9 (Second Take) You Have to Pick One: On Liars

There’s a fascinating interview with James Carville in Rolling Stone this week where he lays out his narrative of the 2012 election. Carville had some interesting things to say about Mitt Romney and his, oh how can I say this diplomatically, estranged relationship with the truth:

Of all the Pinocchios given in the campaign to both candidates, Romney got something like 60 percent of them. I don’t doubt that he’s honest in his dealings with his family, but I don’t think the lying even affects him – I don’t think he thinks about it. He said, “I’ll just say it – who cares?”

When asked why Romney felt so comfortable shading the truth, Carville replies:

It’s all about “We’re doing the country a favor – we know how to lead the country. And in politics, everybody’s got to say things, so we’ll just say whatever we’ve got to say, and that’s the way it is.” Deep down in Romney’s heart, some inner recesses of whatever, he just doesn’t think that truth-telling is a big part of the whole thing.

That sounds perfectly plausible to me, but what about the Obama campaign?  Was it just telling the American people a straight story about why Mitt Romney wasn’t worthy of the office? Carville again:

For Obama, there was a great strategic dilemma as to whether to present Romney as a flip-flopper or as someone who is for the rich guy. You had to pick one, and they picked “for the rich guy.” If you’re going to be successful in politics, you have to pick one. One of the great statements of the Kerry campaign was when they said, “We have a nuanced and layered message.” It can’t be nuanced and layered and be a message – it just can’t.

I think you get a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Romney if you read this paragraph carefully — because politics is not about painting a detailed, accurate picture of yourself or your opponent, it’s about creating a memorable and believable narrative about both. Elections are about creating stock characters for voters to embrace or reject — and the Obama campaign had to decide whether they wanted to run against plutocratic rich guy Mitt or disreputable flip-flopper Mitt.  They chose the rich guy.  Carville even goes on to claim that Mitt finally picked up some traction in the race when he fully embraced flip-flopping:

The best thing Romney did was flip-flop in the first debate. If you flop to where people are, then they like you. Let’s say that somebody runs against gay marriage all their life, and you’re for gay marriage, and then they come out for it. You don’t say, “I don’t trust him, he flipped his position.” You say, “I like that, he changed his mind.” In the research – and I know this because we did a lot of it – if you’d say that Romney was for all these crazy right-wing things, people would say, “He’s more moderate than that, he doesn’t believe that.” They liked the fact that they couldn’t trust him.

So it’s really not all that surprising that Mitt would lie so comfortably.  Carville’s old boss Bill Clinton, for all of his great political talents, actually committed perjury in office and the American people lacked both outrage or surprise about it.  Politician and liar are virtually synonymous in our culture and calling out a politician for lying is much like handing out speeding tickets at the Daytona 500.

It isn’t just a political issue either.  In our culture, everyone is constantly creating narratives about themselves. Facebook is a great example of how people put their best and happiest faces forward for public consumption.  Today at Starbucks, I saw an elderly woman neatly writing a sign that she clearly planned to use later to ask for money.  It read “No job, no family, no food, no life.  All I have is cancer.” It’s a heartbreaking story and the late November chill in Chicago makes her brief biography cut even deeper.

And yet, I caught this woman in conversation with a man  who sat beside her and she asked him if he’d seen any movies lately.  He responded that he’d seen and liked “Argo,” which prompter her to answer that she’d seen it and just about every other movie currently in release.  As someone who once saw about 100 movies a year and now sees maybe five, I suddenly felt a bit envious of this “all I have is cancer” woman. Who knows what the truth is about her — it probably makes her a more interesting person, but also someone less marketable from a pity perspective.

Lying is a subject Montaigne returns to many times throughout his essays, but this is his first treatment of the subject.  This essay is more famous for Montaigne’s views on memory, which are detailed in Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful “How to Live” overview of his writing. Montaigne held that his poor memory was a convenient personal trait that made it very difficult for him to lie:

There is nobody less suited than I am to start talking about memory. I can hardly find a trace of it in myself; I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is!

Montaigne goes on to say:

A poor memory is an evil which has enabled me to correct a worse one which might easily have arisen in me: ambition. A bad memory is an intolerable defect for anyone concerned with worldly affairs …. It is not for nothing that it is said that he who does not feel his memory to be strong enough has no business lying.

He was prone to shift his positions and feelings often, but not based on public reaction. Rather, Montaigne’s changes of mind were determined by the whimsy of his own mind. He held liars in the lowest possible esteem:

I cannot guarantee that I could bring myself to tell a solemn, bare-faced lie, even to ward off some obvious and immense danger. One of the old Church Fathers says that even a dog we do know is better company than a man whose language we do not know.

He had a special aversion to the Romneyesque (or for conservative readers, the Clintonesque) political flip-flopper:

Such men are prepared to make their honor and conscience slaves to present circumstances: but circumstances are liable to frequent change, and their words must vary with them. They are obliged to call the very same thing first grey then yellow, saying one thing to this man, quite another to another. If the persons who receive such contrary advice happen to compare their haul, what becomes of their fine diplomacy?

What becomes of their fine diplomacy is that facts become opinions — and everything that happens becomes open to interpretation, none of it actually reflecting reality.  Montaigne hinted at this effect:

If a lie, like truth, had only one face we could be on better terms, for certainty would be the reverse of what the liar said. But the reverse side of truth has a hundred thousand shapes and no defined limits. The Pythagoreans make good to be definite and finite; evil they make indefinite and infinite. Only one flight leads to the bull’s-eye: a thousand can miss it.

Where does this leave America at this moment? Bruce Bartlett, one of the founders of Supply Side economics and a member of the Reagan administration, wrote a fascinating article in the American Conservative about how politics have become divorced from reality and we’re left with people like Mitt Romney struck dumb when the results turn out far differently than they expected.  The whole article is well worth reading, but I’ll close my essay with this excerpt:

At least a few conservatives now recognize that Republicans suffer for epistemic closure. They were genuinely shocked at Romney’s loss because they ignored every poll not produced by a right-wing pollster such as Rasmussen or approved by right-wing pundits such as the perpetually wrong Dick Morris. Living in the Fox News cocoon, most Republicans had no clue that they were losing or that their ideas were both stupid and politically unpopular.

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