The Actual Value of Careful Lying

It’s the question every husband dreads. Do these jeans make my butt look fat? The wife asks the question because she knows they do. And the diplomatic answer is that those jeans make her look good. That’s what she wanted to hear. Sure, that’s an ambiguous answer, but it answers the real question. Yes, she looks good – always has and always will. Of course a recent insurance ad has a bit of fun with that – Honest Abe can’t answer the question right – but the point is that it’s best that you tell people what they desperately want to hear, which often isn’t quite what they actually asked about – unless they actually wanted to know about the jeans. If reassurance and validation are not the underlying issues at all, well, you’re screwed. There’s no good answer. The honest answer to the actual question – those jeans do make her look a bit fat – seems to subtly imply possible vaguely incipient hidden scorn, or disdain, or at least discomfort. If the husband can so nonchalantly say that, what is he really thinking the rest of the time? Doubt enters into the relationship. Is there another woman? Was this marriage a good idea?

But we all learn to navigate these waters – we tell people what they seem to want to hear, because that’s pretty much what they want to hear. You try to be honest, but you also try to be reassuring. It’s a balancing act, and that seems to be part of the social contract – lies make human interaction possible, which makes cooperation possible, and cooperation is how anything in this world gets done.

There’s a book about that – Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life – Sissela Bok on the “little white lies” to avoid unnecessary unpleasantness all the way up to the big moral lies often required by the state, like, these days, buying into the notion that torture is not only necessary but morally splendid. It gets tricky. All lies, at all levels, can be justified. It depends on who you ask.

But some lies are just lies. The manager tells his mediocre employee that he wanted to give her a bigger raise this year, but there just wasn’t the budget for that. He fought for her, but it wasn’t that good a year – the compensation pool was pathetic. Of course she doesn’t believe it. He’s lying, to make her feel good, so she won’t get all angry and mess up some project, just because she can. She knows it. He knows it. It’s a game – unless the compensation pool really was pathetic. Then it was a lie that was true. Sometimes you can’t win.

And Obama knows this. In his first address to a Joint Session of Congress that Joe Wilson fellow, a congressman from South Carolina, shouted out “You Lie!” Obama hadn’t lied. The proposed healthcare reform act was set up that no illegal alien would get a dime from the system, ever. It was on paper, in black and white. But that didn’t matter. That’s what people wanted to hear. It was reassurance, reassurance that Obama was either a fool or evil or hated white people or something of that sort. Wilson became an instant celebrity and raised millions of dollars for his campaign coffers in the following two weeks – he was a hero.

And in the weeks that followed no one much checked the facts. That was kind of beside the point – just like whether those jeans make the wife’s butt look fat, or not. This was about something else.

And there was no point in Obama or any of his spokesmen pushing back on this – that would only make Obama look defensive, like he had something to hide. You never want to protest too much – that’s what Hamlet’s mother complains about – some actor overplaying a part. The Obama folks pretty much let that ride. It didn’t merit some wonky answer. And you just can’t win in a pissing contest. All you get is wet smelly shoes.

But with Obama’s recent State of the Union address we see this playing out again, as Paul Glastris remembers this:

Last year, just about every Republican running for president took a shot at Barack Obama for his alleged failure to believe in the idea of American exceptionalism. The sum total of the evidence for this charge was one sentence, taken out of context, in a long nuanced answer to a reporter’s question while in Europe in April of 2009 in which the president unmistakably stated his belief in American exceptionalism, but in words that took into account the sensitivities of other nations.

Nevertheless, Newt Gingrich called Obama’s attitude “truly alarming,” while Mike Huckabee said that Obama’s worldview is “different than any president, Republican or Democrat, we’ve had…. To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.” These charges were not only overheated and factually wrong but were quite obviously intended to feed the view that Obama is not a real, loyal American.

Michael Shear offers more detail of the reaction from Palin and crew:

She and other conservatives point to Mr. Obama’s answer to a reporter’s question during his first trip abroad as president. He was asked whether he believed in “American exceptionalism,” and while he said that he did, Mr. Obama’s answer has provided the ammunition for nearly two years of doubt.

“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” Mr. Obama said. “I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.”

The president went on for seven more very long sentences in which he repeatedly said he did not see any contradiction between his belief that America has “got a whole lot to offer the world” and his recognition that the country sometimes falters, or trails other nations in having good ideas.

“And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone,” he said.

The answer was an attempt by a new, young president to begin articulating his view of foreign policy and his belief in the power of engagement, rather than what came to be called “cowboy diplomacy” under his predecessor.

