Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Why Won't They Just Tell The Truth?

Ezra and Jesse at Pandagon and Kevin Drum in his new web-digs all wonder why the Bush administration doesn’t just tell the truth about their pre-9/11 attitudes about terrorism, the fact that there are no significant WMD in Iraq, etc.

Why? Here’s a proposed partial answer:

It seems reasonable to suggest that everybody occupies a position somewhere on a spectrum such that: on one end of the spectrum lies a theoretical point representing the position of (presumably non-actual) people with an absolute respect for the truth, people who would never lie no matter what moral or prudential ends they could achieve by doing so, and on the other end of the spectrum lies a theoretical point representing the position of people with no respect for the truth whatsoever—that is, people who recognize no reason whatsoever to tell the truth unless it achieves some independent end. Most of us lie somewhere in the middle part of the spectrum. I myself believe that one has a strong, though not un-over-ride-able obligation to tell the truth. My friends all occupy positions pretty far toward that end of the spectrum, too, for obvious reasons—I can’t respect anyone who doesn’t respect the truth, and I’m not friends with people I don’t respect. Once we enter the realm of politics, however, we seem to move almost ineluctably toward the other end of the spectrum. People commonly say that the Bush administration has no respect for the truth; that’s a fast and hyperbolic way of making the point that their position would be represented by a point extraordinarily far down toward what we might call the “f**k the truth” end of the spectrum.

So, why don’t they just tell the truth? First answer: because they aren’t really very truthful people.

Some would say that this isn’t a real explanation, but they’d be wrong. ([blare of trumpets] Let the pedantry begin!!) It is sometimes said that such explanations are “virtus dormitiva” or “dormitive virtue” explanations Moliere (in “The Imaginary Illness”?) has someone ask, basically, how come one goes to sleep after taking opium?, and the doctor replies something like “Because it hath the dormitive virtue”--i.e. the opium’s got the power to put you to sleep. This is the point at which most philosophers and many scientists say ‘nyuck nyuck’ (or ‘har har’ as the case may be) because the doctor’s explanation is thought to be risible on account of being tautological—that is, because it is thought that the doctor’s explanation is uninformative, having the form ‘you go to sleep after taking opium because you go to sleep after taking opium.’ But that’s wrong. The doctor’s explanation has the form ‘you go to sleep after taking opium because opium has the power to put you to sleep.’ That is, your going to sleep is not an accident, but an effect of a real power of the opium. Consequently, we can predict that people will, in the future, continue to go to sleep after taking opium.

So they don’t tell the truth because they aren’t very truthful people—that is, there is a real lack of respect for the truth in them. They aren’t the kind of people who think the truth is very important, and they (partially as a consequence of that, partially for other reasons) don’t think it’s important to tell the truth. They’ve made that abundantly clear. Their acute Lysenkoism is one sign of their disregard for truth, as is their repeated lying, their habitual stonewalling, and their penchant for propaganda (like the Medicare ads).. It is abundantly clear, for example, that the last thing they want is for the 9/11 commission to find the truth.

This conclusion coheres with other things we know about them. The people in the Bush administration are from the mega-corporate and realpolitik wings of the Republican party. And those are not two groups of people known for their ardent devotion to openness and honesty. Mega-corporate types, for example, are inclined to acquire money and power, and devil take the hindmost. These undertakings, of course, require a certain respect for the truth, but only because knowing the truth is the best way to achieve one’s goals. They certainly don’t require the kind of respect for truth that prompts one to admit error, nor the kind that compels one to tell the truth even if it interferes with achieving one’s goals.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the fact that I tend to associate with particularly honest people; perhaps this kind of bullshitting is simply more often tolerated in other sectors of American culture. I don’t know. But it nauseates me to such a degree that I can barely even listen to them any more. It seems fairly clear to me that, if they are not always lying, not always stretching and warping and kneading and trimming the truth, not always dissembling and mis-leading and mis-directing us, they are at least always willing to do so. I have no doubt that they would just as soon tell the truth--so long as it would help achieve their political goals. But they seem to be unwilling to pay any political price for telling the truth. That is, they seem willing to tell the truth only if the political cost of doing so is zero.

Kevin Drum suggests that they would gain politically by telling the truth. Perhaps that’s true, perhaps it isn’t. I don’t think they’re interested in taking that risk. Perhaps that would have been a better strategy to pursue if they had done so initially, but they didn’t, and perhaps they think it’s too late now. And perhaps it is. But also, telling the truth simply isn’t the first reaction of people like them—mega-corporate and realpolitik types. For better or for worse, they went with their natural reaction, and now they seem to be stuck with it.

Note that none of this is to say that they are not acting on a kind of principle. I guess that they--to a large extent--take themselves to be doing more or less the right thing. Few people, after all, are so evil that they simply enjoy telling lies. But without a proper respect for the truth per se, any goal is worth lying to achieve, so long as you have a reasonable expectation of getting away with it. And people like them can get away with it much or most of the time.

But once someone has so clearly demonstrated his willingness to lie and distort, it is simply not rational to believe him anymore. I personally have adopted a policy of assigning an initial probability of approximately .5 to anything they say for which I do not have independent evidence. That is, I figure it’s got about a 50/50 chance of being true, but no better. That is, their words are about as good a guide to the truth as is a fair coin. And when it comes to 9/11, al Qaeda, Iraq, WMDs, the deficit, tax cuts, etc., I’m pretty sure that the probability that they’re telling the truth isn’t even that high. Rather, it should be obvious to just about everybody by now that on those topics you are more likely to learn the truth by putting a ‘not’ in front of everything they say.

There are other factors in play here, hence other true and relevant answers to Ezra and Jesse and Kevin Drum’s question. But there’s a partial one, anyway.


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