Thursday, July 23, 2009

Of Lies and Liars

I think it was Flip Wilson who quipped, "A lie is as good as the truth if you can someone to believe it."

Unfortunately, people believe that. They shouldn't have: it was a lie.

A lie is never as good as the truth. A lie is a building foundation that isn't level and sound: everything built upon it is in jeopardy, and the resulting building will only have the illusion of integrity.

A lie is not a mistake. We all say things that are untrue, but we have said them because we genuinely believe them to be true. We have not said it to deliberately mislead.

We have reached a stage in our democratic life where we are constantly and consistently lied to. Politicians and pundits will observe that if the public were told the truth, the politician would never be re-elected. Once the lie is told, it is subsequently shored up by they party or administration's bureaucracy. The fa├žade of lies only has to be good enough to last 4 or 8 years.

The short-term nature of people today means that they will readily lie to get out of a corner and worry about the consequences tomorrow.

The media has an important role to play. First, it is often the cause of lies. It presses for comments 24/7 and will often not allow politicians to have time (days, if necessary) to reflect on issues.

Secondly, the media has a role to play is actively challenging evidence and statements. The public can't do it, and if newspapers are going to continue to be worth buying, the standard of questioning is going to have to improve.

Thirdly, and linked to the second point, the media has to improve the depth of its coverage of public (political) events, and give real news more than three minutes (interrupted with at least one commercial). Current events documentaries from other countries put the US media to shame.

Fourthly, the media needs to know its audience better: the same readers/viewers/listeners to "real" news programs are going to have minimal interest in which jail Lindsay Lohan spent last night; which judge Paris Hilton is schmoozing; or what colour Britney Spears' hair is today.

Political parties (local, state and national): sharpen up your acts. Do it in private, but let your elected members know that your party will not tolerate telling lies to the electorate.

For everyone: push for prosecutions of politicians who have demonstrably lied. The penalties for perjury and Contempt of Congress are considerable and it would only take a handful of prosecutions to re-focus the minds of elected officials. Us corporations could take a strong lead in this and have the financial muscle to make a difference. So do leading law firms who could undertake the work pro-bono (and improve the general image of lawyers.)

A lie is a lie is a lie. When it is told mislead the public, it is a crime.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Making the world safe for democracy

It’s hard to believe that nearly a century later, credence is still given to the notion that one nation can deliver the conditions for democracy to another.

As Americans we have spend billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives try to do just that, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, in Africa and in the Middle East. While the idea is laudable, it is also notable for its failure to work.
If history has taught us anything – which it arguably hasn’t – it is that to be successful, the desire for self-government has to come from within. It cannot be imposed. Politicians, particularly past the moderate state of right, will argue that America can influence the conditions that foster democracy.

This is true, but only if the object country is at a certain stage.

Lawrence Kohlberg set out his stages for moral development, defining the steps that humans take in the development of their moral sense. Not all people take all the steps, but they all start at the same place, and cannot “skip” steps, but have to proceed through each one, depending on age, cognitive development, education, experience, etc., until they reach their maximum capability.

It is this notion of not skipping steps that is at the heart of our foreign policy failures. We first assume that every country a) wants to be democratic, and b) is capable at that time to become democratic, and c) that they want a democracy like ours.

American policy has no clear criteria to define at what stage a country is to becoming democratic before intervention. Only now is there a glimmer among Americans that it may, under some circumstances, to trade liberties for security, but rather than apply that when looking externally, we tend to use it for our own internal bickerings.

Where a country is on the road to democracy needs careful assessment, and any intervention by foreign powers who would help the process need to be aware that they will only be constructive if they militate towards the next stage, and not directly to the end state.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

And so, Sarah Palin

There is really only one conclusion to draw from Sarah Palin's resignation as governor of Alaska without having completed a single term: she is through with politics.

I have had great misgivings about Mrs Palin from the beginning. Her political pedigree was about as sound as Warren G. Harding's, and while she provided a welcome breath of forthrightness and media indiscipline, she never had the intellectual clout to be wholly credible as a candidate on the presidential ticket.

Her ordinariness was refreshing, but the lesson is that ordinary people can't govern the nation – or, it seems, states. For that we need exceptional people with a sense of history, a sound grounding in philosophical principles of democracy, and a real vision of what should be done.

Sarah Palin is now finished as a national candidate. Her rambling press conference offered no clear reasons for her resignation, and her dead fish metaphor about going with the current was as confused and unclear as adolescent poetry. What it wasn't was profound.

I wish her well, spending more time with her family and working like other Americans to do the right thing and hopefully prosper. She will be good for a comment in 2012 and maybe even an endorsement speech, but caution should be advised if going down that route.

The Republican Party still needs a thoughtful heavyweight like the late, great Bill Buckley, who can make the arguments if not make the running. Unfortunately, Sarah Palin could do neither.