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Archive for Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Truth should still matter

September 17, 2008

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When I was growing up in New York City in the 1950s lying was a serious matter. If I told a lie at home and was caught I ended up in my bedroom without dinner. At school, if the teacher caught me in a lie, I had my knuckles bashed with a ruler. It didn't take long for me to get the idea that telling a lie wasn't a good idea.

I also don't remember either my parents or my teachers being willing to differentiate between a lie and a half-truth or between lies and "spin." Either something was true or it wasn't. If it was true, then I could prove it by facts. If it wasn't true I missed dinner or ended up with sore knuckles. It wasn't a sophisticated approach, but I think it worked.

Unfortunately, these days, it seems as if what I learned as a child is no longer in fashion. It just seems as though truth has become so flexible as to no longer mean anything. Over the last few weeks I've been struck at just how little truth seems to mean anymore.

For instance, I remember quite clearly listening to an interview of the chief executive officer of Fannie Mae. He was emphatic in saying that his company was not in dire financial straits and that no government bailout was necessary. And yet it would seem that just as he was telling this to the public, he was secretly meeting with government officials to work out the terms of the bailout he had denied would take place.

Weeks before, the chief executive of Bear Stearns did the same thing; he reassured stockholders that there would be no bailout only days before his company was taken over with the help of government financing.

Then, of course, there's the matter of the presidential campaign. What does it signify when Karl Rove, one of the most celebrated "spin doctors" alive, says that the McCain campaign has failed the test of "100 percent truthfulness?" Is it not troubling that a man running for president of the United States would approve television advertisements which claimed that his opponent had supported sex education for 5-year-olds, when, in fact, the record indicates that he did not and that what he supported was teaching 5-year-olds to stay away from sex predators?

And, the other side is also far from innocent as well. Both parties seem to be suffering from a "truth deficit." For instance, Congressman Rangel of New York, one of the smartest and most sophisticated members of Congress, now claims that he failed to pay taxes on real estate because he didn't understand Spanish.

Isn't that odd given the fact that his congressional district includes numerous Hispanics and that several members of his staff are fluent in the language. Even if he didn't understand Spanish himself, couldn't he have asked one of his Spanish-speaking staff or constituents? How does one of the most powerful members of Congress make statements like this with a straight face? And how does he get re-elected every two years?

I've got to admit that I'm really getting rather fed up with politicians, business executives, and other powerful people thinking that they aren't bound by the same rules as the rest of us. I am truly sick and tired of not being told the truth by our leaders. Both the McCain and the Obama campaigns claim that they represent change and that, if elected, they will change the nature of American politics and government. Well, my response to this is simple. Getting rid of congressional "earmarks" and waste sounds great; ending tax breaks for hedge fund operators and wealthy oil companies is equally terrific.

Bringing the country back together is a noble aspiration. Most important, so far as change goes, however, is telling the truth. We need to tell our governmental and business leaders that it's time to stop lying, stop "spinning," stop misconstruing and go back to the old notion that only the truth is acceptable in the public sphere. Otherwise, I just don't see how our country can survive. Doesn't anybody remember the story about George Washington and the cherry tree?

- Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

Comments

Orwell 5 years, 7 months ago

Cynic:Keep accepting the status quo, and guess what we'll have. If you keep eating dung, they'll keep feeding you dung. Take personal responsibility for how you react to a campaign that says issues don't matter.

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madmike 5 years, 7 months ago

For Christ sake Merrill, can't you write anything on your own? Everyone on the area is sick of your repeated cut and paste over and over aga operations!

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KU_cynic 5 years, 7 months ago

I'm as PO'ed as Hoef at the kind of liars he identifies in this column.That said, it's naive to think that "back in the day" the American experience was much different -- with the exception of Hoef and his food-depriving mother and knuckle-wacking teacher, naturally.Politicians bend the truth to seek power and approval, business people cut corners and misprepresent in order to gain financial advantage, and academics cloak themselves in pedantic self-righteousness while sheltered by tenure and generous state-provided benefits.Ah, the human condition. It's not pretty, but it's constant.

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Richard Heckler 5 years, 7 months ago

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMANPublished: September 13, 2008Imagine for a minute that attending the Republican convention in St. Paul, sitting in a skybox overlooking the convention floor, were observers from Russia, Iran and Venezuela. And imagine for a minute what these observers would have been doing when Rudy Giuliani led the delegates in a chant of "drill, baby, drill!"I'll tell you what they would have been doing: the Russian, Iranian and Venezuelan observers would have been up out of their seats, exchanging high-fives and joining in the chant louder than anyone in the hall - "Yes! Yes! Drill, America, drill!" - because an America that is focused first and foremost on drilling for oil is an America more focused on feeding its oil habit than kicking it.Why would Republicans, the party of business, want to focus our country on breathing life into a 19th-century technology - fossil fuels - rather than giving birth to a 21st-century technology - renewable energy? As I have argued before, it reminds me of someone who, on the eve of the I.T. revolution - on the eve of PCs and the Internet - is pounding the table for America to make more I.B.M. typewriters and carbon paper. "Typewriters, baby, typewriters." - why not throw all our energy into innovating a whole new industry of clean power with the mantra "invent, baby, invent?" That is what a party committed to "change" would really be doing.Obama may be a bit professorial, but at least he is trying to unite the country to face the real issues rather than divide us over cultural differences.Some McCain supporters criticize Obama for not having the steel in his belly to use force in the dangerous world we live in today. Well I know this: In order to use force, you have to have force. In order to exercise leverage, you have to have leverage.I don't know how much steel is in Obama's belly, but I do know that the issues he is focusing on in this campaign - improving education and health care, dealing with the deficit and forging a real energy policy based on building a whole new energy infrastructure - are the only way we can put steel back into America's spine. McCain, alas, has abandoned those issues for the culture-war strategy. Unless we make America the country most able to innovate, compete and win in the age of globalization, our leverage in the world will continue to slowly erode. Those are the issues this election needs to be about, because that is what the next four years need to be about.There is no strong leader without a strong country. And posing as one, to use the current vernacular, is nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig.http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/14/opinion/14friedman.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

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