Web Letters | The Nation

Liehards: On Political Hypocrisy


Professor Rosenfeld’s commentary and review on the subject of political lies was astute and suggestive. For me, there is an epistemological reason that politicians lie. They practice a profession that cannot exist apart from narrative, and narrative is by its nature tendentious. It has a point, and the point is fabricated. Narratives, in short, are made up. Tellers select tales with their own purposes in mind. Such stories in politics, even if indisputable on their face, are still lies because they are told not in respect of truth but of power. They are lies even in the absence of objective falsehood, because the narrative design is not to enlighten the audience but to manipulate it. The lie precedes the expression and resides in the intent. And if the expressed lie were eliminated, the naked intent would remain, a pure will to power deigning to make no explanation of itself. Then, instead of persuasion, howsoever factitious, there would remain only coercion.

Plato banned poets from his republic as makers of fictions, that is, liars. But in the absence of liars, what politics did his republic have? It had a king—actually a philosopher-king, since Plato is telling this story—who will know straight out of his own moral right-headedness and beyond questioning from his inferiors, what is best to be done. He doesn’t owe power to a narrative but to his own character. That is government without politics, a Platonic Ideal that whenever most nearly approached we have come to recognize as horror.

Political narrative, though it be a lie—along with the narratives of religion, history and literature—may be all that stands between us and the horror. The answer is not to eliminate the lies but to insist on increasingly humane ones, to assert our interest in the stories we are told and to demand that parts of them reflect our own point of view, to discuss the proffered narratives and reckon their implications. It is the same thing to ban poetry as to ban politics or any other imaginative undertaking, and in a starved imagination there perishes civic mindedness.

Political lies will circulate in any event, and if not, we’d be no better off. Yet amidst lies, we are not absolved of our duty to choose for the best. Among liars, we must know at least to reject impudence and cynicism. And what we choose to believe, such as the narrative in the Declaration of Independence, we are obliged to test and to retell in an improved version, knowing that it was ever a lie and hoping that it may do us yet more good. For while politics is lying—categorically—nonetheless, there is better politics and worse. And since lying is common to both, we err in asking our politicians to tell the truth. Rather, we should demand that they explain themselves, which is quite a different thing—politics as the art of the plausible. If their story needs be untrue, we must still ask (as Aristotle) that it make sense, that it account for pertinent data and withstand objection without resort to fantasy, intimidation or denial, that it offer a recognizable view of the world and mankind. Politicians, as narrators, cannot tell the truth, but they can, if determinedly pressed, reveal something of what their lies may mean for us.

David Rosenbaum

Moraga, CA

Sep 4 2012 - 12:05pm

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