Pants on fire
One of the more disturbing things about watching U.S. politics is the dawning realisation that accompanies close observation; the recognition that truth seems to have disappeared as the default position of political figures. If one pays even slight attention to what the candidates at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida say, it becomes sadly apparent that it is now common practice simply to lie; to lie about facts, to lie about historical events, to lie about what they have said or done, and to lie about what their opponents have said or done.
It has long been the practice of politicians to stretch the truth, to embroider reality, to paint history in a particular light; embellishing a resume, padding an expense account…these are time-honoured traditions. The simple telling of outright falsehoods and blatantly reversing the truth, however, is a practice that Hitler perfected and is referred to as “the Big Lie”.
By way of example, the Republican nominee for the vice-presidency, Paul, Ryan, in his keynote address, recounted an anecdote about a GM plant in his home town of Jamesville Wisconsin. He told how Candidate Obama told the workers there that, with his kind government support, that plant wouldn’t close, but could stay in operation for a hundred years; sadly, Ryan reports, Obama failed to keep his promise, and the plant closed within a year.
The truth, however, is that the automotive plant in question closed during the presidency of George W Bush…months before Obama was inaugurated. Ryan certainly knew that; his little morality tale, intended to suggest that the president is not to be trusted, was a cynical lie. And the anecdote he shared was far from the only example of barefaced prevarication in his twenty minute address; Ryan also accused President Obama of “raiding Medicare”, and vowed to continue to “protect and strengthen” the flawed social program. As an outright falsehood, that one is absolutely breathtaking. And that whopper had legs, given the venue of the convention; Florida is home to a large population of retirees that relies heavily on Medicare, so falsely accusing the president of gutting that particular program is an effective way of terrifying elderly people.
It is, of course, an astonishingly obvious lie. Ryan’s claim to fame, the initiative that elevated him to the national scene was the so-called “Ryan Budget” which would have eliminated Medicare and replaced it with a system of coupons redeemable for a limited and restricted list of medical services. The president, on the other hand, fought tooth and nail to create a universal public health care system, and his success was limited only by the dogged resistance of Ryan and his party.
The Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, is so accustomed to telling lies that the press barely even bothers to call him on it any more. He lies about his record, he lies about his income tax, and he lies about his positions on issues. Truth isn’t just elusive, it’s entirely lost in the morass; Romney has reversed himself so regularly, told so many fibs, that on the occasions when the truth does escape him, it has no more objective reality than the falsehoods he routinely passes on.
At first glance one is tempted to observe that in this era of instant access to records and electronic media in which truth or falsehood can be so easily confirmed, it would be foolish to lie in such a public forum. Surely, one is tempted to say, with fact checking so easy nowadays, barefaced lying would be self-defeating. That however, is not the case. One of the problems with instantaneous access to records is that truth and falsehoods are reported and recorded equally objectively. If one politician makes an accurate statement and his opponent falsely states the exact reverse, both statements are reported and assume equal validity in the electronic media. It then becomes necessary for the politician who speaks the truth to defend and support a factual statement, while the liar simply stands back and watches the fun. If he gets called on his lie, he can simply deny it; that would be another lie, but now the denial is part of the record and this latest falsehood carries the same weight as any true statement.
It is that dynamic that we are now watching as the Republican Party pulls out all the stops. It is the stated mission of the GOP to remove President Barrack Obama from office; the subtext is “through any means possible”. Among those means is the habitual and repeated lying that has become routine. The public record at this stage of the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign is littered with falsehoods; certainly these falsehoods can be fact-checked, but fact-checking is something the general public simply doesn’t do. The public generally listens to the pundits that most closely reflect their own views; if those pundits repeat uncritically a lie or series of lies told by a favourite candidate, those lies assume the mantle of fact. If the pundits fact-check a candidate not favoured by the viewers and find him to be lying, the exposure simply reinforces a position already held.
The result of this inability of the public to distinguish between truth and falsehood is that the choice of candidate becomes one of surface over substance; since the substance of any politician’s position can’t accurately be assessed, the public judges on criteria like charm, charisma, and likability. And to some extent that makes sense.
Since lying is so pervasive and since one can’t trust any politician or public figure to tell the truth or consistently keep promises, any stated position or platform assumes a position of irrelevance. Since we have come to be inured to, if not comfortable with, political leaders simply doing the reverse of what they have promised, of telling us barefaced, checkable lies, we may as well cast our vote for the person we find the most pleasant. Truth may be the first casualty of war…it is certainly a casualty of the no-holds-barred scramble for political power.