One of the pervasive catch-phrases we hear today is “fake news. A much older aphorism is, “The truth shall set you free.”
Two novels, “The Giver,” and a new book, “Golden State,” posit dystopian societies where literal truth is prized above all else, and the slightest deviation from the truth is punished as a crime. But in both societies, there are at least a few people who can speculate about the truth, and in “The Giver,” actually lie.
For some people, the idea the government would actually lie is anathema to freedom and democracy. After all, the thought goes, how can we make rational decisions if the government is concealing some or all of the facts, or is actually lying to us?
But you know, there is something to be said for secrecy and not telling everything you know.
Let’s start with a geo-political fact of life: there are people out there who don’t like us very much, and would like to do us harm. Which means, of course, we have to defend ourselves against them.
Obviously, there is information, secrets, that has to be kept away from these people, which also means the same information has to be kept away from the American people. Putting those truths on the evening news is the same as giving it to the rest of the world.
Shortly after World War I Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted there were some situations in which it would be permissible to publish sensitive information and other times when it wouldn’t. He specifically talked about newspapers publishing the sailing dates of troop ships, which in peacetime would be perfectly acceptable, but in wartime could lead to disaster.
The same principle applies to other government secrets in this age of cyber warfare.
Trying to distinguish fake news, the truth, secret information and not-so-secret information can be a full-time job, but is essential for the survival of our democracy.
I’m Larry Burriss.