The Big Lie Never Dies: The Washington Post on Mass Deportation

By Stephen Steinlight on January 17, 2011

Despite execrable historical roots, the primary rhetorical strategy employed in the Washington Post editorial "Immigration impasse ahead" (given a different title online) is the Big Lie. Whether consciously or not, its authors effectively turn George Orwell's critique of mass disinformation in 1984 into praxis to make their central point.

In 1984, Orwell primarily analyzes the Big Lie by exploring the ways it has been used by totalitarian regimes. Patent untruths, often the more unbelievable the better, are repeated unceasingly until a battered public loses the will or capacity to resist them. A measure of the public's susceptibility to this cognitive numbing is illustrated in when Orwell describes how the State's weathermen revise reports about yesterday's weather, and the public accepts it. Not so different, when I spent several months in Krakow, Poland, before the fall of communism and Gorbachev visited the city, the Party hung enormous posters everywhere showing the Soviet leader's face without the huge signature wine stain. I was amazed, but my Polish friends shrugged it off: reality is whatever they say it is.

Orwell is arguably most insightful in his discussion of the often unrecognized effect of Big Lies on their creators. He identifies an insidious process, one so gradual and subtle it occurs without those undergoing it necessarily cognizant it is happening, by which inventors of Big Lies come to believe in them. He tells us that to utter Big Lies while actually believing them (or half believing them), one must ignore or pretend to forget inconvenient facts but retain the capacity to bring them back from oblivion just in case their needed at some point.

The Big Lie in "Immigration impasse ahead" – to which every other erroneous and unsupported assertion is subordinate – is the allegation that state legislators who support Arizona's SB1070 or wish to see the passage of a similar law in their own states have the same nefarious and entirely unworkable policy goal. According to the Post's editors, "The assumption underlying such legislation is that the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country, including the 7 million who hold jobs, can and should be deported en masse." This Big Lie constitutes a central article of belief in the open-borders, pro-amnesty camp. It is repeated without the introduction of any empirical evidence by spokespersons for the organizations that form the pro-open border coalition and in the media that supports it, in the print media that is principally the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Yet no one across the entire spectrum of opposition to illegal immigration or exponentially increased mass immigration by low-skilled immigrants supports such a solution. If the Post could find such a view expressed in print or stated on tape it would surely reproduce it here. This unproven/unprovable accusation is a chimera invented to vilify policy opponents or exploited in push-polls on immigration designed to show a majority supports amnesty by offering respondents only this draconian, politically unthinkable solution as the alternative. To allege policy opponents support the "mass deportation" of some 11 million people is to come perilously close to putting them on a moral par with Hitler, Stalin, or contemporary practitioners of ethnic cleansing. In the absence of so much as a shred of evidence, it constitutes a grotesque dereliction of professional ethics for "newspapers of record" to make such a claim.

One of several self-serving "factual errors" that pervade the piece is the assertion that those who seek to replicate "Arizona's harshly nativist law' come from "a handful of Southern and Western states." One cannot help but notice a barely concealed hostility to these largely Republican regions: the editorial makes a not-too-subtle suggestion such barbarism is to be expected from the cruder cultures of Southern and Western states. The attempt to minimize the effort to replicate Arizona's law is a falsehood. At the present time, bills modeled on Arizona's SB1070 have been introduced or are in the process of being introduced in some 25 states in every geographical region of the nation. These include: Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Florida, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Colorado, Virginia, Minnesota, Missouri, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, Nevada, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Admittedly, passage is a very remote possibility in several and questionable in others, but to limit the list of states where such legislation will be proposed to a "handful of Southern and Western states" is a deliberate untruth.

An irresistible attribute of the Big Lie to propagandists is that one need not worry oneself about finding data of any sort to support it; indeed, the greatest enemy of the Big Lie is fact. Thus it should come as no surprise to readers of "Immigration impasse ahead" that the Washington Post introduces none in the editorial to evidence its central assertion. Even if the Post were not misleading its readers when it claims that legislators from a mere "handful…of states" wish to replicate Arizona's SB1070, the ugly chimera that all who do so support the mass deportation of the illegal population is unsupported by a single reference to a speech or a comment, on or off the record, by any legislator, let alone in a quotation in answer to a question posed by a Post reporter in an interview. If the Post were genuinely interested to know what this small number of legislators from a "handful of Southern and Western states" think, it could easily have asked them.

Furthermore, given the Post's telepathic ability to look into the souls of its opponents on immigration policy and discern the evil motivating them, surely it wouldn't have proven difficult to have produced at least one memorably hideous nativist utterance from these legislators to include in the editorial. Presumably, bigoted demagogic xenophobes would be overjoyed to see their inflammatory views widely disseminated.

Despite its assertion to the contrary, the Post surely knows legislators who wish to introduce bills based on Arizona's SB1070 do not, in fact, come from a mere handful of states in the South and West, but from at least 25. That means the editors must imagine – assuming they believe their own lies and their opponents are the yahoos they say they are – that a veritable treasure trove of self-incriminating hate-filled xenophobic statements were and are available to print.

At the very least, why not print the most vile utterances from the rants of these nativist state legislators in what has become a series of repetitive editorials the Post regularly regurgitates on immigration? What would more effectively expose and help scuttle the fascistic agenda imputed to them? The Washington Post does not because it cannot, which speaks volumes about the credibility of a "newspaper of record" that has lost all respect for truth, failing even to attempt to distinguish its own political biases and ideological predilections from fact. Orwell writes that the inventors of Big Lies frequently come to believe them. The Post would seem to be a classic example.