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Opinion

Away from the abyss

SoVaNow.com / January 20, 2021
There are two types of people in the world: those who lie and those who are lied to. To which group do you belong?

Let’s start here with a brief defense of the art of lying. Lies, of course, come in all shapes and sizes, and the most harmless among them are so ridiculous as to beggar belief the moment they pass the teller’s lips. Lying can be high entertainment; just ask a magician. There are white lies and well-meaning lies and feckless lies that, while not exactly admirable, at least are understandable in the context of human weakness, may God bless our collective souls.

And then there’s the rest: self-serving and malicious lies, destructive lies, contemptible lies, lies that corrode democracies and foment insurrection and generally make life miserable all around. The year 2021 has kicked off with a bumper crop of such lies, which makes the obvious follow-up to the first paragraph — when you’re being fed blatant falsehoods, do you enjoy the taste, and why? — all the more pressing.

Two missives landed at our office this week that call for an examination of the relationship between lying liars and the people who gobble up their words like the french fries in a McDonald’s Happy Meal. One such contribution was provided this week by Mitzi Thompson, self-styled commander of the Halifax County Militia. Thompson dropped off a letter at our office declaring the intention of Virginia militias not to participate in the annual Lobby Day at the state capital. Last year, Virginia militia members and gun-rights activists flooded Richmond on Lobby Day to protest gun safety bills pending in the General Assembly. (Almost all of these bills were later enacted into law, without ushering in Communist rule in America or in Virginia.)

With everyone on edge after the domestic terrorist attack at the U.S. Capital building on Jan. 6, perhaps the militias thought better of making a big show at Virginia’s Capitol Square this week. At any rate, Thompson and her militia compatriots have hardly been shy about asserting their presence over the past year. The Board of Supervisors considered official recognition for Thompson’s group, one of 2020’s many notorious moments, before thinking better amid the backlash.

Thompson’s letter, which ran in Monday’s edition, ostensibly was to announce the militias’ decision to skip Lobby Day. Yet it mostly centered on the alleged usurpation of our Constitutional rights, demonstrated above all else by the theft of the 2020 presidential election. “An election has taken place ... in which many Americans believe they elected a President and representatives who are more sympathetic to our concerns, and to the rights our laws exist to secure,” wrote Thompson. “However, many of the votes we cast seem to have not been counted, and many that were not cast seem to have been counted.”

Awkward phrasing, but you get the point: thus ensued, according to Thompson’s letter, “the deliberate sabotage of our God-given and Constitutionally defined rights to: Representation, the Vote, and to Peacefully Assemble.” Of course, none of these acts of “sabotage” exist in real life: Setting aside the plain fact that militia members are free to express themselves any time they want — even with military assault-style weapons in hand, in case that point isn’t clear by now — Thompson and all other voters also were allowed to cast their ballot preferences in the 2020 election. That’s why a bunch of Republicans were elected around the country.

One who was not, Donald Trump, lost by seven million votes and a 306-232 Electoral College margin to now-President Biden. What Thompson describes as “deliberate sabotage” wherein “many of the votes we cast seem to have not been counted” is otherwise known as a delusional fantasy. Supporters of both candidates voted, and one candidate lost. Which is how the story always goes in the reality-based world.

The “Stop the Steal” myth has a grip on much of the Trump electorate, to judge from a Quinnipiac poll Jan. 11 that found 74 percent of Republicans believe Trump really won the election, absent the massive voter fraud they believe must have occurred. Just to be clear, this is absolutely not what Trump’s own administration believes: Former Attorney General William Barr, a partisan hatchet man if ever there was one, told The Associated Press in December that the Justice Department and the FBI reviewed specific claims raised by the Trump campaign and “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” The administration’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency stated that the election was the most secure in history, with “no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes or was in any way compromised.”

On Tuesday, no less than Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader from Kentucky, joined the ranks of “Stop the Steal” mythbusters, saying “the mob was fed lies” before ransacking the Capitol building, an operation that came dangerously close to devolving into a political slaughter of the nation’s elected representatives. The rioters, said McConnell, “were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.” (Here McConnell is referring to Congress’s certification of the electoral vote.) It’s hard to know exactly what angle McConnell is playing here — his concern for the corrosive effects of non-stop lying about voter fraud is, shall we say, newfound — but his turn to truth-telling comes better late than never, I suppose. But will Republican voters and sympathizers bother to read the memo that Leader McConnell is sending?

Can we be honest about something here? If I thought the election had been stolen from my preferred candidate, the rightful winner of the White House, I’d be hitting the streets of Washington, too. Where decent people will part ways with the mob is in insisting on firm evidence of voter fraud before marching on Congress or, God forbid, storming the Capitol. The conservative movement in America has marinated in a vat of lies for so long that most of its adherents can no longer tell up from down, inside from out, right from wrong. Many Trump voters have gone on social media in recent days to proclaim they never would have trashed the Capitol like the angry hordes did two weeks ago, flying their Trump flags and Confederate banners and wearing the insignias of fascist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. No way, no how, declared these folks, would they ever have allowed themselves to get caught up in the violence, which they roundly condemn. The question is: Do you believe them?