Fair enough, or not:

But it helped to rekindle the questions about Mr. Obama that have percolated since early in the 2008 campaign – questions about Mr. Obama’s true political identity – his “otherness” – that his critics have kept alive since his arrival on the national scene.

Now, his response in London has been boiled down into just its first sentence, primarily by Ms. Palin, who condemned Mr. Obama for his answer in her latest book. “Astonishingly, President Obama even said that he believes in American exceptionalism in the same way ‘the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.’ Which is to say, he doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism at all,” she writes in “America by Heart.” “He seems to think it is just a kind of irrational prejudice in favor of our way of life. To me, that is appalling.”

And there’s more – she wishes we had leaders who “are not embarrassed by America, who see our country’s flaws but also its greatness.” And she said Obama is just not comfortable with a dominant American military – “Could it be a lack of faith in American exceptionalism?” And there was her zinger – “The fact is that America and our allies are safer when we are a dominant military superpower – whether President Obama likes it or not.”

And she hit a nerve:

Ms. Palin’s critique has been expanded upon by members of the Tea Party movement, who often use the accusation as evidence that Mr. Obama has “allegiances” to other nations because he sees America as, fundamentally, no better.

In an article titled, “American Values and Exceptionalism: Obama Style,” on the Web site of the Tea Party Patriots, Jimmy Minnish accuses the president of being an apologist for America’s flaws to the rest of the world.

“Barack Obama’s background includes being a citizen of other countries, that he is not comfortable with American exceptionalism,” Mr. Minnish writes. “And as such Barack Obama has some consternation with recognizing that American is better than other nations or that we are lucky to be Americans.”

And then there was Obama’s recent State of the Union address – and he called America “not just a place on a map, but the light to the world” – and he said our common bonds as a people are “what sets us apart as a nation.” And he said America was “the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea – the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.” And there was this – “America’s moral example must always shine for all who yearn for freedom and justice and dignity.”

And he added this:

As contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth. The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice.

And Glastris was pleased with Obama:

He went on and on like this, but the tone was not self-satisfied boasting. Rather, he said these things as a set up to a warning, that our preeminence is at risk, and as a challenge – to reform government and invest in education, infrastructure, and scientific research.

American exceptionalism is hardly a conservative idea. But it’s one of those broadly-shared American ideas – like faith, patriotism, choice – that the right has tried to make exclusively its own by taking to insane extremes, thus tempting liberals to abandon them. In his speech last night, Obama grabbed the idea back, and shrewdly used it to argue for liberal values and a center-left policy agenda. I don’t imagine conservatives are very happy about that.

So that was that, and a stupid lie was put to rest.

Well, no, as Steve Benen documents how key Republicans pretended those remarks were never uttered – which is a new species of lie.

Benen refers to Ben Smith in Politico noting that House Speaker John Boehner and CNN’s Kathleen Parker talked a bit about the phrase they wanted to hear from the president, but didn’t hear at all:

PARKER: You know one of the words that I listened out for in his speech last night was the word “exceptional.” But I didn’t hear him say it and I thought at a time when you’re building a speech around sort of defining the common purpose of America, that seemed to me a rather – you know, a simple direct line, fairly – pretty much a no-brainer, but he didn’t say it.

BOEHNER: Well, they – they’ve refused to talk about America exceptionalism. We are different than the rest of the world. Why? Because Americans have – the country was built on an idea that ordinary people could decide what their government looked like and ordinary people could elect their own leaders. And 235 years ago that was a pretty novel idea. And so we are different. Why is our economy still twenty times the size of China’s? Because Americans have had their freedom to succeed, the freedom to fail. We’ve got more innovators, more entrepreneurs, and that is exceptional but you can’t get the left to talk about it. They don’t – they reject that notion.

PARKER: Why do you think that is?

BOEHNER: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know if they’re afraid of it, whether they don’t believe it. I don’t know.

Benen:

I haven’t the foggiest idea what Boehner and Parker are talking about. This has long been one of the more offensive and mind-numbing areas of attack from the right, but Tuesday’s speech should have resolved the issue once and for all. Indeed, more than a few observers noted that Obama embraced American exceptionalism this week even more explicitly than he has in the past.

But that was kind of beside the point – just like whether those jeans make the wife’s butt look fat, or not. This also was about something else, even if Benen is puzzled:

Honestly, were Boehner and Parker even awake during the speech? If so, they heard Obama talk about the qualities that “set us apart as a nation” and the things we do “better than anyone else.” And his belief that America is “not just a place on a map, but the light to the world” and “the greatest nation on Earth.” And his reminder that “as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.”

I realize the right isn’t great at subtleties, but how could Boehner and Parker have missed this?

