Saturday, September 1, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Romney Campaign

Some time ago I wrote about the end of the Enlightenment in America. Well, at least in the Republican Party. Since then, we have had an acceleration of its pace. The list of lies about Obama's policies and statements is too long to bring up here. Paul Ryan has lied about running a sub-3-hour marathon. That last one has really gotten people's goat. It's fine to lie about policy and other politicians. But never lie about your physical performance. Not only does the powerful runners' lobby then get involved, people find it especially offensive if you have the gall to lie about how well you did in a race. Athletic contests should be one of the few places in this world where reality rules, where objectivity rules and we can come to a mutual agreement about the truth; did you run faster than another or not? Also, hundreds of thousands of people run marathons a year and know what it takes to run a below-3-hour marathon. Second, they find it pretty offensive that you need to lie to show how much better you are than everyone else who've worked so hard to just complete one (who knows why they would want to do that). That's why Ryan's lie about his marathon runtime has gained particular traction and a flimsy retraction so quickly. [And let's not forget our dear leading Harvard liar, Niall Ferguson].

The fact that so many giant fibs have been uttered and repeated so often has gained special attention of late by the news media. Even FOX NEWS thinks Ryan is lying. But why now? Politicians have always lied. That's what they do. If they weren't, what would they say? And why is the collective media wringing their hands now? Why didn't they start pointing out all of the lies starting with the Bush Administration in 2000 with its tax policies being deficit neutral, possible preventive warnings about the 9/11 attacks, and, of course, Iraq and WMD? Now, in 2012, the media are all concerned about falsehoods and mistruths? Is it because the attacks on the quality of the media--and politicians--by Jon Stewart are starting to take a real toll on their psyches, consciousnesses and notions of professionalism?  It could also be because the Romney campaign has just reached such a high level of mendacity, have bothered so little to dress them up, and impervious to criticism that both the Obama campaign and the media can hardly tolerate it any longer.

Whatever the cause, we need to move beyond the useless question of if and why there is so much lying in politics and start asking a more important question. Namely, what is its impact? Tell a lie big enough, often enough, people start to believe it. No, Goebbels did not say that. Instead, it's a variation of Adolph Hitler's statement about one of the conditions for propaganda to succeed. But that is a hint to what I think are the nefarious effects of these lies. They're not just there to whip up sentiment and get votes. Blatant lies, repeated often, poison the democratic process. Assuming that democracy involves deliberation as much as bargaining and compromising over areas of self-interest, then the more people deceive each other, the worse is our governance. Lying means you do not have the courage to argue with another over the interpretation of the facts, which means we cannot come to better mutual understandings of the truth. We could not convince each other of the better argument. Not only does truth not matter, but the degree to which the other person matters diminishes as well. You may be lying to persuade her to do something against her interests. They have less worth as human beings. But you are also probably trying to deceive someone to harm them in some way. You're using your lying to assert your will over another, because if your words were based on truth, they would be ineffective. So far, we can be thankful that the lies that the Romney campaign so mendaciously commits itself to repeating are relatively innocuous. At least compared to the bigger lies that have been told in the 20th century, which at least partially contributed to the death of millions.

What can we do? Well, the people at Slate discussed it and basically they had the right response. The media, as our main information providers, just have to keep trying and keep getting better. It's an uphill battle. But seeing what's down below if we don't push back on these giants balls of lies, our democracy just becomes more and more threatened as a result.

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