Joe Biden Declares War on Lies
Like a lot of progressives, I was both excited and nervous for Joe Biden’s inauguration. Excited because, well, Trump wouldn’t be president anymore. And nervous because I worried that Biden would deliver a safe, milquetoast speech about unity without directly acknowledging why it is that a call for unity is so needed or what it is that Americans need to be united against.
Fortunately, I was wrong. Biden’s speech did not float in some conflict-free vacuum. Instead it was firmly grounded in the moment, directly referencing elements of the stark reality we find ourselves living in. Some have said that Biden’s speech was boring and therefore a relief, but it was important in the way that it presented the central theme of unity, articulating what it is we can hope to accomplish if we are united, what we can and should unite around, and what we must unite against.
First, President Biden made it clear why Americans must unite, and it is because such unity will allow us to begin tackling the numerous serious problems facing our nation and the world. Among these are of course the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing economic crisis, but Biden also refers to racial injustice, climate change, and “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, [and] domestic terrorism.”
Biden allowed St. Augustine to explain to a deeply fractured America what it is that it might be united by:
Many centuries ago, Saint Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.
What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans?
I think I know.
And, yes, the truth.
Important here is the notion that Biden is not asking Americans to unite around a person, a party, or even a policy agenda. Rather, Americans first must all acknowledge that there are certain virtues beloved by everyone regardless of politics, and that politics is only a tool for bringing about a more virtuous world.
And then Biden turned to what we must unite against. He called out the “riotous mob” that tried “to stop the work of democracy.” And while he had asked Americans to rally around the truth, he likewise called upon us to “defeat the lies.”
Biden is not the first president to make an enemy of an abstraction in an inauguration speech. In his first inaugural address in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said that Americans only had to “fear…fear itself.” But whereas fear is an unconscious, largely uncontrollable emotion that one is blameless for feeling, lies are deliberately peddled by charlatans and cynics to poison the body politic for their personal gain. In saying we must defeat the lies, Biden is also saying we must defeat the liars.
President Biden could have delivered a speech asking us to turn the page, to undergo a collective mass indulgence in which all is forgiven and forgotten. Sure, things got a little heated; and sure, the vast majority of one of the two political parties may have peddled lies that fueled a seditious and murderous mob to try to overthrow American democracy. But now that’s over, and we all need to move on.
Instead, Biden emphasized that there is no moving on without first acknowledging where it is that we currently stand. Our nation is hobbled by many things — but much of it comes back to lies. The lie that the coronavirus wasn’t a serious threat. The lie that it would soon go away. The lie that racism no longer exists. The lie that refugees are criminals. The lie that the election was fraudulent.
The lie that Trump is the best that we can do.
It isn’t going to be easy to unite Americans around the truth, and defeating the lies and the liars won’t be a walk in the park either. (Just after Biden’s speech, Rush Limbaugh told millions of listeners that Biden had “not legitimately won” the election.) But recent events should give us some hope. With Trump kicked off Twitter and other social media platforms, misinformation about the 2020 election dropped by 73 percent. Media organizations should learn this lesson, and fast: Democracy dies in darkness, it’s true — but apparently so do lies.
This doesn’t mean blacklisting every Trump administration official from mainstream media interviews. But just as journalists wrangle for access to top political figures, the opposite should be true as well. Political leaders want to go on Meet the Press just as much as Meet the Press wants to host them. It isn’t much to ask that they should feel pressure not to lie. And that means that media organizations must be willing to end the interview, cut the feed, and never call again.
The fourth estate must answer the call to go to war against lies. The scoop just isn’t worth it with our democracy at stake.