The American media lies, and lies damnably. This statement will come as no revelation to regular readers of Crisis magazine. We all remember the more glaring falsehoods peddled in the past few years, e.g., that Nicholas Sandmann and his classmates bullied and harassed a Native American tribal elder, that President Trump praised neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” that nights of looting, arson, and riots were “mostly peaceful,” and even that the president encouraged Americans to drink bleach to battle the coronavirus. These are, of course, only representative examples; readers could certainly supply more. Granted, some of the more glaring lies have been publicly exposed, denounced, and punished—Sandmann has already settled lawsuits with the Washington Post and CNN. Many others, however, continue to be repeated. Aided and abetted by the media, Joe Biden has made the “very fine people” line a touchstone in his campaign, while Anderson Cooper continues to claim that Trump considered injecting people with bleach. At the time of writing, the news media are trying desperately to decide whether the “mostly peaceful” lie is still expedient and, if not, which new lie they should replace it with.
We need no reminders that the media lies with reckless abandon, therefore, in this column, I would like instead to consider the probable impact of those repeated lies on our republic. To do so, I suggest that we seek the wisdom of a world whose politics were even more fractious, more divided, and more toxic than our own: the medieval Italy of Dante Alighieri. Dante’s day saw the strife of Guelph against Ghibelline, White Ghibelline against Black, Italy against France against England against the Empire, city against city, and pope against kings—feuds all the more bitter because they divided the body of Christ, pitting fellow Christians against each other.
Such a world, naturally, produced every manner of sin imaginable, and all these sins are carefully chronicled in Dante’s descent into the Inferno. The nine circles of the infernal city are, as Dorothy Sayers reminds us, Dante’s picture of human society in decay; the further Dante and Virgil descend, the more radically corrupt and degraded the society becomes. The pilgrims pass relatively quickly through first seven circles of hell. All the sins of appetite and violence are contained in the first half of the cantica. Then the travelers reach the Great Barrier, and here the poem slows down. Dante and Virgil plunge into the abyss of the eighth circle, which houses the fraudulent. Alas, the various sins punished here read like a cross-section of our ruling classes in Washington, New York, and Hollywood: we meet pimps and seducers, flatterers, hypocrites, and thieves, bribe-taking officials, false counsellors, and sowers of discord. They come at long last to the tenth and final ditch of the eighth circle. Here we find the liars—those who perpetrate the purest form of fraud, the one that unites all the others. Their stench is overwhelming. As Anthony Esolen’s fine translation has it:
If you threw all the sick in the sick-houses
of Val di Chiana in malaria season,
and the diseases of Maremma’s flats
And of Sardinia, into the same ditch –
such pain was here, and it made just such stink
as comes from members dying of the rot.
As with all of the circles of Dante’s hell, the punishment here is carefully chosen to suit the crime. The liars and the counterfeiters rot away, consumed by diseased corruption. Why? Pervasive lying—whether in words or coin—is the decay of a republic, because it makes relationships between persons impossible. As many commentators have noted, no one will accept coin for his goods unless he knows that the currency is good; no one can learn from another if everyone lies. Thus, as Sayers says, the tenth ditch gives us “a society in the last stages of its mortal sickness and already necrosing. Every value it has is false… All intercourse is corrupted, every affirmation has become perjury, and every identity a lie. No medium of exchange remains to it, and ‘the general bond of love and nature’ is utterly dissolved.”
If interpersonal exchange is impossible, then so, too, is any hope of mutual benefit, or common striving for a common good. Only competition and enmity can remain. And so the punishment here goes beyond bodily disease. In many ways, the company of other sinners is their worst punishment. In other circles of the Inferno, the damned at least have some sense of companionship: Paolo and Francesca cling to each other, the Florentine patriots run together on the abominable sands, and even the panderers and seducers march together in orderly lockstep. But the liars live in perpetual hate. Gianni Schicchi and Myrrha run about “tearing and snapping… like tusked swine,” ripping any soul they find to pieces; Master Adam and Sinon—though both consumed with grotesque and excruciating illness—fight with fists and words; and indeed Master Adam desires to see the damnation of his enemies more than relief from his own suffering. All this shows the corrosive effects of the lie, and looks forward to the worse violence of the traitors in the ninth circle: the Alberti brothers, Ugolino and Ruggieri, and Satan himself.
Turning once again from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first, we see Dante’s horrible vision coming to life. The media lie, and the politicians lie. What is the public to do? We are confronted, on the one hand, with riots and arson and armed bands clashing in the streets and a public paralyzed by inconsistent and nakedly politicized health advice in the face of pandemic on the other. And there is the specter of further social breakdown as the election draws nearer. And still the guardians of public information lie. Indeed, it is hard to see how they could behave any differently. The media are, after all, wedded to lies on the things that matter most in life: the relation of God to man, man to woman, and parents to children. How could we expect honesty on such comparative trivialities as pandemics or public health?
It is difficult to say just where we should go from here. Dante himself longed for the restoration of imperial rule and order in the Italian states and prophesied the coming of a mysterious and quasi-messianic figure—the “Greyhound”—who would “bring health to humbled Italy.” But Dante died disappointed and in exile.
Whether or not a restoration of public trust is possible, we should earnestly pray for it. Hitler observed that a big lie, told audaciously, may deceive the masses. There is regrettable truth in the madman’s saying—but only a half-truth. The people may, in the end, come to believe the big lie. But lie often enough, and people lose the ability to believe anything at all.
Save me Lord, the Psalmist says, for now there is no saint; truths are decayed among the children of men.
[Image: The Malebranche by Gustave Doré]