Lying your way to crazy

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.

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  • Pre-ghosts Scrooge was an awesome straw libertarian! “Are there no prisons? Are there no union workhouses?”

    Upon reflection, Scrooge seems like a piss-poor libertarian: he’s vehemently opposed to private charity,and thinks that taking care of the poor and sickly should be entirely 100% the government’s job. He doesn’t even complain about his taxes, but instead points to them proudly as the reason he feels no need to give alms

  • Michael Cule

    “Lust is so very lonely.”
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  • Pius Thicknesse

    Scrooge would have had more of a leg to stand on if the taxes he paid actually corresponded to paying for a real welfare state.
    Historical note: I have always thought that the Speenhamland system was quite a far-reaching (for its time) implementation of a quasi-socialist system of support for people who couldn’t afford food.
    Karl Polanyi noted that to the industrialists of the time, Speenhamland actively hindered transition to a market economy because of the lack of sufficient scarcity of food to force workers into the factories.
    An illuminating thought given how much some people struggle against a welfare state today.

  • hapax wrote:
    > Tsk-tsking the questionable morals of the atheists down the street is a pale and puny second to speculating about the organist’s short skirt.
    OMG, that just reminded me of when I used to work for a church in Indiana. The choir director wore stirrup pants (the height of fashion in the early 90s, don’t you know!) under her choir robe and the congregation was aghast! A motion was put before the Council – and approved quickly! – that a modesty panel be put in front of the choir so that the congregation wouldn’t have to look at her stirrup pants.

  • Will wrote:
    > The next time I feel like causing a BSOD in someone objectionable, I may use the above to argue that Christianity is technically a radical sect of Shinto.
    That reminds me of something Billy Graham (?) said in his autobiography. i don’t have the book at hand to do a direct quote, but it was something along the lines of: when they went to evangelize in India, they thought they were converting people all over the place because they were “accepting Jesus,” not realizing that the people (Hindus) were just adding Jesus to their pantheon.

  • Your first few lines are priceless because I’ve never been able to put that thought into the right words. Sincerity is perfect. This is what makes the public buy into what silly things they say. We all want to believe that those in charge really have some idea of what’s going on and are in complete control of situations. It makes us feel safe. They probably learn to sell sincerity in their “snake oil 101” class

  • Does the speaker kiss the republicans before they take a shot in the dark about guessing what might win them popular favor?