Rush Limbaugh Wasn’t The Only Big Fat Liar

Several years ago, before he joined the US Senate, Al Franken wrote a book titled “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Liar.” Its accusations were accurate, and–because it was Al Franken (who should never have been run out of the Senate for a dumb joke)–it was also pretty funny.

Today, Rightwing liars aren’t funny. We live in a time of rampant lying, politely called “misinformation,” and thanks to a deficit of critical skills and a surfeit of confirmation bias, those lies do enormous damage.

Case in point: a while back, The American Prospect ran a story about “misinformation” feeding the Right’s current anti-Trans frenzy.

Former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss recently founded a publication called The Free Press, and several weeks ago it published an account from a woman named Jamie Reed. Reed, who worked as a case manager at a Washington University gender clinic in St. Louis, made inflammatory accusations (with more in a sworn affidavit) that numerous children at the clinic were being carelessly shoved into irreversible gender treatment en masse.

Reed’s article went viral on social media, and was cited by numerous conservatives and transphobes as conclusive proof that too many kids are getting transition care. A couple of prominent liberals joined in as well. Matthew Yglesias cited it as credible on Twitter and Substack. “The picture she paints of the clinic’s treatment of children is ghastly. The affidavit she signed is even worse,” wrote Jonathan Chait at New York magazine. (It’s of a piece with an ongoing trend in liberal and centrist publications of writing anxious articles raising questions about youth transition care.)

There is just one problem. Reed’s account is a pile of garbage.

As the article pointed out, any sensible person would have noticed a number of obvious red flags when the article first was published. Reed’s  lawyer had founded an openly transphobic organization, and Reed made several wildly mistaken claims about the side effects of some gender treatments.

In her affidavit, Reed claimed that children came into the clinic identifying as “mushroom,” “rock,” or “helicopter,” only to be quickly given puberty blockers or hormones. This is not only facially preposterous, but in the last case suspiciously lines up with a common right-wing transphobic “joke.”

Subsequent reporting demolished Reed’s story, but a great deal of harm had been done–and people who harbor animus against the LGBTQ+ community  still cite it. For that matter, as the article accurately notes, the United States is currently in the grip of a full-blown transphobic moral panic, and “dubious, unrepresentative, or entirely made-up anecdotes are trumpeted across right-wing media.”

That “misinformation” has buttressed the GOP’s legislative attacks on trans youth and overwhelmed credible academic studies, which have overwhelmingly confirmed that “transition is quite rare, de-transition relatively unlikely, the regret rate of gender affirmation surgery low, and treatment difficult and expensive to access.”

Trans children aren’t the only targets of the Right’s intentional lying, a/k/a “misinformation campaigns.” Talking Points Memo has documented one of the many efforts to portray Black Lives Matter as some sort of criminal organization.

When Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) failed, the Right immediately condemned that failure as an example of how“woke culture” had made the bank inefficient. As Josh Marshall wrote,

Ground zero for this is the allegation that SVB had donated over $73 million to the “BLM Movement & Related Causes.” That struck me as quite a lot of money for a single company, even a large and profitable one, to give to any cause or even all causes. So I tried to find out where this factoid came from and rapidly found my way to a Trumpist think tank….

The claims come from a database posted earlier this week by the Center for the American Way of Life, a project of the Claremont Institute. As Claremont put it in a Newsweek article introducing the database, “Americans deserve to know who funded the BLM riots.”

Marshall found no evidence of the purported donation; it appeared that the Center counted any giving by any major corporation to anything tied to civil rights or diversity or just Black people generally as a gift to BLM.

Campbell’s Soup, for example:

Those were grants to Black Girls Code, National Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Campbell Canada’s Black History Month Fund, the Equal Justice Initiative and the Boris L. Henson Foundation. Again, tied to Black people, so it’s all “BLM.”

Marshall goes through the database’s “reports” on several other corporations and found  any donation in any way connected to Black people listed as  support for “BLM riots, mayhem and violence.”

These sorts of assaults aren’t innocent “mistakes.” They’re deliberate lies, in service of hateful ends.

The tactic didn’t die with Limbaugh.


Who Are We?

A few weeks ago, a friend shared an essay from the Philadelphia Magazine that I’ve now reread more than once. It was all about bravery in times of American crisis--not, as the author explained, the personal courage that people display running into burning buildings and in similar exploits, but civic bravery, which she describes as

directly related to being a citizen, and it requires both personal courage and a bigger-picture, idealistic, long-game sort of mind-set. That strain of bravery, birthed in Philly in 1776, is what Americans both great and unknown would tap into in years to come, and what propelled most everything we think of as progress in this country: women’s suffrage, the New Deal, the Freedom Riders and so forth.

The article goes on to hone in on an aspect of American society that has been the focus of much punditry, not to mention a number of comments to this blog–the pervasiveness of an unbecoming fear that is both self-serving and disproportionate to the objects that trigger it:

The troublesome part about all of this is that so many of us seem unable or unwilling nowadays to accept fear as part of being alive in tumultuous times, or to push for the greater good despite personal risk (or perceived personal risk) the way our best countrymen have through the ages. How else to explain why our elected politicians can’t get past reelection concerns to pass even the basic gun legislation when most Americans clamor for it? Why else are so many unarmed young black men, one after the next after the next, dying at the hands of police officers? How to reconcile otherwise compassionate, charitable people scared to welcome refugees fleeing certain death (yearning to breathe free, just like your great-grandparents)?

After quoting former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski for the proposition that fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and paves the way for demagogues, she says the obvious: “Hey Mr. Brzezinski, meet Mr. Trump.”

The essay ends on a hopeful note, citing signs that might portend a revival of civic bravery. Some–like substituting Harriet Tubman for Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill–don’t seem particularly brave to me, but at a time when the Presidential candidate of a major American political party has enabled and normalized bigotry (with, it must be noted, the enthusiastic approval of a majority of that party’s members), Black Lives Matter certainly fits the bill. As she notes,

The time I spent writing this overlapped with the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers, followed by a sniper attack that killed five officers guarding otherwise peaceful protests. It seems there is no end to the fear and the hateful fruit it bears. But then: Black Lives Matter, a movement started mostly by millennials, is gaining momentum across all generations. This movement begun by blacks is roiling across races, as more people are finding that the essential nubs — life, liberty, innocents not being shot to death, not allowing fear to ruin lives — are too important to ignore. The movement is facing down threats, counter-protesters, online vitriol, death. But it goes on. Think of that photo from the Baton Rouge protests a few months back: a young black woman, a calm protester, standing wordless and serene in the street, surrounded by faceless police in riot gear. No puppies. No bubbles. Civil Bravery circa 2016, it turns out, looks an awful lot like Civil Bravery circa 1965.

The entire essay is worth a read–and some sober consideration.