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The International Writers Magazine: Truth and Lies - From our Archives

Politicians Lies, Truth and Opinions
James Morford

Must politicians lie? Niccolo Machiavelli thought if politicians did not lie they would surely fail because lying was fundamental to politics. Not to lie ignored reality. That is different, however, than saying only a compulsive liar can succeed in politics, an inference our political leaders are sociopaths. Even extreme cynics are not prepared to go that far.

There are philosophers such as Plato and Leo Strauss that say lying is essential to the politician’s art. Only by lying, they declare, can leaders make the public see what benefits them. Not to lie, given the quality of public understanding, invites chaos.

The public’s viewpoint is so conditioned by the "relativity" stressed by the natural and social sciences, lies are accepted as integral to the political process and treated by the public with a sort of "I hope it is true" wish fulfillment. The public hears so many lies from so many politicians they don’t stop to think of the consequences. When asked to comment on political lying, the public replies: "All politicians lie, so what is the big deal?" And sometimes what they suspect are lies, are not really lies, but opinions, the difference being unknown to them.

Let us therefore make a quick and simple definition of what is a lie, what is a truth, and what is an opinion. In this essay truth is synonymous with fact, something objectively provable that cannot be changed by singular or collective human will. However, this lie or this truth does not necessarily refer to causation surrounding a fact. An example, the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 actually happened. It is a fact, a truth. Whether or not the invasion was justified is another matter. A fact can be buttressed by lies or opinions. Did Saadam Hussein aid Bin Laden in his 2001 terrorism attacks on New York City and the Pentagon? If true, that fact helps justify the invasion. If its proponents knew it was not true, it is a lie. The area between factual truths and actual lies always has to do with shades of opinion.

Political lying is a complicated, many pronged entity, often described by supporters as a creative act. This creativity to the liar hopefully either replaces or influences reality. Modern consultants, advertising specialists, spin doctors, instruct the politician to lie so as to manipulate, and convince an unsuspecting public that something horrible is only preventable by governmental action. If the public goes along with the recommendation, and if the government lied about WMD and the Bin Laden and Hussein tie-in, political lies changed reality in the Middle East forever. The recent billions of dollars paid in public tax dollars to bailout Wall Street, may also change history. Were all those scare tactics necessary? We will have to wait and see.

It is crucial we differentiate lies from opinion. Before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration claimed Saadam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. It was later discovered that he did not. Was this a lie by the Bush Administration? Were these accumulations of innuendos and "expert opinions," as stated in the United Nations by a Secretary of State known for his integrity, actual lies? Those saying no would claim everything pointed toward the weapons being there and collectively added up to a fact. Later, when no weapons were discovered, the administration said they had been misled by all those "facts" and were not guilty of lying, rather misinformed. Therefore, the facts had disappeared and their actions based on mistaken opinion. One thing is certain: those false facts, honestly believed or not believed by the Bush Administration, invoked fear, and from that fear a lukewarm public acceptance of the United States invasion. When these so called facts became later disapproved, a high percentage of the pubic disapproved of the invasion.

This indicates we, the public, must be highly critical of politician’s so called empirical facts, even if stated by their own government. We must understand the difference between facts, lies, and opinions, so we can at least listen tolerate our politicians and continue a political dialogue. A difficult task, to say the least. There has been so many past mistakes in understanding it is impossible to list them all. The imagined attack of North Korean gunboats on United States naval ships and the resultant Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that led to the Vietnam War, was certainly one. Supposedly, the Navy fired at these North Vietnam gun boats to defend themselves. Years later, Lyndon Johnson admitted that for all he knew the Navy may have firing at whales that day. Yet this so-called attack was used as a pretext by a complacent Senate for the war, and therefore drastically reduced national debate on the subject.

Surprisingly, this truth surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is not well known by Americans.
However, a revisionist interpretation of a famous historical incident is becoming more and more accepted; it has been long rumored, and often stated by historians such as James Beard, that Franklin Roosevelt provoked the Japanese into bombing Pearl Harbor. Research has now shown that not only did *FDR provoke the Japanese, he knew the exact day and time the Pearl Harbor bombing would take place (the United States had cracked the Japanese secret code weeks before December 7, 1941.) Roosevelt not only did nothing to prevent the attack, he encouraged it. As terrible a revelation as this is to most Americans, it has become accepted by many diplomatic thinkers, Henry Kissinger being the most notable. In his book "Diplomacy" Kissinger not only acknowledges that FDR knew the Pearl Harbor attack imminent, but allegedly praised the President for his deceit, calling it courageous because it allowed the United States to enter the Second World War in time to save the Allied cause. *This may not be true.

Should our leaders lie to protect us? The Gulf of Tonkin resolution and its acceptance by the United States Senate allowed LBJ the luxury of skirting a national debate over the wisdom of going to war in an obscure Far East nation. In that war Americans eventually lost over 50,000 troops, untold billions of dollars, and faith in what their nation was all about. LBJ’s lie caused a disaster. On the other hand, FDR’S lying about Pearl Harbor led us into a war that we not only helped win, but afterwards emerged the strongest nation in the world.

One must remember the difference between a lie and an opinion can be subtle, made even more so in a market
economy where opinions are tossed around as facts often to the point nobody bothers checking out the truth. "Of course, a business will claim such and such is true, if you believe it they make money," says the public. But like it or not, the public must become attuned to the difference between truth and opinion, and understand that even though a factual truth may be a nuance, it is still factual and a basis for either truth, or an opinion based on truth. If the public succeeds in discerning the truth, they can see beyond their leaders opinions, perhaps understand their motivations, and reject or accept a course of action that is in their interest.

Such public wisdom might also save the leader from self-deceit. Leaders who believe lies that the public believes as well, may base policies on their whims, and that could prove catastrophic. When the lies are discovered, the leader will be disgraced, the nation harmed. Facts stick around longer than opinions or lies. Despite elimination of Trotsky’s name in Soviet history books, today Russians know he played a major role in their 1917 revolution. The majority of United States citizens will soon realize the "Day of Infamy" at Pearl Harbor meant more than Japanese duplicity. Perhaps looking further back in or history, they we will also realize the main motivation for the Mexican-American War arose from Manifest Destiny (translates as the United States deserving land because it desired land) more than a border dispute with Mexico.

Facts, although often at first not having the power of opinion, don't go away, and when discovered can change opinion. Facts provide continuance in history that stem from permanence in thought and deed. They act as the pillars, the props, that make history something more than lies and insufficiently researched opinions passed down by political leaders and tendentious historians. In other words, truth will win out among those whose precepts stem from the Enlightenment.
There are objections to such optimism, one being that in a fast moving world such as ours, does historical truth have the time to win out before lies engulf us all?

© James Morford October 2008

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