Dorothy Heller

A writer, blogger, mother, medical interpreter, bookaholic, grandmother, shower singer, translator, tea-aholic and an aspiring songwriter. Still writing her novel and wants to write at least one good song.


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, fuming, fulminating, and finger wagging. They were early adapters of the discovery that politics are a wonderful medium for venting–unloading pent up resentment, frustration, fear. Good times.

My friend and I never thought that 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 pinups of naked women in Playboy in the olden days before the World Wide Web became the most convenient purveyor of pornography).

Normal Dads yelled—at the referee 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, the blatantly capitalist Wall St. Journal, CBS, ABC, NBC—all the sources that the alt-right now sneeringly calls “media”—was automatically suspect. But my parents proudly displayed Soviet Life Magazine 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 Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin , the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the lack of civil rights in the former Soviet Union. He was known as a man of great integrity, personal and political—may his tribe increase. He still lambasted most U.S. presidential administrations and the Right Wing with equal vigor, which kept him on my father’s mailing list.

My brother arrived as a scholarship student at Princeton University, 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 blacklisting days), an elderly WASP shook his hand and congratulated for standing up for his principles. It was a deeply unsettling experience—my brother had been primed to expect persecution by the ruling elite, not a handshake.

Like the enthusiasts on the Right who now take every marching order from Tucker Carlson, Breitbart, 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. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations of the extent of Stalin’s murders finally shook them. The day they heard Krushchev’s denunciations of Stalin< was one of the worst days of their lives.

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 Joe Hill–“I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, as ‘live as you and me”, Woody Guthrie’s Union Maid--“there once was a union maid who never was afraid”– and La Pasionaria’s No Pasarán. Other kids didn’t know beans about the Spanish Civil War, which ended many years before my birth, nor did they care about labor organizing, strikes, and picket lines. Midnight usually had my parents and friends singing the Internationale, although only a few had officially been Communist Party members. The home life of a Red Diaper baby.

A friend’s son went on a college tour of what was then the Soviet Union. He showed slides to my parents and their cohort, telling them how the KGB had 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 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 (no relation to Karl) once said: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

If there is a heaven for John Birch members (a gated, exclusive heaven that excludes people of color, Jews, 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, while not surrendering belief in his own alternate reality.

It’s no coincidence that the origin of alternative facts is totalitarian—the Newspeak of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. My father’s values were all about equal opportunity and social justice–he was a devoted teacher to his students at vocational school (for kids deemed to not have sufficient intelligence to study academic subjects). One of his students became a successful art director in advertising and several visited him for years. But his ideological blinders still made him susceptible to disinformation. He didn’t have Facebook (Meta) and other social media, so he created his own echo chamber to confirm what he already believed.

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, (who lived long before artificial intelligence). We can only hope.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top