Remember when truth mattered? From Salazar to Trump, lying is the norm

As the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat so famously says, ‘Truth is God’s own seal.’ And it should be ours, as well.

Reporters with various forms of ‘fake news,’ 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Reporters with various forms of ‘fake news,’ 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Can you imagine living in a world in which freedom of the press didn’t matter? Not a world in which it wasn’t the law, but one in which even if it was it would make no difference. The truth is you already live in a world that’s come very close to that.
Freedom of the press matters only if the press matters. For the press to matter it must do its job well, of course. But people also have to take reporting and opinion seriously. In other words, they need to believe there is some correlation between what they are reading and reality, and they have to care about that. If they no longer care about facts, or if they have no faith that the press represents the facts, then freedom of the press could be fully enforced without it making a bit of difference.
There are reasons to believe that we’re quickly headed to a world in which facts do not matter, and that is reflected on both sides of the proverbial political aisle. Last week’s reminder of that was Julia Salazar’s victory in the primary for New York State Senate. Since there is no Republican running against her in the general election, she is automatically going to win the seat.
Salazar won handily after it was proved that she lied about a slew of issues. She said she was Jewish, but she was raised Catholic and has no record of having converted. She implied that she was a graduate of Columbia College, but didn’t get the degree. She described herself as an immigrant from Colombia, but was actually born in Florida. She claimed she’d been raised poor, but members of her own family attest to their having been very middle class. The list goes on.
What is surprising is not that an inexperienced 27-yearold novice politician would lie; what is still somewhat stupefying is that so many people on the Left who voted for the self-defined democratic socialist don’t seem to care. When the fundamental facts about a candidate’s life no longer matter, how far are we from a world in which facts in general don’t matter – and in which it would ultimately make little difference if freedom of the press didn’t even exist?
Salazar, of course, is in some ways following the model of the president of the United States who has shown both disregard and disdain for facts since his own election campaign. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway gets credit for the phrase “alternative facts.” But in fairness to her, she came up with the phrase while trying to buttress President Trump’s blatantly false claims about attendance numbers at his inauguration. Everyone – including his base – knew that he was lying, and no one who supported him really seemed to care.
THIS PAST week, as Hurricane Florence was barreling towards the Carolinas, the president once again rejected George Washington University’s widely accepted estimate of approximately 3,000 deaths in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, insisting the number was a Democratic conspiracy. No one who is not in the president’s camp takes his allergy to facts seriously any longer. But what is frightening is that among his base the continuous lying seems not to matter.
That both Salazar the socialist and Trump the not-clear-what-he-believes got passes from their bases – who willingly ignore continuous lying – is indication that this is not a problem of Right or Left, Republican or Democrat, young or old. This is an epidemic in contemporary society.
At the time of the year when the phrase “For the sin we have committed before You by deceit and lies” rings (or at least should ring) loudly in our communal ears, it would be nice to believe that we could expect rabbis – also on both sides of the “aisle” – to take the candidates they may well have supported to task for the violation of a fundamental Jewish precept: a commitment to truth. As the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat so famously says, “Truth is God’s own seal.” And it should be ours, as well.
Imagine if rabbis who support Donald Trump – for his Israel policies most likely but perhaps for economic or other reasons – lauded what they admire but focused their communities on the insufferable – and unforgivable – beating that truth as a value is taking during this administration. At the same time, imagine if liberal rabbis in New York – who may celebrate Julia Salazar’s victory for a multiplicity of reasons – took care to relish the win they’d hoped for even while assailing in no uncertain terms her worrisome departure from truth as a value, long before she even takes office.
Neither of those is likely. Our world – in which politics have become so toxic and the position of rabbis often so tenuous – is one in which we can no longer expect from religious leaders what they long did for us: speak truth to power, remind us of Judaism’s fundamental commitments, and show a devotion to world of nuance in which we can support a candidate but also excoriate him or her for egregious violations of values we consider sacrosanct.
If Jewish religious leadership cannot do that, what do we really need those leaders for? And if Jews cannot model something critically important to the world at a time like this, what would we say if someone asked why we are here in the first place?
The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 ‘Book of the Year.’ He is now writing a book on the relationship between American Jews and Israel. This is his final column as a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post. Future columns will appear from time to time.