(Image: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; adapted from saschapohflepp / flickr)
Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear.
In the current American political landscape, truth is not merely misrepresented or falsified; it is overtly mocked. As is well known, the Bush administration repeatedly lied to the American public, furthering a legacy of government mistrust while carrying the practice of distortion to new and almost unimaginable heights. Even now, almost a year after Bush left office, it is difficult to forget the lies and government-sponsored deceits in which it was claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, Iraq was making deals with al-Qaeda and, perhaps the most infamous of all, the United States did not engage in torture. Unlike many former administrations, the Bush administration was engaged in pure political theater, giving new meaning to Hannah Arendt's claim that "Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings." For instance, when the government wasn't lying to promote dangerous policies, it willfully produced and circulated fake news reports in order to provide the illusion that the lies and the policies that flowed from them were supported by selective members of the media and the larger public. The Bush deceits and lies were almost never challenged by right-wing media "patriots," who were too busy denouncing as un-American anyone who questioned Bush's official stream of deception and deceit. Ironically, some of these pundits were actually on the government payroll for spreading the intellectual equivalent of junk food. And some of them were actually being paid by the Bush government to make such claims.
In such circumstances, language loses any viable sense of referentiality, while lying, misrepresentation and the deliberate denial of truth become acceptable practices firmly entrenched in the wild West of talk radio, cable television and the dominant media. Fact finding, arguments bolstered by evidence and informed analysis have always been fragile entities, but they risk annihilation in a culture in which it becomes difficult to distinguish between an opinion and an argument. Knowledge is increasingly controlled by a handful of corporations and public relations firms and is systemically cleansed of any complexity. Lying and deceitfulness are all too often viewed as just another acceptable tactic in what has become most visibly the pathology of politics and a theater of cruelty dominated by a growing chorus of media hatemongers inflaming an authoritarian populist rage laced with a not too subtle bigotry. Truth increasingly becomes the enemy of democracy because it does not support the spectacle and the reduction of citizens either to mere dupes of power or commodities. Ignorance is no longer a liability in a culture in which lying, deceit and misinformation blur the boundaries between informed judgments and the histrionics of a shouting individual or mob. Talk radio and television talk show screamers, in particular, seem to delight in repeating claims that have been discredited in the public arena, demonstrating a barely disguised contempt for both the truth and any viable vestige of journalism. These lies and deceits go beyond the classic political gambit, beyond the Watergate-style cover up, beyond the comic "I did not have sex with that woman." The lies and deceptions that are spewed out everyday from the right-wing teaching machines - from newspapers and radio shows to broadcast media and the Internet - capitalize on both the mobilizing power of the spectacle, the increasing impatience with reason and an obsession with what Susan J. Douglas describes as the use of the "provocative sound bites over investigative reporting, misinformation over fact." Lying and deception have become so commonplace in the dominant press that such practices appear to have no moral significance and provoke few misgivings, even when they have important political consequences. In the age of public relations managers and talk show experts, we are witnessing the demise of public life. At a time when education is reduced to training workers and is stripped of any civic ideals and critical practices, it becomes unfashionable for the public to think critically. Rather than intelligence uniting us, a collective ignorance of politics, culture, the arts, history and important social issues, as Mark Slouka points out, "gives us a sense of community, it confers citizenship." Our political passivity is underscored by a paucity of intellectual engagement, just as the need for discrete judgment and informed analysis fall prey to a culture of watching, a culture of illusion and circus tricks. Shame over the lying and ignorance that now shape our cultural politics has become a source of national pride - witness the pathetic response to Joe Wilson's outburst against President Obama. Or, for that matter, the celebrated and populist response to Sarah Palin's lies about death panels, which are seized upon not because they distort the truth and reveal the dishonesty and vileness of political opportunism - while also undermining a viable health care bill - but because they tap into a sea of growing anger and hyped-up ignorance and ratchet up poll ratings. Lying and deceit have become the stuff of spectacle and are on full display in a society where gossip and celebrity culture rule. In this instance, the consequences of lying are reduced to a matter of prurience rather than public concern, becoming a source of private injury on the part of a Hollywood star or producing the individual humiliation of public figure such as John Edwards.
The widespread acceptance of lying and deceit is not merely suggestive of a commodified and ubiquitous corporate-driven electronic culture that displays an utter contempt for morality and social needs: It is also registers the existence of a troubling form of infantilization and depoliticization. Lying as common sense and deceit as politics-as-usual joins the embrace of provocation in a coupling that empties politics and agency of any substance and feeds into a corporate state and militarized culture in which matters of judgment, thoughtfulness, morality and compassion seem to disappear from public view. What is the social cost of such flight from reality, if not the death of democratic politics, critical thought and civic agency? When a society loses sight of the distinction between fact and fiction, truth-telling and lying, what happens is that truth, critical thought and fact finding as conditions of democracy are rendered trivial and reduced to a collection of mere platitudes, which in turn reinforces moral indifference and political impotence. Under such circumstances, language actually becomes the mechanism for promoting political powerlessness. Lying and deceit are no longer limited to merely substituting falsehoods for the truth; they now performatively constitute their own truth, promoting celebrity culture, right-wing paranoia and modes of government and corporate power freed from any sense of accountability.
