Wednesday's post on bearing false witness wasn't prompted by a specific incident in the headlines as much as it was by a general phenomenon. Scarcely a day goes by without some public official saying something insanely untrue and ridiculously stupid — and yet says it with what seems to be utter sincerity. Scarcely an hour goes by when some pundit doesn't say something just as crazy-stupid. (This seems to be what "pundit" means.)
I think many of these pundits and politicians have fallen into the quagmire trap of bearing false witness. And I think sinking down into stupid and crazy is the inevitable consequence of that.
This is probably also related to what we earlier discussed as "Family Feud politics." Once you decide that politics — or any other realm of dispute — can be won by allowing perception to trump reality, then the temptation to bear false witness becomes overwhelming.
I was trying in the previous post to avoid mention of specific examples because I wanted to make a point about the corrosive repercussions of bearing false witness without entangling that point in the choosing-sides and knee-jerk defensiveness that any given example would likely provoke. But since that may be unavoidable anyway, let's consider the example of the Republican Party's yearlong Family-Feud opposition to the Recovery Act.
The GOP wants the Recovery Act to be unpopular, so they want to create the perception that it has been ineffective. The problem for them is that the Recovery Act has actually been quite effective. It was designed to preserve and create jobs and it did so.
This is not a statement of my opinion. Opinion don't enter into it. This is something we can measure and verify and know.
One is free to argue that the Recovery Act might have been more effective if it had been bigger or more targeted or more balanced toward tax cuts or more ambitious about infrastructure or what have you. But one is not free to say, truthfully, that it has been ineffective. And one certainly cannot say, as Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., recently did, that the Recovery Act "didn't create one new job." The Congressional Budget Office — the nonpartisan office charged with the measuring and verifying that allows us to know — says that the Recovery Act created about 2.1 million jobs in the fourth quarter of 2009.
That puts the Family-Feuders in an awkward position. The reality has proven to be stubbornly unlike the perception they've been trying to create by lying about the supposed ineffectiveness of the Recovery Act. And now a respected arbiter of reality — the CBO — has weighed in with the final word disproving what they've been saying.
But having committed to the Family Feud approach, they see no choice but to continue trying to create a perception of ineffectiveness even if it can't be reconciled with reality. They can't very well say the CBO has innocently miscalculated — the difference between 2.1 million jobs in a single quarter and zero jobs, ever, doesn't seem like a simple rounding-error. And they really don't want to get into a numbers fight with the numbers people — start playing on their turf and suddenly the game becomes Jeopardy, where facts matter.So the next step becomes to suggest that the CBO is lying, that it is somehow, for some reason, deliberately misrepresenting the effects of the Recovery Act. They thus go from bearing false witness against the proponents of the Recovery Act to bearing false witness against the CBO too. Bearing false witness turns out to be kind of like eating pistachios. You just can't seem stop after the first one.
Accusing the CBO of lying pushes them further into unreality. That step requires an even slipperier step of trying to explain why the CBO would be lying, which almost always leads to the vague suggestion that the nonpartisan agency can no longer be trusted because they're "in on it." The suggestion, in other words, of a vast, shadowy conspiracy.
This is the destiny and destination for everyone who chooses to play Family Feud politics and/or to bear false witness: Conspiracy theory.
Once you choose to prefer manufactured perception to reality or to deny reality about others, you wind up pitting yourself against every arbiter of reality. You will be forced to accuse them all of lying — of being "in on it." Eventually, you will be forced to embrace the theory of a conspiracy so vast that it includes and encompasses any and every arbiter of reality which might cast doubt on the false perception to which you're committed: the press, the media, researchers, scientists, NASA, teachers, doctors, the courts, authors, photographers, philosophers and intellectuals and artists of every stripe. And even, to paraphrase Groucho, "your own lying eyes." Even your five senses can't be trusted because they will seem to be "in on it" too.
Once you arrive at that destination, you've metamorphosed from a liar into a fool. You're no longer bearing false witness, you're just stupid and crazy. It's not a pleasant thing to behold.
Consider the sad example of Sen. James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, who left reality long ago, lying his way to the conspiratorial land of fools.
Grist recently interviewed Inhofe, trying to get the senator to explain his repeated assertion that climate change is a "hoax." He rises to the challenge and gamely lists many of the various conspirators conspiring in the conspiracy he imagines must be perpetrating this hoax: the United Nations, the International Panel on Climate Change, NASA, NOAA, the majority of scientists, "Hollywood people," the Heinz Foundation, "very liberal churches," the Pentagon, the White House, General Electric.
This isn't Inhofe's comprehensive list of agents in the grand conspiracy, but it was only a short interview.
But Inhofe believes they're all in on it and that therefore you mustn't listen to any of them.
Maybe James Inhofe simply began as a fairly stupid man who then went a bit mad. But I don't think his sad predicament is due to either mental illness or a lack of mental capacity. I think it's the consequence of a moral choice. He started out lying and he wound up stupid and crazy.