It’s one of those days when an unhappy coincidence between the fiction I’m reading and the real world I’m living in has led to some troubling thoughts.
For the last couple of days I’ve been reading Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, the first in a series of medieval murder mysteries. In this book, the heroine, a female doctor from Salerno who specializes in examining corpses (i.e., a coroner before that was a job description) is called upon to investigate the death of “Little Saint Peter” in Cambridge, England — the latest in a series of mysterious disappearances of young children. This being the 1140’s, the deaths have been blamed on the Jews of Cambridge, who are reputed to have crucified at least one Christian child, possibly more. While the novel is fictional, some of the details of Little Saint Peter’s death are based on the death of William of Norwich in 1144, one of the earliest examples of Jewish blood libel, of which there were many instances in medieval Europe. (The “blood libel” link above goes to the Wikipedia article which gives a good overview; as always with Wikipedia, there are several more specific links available in the reference list at the bottom of the page).
I was interested in the character and the story, and not thinking particularly deeply about the blood libel aspect of the novel (which I knew about from history anyway), until I woke up this morning, finished the book, and went online to find that Swedish people were making fun of Donald Trump on the internet.
Not that Europeans, or anyone for that matter, making fun of Trump is particularly newsworthy. But this latest round of fun was based on something Trump said at a rally in Florida yesterday. Amid the usual round of incoherent ramblings aimed at assuring his supporters the world is a terrifying place and only he can protect them from Islamic terrorists disguised as refugees, he threw in the comment:
“You look at what’s happening. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?”
As it turns out, nobody (except Trump supporters at a rally) would believe “this,” because there’s no “this” to believe. No terrorist attack, no act of violence at all, carried out by refugees, terrorists, or anyone else, occurred in Sweden on Friday. There has not been a terrorism-related crime in Sweden since 2010, although it seems the US President (who allegedly gets much of his information from watching TV) may have watched a Fox News piece linking crime in Sweden to the increased refugee population. Maybe. But nothing was “happening” in Sweden the night before Trump made that statement.
It’s telling, of course, that only us enraged liberal snowflakes and the “left-wing media” who Trump recently labelled enemies of the people (and, of course, the Swedes) got up in arms about this. I haven’t seen any Trump supporters calling him out on this, anymore than they were upset when Sean Spicer thrice referenced Atlanta as a site of a terror attack by immigrants, or Kellyanne Conway blamed refugees and immigrants for the non-existent “Bowling Green Massacre” and then claimed that she misspoke. (Here’s a tip: if your job is being a spokesperson for the most powerful man in the world, maybe be a little careful about words like “massacre,” as “massacres” are things people tend to get upset about).
For months, since long before he won the election, Trump has been grooming his supporters to ignore the line between facts and lies — by attacking the mainstream media, changing the definition of the term “fake news,” and making obviously false statements about things that only matter to his swollen ego. A case in point occurred at Thursday’s bizarre press conference, when Trump claimed he had won the biggest electoral college victory since Ronald Reagan. When it was pointed out that wasn’t true, his response was, “I don’t know, I was given that information.” (In fact, Trump’s electoral college victory was the third-lowest since Reagan; only George W. Bush managed to do worse — twice).
Does anyone (other than Trump) care, now that he’s president, how big his electoral college win was? Of course not. The only purpose of blatantly false claims like that is to destablize the entire notion of “facts,” to remind Trump’s base that the only thing that matters is what the President says, and the only source he needs is “something I heard somewhere.” Don’t trust the mainstream media; they’re all fake news. Truth is whatever the leader says it is.
Why does this matter? Any of us can google how many electoral college votes every president has won and confirm for ourselves that the US president made a false statement and didn’t care about it. We can also check and confirm that there was no terrorist attack (or indeed nothing unusual at all) in Sweden on Friday night, no terrorist attack in Atlanta since 1996 (by a white right-winger) and no massacre, ever, in either Bowling Green, Kentucky, or for that matter Bowling Green, Ohio.
It matters because such false claims may be the modern equivalent of the medieval anti-semitic blood libel. It matters because twelfth-century English peasants could be led to believe that their Jewish neighbours were crucifying children, or mixing murdered children’s blood into Passover bread. In the same way modern, educated Westerners, surrounded by more sources of information than the world has ever imagined, can be led to believe that countless crimes are being committed by immigrants and refugees, even though almost no evidence of such crimes exists. And if someone comes forward with the evidence? It’s “fake news.” Or the mainstream media is not reporting all the attacks that are taking place. Or we misspoke, but the underlying idea is still true and shouldn’t be discounted just because we got some pesky little facts wrong.