While all governments resort to misrepresentations and lies, we appear to have entered a brave new world in which lies, distortions and exaggerations have become so commonplace that when something is said by a politician, it is often meant to suggest its opposite, and without either irony or apology. As lies and deceit become a matter of policy, language loses its grip on reality, and the resulting indeterminacy of meaning is often used by politicians and others to embrace positions that change from one moment to the next. Witness Dick Cheney, who once referred to torture as "enhanced interrogation" so as to sugarcoat its brutality, and then appeared on national television in 2009 only to defend torture by arguing that if such practices work, they are perfectly justified, even if they violate the law. This is the same Cheney who, appearing on the May 31, 2005, "Larry King Live" show, attempted to repudiate charges of government torture by claiming, without irony, that the detainees "have been well treated, treated humanely and decently." This type of discourse recalls George Orwell's dystopian world of "1984" in which the Ministry of Truth produces lies and the Ministry of Love tortures people. Remember when the Bush administration used the "Healthy Forest Initiative" to give loggers access to protected wilderness areas or the "Clear Skies Initiative" to enable greater industrial air pollution? President Obama also indulges in this kind of semantic dishonesty when he substitutes "prolonged detention" for the much maligned "preventive detention" policies he inherited from the Bush-Cheney regime. While Obama is not Bush, the use of this type of duplicitous language calls to mind the Orwellian nightmare in which "war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength."
When lying and deceit become normalized in a culture, they not only serve as an index of how low we have fallen as a literate society, but also demonstrate the degree to which language and education have become corrupted, tied to corporate and political power and sabotaged by rigid ideologies as part of a growing authoritarianism that uses the educational force of the culture, the means of communication and the sites in which information circulate to mobilize ignorance among a misinformed citizenry, all the while supporting reactionary policies. Especially since the horrible events of 9/11, Americans have been encouraged to identify with a militaristic way of life, to suspend their ability to read the word and world critically, to treat corporate and government power in almost religious terms and to view a culture of questioning as something alien and poisonous to American society. Shared fears rather than shared responsibilities now mobilize angry mobs and gun-toting imbeciles, who are praised as "real" Americans. Fear bolstered by lies and manufactured deceptions makes us immune to even the most obvious moral indecencies, such as the use of taser guns on kids in schools. Nobody notices or cares - and one cause and casualty of all of this moral indifference is that language has been emptied of its critical content just as the public spaces that make it possible are disappearing into the arms of corporations, advertisers and other powerful institutions that show nothing but contempt for either the public sphere or the kind of critical literacy that gives it meaning.
Obama's presence on the national political scene gave literacy, language and critical thought a newfound sense of dignity, interlaced as they were with a vision of hope, justice and possibility - and reasonable arguments about the varied crises America faced and civilized. Such practices as Obama compromised, if not surrendered, some of his principles to those individuals and groups that live in the vocabulary of duplicity, the idealism that shaped his language began to look like just another falsehood when measured against his continuation of a number of Bush-like policies. In this case, the politics of distortions and misrepresentations that Obama's lack of integrity has produced may prove to be even more dangerous than what we got under Bush because it wraps itself in a moralism that seems uplifting and hopeful while it supports policies that reward the rich, reduce schools to testing centers and continue to waste lives and money on wars that should have ended when Obama assumed his presidency. Obama claims he is for peace, and yet the United States is the largest arms dealer in the world. He claims he wants to reduce the deficit, but spends billions on the defense industry and wars abroad. He says he wants everyone to have access to decent health care, but makes backroom deals with powerful pharmaceutical companies. Orwell's ghost haunts this new president and the country at large. Reducing the critical power of language has been crucial to this effort. Under such circumstances, democracy as either a moral referent or a political ideal appears to have lost any vestige of credibility. The politics of lying and the culture of deceit are inextricably related to a theater of cruelty and modes of corrupt power in which politics is reduced to a ritualized incantation, just as matters of governance are removed from real struggles over meaning and power.
Beyond disinformation and disguise, the politics of lying and the culture of deceit trade in and abet the rhetoric of fear in order to manipulate the public into a state of servile political dependency and unquestioning ideological support. Fear and its attendant use of moral panic not only create a rhetorical umbrella to promote right-wing ideological agendas (increased military spending, tax relief for the financial and corporate elite, privatization, market-driven reforms and religious intolerance), but also contribute to a sense of helplessness and cynicism throughout the body politic. The collapse of any vestige of critical literacy, reason and sustained debate gives way to falsehoods and forms of ignorance that find expression in the often racist discourse of what Bob Herbert calls "the moronic maestros of right wing radio and TV," endlessly haranguing the public to resist any vestige of reason. How else to explain the actions of parents who refuse to let their children listen to a speech on education by - Should I say it? - an African-American President? How else to fathom the dominant media repeating uncritically the views of right-wing groups that portray Obama as Hitler or Lenin, or consistently making references that compare him to a gorilla or indulge in other crude racist references - in recent days, these groups have been given ample media attention, as if their opinions are not simply ventriloquizing the worst species of ignorance and racism.
