Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rick Perlstein: "When it becomes 'uncivil' to call out liars, lying becomes free"


"When one side breaks the social contract, and the other side makes a virtue of never calling them out on it, the liar always wins. When it becomes 'uncivil' to call out liars, lying becomes free."
-- Rick Perlstein, in "How Obama Enables Rush"

by Ken

By now I trust everyone has read our friend Rick Perlstein's screed for the Daily Beast, in which he proceeds from the painfully obvious but rarely articulated truth: "We live in a mendocracy. As in: rule by liars." But in case anyone missed it, let me suggest that this is one piece you can't afford to miss.

Now Rick's is not what I would call a "mainstream media" voice, so I can't say that this obvious proposition has finally reached the mainstream media. But Tina Brown's Daily Beast is decidedly mainstream-ish, and Rick gets more respectful attention from the mainstreamers than most any fire-breathing liberal (a description that, notwithstanding his habitual calm and reasonable demeanor, I don't think he'd shrink from) I know.

Here in our little corner of the blogosphere I've been screaming into the void since the wild days of the 2008 election campaign about this scary disconnect: that the 21st-century Right has formally severed all obligation to reality and truth. During that campaign it was hard to find exceptions to the rule that every word out of the mouth of every Republican was an out-and-out lie. I've never seen anything like the presidential campaign of Young Johnny McCranky, which managed to incorporate seemingly mutually exclusive sets of lies -- often even more than two -- on every issue.

And all with no price to pay.

Not once but twice I quoted this bit from a Frameshop post by Jeffrey Feldman, "What America Needs to Hear About Jerome Corsi" (whose smearbook on Barack Obama had just been published), about the impossibility of "debating" a compulsive liar:
This book and books like it destroy our political culture, undermine fair elections, inhabit the slippery space between politics and slander. . . .

These books destroy civic debate on purpose -- and are fundamentally at odds with democracy. The goal of Corsi's project is not to discuss facts -- it is to destroy the very possibility of discussion by implying that a Presidential candidate is a sleeper-cell terrorist -- and doing so in the context of a huge broadcast media effort to convince the country of the same thing.

That is not just factually wrong. It is wildly immoral. Whether or not Corsi published lies is not even half the discussion we should be having.

Let me repeat that crucial proposition: "These books destroy civic debate on purpose."

Rick Perlstein has his own take on this proposition. I've quoted it at the top of this post, but it's too important not to repeat:
When one side breaks the social contract, and the other side makes a virtue of never calling them out on it, the liar always wins. When it becomes "uncivil" to call out liars, lying becomes free.

Now goodness knows I've done my share of screaming about the Obama campaign's perhaps strategically astute decision, at least in the short term, to avoid inflicting perceived disharmony on voters, who were signaling a keen dislike of it. I think it helped Obama win both the Democratic nomination and the general election, but by leaving the nonstop barrage of lying filth unchallenged, it formally put reality and truth at the mercy of right-wing delusions and lies.

My takeaway from 2008, you may recall, was that even after the shocking McCranky campaign, whose tissue of fabrications (and, again, often wildly contradictory fabrications) shouldn't have earned him any votes beyond the 15-20 percent we can identify as terminally crackpotted and maybe another 10-15 percent of voters who stood to benefit from the megacorporate oligarchy that could be presumed to be McCranky's actual if not-quite-stated formula for governing (as per the wise old adage, "follow the money"), the lying, senile fool still garnered 47 percent of the vote -- a prescription If ever there was one for a democracy on the verge of ungovernability.

Come January 2009, we learned that the party that had intentionally shrunk itself to the Party of the Confederacy (plus parts of the survivalist West) was reinventing itself as the Party of No, actually cheering on the worsening of the economic crisis in the hope of being able to cash in electorally.

And then, with generous assists from the serial screw-ups of the Obama administration which we've talked about so much, came the election of 2010.

Rick's jumping-off point is the inevitable post-election crunching-and-spinning of numbers currently in progress. To him there's only one number that matters: "the one demonstrating that by a two-to-one margin likely voters thought their taxes had gone up, when, for almost all of them, they had actually gone down."
Republican politicians, and conservative commentators, told them Barack Obama was a tax-mad lunatic. They lied. The mainstream media did not do their job and correct them. The White House was too polite—"civil," just like Obama promised—to say much. So people believed the lie. From this all else follows.

And it was all too predictable.

Rick harks back to the stupefying spectacle of Louisiana Gov. "Booby" Jindal's opposition reply to President Obama's first State of the Union address, which had been devoted in good part to defending the just-passed stimulus bill.
You remember! [Booby] singled out for excoriation the $140 million in stimulus spending "for something called 'volcano monitoring'"; this happened to be about a month before a volcano erupted, releasing a 60,000 foot cloud of ash near -- dot dot dot -- Wasilla, Alaska.

He recalls that on CNN David Brooks -- ferchrissakes, David Brooks --
called the governor's "stale, government-is-the problem" rhetoric "a disaster for the Republican Party," and excoriated those who insisted on hugging tight to it as "insane." The people appeared to agree. In a snap poll, 92 percent of those surveyed had a positive reaction to Obama's speech—68 percent a very positive reaction. Only 8 percent had a negative reaction.

