Morella
Mrazek
Murphy
Nagle
Natcher
Neal
Neal (NC)
Nowak
Oakar
Oberstar
Obey
Olin
Owens
Owens (UT)
Panetta
Payne (NJ)
Pease
Pelosi
Penny
Perkins
Peterson (FL)
Peterson (MN)
Pickle
Poshard
Price (NC)
Rangel
Reed
Richardson
Riggs
Roe
Roemer
Rose
Roybal
Russo
Sabo
Sanders
Sangmeister
Savage
Sawyer
Scheuer
Schroeder
Schumer
Serrano
Sharp
Sikorski
Skaggs
Slaughter
Smith (FL)
Smith (IA)
Staggers
Stallings
Stark
Stokes
Studds
Swift
Synar
Taylor (MS)
Torres
Towns
Traficant
Traxler
Unsoeld
Vento
Visclosky
Washington
Waters
Waxman
Weiss
Wheat
Williams
Wise
Wolpe
Wyden
Yates
Yatron

(Source)

So you have an image that you frame as a unique moment when it is actually the norm, and create an impression of a unique stance relative to Democrats when the person in question voted with a the vast majority of Democrats. It’s not an outright fabrication. It’s a little lie of context.

I really think this process — by which falsely contextualized bits are circulated — does as much worldview warping or more as complete fakery. It’s just so prevalent now, and increasingly shameless. And while it seems a little lie, consider the story this tells — an alternate history where no one in government, save one man, has stood against war. It tells a story where the two major parties have very little daylight between them, when in fact the parties have been on very different sides of these issues for decades (a majority of Democrats opposed the 2002 Iraq War resolution as well, though most people think otherwise).

It’s a clearer story, and one more suited to heroic narrative. But it gains that clarity by creating a level of suspicion and frustration that is not supported by the facts, and corrodes our democratic discourse. When we ask why people are so unsatisfied with their parties and government, we certainly must consider the corrosive influence of money and power and the electoral structures that have worked to suppress the popular will. But no small part of public suspicion is fueled but a constant stream of little lies of context, each one small, but slowly building a narrative as destructive as anything else out there.

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Teaches web literacy and other things. Recent book: Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers.

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