If Rip van Winkle had fallen asleep a week ago and awakened today, he would be baffled by how far the world has shifted.
When he went to sleep, Paul Ryan was a dull but respected budget wonk who tried to talk seriously about policy, using facts. Andy Borowitz quipped about him, in a headline, “Less interesting person than Romney found in Wisconsin.”
When van Winkle awakened, Paul Ryan was a compulsive liar whose mendacity was limited only by the length of the day. His Pinocchio-like nose had shot through the window and impaled several passing pigeons. Andy Borowitz was quipping about him, on Twitter, “Paul Ryan hasn’t told any lies today. I hope he’s okay.”
If Rip were a bit dazed, I wouldn’t blame him. Six days ago, the hashtag #LyinRyan on Twitter was a ghost town, occupied only by a few rogue rhymers. Now it’s generating more than a dozen tweets an hour.
So when Paul Ryan erroneously cut an hour off his marathon running time in an interview, even his apology did little to help. The outcry was swift and decisive: “Lyin’ Ryan strikes again.”
And as far as I can tell from Runners World, Avid Runners consider your Personal Marathon Record to be somewhere up there with the names of your children on the list of Facts Grappled to Your Soul With Hoops of Steel. “Shave a minute off that?” the runners cry. “Why, you might as well forget your wife’s name!”
“Shave an hour off that?” the runners ask, eyes boggling. “Next you’ll forget your own name!” It can’t be a mistake! It must be Another Miserable Lie.
I don’t like this.
It is not merely that the current media environment is making it unsafe for us casual runners. Like many casual runners, I have the tendency to assume that I have run a great deal more and a great deal more impressively than in fact I have. It is not that I am lying, so much as that the sight of me actually jogging from one place to another, panting and heaving and turning a shade generally associated with mortified beets, does not comport with my image of myself as an athlete.
If I were to run for vice president right now, I can’t decide if people would call me a pathological liar or dismiss me as grotesquely unfit.
The trouble with the vice presidential nomination, as Frank Bruni has pointed out, is that it is the least flattering spotlight there is. You become a national caricature for a year, if you’re lucky, or four or eight if you aren’t. People pick one feature (your poor spelling, your resemblance to Tina Fey, your similarity to a cardboard cutout of yourself) and exaggerate it. A narrative congeals before you can blink, and the facts fall into it.
Consider: If Sarah Palin had given someone the wrong marathon time, it wouldn’t be because she was lying casually “just to keep in practice.” It would be because she couldn’t count.
It is not that I seek to defend Ryan’s convention speech. (“Personally, I fault President Obama for failing to travel back in time to save the factory that closed before he took office! I am pretty sure he promised something about that in 2008!” “When I assumed your cut of $716 billion, I was saving Medicare! When you made that cut in the first place, you were gutting it!” “Just because I didn’t vote to endorse the deficit commission’s recommendations doesn’t mean that President Obama didn’t also ignore them!” You can see how well this argument goes.)
But the leap has been extraordinarily swift from “What You Said That Time Is Just Not Accurate” to “You, Sir, Are a Pathological Liar.”
And once the dominant narrative about someone becomes that he is a liar, it becomes possible to find lies everywhere. You cease to be able to distinguish jokes. Conversation becomes impossible. Quips and applause lines become Just More Falsehoods. Dare to suggest that the Carter era seems comparatively delightful, and the commentariat frowns and offers you charts pointing out that, well, really, the Carter era was hardly delightful at all.
I am not saying, don’t fact-check. Fact-check, for the love of Pete.
I am not saying, Everyone Lies Constantly So Why Hold Anyone To a Higher Standard. That’s not the point.
But it’s gotten awfully ad hominem, awfully fast. We’ve leaped from “You are mistaken! That statement was, at best, irresponsible! Here are some facts!” to “You are a lying liar because of a devious, concerted lies-only strategy based on constant lies.”
So much for that policy debate everyone claimed for about 38 milliseconds to want.
Possibly I am alone in failing to find it an obvious jump from “I don’t think your ideas about the economy are based in reality” to “You are a pathological liar!” But I don’t think it is. And when people complain about how nasty things have gotten and mutter that This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Candidates, this is the sort of thing they are talking about. Cool it, please. You can politely disagree with someone who likes to spit on the grave of Keynes and believes Hoover’s approach to stimulus was the way to go. But you can’t when you maintain that the only reason he isn’t lying is that his mouth is shut.
Certainly it is comforting to assume that people only disagree with you because they have a tenuous grasp on reality, that your opponents are (at worst) liars and (at best) idiots. Then you need never compromise with them or listen when they speak. But if you actually believe it, I have some marathon times I’d like to tell you.