Our leaders mislead. They deny climate change. They claim Obamacare is a failure. They misrepresent the extent and causes of terrorism and crime. In response, we proclaim that facts matter. We assert that climate change is real, that repealing Obamacare will cost lives, that diversity does not make us less safe.
But it is not enough to assert facts. We must be savvier. Facts may be our first line of defense, but they must not be the last. More important is investigating and exposing why our leaders mislead. What ulterior motives do they have? And why do their supporters believe them? What uses do these falsehoods have for the deceiver and the deceived? Only when we understand the function of falsehoods can we undermine them.
Clues may be found in considering the incongruity between a policy’s purported goals and actual effects. For example, the travel ban did not target the countries known to foment extremism and harbor terrorists. Its Islamophobic message likely recruits more terrorists. And the number of lives lost because of terrorism are dwarfed by those lost because of inadequate environmental protection and health care. In sum, our purported national security policies do not even attempt to make us safer; rather, they exploit fear to make the concentration and militarization of power more appealing.
Take another example: Republicans campaigned on repealing Obamacare, but the bills they have advanced leave much of the law intact. What they are trying to do instead is gut Medicaid under the guise of repealing Obamacare, disclosing their ulterior motive is not to carry out an electoral mandate but to pay for tax cuts to the rich. All the discourse about health care policy is debating a straw man, distracting us from the underlying, unspoken debate (or lack thereof) over the concentration of wealth.
Similarly, arguments about whether climate change exists miss the point. Regardless of whether the world is warming, we should not deplete and pollute our environment for the profit of the few at the expense of the many. Regardless of why some Pacific island nations are disappearing, we should not leave fellow humans stranded without arable land or fresh water. But we debate climate science, not questioning why pillaging the planet is profitable or why the wealthy are so afraid of refugees.
But, you may ask, what about ordinary voters? They do not profit from pollution or gain control by scaremongering. If concentrating wealth and power motivates the purveyors of these policies, what explains the millions who vote for them? It is tempting to resort to explanations of bigotry or dupery. But those factors suffice to explain only some voters, while many others are fairly open-hearted and well-educated, yet embrace mean-spirited, narrow-minded policies. Why?
Because they are voting consistently with the prevailing understanding, including among Democrats and liberals, of how the world must work: by concentrating wealth. Many of us think that because we are not bigoted, because we believe in climate change, because we support Obamacare, we are not the problem. But being liberal is not enough; those beliefs are not what is truly at stake in policy debates. Something more fundamental is at stake, which we must become aware of and address head on: our economic system, its underlying ideology of hierarchy over people and nature, its presupposition of entitlement by some people to concentrate wealth and power against others.
To the extent we are unwilling to confront this system, we are complicit in it. All of it: war, racism, poverty, climate change — all perpetuated by our clinging to an understanding of the world as a competition for control over resources. Only when we embrace the equality of all people and all living things, a system based on sharing wealth and preserving resources, a politics of harmony with each other and nature, can we truly subvert the policies we oppose.