The politics of lying and the culture of deceit are wrapped in the logic of absolute certainty, an ominous harbinger of a kind of illiteracy in which one no longer has to be accountable for justifying opinions, claims or alleged arguments. Stripped of accountability, language finds its final resting place in a culture of deceit in which lying either is accepted as a political strategy or is viewed as simply another normalized aspect of everyday life. The lack of criticism surrounding both government practices and corporations that now exercise unparalleled forms of power is more than shameful; it is an utter capitulation to an Orwellian rhetoric that only thinly veils an egregious form of authoritarianism and racism. In the face of such events, we must develop a critical discourse to address the gap between rhetoric and deeds of those who hold economic, political and social power. As Hannah Arendt has argued, debate is central to a democratic politics, along with the public space in which individuals can argue, exercise critical judgment and clarify their relationship to democratic values and public commitments. Critical consciousness and autonomy are, after all, not merely the stuff of political awareness, but what makes democratic accountability possible in the first place. They are also the foundation and precondition for individuals, parents, community groups and social movements to mobilize against such political and moral corruptions. Democracy is fragile, and its fate is always uncertain, but during the last decade we have witnessed those in commanding political and corporate positions exhibit an utter disregard for the truth, morality and critical debate. The Enron template of lying and deception has turned an ethos of dialogue and persuasion into its opposite: dogmatism and propaganda. In doing so, the American public has been bombarded by a discourse of fear, hate and racism, coupled with a politics of lying that undermines any viable vestige of a democratic ethos. We now find ourselves living in a society in which right-wing extremists not only wage a war against the truth, but also seek to render human beings less than fully human by taking away their desire for justice, spiritual meaning, freedom and individuality.
Politics must become more attentive to those everyday conditions that have allowed the American public to remain complicitous with such barbaric policies and practices. Exposing the underlying conditions and symptoms of a culture of lying and deceit is both a political and a pedagogical task that demands that people speak out and break through the haze of official discourse, media-induced amnesia and the fear-producing lies of corrupt politicians and the swelling ranks of hatemongers. The politics of lying and deceit at the current historical moment offers up the specter of not just government abuse, mob hysteria and potential violence, but also an incipient authoritarianism, one that avidly seeks to eliminate intelligent deliberation, informed public discussion, engaged criticism and the very possibility of freedom and a vital democratic politics. The spirit of critique is meaningless without literacy and an informed public. For such a public to flourish, it must be supported with public debate and informed agents capable of becoming both a witness to injustice and a force for transforming those political, economic and institutional conditions that impose silence and perpetuate human suffering. The distortions, misrepresentations and lies that have become an integral part of American culture present a serious threat to an aspiring democracy because they further what John Dewey called the "eclipse of the public," just as they empty politics of its democratic values, meanings and possibilities. The hate, extremism and pathology that have come to define our national political and popular landscapes - heard repeatedly in the prattle of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, to name only two of the most popular examples - are legitimated by an appeal to absolute certainty, which becomes the backdrop against which a politics of lying and a culture of deceit, fear, cruelty and repression flourish. We are witnessing in the politics of lying and the culture of deceit a disconnection between language and social responsibility, politics and critical education, market interests and democratic values, and privately felt pain and joys and larger public considerations. And this undermining of the value of human dignity, truth, dialogue and critical thought is the offspring of a debate over much more than simply meaning and language, or even the widespread legitimacy of individual and institutional ignorance and corruption. At its core, it is a debate about power and those corporate and political interests that create the conditions in which lying becomes acceptable and deceit commonplace - those forces that have the power to frame in increasingly narrow ways the conventions, norms, language and relations through which we relate to ourselves and others. How we define ourselves as a nation cannot be separated from the language we value, inhabit and use to shape our understanding of others and the world in which we want to live. As the language of critique, civic responsibility, political courage and democracy disappears along with sustained investments in schools, media, and other elements of a formative culture that keeps an aspiring democracy alive, we lose the spaces and capacities to imagine a future in which language, literacy and hope are on the side of justice, rather than on the side of hate, willful ignorance and widespread injustice.
1. Hannah Arendt, "Lying in Politics," in "Crisis of the Republic" (New York: Harvest/HBJ Books, 1969), p. 6
2. Frank Rich, "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (New York: Penguin, 2007).
3. Ibid., Hannah Arendt, "Lying in Politics," p. 4.
4. See Bob Herbert's courageous article, "The Scourge Persists," New York Times (September 19, 2009), p. A17.
6. Mark Slouka, "A Quibble," Harper's Magazine (February 2009), p. 9.
7. Ibid., Herbert, "The Scourge Persists," p. 17.