The Politics of Lying and the Culture of Deceit in Obama’s America: The Rule of Damaged Politics

 by Henry A. Giroux - September 21, 2009

“Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear.” Hannah Arendt

Excerpt

In the current American political landscape, truth is not merely misrepresented or falsified; it is overtly mocked. As is well known, the Bush administration repeatedly lied to the American public, furthering a legacy of government mistrust while carrying the practice of distortion to new and almost unimaginable heights…Fact finding, arguments bolstered by evidence and informed analysis have always been fragile entities, but they risk annihilation in a culture in which it becomes difficult to distinguish between an opinion and an argument…Talk radio and television talk show screamers, in particular, seem to delight in repeating claims that have been discredited in the public arena, demonstrating a barely disguised contempt for both the truth and any viable vestige of journalism…At a time when education is reduced to training workers and is stripped of any civic ideals and critical practices, it becomes unfashionable for the public to think critically. Rather than intelligence uniting us, a collective ignorance of politics, culture, the arts, history and important social issues, as Mark Slouka points out, “gives us a sense of community, it confers citizenship.”…matters of judgment, thoughtfulness, morality and compassion seem to disappear from public view. What is the social cost of such flight from reality, if not the death of democratic politics, critical thought and civic agency? …Obama’s presence on the national political scene gave literacy, language and critical thought a newfound sense of dignity, interlaced as they were with a vision of hope, justice and possibility – and reasonable arguments about the varied crises America faced and civilized…The politics of lying and the culture of deceit are wrapped in the logic of absolute certainty…Democracy is fragile, and its fate is always uncertain…We now find ourselves living in a society in which right-wing extremists not only wage a war against the truth, but also seek to render human beings less than fully human by taking away their desire for justice, spiritual meaning, freedom and individuality…

