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Cynicism, Skepticism and the Politics of Truth

“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us”.

Vice President Dick Cheney1

“The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”.

President George W. Bush2

One of the most striking and significant features of the Bush-Cheney administration is its contempt for truth, a contempt perhaps unrivalled by any other presidential administration in the history of the republic.3 This practice or, perhaps better, policy is most galling and most serious in the administration’s distortions and simple lies in the build-up to the disastrous war on Iraq.4 But it has also regularly been on display in areas as varied as Bush’s attempts to sell his tax cuts, his misnamed “Clean Skies” initiative, his “reform” of Medicare, and the gradual privatization of the social security system. In these areas and many more, Bush, as Paul Krugman delicately puts it, has “repeatedly said things that were demonstrably false and that his staff must have known were false.”5 That is, he lied. The administration’s depressing success with this policy of deceit is, no doubt, part of a constellation of features of the current political field in this country, each of which supports and enables the others. One would expect a strategy of “disinformation” to be considerably less successful in a context in which, say, the press did not generally allow the Executive branch’s claims to determine what is newsworthy (and, too often, what is news); in which all three branches of the federal government were not controlled by one party; in which the public did not look for a “strong leader” to defend it from terrorist attacks; in which the Executive branch were not steadily amassing more and more power vis-a-vis the Legislative, reducing public deliberation and with it the possibility of public scrutiny of the actions of elected officials; in which there wasn’t an unprecedented surge in government secrecy; and so on. 6Nonetheless, the willingness of this administration to mislead and tell outright lies in pursuit of its policies demands our attention, as does its evident success until quite recently in, and while, doing so.

The reasons for this success are cultural as well as institutional. It is not simply that the press fails to challenge and interrogate the administration’s claims, it is also that so many of us expect so little in the way of truth or truthfulness in politics at this point. What Orwell observes of Winston’s lover Julia in 1984 is true of all too many of us Americans: “she only questioned the teachings of the Party when they in some way touched upon her own life. Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her.”7 How else to explain the widespread lack of interest in the debacle over weapons of mass destruction? Plain lies are greeted either with a shrug of indifference, or a defense of the “sincerity” of the emotion or conviction of the actor—as in, “Bush really believes in what he is doing” (and hence is not responsible for what he is saying, which is at best an epiphenomenon of the larger “project”) — as if sincerity could do the work of accuracy, or as if one could be truthful without taking care that one spoke the truth.8 Whatever standard is used to judge the architects of the “slam dunk” case (some of whom have since gone on to receive medals for their work), it clearly has little or nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the actual claims made.

There are various explanations for this sort of indifference. Cynicism about politicians and the possibilities of politics is an important one, and it is an endemic problem in a democracy where the identity of “the people” who rule and hence the identity of the common good are both constitutively in...

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