The sky is falling! The sky is falling!
So proclaimed Chicken Little on her hysterical run about the barnyard, a story I first heard as a child. Fortunately for us all, she was wrong, and the sky stayed where it’s supposed to be, high o’erhead.
I remember being terrified at the time, wondering if the sky actually could fall in upon us. Later on, I imagined that the poor hen was either lying or profoundly deluded. Now, though, I wonder if she may have merely been asserting an ‘alternative fact’—something she truly believed despite reliable evidence to the contrary.
Another childhood tale concerned the shepherd boy who cried wolf. Perhaps bored by his lonely work, or maybe seeking attention to satisfy a needy personality, he repeatedly roused the neighbouring villagers with his false alarms.
Wolf! Wolf! The wolf is attacking my sheep!
The villagers, of course, rallied to his rescue each time, only to discover they had been fooled, not just once but again and again. Predictably, when the wolf really did attack, the boy’s alarms went unheeded by his protectors, unwilling any longer to believe what they were hearing. And the boy lost his sheep to the ravenous wolf.
I wonder if he might have tried to explain his behaviour afterwards by claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that he had not been lying; that, indeed, the wolf really had been lurking on each occasion—an ‘alternative fact’ not apparent to the villagers, but truly believed by the boy.
It was accepted by most people, once upon a long-ago time, that lying was just that—lying. Untrue. False. Not supported by rational analysis of available evidence. And, most importantly, wrong.
Both Chicken Little and the shepherd boy appeared not to subscribe to that tenet. But their stories are fables, intended as moral teachings—much like the likely-apocryphal story of George Washington’s declaration after cutting down a prized cherry tree: I cannot tell a lie! There was no actual harm done to real people by either of them.
Alas, in our world today, immersed to the point of drowning in a sea of social media and instant news, we are in danger of being sorely harmed by those who would deliberately lie to us. Or, as they might claim, present us with ‘alternative facts’.
In 1905, in his book, The Life of Reason, George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Orwell, in his 1949 opus, 1984, presented a society that not only did not remember the past, but actively sought to eliminate it through newspeak—defined by Merriam-Webster as: a language…designed to diminish the range of thought…characterized by the elimination or alteration of certain words, the substitution of one word for another…and the creation of words for political purposes.
Ah, yes—the creation of words for political purposes, and the use of those words to craft phrases and pronouncements designed to bamboozle the common folk naïve enough to trust their leaders. Does that sound familiar?
It is as if a strategy from the past has resurrected itself (from a psychological profile composed by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, describing Hitler’s rules of political conduct and media coverage):
…never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame…people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one… [and] will sooner or later believe it.
And if these big lies are called ‘alternative facts’, well so much the better for the tellers of tall tales, the snake-oil salespeople of our modern era. It is as if the wolf has returned to the shepherd boy’s flock, this time disguised in sheep’s clothing. And who among the villagers will hear the anguished cries for help, and respond before it is too late?
Après nous, le deluge! This phrase, attributed to Madame de Pompadour, courtesan to Louis XV of France, might be interpreted as—After us, let the flood come; we don’t care what happens when we’re gone. No one in power today utters such thoughts so baldly, of course, but their actions speak more loudly than words ever could.
Those who are left behind will certainly care what happens, however. But sadly, it may be much too late for them to restore what they will have lost. How does one go about putting the sky back in the…..well, in the sky?
Beware the demagogue who claims that only (s)he knows what’s wrong, and only (s)he can fix it. Resist the temptation to believe the easy, convenient, so-called truths (s)he presents. And protest—long and loud and disbelievingly, with evidence to back you up—whenever those falsehoods are presented as bona fide.
Alternative facts? Really?