Q: How can you tell when politicians are lying?
A: When they say they aren’t.
As we wade deeper into the silly swamp that is Electoral Trainwreck ’08 I realize that most nights I wind up giggling myself to sleep. My old friend Disraeli famously observed that people tend to get the government they deserve, and as I’ve noted before, the average US citizen is barely smart enough to come in out of the rain, and under no circumstances should be entrusted with something as important as the franchise. Stupid is as stupid votes.
A significant part of the problem has to do with the nation’s obsessive fixation on the individual. If a candidate lies, he’s a liar! If an office holder commits some act of malfeasance, she’s dishonest! If all politicians (or a distressingly high majority) prove themselves unreliable, then – and here’s where it gets good – all politicans are crooks! However, an American can make that kind of sweeping statement without, remarkably, ever lifting the focus above the level of the individual. All individuals together are seen as a collection of individuals and never in terms of the system.
It’s as though America doesn’t believe it possible that individual people can be consistently shaped by collective forces. There is no system. Every single person is unique from the moment of conception and is immune to the influences of nurture.
Now I’ve done it – I’ll be up giggling half the night again.
Yes, this is all leading somewhere. Specifically, it’s leading to the plush lounging car on the Straight Talk Express. Sort of. Republican nominee John McCain has styled himself as a straight-shooting maverick, a man who’s by god going to tell you the by god truth whether you by god like it or don’t, by god. Which, my friends in the world of marketing tell me is a great brand position, the silliness of the proposition notwithstanding. That McCain has a fleeting and malleable relationship with the facts, the truth and what he said yesterday (or, for that matter, 15 seconds ago) is a point hardly worth arguing.
However – what about that “system” issue I was ranting about a moment ago? Let me see if I can state my thesis clearly here – and I’ll use boldface to make sure my American readers don’t miss it: When we say that a politician is lying, and further note the details that prove it, we are making a point that is at once accurate and wholly irrelevant. We are, in the process, wasting productive energy that ought to be applied to the actual problem – the system of politics and power that guarantees ubiquitous corruption forever and ever amen.
I’m tempted to devote a few hundred paragraphs here to the notion that power and money tend to attract those who are intoxicated by power and money, and of all the people on Earth those are the ones least to be trusted with power and money. Instead, though, I want to address the abject futility of straight talk. That is, what would happen to a politician who was genuinely committed to telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? (If you have an IQ above around 80, now you’re the one doing the giggling, but indulge me.)
In short, there’s simply no way that John McCain could ever be a straight shooting maverick. Not that this excuses him – or Clinton or Obama or any other high-profile “public servant” – it just shifts the focus from the individual fish onto the larger pond. The ecosystem of equivocation, if you will.
Consider. Take the issue of abortion. If our mythical candidate is pro-choice and says so, there go millions of votes that aren’t coming back. If he or she is anti-abortion and says so, there go all those other votes, and they’re not coming back, either. What if the candidate has a more nuanced perspective, something deeper than what would fit on your average bumper sticker? Well, now there’s a position that needs a little explaining, and after about four seconds the audience is either asleep, drooling or convinced that the cadidate is dangerously intellectual.
Hmmm. What if somebody close to the candidate says or does something embarrassing. If you defend the associate, you’re aligning yourself with the forces of evil, terror, communism, Satanism and/or liberalism. If not, you’re disloyal.
If you suck up to a special interest group, you get poleaxed for pandering. If you don’t … uhhh, is this your first trip to America, Mr. Also-Ran?
What if you once believed X, but have, after long consideration realized that you were wrong? (That is, what if you’re a thinking human being bent on personal growth and actualization?) Well, if you’re a real straight shooter you change your position and explain why in an attempt to draw others to your wisdom. Which makes you a … come on, let’s all say it together … flip-flopper! But, you say, new information emerged that changed the complexion of the issue entirely. Yeah, I’m sure your opponent will accept that argument and we know that voters are sophisticated enough to parse those kinds of complexities.
Maybe you believe that the people can’t be trusted with power, that power rightfully belongs in the hands of a narrow, hyper-wealthy elite. Hmmm. Shoot as straight as you want, but ain’t nobody voting for that. And if you believe that the corporatist elite is destroying the nation’s liberties? Sure, fire away, but don’t blame me if you can’t win the White House on the strength of a few $5 donations from the non-wealthy non-elite.
Live in a nice house? That disqualifies you from being concerned about poverty. Told the truth about a corrupt war? Why don’t you support the troops?
Get the idea?
God himself could drop down out of Heaven and run for president, and if he did, one of two things would happen. Either he’d stick to his guns and tell the truth until the ends of the world or he’d cave and tell people what they wanted to hear. If the former he’d never make it past New Hampshire and if the latter, well, I think my point is proven already.
That McCain is shooting straight is a simply laughable idea, and the same goes for Clinton and Obama. But ultimately, it’s not really their fault that they’re unrelenting liars. It’s yours. You spread their clever viral videos, you substitute cheap slogans for actual analysis of policy positions, you watch the gotcha! press that propagates the system of deception, you buy the products of the companies that sponsor the whole circus. You.
You don’t like the idea that it’s your fault? Hmmm. But you do all the things I accuse you of, right? If it isn’t your fault, whose is it?
Ah – the system. Okay, so now that we’ve realized I’m right, what to do about it?
I can hardly put it better than did one of your greatest social commentators, Walt Kelly, author of the famous comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”