Saturday, February 16, 2008

Truth and Lies

Listening to a BBC interview with retiring Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, I'm reminded that, evident even in Burns's dispassionate evenness of tone (not to say "soullessness"), politicians do more than simply lie, they actively malign the truth.

In response to challenging, direct questions on the scandal at Abu Ghraib, rising incidents of terrorism, Iran's debatable emergence as a newly prominent Middle Eastern threat, and the United States' fall in esteem in the world, Burns responded by blithely asserting America's love of liberty and struggle against injustice, by ignoring clear parallels between the growth in international terrorism and the American war on terror, by appealing to fear of Iranian Islamicism while failing to remember that in the early 1980s (when Burns's diplomatic career began) America's counter to Iran was to strengthen Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and totally ignoring the fact that America certainly has won no new friends in the past seven years and has deliberately alienated its old friends.

Instead of engaging in a reasoned defense of U.S. actions, Burns chose to blame "recalcitrant" European nations (Britain, of course, excepted) for their failure to support Bush's predictably ham-fisted (and ham-headed) efforts on the world stage and to pretend that the alarming rise in violence (corresponding with limping and collapsing economies--anomalies for neo-cons so optimistic about globalization) has occurred mysteriously, unlinked to anything America or the West in general has been doing.

Such obfuscation is not a mere slight to the truth; it is a search-and-destroy mission against the truth.

Increasingly, American politicians, and here Republicans are fairly easy to single out (fairly or not), seem offended by the truth. For them their own authority and credibility are more important than hard evidence and valid reasoning. They seem shocked, even disgusted, by recalcitrant journalists, like the BBC's Carrie Gracie, who insist on challenging political euphemisms by pointing out inconsistencies with known facts.

At one point in the interview, Burns denied that he fully supported Bush's foreign policy by explaining that, according to the "ethics" of diplomacy, he fully supported Bush's foreign policy only in his public statements--though in his heart may have questioned a few of them (unsurprisingly, he refused to elaborate).

We live in an era when truth has no importance, except as an abstract word that vaguely appeals to the public's sense of itself as still having values. Long gone are the days when people cared about truth in advertising; as long as it's entertaining, minus sex and violence, no amount of magical thinking in mass communication is impermissible. Oprah's was possibly the last cry against willful falsification by memoirists. And it's been five years since diplomat John H. Brown (like others) resigned his post, saying, “I cannot in good conscience support President Bush’s war plans against Iraq.”

We all know that politicians lie and always have lied. Nothing new there. But today the bullshit rises higher than the mushroom cloud Condoleezza Rice ominously anticipated in 2003 as the ultimate "smoking gun" supporting the case against Iraq (perhaps the same cloud now overshadowing Iran).

H.G. Frankfurt's little book On Bullshit suggests that bullshit is ethically worse than a lie because a lie contradicts truth while paying the idea of truth the compliments of lip service and a bad conscience, while bullshit denies any importance whatsoever to truth, with no pangs of conscience.

I realize that a capital "T" Truth is an abstract value, not a real possibility, but now even Stephen Colbert's compromise term "truthiness" seems insufficient to account for leaders' and would-be leaders' disdain for fact-based reasoning and accountability.

History shows us a world of deception and illusion. Now we live in a world of mendacity and bullshit.

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