Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Why Won't They Just Tell the Truth, Part 2

In partial defense of the administration, I want to suggest another reason why telling the truth is overly rare—in politics in general and on the contemporary political scene in particular. I don’t think we can ignore the fact that—at least in cases in which telling the truth means admitting error—the practical costs of telling the truth can be very high, especially when the political atmosphere is particularly poisonous, as it seems to be today. If the administration were to admit error about Iraq, WMDs, and al Qaeda, there is, I believe, a very good chance that they would pay a high price in (and at) the polls.

As I mentioned in the last post on this subject, Kevin Drum has suggested that there are practical benefits to be gained by telling the truth, even in the case at hand. I think this is clearly true, but, as I suggested in that post, it’s a gamble. Were the Bush administration to start telling the truth about Iraq etc. at this point, they’d gain a certain amount of respect and support from some people, they’d lose the respect and support of others, and it isn’t clear what the net effect on their popularity would be. Let’s us be honest about it: if they did admit error at this point, those of us who are anti-Bush would seize that admission and run with it. That means that we are at least partially responsible for the current sad state of things; we ourselves are helping to make it more difficult for the administration to tell the truth. (Which is, of course, not to say that the anger and animosity that underlie our attitudes toward them are unjustified.)

Furthermore, as we all know, lies become more difficult to confess the longer one maintains them and the more elaborate they become. Lies tend to accrete; new lies are required to defend the flanks of previous lies, small lies become extensive tissues of lies, and consequently small liars become big liars. And it’s harder to confess to being a big fat liar than it is to confess to having told a relatively small, run-of-the-mill lie. Though this doesn’t explain why they chose to lie in the first place, it does help to explain why, relatively far down the path of mendacity, they have elected to stick with their increasingly implausible fabrications.

These are all rather well-known facts about human beings. And those of us who have been driven almost off the deep end with anger at these people are, I think, in danger of forgetting that they are human beings. I hope I’m atypical in occasionally finding myself thinking of them almost as if they were sinister, power-hungry robots who have invaded the White House, but I fear that I’m not. In addition to whatever desire they have to stay in power, they are human beings—human beings who have made a large number of largely culpable errors, and who have perfectly human desires to avoid the disgrace that would attend a confession of those errors. If I were magically transported into the place of Condoleezza Rice, I doubt that I would have the honor and courage to admit to my terrible mistakes.

Add to this that such emotions cloud one’s thinking, and we get a truly toxic combination. When the cost of admitting error is so high, it becomes not only difficult to make such admissions to others, it also becomes difficult to make the admissions to oneself. As Nietzsche, perhaps our greatest psychologist, reminds us: "'I have done that,' says my memory. 'I cannot have done that'--says my pride, and remains adamant. At last my memory yields.” It is likely that members of the administration at least half-believe their own untruths.

If our body politic were not so large and alienating, perhaps it would be possible to set things right. If something like this happened in an individual relationship—if one party got himself twisted up in such a tissue of lies—it might be possible to sit down and say something like “Look: I know what’s going on; you know what’s going on. Let’s drop the charade. I realize that you will be psychologically incapable of admitting to your lies unless I assure you that will abandon my anger, however righteous, and do my best to understand and forgive. So for the good of us both, and for the good of our friendship, I agree to do so.”

There is, of course, no real chance of such an accord in the present case. Given the stakes, given how far things have gone, given the nature of politics in general and the nature of the current atmosphere of American politics in particular, no such accord is a real and relevant possibility. Here’s how it will go: the administration will continue to lie, in large part out of fear of the anger and disgrace that would attend an admission of wrong-doing. Their ever larger and ever more transparent lies will make ever larger segments of the population ever more angry, thus making admissions of error ever more costly and, consequently, ever less likely.

I hope I’m wrong, but I’m probably not.


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