Wednesday, June 30, 2004
I'm ranting, of course, and you might wonder what set me off. Well it's this gem, William Kristof's column from Wednesday's New York Times.
Kristof's thesis is that liberals are wrong to call Bush a liar because: (a) sometimes Bush only exaggerates; (b) Bush isn't really good enough at talking for anybody to tell whether he's lying or just failing to make any damn sense; and (c) calling your political opponents liars tends to coarsen political discourse and undermine the electorate's trust in the political process.
I'm reminded of a dinner party I ruined several years ago. A number of us were sitting around getting to know one another and one of the subjects that came up was political orientation. I let it be known that I pretty much accepted the socialist critique of capitalism, though I wasn't down with the notion that revolution was a historical inevitability and, anyway, thought it was pretty obvious that violent revolution would do more harm than good.
Another of the guests, I'll call her K, couldn't let this pass. She didn't think this was a political view that a moral person could have unless that person were startlingly ignorant. At one point she argued that because I hadn't summered in Europe I wasn't cosmopolitan enough to have developed respectable political views.
I found all of this to be quite insulting, of course, but not so offensive as to require that all conversation halt until such time as apologies had been delivered. Moreover, it was pretty clear to me that K was taking me to be defending the worst excesses of Stalinism, something which I would never dream of doing.
I tried to explain the nuances of my position, tried to get across the idea that the governments of the Soviet Union and its satellites didn't faithfully embody the ideals put forth by Lenin in State and Revolution, and that anyway Marx's worries about the accumulation of surplus value didn't obviously imply any of this Vanguard of the Proletariat stuff.
I was rebuffed at every turn. K insisted that she had closely studied the socialist canon and had found it wanting. Once I informed her that there was such a thing as War Communism she asserted that this historical era had also been an object of considerable investigation on her part. In short, she was an authority on these matters.
She was obviously lying. Maybe, just maybe, she had read the Communist Manifesto somewhere along the way, but it was clear that her knowledge of socialist theory didn't extend past the canard that the fall of the Soviet Union had proven that socialism didn't work.
The next time she claimed to have read Capital I called her on it. I said she was lying.
Judging by her reaction you would have thought that I had punched her in the nose. Her mouth and eyes opened wide and she just stared at me. I don't remember precisely what she said, but it had the flavor of, "How dare you besmirch my honor! I demand that you apologize at once and repudiate any suggestion that I am not an authority on socialist theory."
Then, and I remember this quite clearly, another guest accused me of being rude. A chorus of others said that I ought to apologize. Instead, I thanked the host and left.
From my point of view I had answered a question about my political inclinations and been attacked for it. During my attempt to defend myself I was accused of ignorance, naivete, and immorality. Then, (then!) my accuser embarked on a pattern of lies that frustrated every attempt I made to respond. But I was the one who was rude? I was the one who should apologize?
I don't buy it. I think K owed me an apology. Not for the insults (I'm not that thin-skinned) but for violating the conversational ground rules that make communication possible. If one of us was responsible for coarsening the discourse it wasn't me, it was her.
I'm not saying that lying is always bad, or that liars should always be taken to task. There are, as we say in philosophy, cases and cases. And this brings us back to Kristof and Bush.
Off the top of my head here's a sample of the untruths that the Bush Administration has knowingly fostered: The No-Child-Left-Behind-Act is a sincere attempt to improve education; The Bush tax cut doesn't disproportionately favor the rich; The Administration never advocated torture; Saddam Hussein directly aided the al Qaeda terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center; There is proof that Iraq possesses WMDs.
Kristof says that calling Bush a liar, "further polarizes the political cesspool, and this polarization is making America increasingly difficult to govern."
But what about Bush's lies? They have an effect on political discourse too. The kinds of lies Bush and his cronies tell--lies told to grease the wheels of government, lies told to further a political agenda that could not otherwise find popular support, lies which carry the authority of official endorsement--these lies are a violation of trust. These lies undermine any attempt to have a serious public discussion about the issues that confront the nation.
Kristof says that we shouldn't call Bush a liar because, "insults and rage impede understanding."
Bullshit. Lying impedes understanding.