The American media lies, and lies damnably. This statement will come as no revelation to regular readers of Crisis magazine. We all remember the more glaring falsehoods peddled in the past few years, e.g., that Nicholas Sandmann and his classmates bullied and harassed a Native American tribal elder, that President Trump praised neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” that nights of looting, arson, and riots were “mostly peaceful,” and even that the president encouraged Americans to drink bleach to battle the coronavirus. These are, of course, only representative examples; readers could certainly supply more. Granted, some of the more glaring lies have been publicly exposed, denounced, and punished—Sandmann has already settled lawsuits with the Washington Post and CNN. Many others, however, continue to be repeated. Aided and abetted by the media, Joe Biden has made the “very fine people” line a touchstone in his campaign, while Anderson Cooper continues to claim that Trump considered injecting people with bleach. At the time of writing, the news media are trying desperately to decide whether the “mostly peaceful” lie is still expedient and, if not, which new lie they should replace it with.
We need no reminders that the media lies with reckless abandon, therefore, in this column, I would like instead to consider the probable impact of those repeated lies on our republic. To do so, I suggest that we seek the wisdom of a world whose politics were even more fractious, more divided, and more toxic than our own: the medieval Italy of Dante Alighieri. Dante’s day saw the strife of Guelph against Ghibelline, White Ghibelline against Black, Italy against France against England against the Empire, city against city, and pope against kings—feuds all the more bitter because they divided the body of Christ, pitting fellow Christians against each other.
Such a world, naturally, produced every manner of sin imaginable, and all these sins are carefully chronicled in Dante’s descent into the Inferno. The nine circles of the infernal city are, as Dorothy Sayers reminds us, Dante’s picture of human society in decay; the further Dante and Virgil descend, the more radically corrupt and degraded the society becomes. The pilgrims pass relatively quickly through first seven circles of hell. All the sins of appetite and violence are contained in the first half of the cantica. Then the travelers reach the Great Barrier, and here the poem slows down. Dante and Virgil plunge into the abyss of the eighth circle, which houses the fraudulent. Alas, the various sins punished here read like a cross-section of our ruling classes in Washington, New York, and Hollywood: we meet pimps and seducers, flatterers, hypocrites, and thieves, bribe-taking officials, false counsellors, and sowers of discord. They come at long last to the tenth and final ditch of the eighth circle. Here we find the liars—those who perpetrate the purest form of fraud, the one that unites all the others. Their stench is overwhelming. As Anthony Esolen’s fine translation has it: