Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Against Mendacity (part 1): Whatever It Takes

In the classic 80s corporate drama Wall Street, Michael Douglas's character summarized the core of libertarian philosophy in three simple words: "Greed is good." Strange as it may sound to our ears, the capitalist wings of the right insist the credo explicitly captures natural laws that have guided human behavior since we descended from the apes. He who acts in his own self-interest without regard to traditional ethics is rewarded by both nature and society; altruism is optional at best and counterproductive at worst. A recent economics study profiled in a CNN news report (which I can't locate on the web, unfortunately) offered quantitative evidence that most of the promotions and raises go to the ruthless and manipulative, while the nice guys and girls tend to underperform in comparison. Such are the unalterable rules of business, our Randian friends assert, and society as a whole profits when those rules are fettered as little as possible.

In the world of media and political communication, doing whatever it takes to win means a willingness to "play hard and fast with the truth," euphemistically speaking. Harvard's Harry Frankfurt labeled the products of this predilection "bullshit". Like most strongarm tactics, bullshit's incomparable benefits in the cutthroat world of politics come at the expense of credibility (should the indifference to truth ever be exposed) and moral debasement (damn, can't even type that with a straight face). One would be forgiven for believing that anyone with too much of an affinity for "the whole truth" wouldn't get very far in politics.

But what's the alternative for the news-consuming public, then? If "the whole truth" is too unpleasant, what takes its place? The answer, it seems, is overarching principle, leading to the old adage that sufficiently important ends can justify nearly any means. For example, a politician's constituents might give him considerable leeway in the type of rhetorical tactics they allow him to use in pursuit of his goals, on the rationalization that the goal (i.e. winning) is what's important, not how you get there. Ethical exceptions like these imply two traits among the citizens that endorse them: (1) a blind trust that their political representatives act in their interest, and (2) a tendency to presume that because the other side doesn't agree ideologically, they must be wrong factually.

But these aren't admirable traits in a democratic electorate, and that fact is one of the reasons why tactics matter. Willingness on the part of politicians to lie, cheat and conceal in the ostensible pursuit of noble goals only works as far as their interests coincide with those of the people they represent. But consider that a difference of power creates a difference of interest. As the driving force behind one's political career shifts from democratic representation to the procurement and retention of dominance, the needs of the represented inevitably defer to those of special interests and wealthy benefactors. Underhanded tactics that might have been originally employed in the service of "righteousness" can all too easily be adapted to more sinister ends. The same can't be said of honesty: when people habitually tell the truth, you might not always like what they have to say, but you know they're not likely to sell you out. Which isn't to say that their speeches and writings shouldn't be vetted for factual adherence whenever possible, but when the facts can't be immediately verified, a history of honesty can serve as a basis for the benefit of the doubt.

Trust is important in a representative democracy, but critical analysis is even more so. We must insist that our political representatives tell the truth on demand regardless of their ideological orientation. I have no comment as to whether greed and related vices are good for business, but the people of this country deserve better than 'benevolent' mendacity. Remember, the only reason they get away with it is because we let them.