fake news/real problems

A few years ago, I had to take a 4 am flight for work; I scheduled a Lyft pickup the night before. The driver who came was a stocky white guy who the Lyft app told me was coming from about 20 minutes away, the suburbs; when he arrived, he told me he had driven all the way out from Eden Prairie because of my photo on the app, and things went downhill from there. It was an uncomfortable ride, and also I had to get to the airport and if I ended the trip there was a good chance no other driver was nearby at 3 am on a weekday. I navigated the conversation politely, staying friendly and vague, until he asked what I did for work. "I work in media," I said; I always stay vague about my job with strangers, for a lot of reasons. His pleasure and animation were visible even from the backseat; "Uh oh; you don't make that fake news, do you?" We were still a good 15 minutes out from the airport and I should have just rolled with it, but it pushed some kind of button. "Is that a big concern of yours? Fake news?" I asked instead, not Minnesota nice. He muttered something, irritated at not getting the response he was hoping for, and I made my flight just fine. It stuck with me, though, his reaction; not fear or suspicion at the specter of fake news, but glee, satisfaction. 

I initially thought about talking here about the capitol assault; the sinister and contradictory threads of conspiracy theorism and propaganda around it make it kind of seductive through this lens. Questions of whether someone's beliefs led to them causing harm or whether they cling to those beliefs as a pretext to cause harm can be satisfying to worry over, but at the end of the day, I am not super interested in those questions in this instance, I don't think. I wrote a little about it here - there are some (many!) times when belief's only real function is in service of power. The man driving my Lyft in 2017 didn't really care about fake news; he cared about making a woman alone in his car uncomfortable. 

What I have been thinking about nonstop, though, is another political drama: the Binders woman who's pretending Trump doesn't exist. More online readers may remember her as the (anonymized) main character of Twitter almost a month ago; a woman who posted to the closed but very popular Facebook networking group for women writers asking for tips on placing a freelance article about how

"…my 6-year-old son assumes Obama is president, he knows Biden is president-elect, but he has no idea Trump exists — which is a deliberate parenting choice I made that spun a little out of control over the past four years… In 2016, I deliberately shifted the way my family consumes information. I swapped all of our print subscriptions for digital, keeping headlines far from the eyes of my curious son. During our morning commute, I changed the channel from NPR to indie music. We stopped watching TV news entirely."

First of all, obviously, this is bananas. It's not quite as bananas as some things have to be to make the cut for Daily Discourse, but it's so instantly recognizable, as is the writer - I don't know who she is (I'm pretty sure I'm in the Binders group, a better journalist would track this person down) but you know her, we all do. There were of course a range of gut reactions to this post, all correct, ranging from the observation that this is not a healthy parenting practice to the point that if the only measurable difference between the Obama and Trump administrations in your household comes from the news, wow, you're doing better than… almost everybody, and are indubitably white and wealthy. 

The take I'm most interested in is this one, helpfully quoted in the Newsweek article above: "The weirdest part for me is that she clearly just put herself in denial for four years and is trying to claim that she needed to do it to hide the news from.... a two-year-old." (Ok, granted, the original post said 6, but.) Anyone familiar with neurotic and pearl-clutching parents already knows this; white parents who spiral over having to 'explain the news' to their white kids or cis parents who melt down over their kids hearing someone share their pronouns tend to be less concerned with the vague wellbeing of their kids, who they're often cavalier about exposing to other aspects of the 'adult world,' but with their kid as a potential hole in the dike they've built against having to confront these realities themselves.

Maybe this is just parenting! But it's also a neat object lesson in what I'm most hooked on about lying, I think: that what we most desire to conceal, deny, cover up, or sweep under the rug almost ends up being a more revealing and exposing tell than if we had let things lie in the first place. Add to that the layers here - that this person not only claims to have tried to neoliberally Dogtooth her kid, but that she needed to share it on a public platform, and wanted to publish it on an even more public one! That I'm inclined to suspect that even this post itself and the situation it describes is a lie, if only because I actually think this personal essay would have gotten picked up pretty handily in a bid for hate clicks and it rings false that she's had so much trouble with it - fascinating! It brings us another fold, which is that for a certain kind of lying as a personal project, the audience - and with it the threat or even certainty of being caught - is the most important part. 

In thinking through this I idly ran through a through variations of 'denying outside world to kids' and 'lying to your kids' and found this, "Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin;" an account of the author leaving and healing from a fundamentalist childhood predicated on sin and raising kids who turn to her when they see street preachers to ask "what's sin?" It's a solid recounting of resolving to do the opposite of what your parents did with moderate success, and also contains this gem:

To be honest, though, I’m not satisfied with this parable as is; maybe I'm too hung up on the pantsuit thing, but to the extent that sin is a stand-in for shame, or unworthiness, or a dozen other words depending on your indoctrination of choice, do any careful language choices or controlled narratives really mean that we've excised them from our home, any more than hiding Trump's name hides white supremacy or fascism or racial capitalism or the fall of empire? In a culture so deeply steeped in Christian mythology and moral purity, is avoidance of the idea of sin functionally a lie of omission? Maybe my favorite thing about lying is how bad we are at it, and how sincerely we keep trying. I think of my brother slamming the door to his room as a little kid, shouting "I'm NOT doing anything bad in here, so just leave me alone and don't come check!" I love how utterly all of the personal, cultural, psychological and spiritual gains we think we can secure with our little stories escape us, and how earnestly we get back on that horse every time. It's beautiful! I truly mean that; I think about it all the time. Thank you for joining me while I think about it out loud here.