Full text

In the current American political landscape, truth is not merely misrepresented or falsified; it is overtly mocked. As is well known, the Bush administration repeatedly lied to the American public, furthering a legacy of government mistrust while carrying the practice of distortion to new and almost unimaginable heights…Fact finding, arguments bolstered by evidence and informed analysis have always been fragile entities, but they risk annihilation in a culture in which it becomes difficult to distinguish between an opinion and an argument. Knowledge is increasingly controlled by a handful of corporations and public relations firms and is systemically cleansed of any complexity. Lying and deceitfulness are all too often viewed as just another acceptable tactic in what has become most visibly the pathology of politics and a theater of cruelty dominated by a growing chorus of media hatemongers inflaming an authoritarian populist rage laced with a not too subtle bigotry.[4] Truth increasingly becomes the enemy of democracy because it does not support the spectacle and the reduction of citizens either to mere dupes of power or commodities. Ignorance is no longer a liability in a culture in which lying, deceit and misinformation blur the boundaries between informed judgments and the histrionics of a shouting individual or mob. Talk radio and television talk show screamers, in particular, seem to delight in repeating claims that have been discredited in the public arena, demonstrating a barely disguised contempt for both the truth and any viable vestige of journalism. These lies and deceits go beyond the classic political gambit, beyond the Watergate-style cover up, beyond the comic “I did not have sex with that woman.” The lies and deceptions that are spewed out everyday from the right-wing teaching machines – from newspapers and radio shows to broadcast media and the Internet – capitalize on both the mobilizing power of the spectacle, the increasing impatience with reason and an obsession with what Susan J. Douglas describes as the use of the “provocative sound bites over investigative reporting, misinformation over fact.”[5] Lying and deception have become so commonplace in the dominant press that such practices appear to have no moral significance and provoke few misgivings, even when they have important political consequences. In the age of public relations managers and talk show experts, we are witnessing the demise of public life. At a time when education is reduced to training workers and is stripped of any civic ideals and critical practices, it becomes unfashionable for the public to think critically. Rather than intelligence uniting us, a collective ignorance of politics, culture, the arts, history and important social issues, as Mark Slouka points out, “gives us a sense of community, it confers citizenship.” – but because they tap into a sea of growing anger and hyped-up ignorance and ratchet up poll ratings. Lying and deceit have become the stuff of spectacle and are on full display in a society where gossip and celebrity culture rule. – Lying as common sense and deceit as politics-as-usual joins the embrace of provocation in a coupling that empties politics and agency of any substance and feeds into a corporate state and militarized culture in which matters of judgment, thoughtfulness, morality and compassion seem to disappear from public view. What is the social cost of such flight from reality, if not the death of democratic politics, critical thought and civic agency? -, language loses its grip on reality, and the resulting indeterminacy of meaning is often used by politicians and others to embrace positions that change from one moment to the next. Witness Dick Cheney, who once referred to torture as “enhanced interrogation” – Remember when the Bush administration used the “Healthy Forest Initiative” to give loggers access to protected wilderness areas or the “Clear Skies Initiative” to enable greater industrial air pollution? – this type of duplicitous language calls to mind the Orwellian nightmare in which “war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.” – Especially since the horrible events of 9/11, Americans have been encouraged to identify with a militaristic way of life, to suspend their ability to read the word and world critically, to treat corporate and government power in almost religious terms and to view a culture of questioning as something alien and poisonous to American society. Shared fears rather than shared responsibilities now mobilize angry mobs and gun-toting imbeciles, who are praised as “real” Americans. – Obama’s presence on the national political scene gave literacy, language and critical thought a newfound sense of dignity, interlaced as they were with a vision of hope, justice and possibility – and reasonable arguments about the varied crisesAmericafaced and civilized. -. Reducing the critical power of language has been crucial to this effort. Under such circumstances, democracy as either a moral referent or a political ideal appears to have lost any vestige of credibility. – Beyond disinformation and disguise, the politics of lying and the culture of deceit trade in and abet the rhetoric of fear in order to manipulate the public into a state of servile political dependency and unquestioning ideological support. – The politics of lying and the culture of deceit are wrapped in the logic of absolute certainty, – it is an utter capitulation to an Orwellian rhetoric that only thinly veils an egregious form of authoritarianism and racism. In the face of such events, we must develop a critical discourse to address the gap between rhetoric and deeds of those who hold economic, political and social power. As Hannah Arendt has argued, debate is central to a democratic politics, along with the public space in which individuals can argue, exercise critical judgment and clarify their relationship to democratic values and public commitments. … Democracy is fragile, and its fate is always uncertain, but during the last decade we have witnessed those in commanding political and corporate positions exhibit an utter disregard for the truth, morality and critical debate. – We now find ourselves living in a society in which right-wing extremists not only wage a war against the truth, but also seek to render human beings less than fully human by taking away their desire for justice, spiritual meaning, freedom and individuality. – Exposing the underlying conditions and symptoms of a culture of lying and deceit is both a political and a pedagogical task that demands that people speak out and break through the haze of official discourse, media-induced amnesia and the fear-producing lies of corrupt politicians and the swelling ranks of hatemongers. – The hate, extremism and pathology that have come to define our national political and popular landscapes – heard repeatedly in the prattle of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, to name only two of the most popular examples – are legitimated by an appeal to absolute certainty, which becomes the backdrop against which a politics of lying and a culture of deceit, fear, cruelty and repression flourish. -At its core, it is a debate about power and those corporate and political interests that create the conditions in which lying becomes acceptable and deceit commonplace – those forces that have the power to frame in increasingly narrow ways the conventions, norms, language and relations through which we relate to ourselves and others. How we define ourselves as a nation cannot be separated from the language we value, inhabit and use to shape our understanding of others and the world in which we want to live. As the language of critique, civic responsibility, political courage and democracy disappears along with sustained investments in schools, media, and other elements of a formative culture that keeps an aspiring democracy alive, we lose the spaces and capacities to imagine a future in which language, literacy and hope are on the side of justice, rather than on the side of hate, willful ignorance and widespread injustice.

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