Apr 112017

Cast adrift in a Brave New World of fake news and alternative facts?

I grew up with them.


Long ago on a planet far away (the twentieth century in Philadelphia), I had a friend whose father was a member of the John Birch Society. My father, in contrast, was a dyed-red-in-the-wool leftist.

We agreed that if her father vented in Latvian and mine ranted in English, they would become fast friends.


Neither of them could wait for the newspapers that were their lifeblood. Since social media did not yet exist, they had to depend on ideologically pure journals on the Right or Left. Every article promised many happy hours of rage, righteous indignation, fulminating and finger wagging. Good times.

My friend and I never thought our fathers’ peculiar behavior was an early version of what is now an international epidemic of Orwellian 1984 post-truth media manipulation and alternative facts. We just found it embarrassing—even more embarrassing than fathers who privately looked at Playboy (in the olden days before the World Wide Web became the most convenient purveyor of pornography).


Normal Dads yelled—but at the referee or the score of their favorite sports team. Ours paid for subscriptions to yell about their own radically opposed versions of politics, which they fueled in a very similar way—through alternative facts.

My father didn’t have to read a book or see a film to give his opinion or review. He knew in advance if it was truthful or worthwhile depending on the source. Everything from the New York Times, Wall St. Journal, CBS/ABC/NBC News—all the sources that the alt-right now sneeringly calls “media”—was automatically suspect. But my parents proudly displayed Soviet Life (now “Russian Life”) on their coffee table, an propaganda publication for the ideologically-driven and/or terminally naïve, full of pictures of apple-cheeked peasants dancing with tractors.


The only exception was the I.F. Stone Weekly, written by a professional investigative journalist. Although Stone was definitely a leftist, he bitterly denounced the misdeeds of Stalin and the lack of civil rights in the Soviet Union. He was known as a man of great integrity, personal and political—may his tribe increase. Stone still lambasted most U.S. presidential administrations and policies and the Right Wing with equal vigor, which kept him on my father’s mailing list.


My brother arrived at Princeton Universityy insisting that there had never been any famine in Communist China —it was just a lie of the capitalist press. When he refused to take the loyalty oath (a hangover from McCarthy days),an elderly WASP shook his hand and congratulated him for standing up for his principles. It was deeply unsettling—my brother been primed for persecution by the ruling elite.

Like the enthusiasts on the Right who now take every marching order from Rush, Breitbart News, Fox News et al and don’t muddle their minds with any other input, my parents and their friends maintained a childlike faith about anything Soviet, Red Chinese, or deemed progressive. Although well-educated and critical thinkers in every other area of their lives, ideology turned them into innocents who could be manipulated by the right code words.

It took them many years to realize that Stalin wasn’t good old loveable “Papa Joe”. Khrushchev’s revelations of the extent of Stalin’s murders finally shook them.


My parents and their friends congregated every New Year’s Eve to sing songs from the Spanish Civil War—songs of solidarity and resistance to fascism. I grew up thinking the Spanish Civil War was current events. I knew all the words to I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie’s Union Maid and La Pasionaria’s No Pasarán. Other kids didn’t know beans about the Spanish Civil War, which ended many years before my birth. Midnight usually had them all singing the Internationale, although only a few had officially been Party members. The home life of a Red Diaper baby.


A friend’s son went on a college tour of the Soviet Union. He showed slides to my parents and their cohort, telling them how the KGB spied on them constantly and how relieved he was to leave the U.S.S.R. for Finland. They all patiently explained to him how mistaken he was about everything he had witnessed. His perception had been twisted by his capitalist college and education—he just wasn’t seeing things correctly. They didn’t need to go to the Soviet Union to know how things were—they just needed to know the “truth.” As Groucho Marx said: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”


If there is a heaven for John Birch members (a gated community exclusive heaven that excludes people of color, Jews, Gays, and everyone to the left of Genghis Kahn), my friend’s father must be flapping his wings in joy. My father would be appalled and heartbroken that the right wing has used ideologically-driven social media and alternative facts with such devastating success.

It’s no coincidence that the origin of alternative facts is totalitarian—the Newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984. My father’s values were social justice—but his ideological blinders made him susceptible to disinformation. He didn’t have Facebook and social media, so he invented his own echo chamber to sustain them.

In these troubled times, where can we look for optimism? “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth,” says Buddha. Here’s hoping.



  1. My Mum belonged to the local John Birch Society (she even had some type of patriotic pin to wear). I accompanied her to one meeting when I was home from college, as far as my geriatric memory extends. Afterwards I think I told her everyone there was nuts, IMHO…at least she never asked me to go again.
    Yes, good times for sure!


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