February is the month of history, politics and passions, of presidents, saints, and, well ... lies. And true to form, suddenly the words like ‘lies’, ‘deception’, and ‘misrepresentation’ are again in the air, again associated with a President.
Most people say they believe that lying is bad -- not only immoral but criminal behavior -- but most lie for all kinds of lofty, trivial or venal purposes.
I once lied to my computer, telling it there was a second printer connected to it in order to print a font that wasn’t available on the driver for the one printer I had. It was a sly lie, too, exploiting the "ignorance" of the computer, which couldn’t "see" that there was only one printer.
We all know the lie (fabricated by Parson Weems) about young George Washington, who, when asked by his father if he had cut down a cherry tree, "... cried out "I cannot tell a lie.... I cut it with my hatchet."
Few now doubt that Bill Clinton lied in February 1999 about his extra-marital affair, but we remain deeply divided over how ‘bad’ it was. Some see it as evidence of moral depravity and evil intent; others think it injudicious but without serious consequences, still others as a gentlemanly way of protecting others.
In our zeal to control lying we’ve taken a device called a polygraph ("many markings") and dubbed it ‘lie-detector.’ It’s a lie that it detects lies. It only detects (and marks with a scribbled line) multiple physiological responses (like skin moisture or heart rate) to oral statements. Whether those responses identify lies is debatable. Some people don’t show the responses at all, others show them for everything, and a few can voluntarily control them. And lie-detectors can’t separate personal convictions from physical facts: if you truly believe Elvis lives, do you sweat when asked about Elvis?
Here’s another February story -- or is it history? Once upon a time there lived a man who managed to become emperor of a great realm through what many believed were foul means. As emperor he prided himself on being a "war leader" and in order to overcome the hordes of terrorists threatening the empire, he spared no effort to make his army the best in the world.
Convinced that marriage distracted his young soldiers -- made them less fierce -- this emperor issued a decree forbidding young men to marry. Apparently the decree was effective: his army of unmarried (but probably not abstinent) soldiers killed some 50,000 terrorists, and, at least according to tales of bards and PR specialists, brought 110 years of peace to the empire.
In this same empire lived a priest of a small religious sect who believed so much in the sanctity of marriage that he continued to perform secret marriages for young men. Clearly, with the security of the empire at stake, this kind of dissent could not be tolerated, and the priest was arrested and executed on February 14.
Yes, history: the year was 269 AD, the terrorists were Goths, and the emperor was Claudius II Gothicus, who died in 270 of plague, probably contracted in the unsanitary environment of army camps. The priest who died for his beliefs was, of course, St. Valentine, whose martyrdom we still celebrate with sentimental fancies about love.
I doubt that anyone thinks deceiving my computer was morally reprehensible. No trust was damaged, no loyalty betrayed, no hurt inflicted, no loss incurred, no future events compromised; it wasn’t even a breach of decorum. I merely managed the input information to get a system to produce better outcomes for me: an act of straightforward logic, without a moral dimension.
Indeed, most Americans recognize that lying, and many kinds of misrepresentations and deceptions are common tools of information management. They are not unconditionally bad: we judge them by their consequences. Lying to a computer, dyeing one’s hair, or playing ‘Tooth-Fairy’ are hardly examples of moral depravity, because their consequences are harmless, or even helpful to many of our social institutions.
And, like it or not, most of us know that information management is central to our political processes, not limited to one party. MoveOn.org has a "Bush in 30 Seconds" ad called "Polygraph" which shows the little pens of a lie-detector activated by sound-bites of Bush’s words. Even if you don’t think lie-detectors detect lies, you can understand the effectiveness of the iconography.
And yet ....
"By the way, quoting a lot of their data, in other words, this is unaccounted for stockpiles that you thought he had because I don't think America can stand by and hope for the best from a madman, and I believe it is essential, I believe it is essential that when we see a threat, we deal with those threats before they become imminent. It's too late if they become imminent. It's too late in this new kind of war, and so that's why I made the decision I made." (President Bush 2/8/2004)
That’s not lying. It’s not even coherent information management. It’s gibberish. The scary thing is that Bush and his backers have a bankroll of $130 million to spend on marketing this message to a public they believe to be irrational and ignorant.
Are we irrational and ignorant? Have we gone too far with marketing and "information management"?
"Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government. Whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights." (President Jefferson, 1789)
It’s not as simple as lies and truth. It’s a matter of we-the-people noticing that things have gone "far wrong", and acting "to set them to rights."
Caroline Arnold (email@example.com) served 12 years on the staff of Senator John Glenn and is now active in civic and environmental affairs in Kent, Ohio.