Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Two Kinds of Liar

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales routinely appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee to advise, and answer questions. He will get an earful when he next appears on April 17. According to the New York Times (“Time for Answers,” Editorial, March 27, 2007), the Justice Department now says Gonzalez attended a meeting to discuss the firings of seven federal prosecutors, contradicting his claim that he knew nothing of the matter.

We expect politicians to lie; it’s their job. But the Attorney General of all people, should be trustworthy, it would seem. That office stands for truth, justice, and honesty in a republic governed by rule of law, not personality and ego. Or am I na├»ve about that?

There is no evidence that Gonzalez has done anything illegal. It is within his rights (and the President’s) to fire any and all federal prosecutors whenever they feel like it. But there is plenty of evidence to indicate that Gonzalez is not an honest man (See Dan Eggen: “Gonzales TV appearance sheds no light on firings,” Washington Post, 3/28/07 p. A05).

Why is it necessary for politicians to lie? I think there are two reasons, one psychological, one structural.

Psychologically, many people who go into politics do it for personal self-aggrandizement, even though they don’t admit that, even to themselves. They love the adulation expressed by votes, and being “special,” the center of attention. This human frailty stems from a pattern of socialization that emphasizes garnering attention and approval from parents. More deeply, it arises from the basic human instinct to transcend particularity to a sense of transpersonal oneness, basically what Jean-Paul Sartre called “the desire to be God” (Being and Nothingness, 1946). For those who do not have the intellect or the temperament to exercise that transcendent need rationally, the adulation of the crowd is the next best thing.

If that analysis is correct, it explains why politicians love being in office more than life itself. Being the focus of public recognition (if not always adulation) is the definition of psychological life for them. To admit of weakness, uncertainty, or error is tantamount to admission of their life’s folly: that they are not godlike, but only their mother’s child. So they must lie for psychological self-preservation. They do not realize they are lying. In their own minds, they are merely batting gnats to return to the important work of exercising omnipotence and omniscience. They have no remorse about lying, only about being caught out.

The second reason politicians lie is that democracy requires it. The members of the American polity, for example, are enormously diverse, almost to the point of being ungovernable, but if there is going to be a government by the people, there must be some identifiable voice of the people. Alas, most of the electorate is grossly uninformed about government and its complex issues, and even less interested. This is a well-documented historical fact (see, for example, Lau, R. and Redlawsk, D., How Voters Decide, 2007). When some governmentally relevant issue does penetrate the consciousness of the average voter, the response is emotional or stereotypical, not rational (Again, documented by Lau and Redlawsk among others). And if a political issue does somehow rise to the level of rational discourse, the typical voter is simply not prepared to exercise critical thinking.

High literacy in the U.S., good public education and freedom of speech make U.S. democracy one of the most successful examples in the world but that is still not saying much for an educated electorate. To provide leadership, politicians must pitch to the level of emotional, traditional, and cultural values that define the cohesiveness of the electorate, either in general, or in defined constituencies. To speak the truth as one sees it, critically analyzed and rationally conceptualized, would be useless. The electorate cannot hear it; is not prepared to hear it; will not hear it. Instead, it is necessary for the politician to speak in euphemisms and slogans that have a chance of being recognized by voters. It’s not malicious or pathological lying, just prudent circumlocution of the truth.

Back to the Gonzalez affair. It looks like he is lying. If so, which kind of a liar is he? My take is that he is, like the president who appointed him, a psychological liar. It is a mental pathology that the political process selects for. He can’t help it.

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