Indeed, Boehner specifically whined that “they” don’t understand that “the country was built on an idea,” a day after Obama explained, “What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea – the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.”

And there’s Greg Sargent:

What’s amusing about this ongoing assertion from the right is how easily debunked it is, and how casually its proponents simply pretend that the historical record doesn’t exist….

I’m starting to get the sneaking suspicion that these people would prefer that Obama didn’t use such language, and are repeating this claim again and again in hopes of making it so.

Ah, if they say Obama didn’t say something Obama did say, and they say that over and over, well then Obama didn’t say it. And after all, Obama didn’t use the secret words – no duck dropped down.

As Benen says – “The gang that creates its own reality just doesn’t know when to stop.”

But you tell people what they seem to want to hear, because that’s pretty much what they want to hear. You try to be honest, but you also try to be reassuring. It’s a balancing act. But something is out of balance here.

But Benen also points out another example of this:

Today, yet another constitutional amendment was unveiled, this time by Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and the target is birthright citizenship. Under their proposal, the Constitution would declare “a person born in the United States to illegal aliens does not automatically gain citizenship unless at least one parent is a legal citizen, legal immigrant, active member of the Armed Forces or a naturalized legal citizen.”

The amendment can’t pass, and it’s still more evidence that Republicans don’t even want to talk about job creation, but the party’s far-right base is supposed to be impressed by GOP officials taking their concerns seriously.

The question, though, is whether the Republicans’ Tea Party base is easily distracted by shiny objects.

Benen points out that Jonathan Bernstein characterized this as the Constitutional Amendment Con:

One of the big themes, it seems to me, of the current Congress is whether Speaker John Boehner and incumbent Republicans in general can keep conservative activists happy with feel-good symbolic votes, given that Republicans can’t actually do most of the things that those activists say they want. …

The best form of purely symbolic vote is usually the constitutional amendment. After all, it’s almost always impossible to pass one of those, so Republicans don’t have to worry about the negative consequences if it goes through. In addition, the level of abstraction is high, so Republicans don’t have to worry about getting called out for supporting unpopular specifics. …

The real question, however, is whether activists – and whether those voices in the partisan conservative media who serve as opinion leaders for those activists – are going to settle for symbolism. If so, Boehner’s a smart guy, and he can roll these out forever: there’s still the (purely fraudulent) line-item veto, and Tea Partier activists and other populists are bound to love congressional term limits.

And Benen adds this:

How long the base will actually put up with this is unclear, but I’d bet money their frustration will come well before a credible Republican plan to create jobs.

That sounds familiar. The manager tells his mediocre employee that he wanted to give her a bigger raise this year, but there just wasn’t the budget for that. He fought for her, but it wasn’t that good a year – the compensation pool was pathetic. Of course she doesn’t believe it. He’s lying, to make her feel good, so she won’t get all angry and mess up some project, just because she can. She knows it. He knows it. It’s a game. And it’s like that.

But lies are part of the social contract – lies make human interaction possible, which makes cooperation possible, and cooperation is how anything in this world gets done. These guys know that. It’s just that you’re supposed to be better at it.

But what do you do with lies? Perhaps you shrug and just move on.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Actual Value of Careful Lying

  1. Rick says:

    The truth is, maybe these right-wingers who are calling out Obama and his supporters for not being boosters of “American Exceptionalism,” at least to the level that they ought to be, have discovered the liberals’ achilles heel.

    Rather than having the guts to tell the truth — that we just don’t share their enthusiasm for jingoistic bullshit — we liberals instead insist that we, too, believe in “American Exceptionalism” just as much as they do! I guess that may be one of those lies you talk about, lies told simply because telling the truth will just get us into more trouble than it’s worth.

    It’s sort of like that flap about Obama not wearing an American flag pin on his lapel — how was he supposed to respond to that? The truth is, only certain kinds of people wear those things — and only chauvinistic jerks insist that anybody who doesn’t wear one is not a patriot — but there’s no point in saying that, since that kind of response is like responding to the schoolyard bully, who has just claimed that your mother is a whore, by saying, “No, that’s not true!” Which, of course, is way beside the point.

    Yeah, I do like my country more than I like others, especially as a place to live, but see no point in bragging about it, since that only insults everyone else’s country. Just because conservatives feel the compulsion to trash talk and always get in somebody’s face does not mean the rest of us have to join in their mayhem. If those people were to spend half the time and energy they do on shouting about what a great country we are, instead on actually helping make this country a better place to live, we’d all be a lot better off.

    Someday soon, we liberals will need to stop pretending we’re just as mindless as the conservatives.

    Rick

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