Eternal Vigilance Is the Price of Liberty

Never underestimate the mendacity of the news media.

I am about to say something that will strike you as blindingly obvious.  Here it is:

You can’t believe everything the news media tell you.

Now, you know that, and I know it. Still, knowing it is one thing and living it is another.  “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” said a famous abolitionist.  Eternal vigilance is also the price of truth.  Which is to say that you can’t ever afford to let down your guard when you’re reading or watching or listening to the news.  You may think you’re taking it all in with a proper degree of cynicism, but are you?  Or are you capable of being suckered into believing a lie if it’s repeated often enough?

There’s a reason why such questions are on my mind these days.  I live in Norway, and on July 22, a lunatic murdered several dozen people here, most of them young people attending a Labor Party youth camp.  He turned out to have written a “manifesto” criticizing the Norwegian left for its role in advancing multiculturalism and the Islamization of Norway.  In it he cited with approval scores of writers and thinkers, ranging from classical philosophers of liberty such as John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson to contemporary critics of Islam such as Robert Spencer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and various people in Norway.  Norwegian leftists lost no time in exploiting this situation, accusing their ideological adversaries of being “right-wing extremists” and “Muslim-haters” who had gone too far in their rhetoric and, in doing so, inspired a man to commit mass murder.  The purpose of all this was plainly to convince the Norwegian public that these “haters” were enemies of the people who had to be shunned, silenced if possible, lest they inspire further mayhem.

More than four months later, incredibly, this campaign of hate has not let up.  Nearly every day brings yet another op-ed in a major national newspaper which has little or nothing to say about the actual issues – nothing, that is, about Islam or immigration policy or multiculturalism – but which is rife with name-calling, demonization, and wholesale misrepresentation of those who have had serious things to say about these issues.  This campaign is breathtaking in its relentlessness, its repetitiveness, its breathtaking dishonesty, and its almost total lack of anything in the way of real intellectual or argumentative content.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  It’s a terrifying demonstration of the degree to which a supposedly free country’s national media can give itself over to sheer, vicious disinformation.

It’s particularly difficult for me to ignore this campaign of hate because, as it happens, I’m one of its chief targets.  People who believe what they read in the Norwegian press are now under the impression that (among other things) I am a right-wing extremist and a hater of Muslims, that I have called for Muslims to be deported en masse from Europe, and that the July 22 murderer quoted me extensively in his manifesto and named me as one of his heroes.  (On the contrary, he made clear in online postings that he didn’t care for my politics; my name appears in his manifesto only in articles he read online and cut-and-pasted into his text.)  Since July 22 I’ve seen myself mentioned in major Norwegian newspapers dozens of times, but – so far as I’ve noticed – not once has anyone represented my work and my ideas honestly, and not once has anyone quoted a substantial statement or argument by me and sought to refute it.  Nope, it’s all just been pure character assassination.

And I’ve gotten used to it, sort of.  I’m confident that people who know and respect my work will not have their minds changed by any of this.  At the same time, I’m very well aware that there are people out there who have never read a word by me but who now have opinions about me based on all this insidious propaganda.  How many times does a Norwegian newspaper reader who’s unfamiliar with my work have to read that I’m a dangerous, racist extremist before he or she accepts it as gospel?  The same goes for all the other principled critics of Islam who’ve been smeared in this repulsive campaign: how many Norwegians are now quite certain that men and women who have criticized Islam in the name of individual liberty, sexual equality, and human rights are nothing but disgusting bigots?

Which leads to a far broader question: Has any of us ever entirely escaped this trap?  Isn’t there somebody whom the media once taught you to revile but whom you’ve since learned to respect, if not revere?  Or vice-versa?  I’m embarrassed, for example, to admit how long it took before I realized that Woodrow Wilson wasn’t the magisterial figure I’d been assured he was – first by school history textbooks and then by years of glowing references in the left-wing media.  I could name dozens of other examples.  The media shape our image of the world and of the major players in it, and only sometimes, in some cases, do some of us do a bit of poking around and learn enough to realize we’ve been misinformed.

It was worse, of course, in the pre-Internet age.  It’s strange to remember now how dependent all of us once were for our news on a handful of outlets – three network news operations, a couple of wire services, and, if you lived in certain cities, a newspaper like the New York Times or Washington Post with bureaus around the world.  How dependent – and how credulous.  Younger people who want to get a sense of just how credulous we were in those days, and how limited (and, with few exceptions, lockstep) our sources of information were, need only know that Americans told pollsters that the man they trusted most in the whole world was CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite.

Indeed, so taken in were many of us by mainstream journalism’s myth of its own rectitude, righteousness, and reliability that, after seeing All the President’s Men, we actually idolized Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and the entire Washington Post newsroom, up to and including managing editor and shameless, utterly _un-_objective JFK hagiographer Ben Bradlee.  We thanked God for the selfless, virtuous journalists who were out there day and night fighting for the truth – and our freedoms – against the perfidies of politicians, businessmen, and others.  It was not until I began to be interviewed (and flagrantly misquoted  and misrepresented) by reporters for reputable outlets that I realized just how integrity-free some prominent practitioners of the journalistic trade could be; and it was not until I spent several months working on a book with Republican congressman Steve Gunderson that I discovered (to my astonishment) that a big-shot politician could actually be an extremely decent and honest human being.

Lucky us that we no longer have to rely for our news exclusively on the mainstream media – that we now have innumerable alternate sources of news and opinion at our very fingertips.  But even in the Internet era, the successors of Ben Bradlee and Uncle Walter continue to enjoy an advantage.  In the minds of many people, the so-called “legacy media” are still accorded a degree of credibility that they often don’t deserve – and, as a result, possess a power to distort the truth that can be chilling when you see it operating at full throttle, as is the case in Norway today.

Eternal vigilance, folks.  Eternal vigilance.

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