Saturday, January 20, 2007

How far can liars go?

Senator Joseph McCarthy did all right for himself telling lies about how many Communists had infiltrated the US State Department. As soon as he did that in February, 1950, his demand as a speaker skyrocketed. He published a book. It didn’t matter that the Democratic majority in the Senate called him a fraud. Republicans backed him. McCarthy gained a committee chairmanship when Republicans took the majority in 1953.

He thereby had power to have televised hearings if he went after a big enough target, like the Army, which he did. But it wasn’t as popular to attack men in uniform with secret lists of Communists in defense plants as it was to say there were so many nameless bureaucrats who were stabbing us in the back, plus people could now see how much of a bully McCarthy was directly. By the end of 1954, McCarthy was censured by the Senate, and never was a serious factor in politics again. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1957, at age 48.

Modern authors, including Ann Coulter, have tried to defend McCarthy. A large part of that is pointing to the Venona project that showed that the Soviets did have spy networks in the US. The thing is that whatever kernel of truth is at the core of McCarthyism, in trying to tell that truth and garner fame for himself, McCarthy told a pack of lies, and when he went too far in that, most people realized it.

Going too far with lies is something that happens regularly. The Salem Witch Trials wouldn’t be as well known as they are, except the accusers went too far. If they had stopped short of overflowing every jail in the region, we wouldn’t know of them now any more than other 17th century trials. And not everyone would know how many innocents were victimized.

It should be comforting that lies are caught like this, but I can’t help but look at stories like these and realize that lies aren’t caught until they become this flagrant. Politics, religion, and other parts of life are full of lies, for the same reasons that McCarthyism was and still is. People like simple stories of good guys and bad guys. People like stories that reinforce their prejudices. Some people like the fame and other rewards they get from telling stories. None of that requires stories to be true.

Consider a story yesterday that I heard in passing through John Gibson on the Fox cable news channel, but discovered from Media Matters was picked up by two radio talk shows as well on the same day. It’s about a story posted two days before on insightmag.com, a site controlled by the same Rev. Sun Myung Moon company that owns The Washington Times and UPI. The story is that Hillary Clinton’s people are pushing a story about Barack Obama having been educated as a Muslim. The article quotes Obama’s books about his years in Indonesia up to the age of 10. It has no other quotes attributed to a person by name. It cites no other place where “Clinton” is pushing this story except for this particular article.

Despite that being everything the article says, each of these right-wing talk shows reported this as fact, not mere rumor, using the opportunity to slam both Clinton and Obama to varying degrees, for her vicious political tactics, for his background in Islam, according to the whim of the commentator. No one even mentioned that the undocumented report that Clinton had anything to do with this might be a lie. This is from right-wingers who are forever saying how smart and responsible they are. Yet for a good lie, they’re willing to be na├»ve.

It’s not just the political right. This is what people do. At one time it was more understandable. I can see that some stories in the past were just filling in fantasy where there was a big unknown. So it is understandable that the creation myths in the Bible from 3000 years ago were the best people could do then. To say that one God made everything and ran everything was as good a story as any.

It’s not now. Now people have to lie to say, “evolution is a lie”. It might not be fair to call everyone who says that a liar. Some are just repeating what others say, others who should know better, but have their own reasons to say tradition and the Bible are right, and scientists are not to be trusted.

A somewhat different group of people say scientists are lying about global warming. Time will show the truth.

The irony is that scientific skepticism is one solution to how much lying is part of human nature. One alternative to waiting for someone like Joseph McCarthy to self-destruct is to question everything, as I learned to do in science. If that were more of a norm in our culture, right-wingers wouldn’t get away with calling rumors they like “fact”. Nor would left-wingers, theists, or atheists.

I tend to be optimistic about the future, maybe more than is reasonable. I expect us to realize the hope that’s in the genetics revolution, the neuroscience revolution, the internet revolution and other advances in science and technology. But now and again I wonder about the future. Warnings of ecological and economic catastrophes don’t bother me. One has to assume a number of bad things for the future to be that bad and that we won’t be able to adapt as a species when we always have before. But I do wonder about our nature and how it doesn’t necessarily follow someone like Bertrand Russell in his reasons for why love and truth are the ultimate good things. In fact we embrace hatred, indifference, and lies regularly. How limited is the number of people who reject such evil?

I’ve learned to hate lies, to weed them out by questioning everything. Some might find that remarkable in someone who hears God’s voice. You don’t understand how skeptical I was of God if you think that. And I have continued to be very skeptical of what people say, for good reason. People lie a lot, and they only sometimes make that obvious. They also don’t make it obvious that it’s everyone across the spectrum of politics, religion and otherwise who lies. Scientifically questioning everything would be a powerful obstacle to such lying, but will people accept that? Such acceptance has been awfully spotty so far, something people might use only on their opponents. Scientists are only human. They can be partisan, but the technique of questioning everything makes no such distinction. One either follows that technique or lets many lies continue.

So I don’t know what the future is for liars. Will they become extinct? Will lying continue to be profitable? Will there ever come a time when broadcasters who lie are disemboweled on national TV after reporting some number of lies? If it’s a slow week for lies in broadcasting, one could substitute preachers or others who are dogmatic about spirituality.

Would that be a strange future, where lies are not tolerated, but hatred and brutality is? That’s what I wonder about. As much as I agree with Bertrand Russell that a good world would be filled with love and truth, is that where humanity is headed? Time will tell. The repudiation of lying as a way of life would be a hopeful indicator.

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