False Equivalence: When Facts Matter

A couple years ago, I chanced upon a movie called Denial about the crazy true story of Deborah Lipstadt. A British Holocaust denier sued her in court to try to make a point. He claimed that she was slandering him for calling him out as a Holocaust denier (which he totally was). British law was, and is, a bit different from U.S. law in this regard, because they don’t have our First Amendment rules, where (almost) anything is allowed.

To make a torturously long story very short, the Holocaust denier in question sued Jewish writer Lipstadt for slandering him by claiming his legitimate differences of opinion regarding the number of people who died in the Holocaust were fabricated lies. Which they were, fabricated lies. It’s important to note this. No one was really disputing that, not with anything approaching intellectual rigor. The question was whether Lipstadt was justified to briefly (very briefly) mention the author as one of several dangerous Holocaust deniers. Is it okay to call someone else out on their lies, in other words? Even if you can never be entirely sure that they are purposely making up those lies?

It’s an important question of great relevance to modern day politics in the U.S. I am not kidding, not being cute, when I agree with others that Trump and his populist allies appear to be taking pages from Hitler’s playbook. Because, facts matter sometimes. And, “alternate facts” can be a cute phrase for “lies”.

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Even in U.S. law, even for every day U.S. citizens, the First Amendment has its limits. You can’t incite violence, for example. Right now, there’s an impeachment trial going on, and it is debatable whether our former president actually incited an insurrection at the U.S. capitol last month. It would really help if they could show him saying words like “Invade the Capitol building.”

It should bother us to the depth of our souls that he might as well have for all he did to encourage it and all he did not do to discourage it from the very start, when people’s lives were in danger.

This action and inaction in itself should be inexcusable. If we pause to think about it.

I’m not a historian, and I’m not a Holocaust denier. When it came to the movie, I sidestepped the details of the case while admiring Rachel Weisz’s understated performance of a modern-day heroine. (The movie was worth it for that alone.) As a creative writer who often has merry fun with the truth herself, I was mostly interested in the theses Lipstadt presented.

I strongly encourage anyone interested to read her books, by the way. She makes a convincing argument for not giving white supremacists too much air time. This is what they want. They don’t have facts on their side, but give them a chance to speak in public enough and you can start to convince people there are “two sides” to an argument that isn’t even really a valid argument. It’s one person’s made up story against historical fact.

It has horrified me that for the past four years, that is exactly what the “other side” has been getting. It has horrified me to hear devout Christian believers obviously under the sway of propaganda/lies straight from hell. It’s one thing to disagree about Black Lives Matter and other non-violent protests. It’s another thing altogether to set up a false equivalence between people with clearly-set agendas (racial/gender/educational equality) and the black hole of a guy who is Not Even the Second Coming of Christ as if he were. Because that is literally all he has going for him. There is simply no there, there, if you pause to think.

No, there is not. Alternate facts are not facts. Random statements to appeal to the emotions of the crowd are not the same as plans for infrastructure. And that is exactly Hitler’s playbook, the playbook of someone with no sustainable long-term plans, not really. Yeah, he got a lot done, but a lot of it was evil or morally empty to the point of being evil.

That should bother all of us, deeply. It should give us all pause that we have descended to this level.

Facts are facts. It’s one thing to be a fiction writer or satirist making up random facts. It’s another to create propaganda and present it as truth, gaslighting the people who were actually there and they know. Those were gas chambers. They were not showers.

Why do people tell blatant lies like this? We all know why. It worked once, and it can work again, if we let it.

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