We increasingly debate whether our leaders are incompetent or lying. Unfortunately, we need not choose.
Consider that in March the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, answered questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee in the "least untruthful manner" he could muster (his words). In June, Congressperson Nancy Pelosi described abortion as "sacred ground" to a Catholic. And finally, the attributions of the IRS scandal to low-level employees in Cincinnati and of American deaths in Benghazi to a film shared a disturbingly similar flimsiness and lack of effort.
National Review's Charles Cooke struggled with Clapper:
Either Clapper was lying -- responding in what he described disastrously to Andrea Mitchell on Sunday as the "least untruthful manner" available -- or he is so out of touch and incompetent that he genuinely has no idea what is going on around him. Neither is comforting.
With Pelosi, it is often more obvious that incompetence and dishonesty are not mutually exclusive. Everyone knows that the Catholic Church condemns abortion as a grave evil and that it advocates for the right to life "from conception to natural death." It is the least ambiguously held position in the public square. Also well understood is that Catholicism comes in only one version. There is no Pelosi Catholicism; and Nancy's attempt to style her death cult as Catholic was addressed head on by Jesus' fair warning that
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
Finally, the President's mouthpiece, Jay Carney, claimed that low level Cincinnati operatives caused the IRS scandal and that a film provoked the Benghazi tragedy. Both deceptions unraveled in record time. Peggy Noonan chronicled the shifting IRS claims:
First, Ms. Lerner planted a question at a conference. Then she said the Cincinnati office did it-a narrative that was advanced by the president's spokesman, Jay Carney. Then came the suggestion the IRS was too badly managed to pull off a sophisticated conspiracy. Then the charge that liberal groups were targeted too -- "we did it against both ends of the political spectrum." When the inspector general of the IRS said no, it was conservative groups that were targeted, he came under attack. Now the defense is that the White House wasn't involved....
And we now know the office of the IRS' chief counsel, an Obama appointee, was instrumental in running the harassment operation.
So we are not cursed with either the sloppy or the dishonest, but with both -- and. We are led by and burdened with careless liars. With the possible exception of Nancy Pelosi, these are not dumb people. In fact, this is not an intelligence issue at all, but a philosophical one.
Extreme lying and bad liars result from our downward spiral from tradition, objective norms and virtue; to modern relativism (see Lewinsky and the definitions of "is" and "sexual relations"); and, finally, to postmodern nihilism, in which virtue is seen as a relic and truth is not the truth but a malleable tool (as in, "What difference, at this point, does it make?").
If in the minds of our leaders it doesn't make a difference, the lie need not be creative or well-executed. On a recent Wednesday the president feigned anger over IRS harassment and on a more recent Thursday he called it a "phony scandal" -- what difference does it make?
This philosophical de-evolution, with its disrespect for and abuse of the truth, presents a quandary for democracy, debate and discourse -- pillars of our political system. Specifically, when our leaders don't care enough even to lie their very best, a tremendous amount of bad faith is in play, which bad faith can eviscerate the social contract.
In this environment where truth and untruth are just practical tools of equal value, is it possible to have a valid political discussion or debate? For that matter, is it prudent even to engage with our leaders?
This is where we find ourselves; a situation in which the Founders had hoped the press might play a critical role, that being auditor of power and advocate for the people. As Justice Black opined, the "press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people."
But that's not happening. We know that in situations like these, and in so many others, the press has failed us. So, back to the questions: Is it possible to have a political discussion if truth is not a ground rule and a precondition? And, when our leaders view truth only as a malleable tactic, should we engage with them?
The answer to the first question is obviously no. Discussions, agreements and relationships cannot be based on lies. The second question is more troubling. If our leaders are arrogant, lazy and bad liars, what do we do?
First, we should ignore them and refuse to let them disturb our peace. They are flashes in the pan, eventually to be found somewhere on the Austin-to-Davos nut fringe speech circuit.
Second, because theirs are unprincipled lies rooted in meaninglessness, the lies and the ideology in which they are rooted must come to nothing, by definition.
Mary Eberstadt sagely points out we tend to be pessimistic and "chronically prone to accepting certain features of our time as 'inevitable.'" To the contrary though, as empirical evidence mounts, truth and rationality generally prevail. Only 50 years ago, tobacco smoking was thought to be "here to stay." And now that the sonogram shows us a baby, not a "fetus," pro-life sentiment of young Americans is growing.
History teaches us not to despair. Immorality, infanticide, envy, strife and dishonesty were cultural signatures of ancient Rome. It was a "world immersed in decadence, squalor and brutality," in which emperors grew the bureaucracy, debased the currency and targeted political opponents. Put Sandra Fluke and the delegates to the 2012 Democratic National Convention in togas and you get the picture.
In an absence of virtue, Rome and the fictions on which it was predicated fell; crushed by its own weight, not by surging opposition. Truth was ignored only for so long, even by low information Romans sedated by free, low quality stuff. Miserable everyday experiences refuted that world's false promises, resulting in its collapse.
The same applies today. Again, the ace in the hole is that the policies just don't work. Obamacare is a disaster; there is no positive multiplier effect -- government spends much less efficiently than those from whom it takes; and our leaders' social policies are breeding broken families, crime, drunken cougars and STDs. These are bad things, many of which are already imploding.
When Clapper, Pelosi, and Carney trash the truth, they become victims of their chosen philosophy, excommunicate themselves from the public trust and become irrelevant. They lie and lie badly -- all the while digging the hole deeper.
Though these leaders are unsuited for democracy, we are not. And this is where personal engagement counts. If you are so inclined, you can accelerate both their fall (or rehabilitation) and our recovery by highlighting the weak lies and obvious truths one conversation at a time.
We are only polarized if we choose to be. Your neighbor and coworker are often genuine people with whom you can talk and joke. They might enjoy a quip that the Right Reverend Nancy has completed Pelosae Vitae, in which she decrees abortion a sacrament; or that Jay Carney attributes the Egyptian military coup to a spontaneous climate change protest; or that the IRS chief counsel is expected to testify in a moderately untruthful manner.
Because we have a better vision for the common good, charity demands our engagement. Anything less -- whether complaining about low information voters, dreaming about secession or hoping for a Reaganesque smackdown -- is just withdrawal, and not an option. There are a lot of people between New York and Los Angeles. Talk to them about the mounting lies, facts and the failed policies that created those facts. We have more credibility by the day. Let's put it to good use.