First published at Townhall.com in May, 2007
IT’S THE STUPIDS, STUPID!
Last fall (2005) I sat on a rocky ledge looking over Oak Creek near Sedona commiserating with an old Russia-hand named Moses Sands about the level of political discourse in America. I was particularly disturbed that truth seemed no longer to have any place in it.
“Truth-telling was never a long suite of your generation, even on the most ordinary of matters, so it’s always been easy for you to fuzzy the differences between fact and fiction. (I was born in ’45.)
“My generation had a higher regard for truth, mainly because we had more strugglers at the low end of our society. Survival and truth are joined at the hip, if you didn’t already know that. With us, public lying was right up there next to profligacy, unwed mothers and divorce, as things that just naturally can eat up a society.
“We always expected dishonesty from our local pols, you know taxes and betters roads…but we still got the roads, just at a price higher than they actually cost. But among our national leaders lying was a major crime. We couldn’t abide that…if we found out about it, and for years politicians went to great lengths to hide it. . Today, I could stand in the well of the Senate and couldn’t find a truthful statement with a divining rod. Still everyone just yawns.
“This fever frenzy to lie publicly isn’t a cultural accident, though. It’s on purpose, although it does feed off a few new cultural twists, such as the fact the media, also from your generation, is by and large in on the fix. There’s no private sector quality control anymore. Also, after forty years of Those Guys’ (Moses’ name for modern liberals) control of public education in this country, the public has lost much of its common sense in being able to tell the difference between lies and damned lies, as Mark Twain would’ve pointed out.
“Republicans lie, too, I suppose, but not on a grand scale. Democrats tell whoppers that defy gravity, only the public perceives them as the same. Poor ol’ Bush, who I am quite certain hasn’t knowingly uttered an untruth since he sobered up, gets beaten up because no one can, or will, tell the difference between a lie and a mistake in fact, not even a mistake in fact from the highest possible source.
“That’s the key, if you’re the bad guys. If you can control the message, i.e., pass on the ravings of a lunatic like a left-wing blogger, or the lies of a Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid, or the deer-in-the-headlights ripostes by whoever Bush sends out there, all in the same even tone, as if each was of more or less equal weight, and you can pass it on to a public that no longer can distinguish between white and black lies, then fact is no longer relevant. Only the emotion of the story is
“In short, and it seems simple to me…that’s both the problem, and the fixing of it. If I wanted to attack you with lies, the first thing I’d do is make sure you couldn’t attack me with the truth. So I’d make them equal. If you want to fight back, you have to cull the liars from the herd, and corral them away.
“Truth has become political now, and has been the case since the 60s. Socialism stands for the proposition that all human behavior should be subject to the political process. Do you have any idea how damning that is to our constitutional scheme? Do you have any idea how destructive that is to any scientific definition of survivability in a civilization?
“Do you have any idea how stupid that is? It’s a clear recipe for suicide.
“That’s the solution, you see. Trying to ‘out’ liars as liars is a failing strategy, as I see it. Oh, if the press wanted to re-assert its role as quality control by calling politicians liars, our political problems could be fixed a lot quicker. But over half the politicians and ninety per cent of the talking heads would be abandoned in some ravine in Cochise County…and cable news shows would have nothing to say, would they? Which is just one of several reasons why the media can’t call out liars. Dead air time. And Republicans can’t call Democrats liars very successfully because the Dems have preempted the field by creating this aura around truth-telling as just being another part of politics. Facts have become just matters of opinion. When a college professor says Puritans from the Republican Party committed genocide on the Indians back in 1635, destroying a high civilization, and all because they refused to wear button-fly pants…count the untruths I just told there…any response to that sort of lunacy is automatically neutralized as being simply political. Hell, the guy could get a ninety second opinion spot on MSNBC. Piltdown man lives.
“So does Orwell.
“The public assumption now is that all politicians lie, only they can no longer tell the difference between a lie and a mistake in fact. And worse, they miss altogether the viral lie. We all know the lie of saying something we know to be untrue, such as the lipstick on the collar ‘where were you last night? lie’. But the worse lie is when we state something to be true we don’t know to be true or know we cannot prove to be true. Al Gore does this weekly. This is a deeper moral lie in many ways, for it is a lie of vanity. Global warming comes to mind. The convenient truth is the viral lie. With this lie especially, it actually gets worse the higher you go on the educational scale, as common sense no longer has any place past tenth grade. This is the lie the Nazis used to seduce the professional classes with in Germany…and this is why it has to be stopped.
“So you have to remember a few simple rules. The first is that everything comes in two’s, sometimes threes. When a person states with certitude a thing that is provably false, there is only one of three reasons; the person is 1) misinformed, 2) lying, or 3) stupid. (VB: I’ve added a fourth, self-delusion.) The second rule is that your generation in general, and the political class in particular, will move heaven and earth to keep from being perceived as stupid, so to them, lying is not the worst sin.
“Instead of lying, go for stupid. Incompetence. Bang that drum and watch them squeal. I don’t know about you, but I see a game plan here. If you can hang Those Guys on an incompetence rap, the lying charge takes care of itself. It works every time, even in the private one-on-one world of social intercourse.”
Moses was right.
Let me tell you a story that happened back before the 2000 election. I stayed in the same hotel in the Balkans as a representative from the UN. She was head of some human rights or refugee group, German, and about as insufferable a Lady Disdain as any bureaucrat could be.
Every morning she’d hold court around one of two tables where most of the businessmen had breakfast. She’d ask questions of everyone. She asked two oriental men if they were Korean, Chinese or Japanese. When they replied that they were from Osaka she promptly told them how she’d had a countryman of theirs from Osaka indicted because he’d phonied up a bid. I usually tried to work my way to Table Two.
On about day five she brought up the coming election. She asked who looked like the winner, and someone said Bush seemed to have a good chance. He had a good lead at the time. Her reply was “Wishful thinking, most likely. As everyone knows, Bush is an idiot…” to which the Dutchman asked, “But didn’t Governor Bush graduate from Yale and Harvard Business School?” With a dismissive wave of the hand, she replied, “Yes, but anyone with connections can get their son into Yale and Harvard.”
The back and forth didn’t take long, but I pointed out that it was common knowledge in America that Harvard Business School was one of the most competitive programs in the world to get into. And that not even the King of Saudi Arabia could buy one of his kids in.
I then quoted Moses’ three rules as to why a person who claims otherwise, leaving it up to people around the table to decide which of the three applied. Without a word Her Ladyship got up and walked away…to a big grin from two happy Japanese businessmen. We never saw her again. I was told she took breakfast in her room.
Not exactly turning over tables in Temple, still, it works, and it works every time. So take your shot when it’s offered. Don’t sit quietly, but don’t call them liars, either. Go for Door Number Three. Make the inference that they are incompetent, and they will move Heaven and Hell to prove they’re mere liars. Or they will leave the field of battle.
2013 update: Rand Paul almost got there with Hillary Clinton in the Benghazi hearings. Let’s hope it’s still a work in progress.
(That was the last time I ever saw Moses Sands.)