Yale historian Timothy Snyder wrote a fantastic essay in The New York Times, “The American Abyss” (Jan. 9 edition) that really is worth the time to read in full. To me, one line stood out in particular: “Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president.” Snyder compellingly describes the cancer of lying that has overtaken one of America’s two major political parties, risking the death of democracy if allowed to further metastasize. The Republican Party, he writes, is “a coalition of two types of people: those who would game the system (most of the politicians, some of the voters) and those who dream of breaking it (a few of the politicians, many of the voters).” If the distinction between the two camps grows so dim that it no longer matters which side is which, America’s descent into the abyss will become inevitable: “History shows that political violence follows when prominent leaders of major political parties openly embrace paranoia,” Snyder writes.

I mentioned last week that we received two missives to our newspaper this week that raised red flags? The letter by our local militia leader — in whose person paranoia meets paramilitary — was easy enough to pull out of the stack. The second entry that points to an ongoing civic emergency? That would be the weekly “constituent newsletter” written by our local State Senator, Frank Ruff, whose columns are routinely published by newspapers in the 15th Senate District that Ruff represents. Just to inject a point I’ve made before in this space, newspapers have an obligation not to amplify or transmit knowingly false information. Ruff’s “columns” are packed with such lies, which is why they do not run in these pages. The case for the hoary newspaper tradition of publishing lawmaker columns grows decidedly weak when the result is basically the same as inviting over an addled relative who watches way too much Fox News to talk politics.

While I would be the last to argue that Ruff’s legislative career was ever especially meaningful, it’s almost sad to see him so plainly bored with the work of the General Assembly. How else to explain the fact that Ruff uses the bulk of his columns to regurgitate the latest wingnuttery to be found on the front page of Breitbart.com? (Ruff’s columns are available in full at his website, http://www.senatorfrankruff.com, by clicking here.) Here’s Ruff this week, writing about the perpetrators of the Jan. 6 insurrection: “[A]t least one Antifa leader from Utah has been identified and arrested. He had not been the slightest bit shy about going on social media and claiming quite graphically how little he thinks of our Capital. It will be interesting to see the coverage of him in the media. Before the elections, they” — here Ruff means the media — “stressed the need for fair and open elections, now they want to censure anyone interesting [sic] in seeing proof that the elections were indeed fair.”

Two points here: Even on Facebook, right-wing posters have largely abandoned the effort to blame the Capitol riots on Antifa. Ruff for some reason continues to dig into to this pathetic lie, seemingly unaware that most of Trumpworld has moved on. Second, Ruff blends dishonesty with a whiny strain of entitlement as he laments how “they” want to “censure” those who seek “proof that the elections were indeed fair.” There’s not even an accusation here, just the sad cry of a man who resents having his motives called into question for lying about voter fraud. Does Ruff really believe his own nonsense, or is he simply pandering to the masses? And why at this point would the answer to that question even matter?

It’s easy enough to dismiss the natterings of Frank Ruff as unimportant, and surely at the surface level they are, but to the extent Ruff represents a Republican Party archetype — the bog standard elected official — his immersion in the conspiratorial nonsense of QAnon and militia extremism is significant, and very disturbing. Will others like Ruff in positions of authority in the Republican Party continue to provide the oxygen for lies that threaten to burn through our democracy and the country at large? It’s no accident that 400,000 Americans have died in a pandemic made vastly worse by the insistence of people in high places on misleading the public on what needs to be done to stop the spread. To be sure, the deficient response to the pandemic is a bipartisan problem, and there are very few heroes to point to in capitals around the U.S. But nowhere else in the Western world will you find a major political party and movement that has lied so brazenly about the value of wearing masks, or that has peddled quack virus cures, or that has treated the general population as citizen combatants, with one group deserving of PPE and ventilators and vaccines and the other group in immediate need of a long walk off a short bridge. The span between such maliciousness and the incessant claims of election fraud in a race that Donald Trump lost fair and square is a short bridge indeed.

Joe Biden became our new President on Wednesday, and boy, does he have his work cut out for him: getting vaccines in arms, righting the economy, reopening schools, pulling America back from the abyss. It’s that last job that will be impossible until and unless the Republican Party renounces its malignant turn to extremism, or otherwise fades into irrelevance. Many would be fine with the latter result, but the country would be better off with the former. Can the leaders of the Republican Party and the followers of Donald Trump find it in their character to tamp down on the falsehoods have burned out of control not just in the past four years, but for decades now?

Yeah, I know: Good luck with that. But how figures like Ruff choose to answer this question — how they choose to lead — and how receptive people like Mitzi Thompson are to hearing their message will determine the future of their party, the conservative movement, and for all we know, the country.

***

On a personal note, sad news arrived this week with the passing of two men whose contributions to Halifax County were vast and will never be fully replaced. Most everyone around my age who graduated from Halifax County High School (then Senior High School) will remember Assistant Principal Carl Furches. I remember one time when Mr. Furches issued me a yellow slip, which in a roundabout way opened a pathway to realizing what a wonderful guy existed behind that gruff exterior, drawn straight from central casting. Carl Furches had a wry and wonderful sense of humor, and a deep commitment to the youth of Halifax County. High school wouldn’t have been the same without him.

It was later in life that I got to know Dr. Joe Ferguson, a friend whose piercing intelligence always reminded me to work a little harder to organize my own thoughts on this page. Joe was a warm soul whose professional brilliance was never the part that stood out in day-to-day conversation — here was this highly accomplished physician, who further managed the neat trick of being an exceptionally nice guy. Doesn’t always work out that way. Suffice it to say that Halifax County and Southside Virginia were extraordinarily lucky to be able to count on Dr. Ferguson’s medical expertise and, just as important, his devotion to the community. Our condolences to his wife, Debbie, and the entire Ferguson family.














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