Death By A Thousand Little Lies

As someone who prides himself on his command of spoken Hebrew, I (very immodestly, I admit) have long harbored the fantasy of becoming a member of the Academia Lalashon Ha’Ivrit– the Academy of the Hebrew Langauage. Established by the Israeli government in 1953, it formally replaced the Va’ad Halashon Ha’Ivrit, the Hebrew Language Committee, formed by  Eliezer Ben-Yehudah himself, the father of modern spoken Hebrew, in 1890. The most important function of the Academia Lalashon Ha’Ivrit is to create novel and authentically Hebrew words, so as to keep the relatively new spoken language current. I can imagine myself donning a black robe like an Oxford Don, being seated in a plush chair, and having a petitioner appear before me and my colleagues with a word clearly alien to existing Hebrew, like “twerking.” What an interesting conversation that would be…

Last Sunday, President Trump’s Director of Strategic Communications, Kelleyanne Conway, accomplished something similar, though far less noble. Sans robe (thank God for that, judging her taste by what she wore to the Inauguration), Ms. Conway gifted the English lexicon with the concept of “alternative facts.”

When pressed by “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd ( my newest hero! ) on the lie repeated by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, that more people had attended President Trump’s inauguration than any other in American history– something he clearly and unambiguously was wrong about, proven without a doubt by aerial photography– Ms. Conway responded that Mr. Spicer was not lying, but merely presenting “alternative facts.”

Just so that we’re clear about this issue, when there is an objectively provable fact, the English language already has a term for what Ms. Conway referred to as an “alternate fact.” In English, we call that a lie. An objectively provable fact has no alternative. A fact is a fact, and any effort to pretend that the fact is not a fact is, simply speaking, a lie. Mr. Spicer was lying to protect the President, and Ms. Conway was lying to protect him, and the President. Aveirah goreret aveirah , says the Mishnah. One sin leads inevitably to another

If this were the only instance in which the truth took a back seat to wishful thinking in the still young Trump presidency, it would be bad enough to give us all pause. But as of today (Wednesday, January 25), President Trump continues to maintain, with no evidence whatsoever to back him up, that the reason why he lost the popular vote to Secretary Clinton is because of the multiple millions of illegal immigrants who voted against him. In fact, he is launching a major investigation, using your and my tax money, to try and prove what he wants to believe is true. In his well-documented narcissistic way of seeing the world, it is inconceivable to him that his inauguration wasn’t the largest, the concert preceding it was the best attended (also not true), or that it was the first ever, and his idea (both not true), or that he might have legitimately lost the popular vote. Everything about him has to be the biggest and the best, and he’ll make sure you know it even if it’s not true.

Just a few brief days into his administration, President Trump has made it quite clear that he and his representatives will feel free to substitute repeated “little lies” when the truth does not meet the need of the moment. Exactly how it is that one draws a consistent distinction between “little lies” and “big lies” is a great unknown, and one that should be causing us all to lost sleep.

Historically, we Jews know what the power of the big lie is. In full recognition of the need to be extremely careful about invoking  Shoah associations too quickly, I would nonetheless maintain that the genocide perpetrated by Hitler against the Jews was predicated on the success of a “big lie strategy.” What he learned is that when you tell a lie- even a huge, whopping lie- and you repeat it often enough, loud enough, and with enough conviction, even the brightest and most civilized people will be willing to suspend their disbelief and buy into what you’re saying. They will simply tire of denying it, and go along with the flow of popular opinion.

How else can one explain how the people who brought us Bach, Beethoven and Hegel succumbing to the “big lie” of the Jews being Germany’s misfortune, and worthy of extermination? The truly “deplorable” followers of Nazism were not the only ones at those mass rallies organized by Albert Speer, and the folks with the graduate degrees and subscriptions to the opera also became members of the Nazi Party. Hate sells.

I don’t see President Trump advancing a “big lie,” nor do I equate him to a Hitler, who was sui generis. But I definitely do see the President, and his sycophantic staffers, advancing an assault made up of a million little lies. That will not lead us, God forbid, into mass murder, but it can surely kill the soul of our democracy, and in so doing, mortally harm many of its citizens. As one comment on Twitter recently asserted– rough paraphrase– the number of people at the inauguration doesn’t matter at all. But what about when the number of missiles being manufactured by North Korea is the issue, or the number of American troops being killed in action? Even little lies become big ones then…

I don’t think we’ll need the Academia Lalashon Ha’Ivrit to express in Hebrew what we’re already seeing the beginnings of– the slow but persistent assault on truth by a thousand little lies.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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