Everyone over the age of 45 probably knows what a “snake oil salesman” is and even what one would probably look like. Moustachioed with cocked eyebrows and slicked-back hair, this slimy gent was glib of tongue and completely disconnected from integrity and all that constitutes truth. His snake oil liniment was guaranteed to cure everything from warts to cancer with just a regular application. The phrase has come to mean someone who sells goods, ideas, and even land using fraudulent claims, inaccurate comparisons, and puffery. (“Well, if you like that, I own a bridge in New York City I’d be happy to sell you.)
Within our entertainment culture, we have brought this man to life in the form of Elmer Gantry, a soulless sinner who prayed [sic] upon those with despairing hopes and infinite faith, and Harold Hill of Music Man fame, renowned for his ability to sell anything, flea powder to fleas, for example. Harold Hill came into River City on a rail, literally leaping from the train to avoid discovery and criminal charges. He preyed upon the citizens’ very natural concerns about the younger generation, and then sold them a band with himself, tone-deaf and completely devoid of talent, as the band leader.
In fiction, the snake oil salesman and his ilk generally see the light, reform, and become responsible citizens. In reality, no such transformation takes place. One of the conundrums of the modern ages is that, unlike liniment pushers of old, modern liars, cheats and thieves, when caught, merely spew their fictions in a louder voice, using different words, and by targeting all opposing views with accusations of falsehood. A complex form of mummery, this method of perpetuating myths, anchoring misinformation, and tilting the truth bar works remarkably well in a culture where information is a constant storm. What can a person pay attention to except he or she who is loudest. The fact of gaining an audience’s attention at all is a form of validity.
Heavy metal bands from the 70s and 80s exhibited an unconscious knowledge of human nature. Their music, which rivaled a hurricane in terms of decibels, found a matching roar in the audience. Whatever causes our hearts to pound, our bodies to thrum in sympathetic resonance, whatever brings out a sweat or a unanimous cry of “Yes!” must gain our ear and approbation. So, instead of being run out of town just yards in front of a feather and tar posse, the sales force for fear and myth (gender non-specific) simply ramp up their rhetoric to glorious heights, spouting drivel so sincerely, so loudly, so poetically, and so often, that the audience is dizzied by its power, verbiage, and complexity and stops looking at or listening to the substance. It no longer matters if it is true. It matters only if it is said loudly and long. Winston Churchill applied both wisdom and humor to this issue when he said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
And because we do not possess enough hours in the day to research every purported fact and every nuance of argument, or owing to our desire to hear the lies because they feed our biases and egos, America’s citizenry defaults and gives these communicative charlatans carte blanche to say what they will. An extended chapter of this process is in action now, and all day, every day, politicians are pandering to “what will sway” instead of what will work or what is true.
So pervasive is this veil of lies, that multiple sites have been launched to measure the truth or accuracy of politicians’ remarks. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, written by Glenn Kessler, is one such site: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker He measures political statements on the Pinocchio Scale, a similar scale to one I use in the classroom with my students to measure the degree of hyperbole or bias in a newspaper or magazine article. Kessler numbers the degree of error by allotting one, two, three, or four Pinocchios. I used inches of extension. The result is the same. A four Pinocchio score means, “That is an outright lie.”
Kessler has assigned the fallacious four Pinocchio’s to dozens of assertions, notably Mitt Romney’s insistence that President Obama apologized for America while he was overseas. Romney ” even titled his campaign book “No Apology.”
Adding insult to insult, Romney accused the president of not having faith in the nation’s strength, ideals and greatness. “The assertion feeds into a subterranean narrative that Obama, with his exotic, mixed-race background, is not really American in the first place,” wrote Kessler.
It is this, the continuation to speak falsehoods after they are demonstrated to be falsehoods, that is so frightening, and the 2016 campaign has seen an uptick that takes lying into the stratosphere. USA Today has called Donald Trump “The King of the Whoppers”, a liar of such extraordinary venom, he could be likened to legendary demagogues. Yet, if we call those tyrants by name and assign their malevolence to this current reactionary mouthpiece, then how is our name-calling any different than his?
As much as a viewer may gag at the sight of this fast rising political embarrassment, there is a red flag in each appearance. Says the FactCheck team from USA Today, “He stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong.” Trump stands as proof that the truth does not so much set one free as it provides a new platform from which to sow further seeds of disinformation and outright hogwash..
Trump and his ilk should give us chills, not for their views but for the fact that a sizable segment of the population continues to believe after these people have been exposed. If our politicians and wannabes are not accountable and their spoutings are given credence, then how are they not a reflection of ourselves? What can we do to rediscover our center, re-establish our integrity, and demand the same from those who lead us? When I think back on those snake oil salesmen of old, their slippery demeanor, high-fallutin’ talk, and questionable promises, I wonder if they were not more honest than the electoral set we have currently.