Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: How we justify our lies in politics
Ryan Summerlin October 21, 2012
Why do some politicians during campaigns spread lies and mutilate facts? They break the 9th Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness …” (Exodus 20:9).
Picture truth as a circle. Each of us stands on this circle’s circumference. Our minds discern a segment of the circle where we are mentally located. Because we can’t survey the entire rim of truth, we aren’t wise enough to see the entire circle. Consequently, some people equate their favorite segment with the whole truth. That’s how they legitimize their lies.
The Romney camp believes President Obama is vulnerable because the economy hasn’t made a robust recovery. This segment of our fiscal plight is true. But Republicans’ reasonable hope for a quick fiscal rebound gets bent out of shape when they mistake it for the entire trajectory. The stock market, for instance, has doubled under Obama’s presidential watch.
What lies sound as if they’re true? Romney supporters’ first major advertisement had President Obama admitting, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” This clip was snipped from a larger Obama quotation when he repeated what Sen. John McCain said in his 2008 presidential bid.
Here’s President Obama’s entire quotation: “Sen. McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.'” Romney’s campaigners denied tampering with this sound bite. An aide maintained “Obama must be held accountable for what he says,” even if the Republicans doctor it up. To bolster their political agenda, Romney’s spin experts invent dialogue or rip out of context what the president says.
Both sides rehash lies and make them sound true. After the first presidential debate, some Democrats furiously denounced Romney as a serial liar because he reinvented himself as a moderate instead of a tea party lackey. Karl Rove shot back. He made the dubious claim that Romney was all truth and light, that he excelled at projecting what is “practical and thoughtful, authentic and a straight-shooter.”
In a Time Magazine cover story, “Who Is Telling the Truth? The Fact Wars,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz sums up how our minds usually work at rejecting opposing viewpoints. “We don’t collect news to inform us. We collect news to affirm us,” he observes (Time Magazine, Oct. 15, p. 27). We treat our tiny segment on the circumference of truth as the whole of the circle. We are suckers for falsehoods that confirm what we already believe.
Later in Time’s lead story, writer Alex Altman tells what happens when we assume our patch of truth is authoritative. “The lying game unfolds on many levels,” he declares. “Campaigns obfuscate, twist the truth and exaggerate. They exploit complexity. Most of all, they look for details – real or unreal – that validate our suspicions.”
The most effective lies are those which hug the truth. During the presidential elections of 1796 and 1800, John Adams’ supporters recited what evangelical Christians said about Jefferson – that he was an atheist like the French and, if elected, would import France’s godless revolution. Jefferson’s supporters countered that Adams was a closet monarchist. He’d steal from citizens their precious rights and act like a benign dictator in the President’s House (White House).
Like others before her, novelist Ayn Rand made the mistake of confusing what’s true with her bias. Paul Ryan and the tea party venerate her. When Rand was 12 years old growing up in Russia, the Bolsheviks confiscated her father’s business. This made an indelible impression on Rand. She superimposed the strong-arm tactics of the Bolshevik Revolution on our republic, casting the government as confiscatory and intrusive. Rand equated her flawed fiscal insights with the grand arc of what’s trustworthy. Let’s learn what ancient wisdom teaches. Four biblical witnesses record Jesus’ story: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In Greek manuscripts, their stories all start with the same preposition kata, meaning “according to.” Mark’s Gospel begins: kata Markan – according to Mark.
Refreshing isn’t it? The Bible isn’t written by know-it-alls who confuse segments of truth’s circle with their interpretation of it. Modesty goes a long way when ferreting out truth. So does humility. Whether in religion or politics, those who assert “my way or the highway” careen into liars’ gulch.
None sees truth’s full circle because we are parked on a segment of it. Yes, responsible citizens do take sides. But the wisest sound and act like Gospel writers. They search after truth rather than pontificate. They cherish compromise over stultified convictions. They major in civility and minor in slander. Such wise people even look for new truth from a segment of the circle where opponents stand.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.