From Liberty Street: Political Lying

We generally think of a lie as an untruth told for somebody's advantage. As a rough definition, that's not bad. Yet it doesn't get close to the psychological complexity of falsehood as it operates today in the American political system.

In some organizations habitual, incessant lying becomes so much a way of life its practitioners lose the ability to know it for what it is. They come to think of it as policy, or procedure, or confidentiality. Once they reach that state, their ability to say anything trustworthy becomes compromised. One can see the condition at work almost every Sunday morning when high-ranking political generals go on news programs. I doubt whether they ever ask themselves about the truth of their own pronouncements. They are uttering policy and truth never enters their consideration.

The fluctuations of truth and untruth over time are impossible to measure. We have no way of knowing whether we live in a period of high untruth. It's entirely conceivable that people told more lies during the Jeffersonian era than they do now. We do know, however, that truth-telling is not now a common practice among officials and that the attempt to distort -- or spin as we say now -- is the normal procedure for almost all politicians, including the military and religious kind.

It's interesting to speculate why this should be the case. In his fascinating book on the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan points out that the North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap freely admitted errors, including the mistaken slaughter of innocent people. Not so the Americans: "They did call attention to the atrocities in the North and made propaganda out of the candor with which Giap and other Vietnamese Communist leaders admitted their crimes. Because candor like Giap's had disappeared from the American system after World War II, it was interpreted as evidence of weakness and not understood for the strength it actually reflected."

Candor had disappeared from the American system after World War II! On its face, it seems an extraordinary statement. But Sheehan makes it as though it were simply a recognized matter of fact. And upon reflection we can see he's probably right. In our system now, nobody expects anybody else to tell the truth. Actually, it's worse than that. Nobody expects anybody else even to think about telling the truth. We often ask ourselves why the political blather that fills our TV screens seems so completely meaningless. There's your answer. Nobody expects it to contain the truth. Consequently, when people are shown not to have told the truth there are almost no repercussions. In failing to speak truth they were simply doing what everyone expected. So, where's the cause for recrimination?

Since Sheehan's book is about war, he concentrates mainly on military and governmental leaders. But at one point he says that lack of interest in the actuality of things was not confined to them. It pervaded the entire leadership structure of the nation by the mid-1960s.

There are doubtless multiple causes for this decay, which continues into the 21st Century to undermine our social efforts. But the one that strikes me as most potent is the American propensity to reward optimism and to frown on anyone who reports that conditions are not rosy. Optimism has come to seem a virtue and not just a habit of mind. People don't want to hear bad news, so why tell them? And, in particular, why tell them when by a shifting of emphasis, we can make a story turn back on itself?

I am looking now at a Herblock cartoon which appeared in the Washington Post on February 1, 1968, right after the Tet offensive. It shows a U.S. general, squatting beneath a smashed desk, with debris all around him, saying over the phone, "Everything's Okay. They Never Reached the Mimeograph Machine." With the hand not holding the phone, he's turning the crank on the machine which is rolling our propaganda sheets with phrases like, "We now have the initiative," and "The enemy offensive has been foiled" and "Besides, we knew about it in advance." That general was doubtless looking forward to a bright future in the Pentagon.

What is optimism of this character? Is it not at bottom a lack of confidence in one's ability to deal with adverse conditions? If one doesn't think he can face up to trouble, all that's left to him is to say that trouble doesn't exist. It's a tactic that continues to be rewarded as long as reality can be screened. And officials seems to be wagering everyday that the screen will hold until they get their reward and slink away to the golf course for their "golden years" (another term of Americanized optimism).

There are signs now that reality is beginning to rip the screen apart. But our officials are so addicted to relying on it we are unlikely to see a flood of truth-telling from them anytime soon.

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