Rick was curious to hear how Rush Limbaugh would handle the event the next day. And the first call Rush fielded was from "a self-professed ditto-head" who --
took objection to Rush's argument that Obama had revealed himself in the speech as a tax-and-spend liberal. The caller quoted Obama's words: "Because of this plan, 95 percent of the working households in America will receive a tax cut—a tax cut that you will see in your paychecks beginning on April 1." (Which was true: People did.)

Rush responded, fluidly and without a gram of doubt. "Pay no attention to what Obama says. He means the opposite in most cases. What he says is irrelevant."

So the guy to whom all Republicans must kowtow on pain of political death had just laid down a marker that everything Obama said was a lie.

The White House could, Rick suggests, have gone on the offensive, arguing that Rush and his supporters, and the pols who refused to detach themselves from him, "were effectively saying anything the Chief Constitutional Officer of the United States said was a priori a diabolical lie."
But Obama didn't. That would be the "old politics of division." Not Obama's bag.

This would have been one of many opportunities to wedge the opposition between the authoritarian nihilists and the "constructive" Republicans who had America's best interests at heart. Instead, the nihilists got to tell the story that endures in the day-after punditry from last Tuesday: that the electorate "rejected Obama's agenda."

Now again, much of the damage absorbed by the Obama administration has been self-inflicted purely on the policy front. By now is there anyone who hasn't figured out that the political dynamic of this administration is in the right-of-center, Village-orthodox mold, what might be described as "moderate Republican" if there still were such a thing? But at the same time, the administration has allowed itself to become hostage to the framing of the Right. To average Americans who have no better idea of what socialism is than they do what the policies of the administration are, this is an extreme-liberal, radical-socialist regime.

So the pundits of Village orthodoxy crunch the election numbers and, unsurprisingly, come up with the message planted by the "nihilists" : that "the electorate rejected Obama's agenda." (By the time the NYT's trained imbecile Matt Bai finishes slipping and sliding over all the banana peels he's strewn in his path, we're well on the way to making the imbecilization of the American electorate a self-fulfilling prophecy.)
The vector worked, and works, like this:

(a) A mountebank teaches his millions of followers that everything the president says is a priori a lie;

b) The mainstream media that acts as if anything his millions of followers believe is a priori deserving of respect as heartland folk wisdom (note the cover article lionizing Limbaugh in this week's Newsweek);

(c) The president unilaterally renders himself constitutionally incapable of breaking the chain between (a) and (b), such that, (d), the assumption that Obama raised taxes when he really lowered them becomes hegemonic for a majority of the electorate, and even a large plurality of Democrats.

Q.E.D.: Governing has become impossible.

Is governing possible when the opposition stands by while a screeching coalition of loonies and liars pretends that the president isn't really a U.S. citizen? And get indignant when the obvious racist motivation is pointed out? I'm sorry, but there isn't any possibility -- zero percent -- that it's the president's race that made this crusade of lying imbecility possible.

Not to worry, however. Now that public discourse can no longer be measured against standards of truth, it's safe to guess that campaigns of lies as virulent as the racially charged ones told about Barack Obama will be launched on other-than-racial bases. Every manner of prejudice and delusion can be pressed into service. (Did someone say "death panels"?)


It can certainly be argued that we already have a government of men rather than laws. It was, after all, the philosophy of the Bush regime to enforce only laws it approved of, and to enforced a broad range of policies that ignored or flatly contradicted the law. And now the highest-ranking serial law-breaker in the land is out on the hustings selling a book of lies. (Hmm, isn't this where we came in?) As regards law-breaking, the Obama administration has more or less formally ratified the view that men (and it is mostly men) who can afford to buy as much government as they need or want are no longer subject to the oversight of our legal system

Still, in all the foregoing I kept flashing back to the part of Anthony Lewis's review, in the Nov. 11 issue of the New York Review of Books, of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's book Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View regarding the basic concept of the rule of law. (Unfortunately, only a digest is available free online. If anyone wants to see the whole thing, this link might get you there, or again, as when I wrote about NYRB's pre-publication excerpt from Justice Breyer's book, I've dumped it into an RTF file -- e-mail me at
Justice Breyer begins by discussing what he calls the Supreme Court’s democratic legitimacy. Today it is almost universally assumed that the Court’s decisions, however unpopular, will be accepted by the public and the government and will be obeyed. But that was not always so. Breyer describes meeting the chief justice of an African country who asked him, “Why do Americans do what the courts say?” Breyer answered that there was no secret,
no magic words on paper. Following the law is a matter of custom, of habit, of widely shared understandings as to how those in government and members of the public should, and will, act when faced with a court decision they strongly dislike.

The answer lies not in doctrine but in history.

Lewis traces some of that history, and quotes Justice Robert Jackson (in the Godkin Lectures he wrote in 1954 but didn't live to deliver at Harvard University, which were published posthumously as The Supreme Court in the American System of Government) controversy over the Court's democratic legitimacy such had been occasioned by President Franklin Roosevelt's attempt to pack the Court in the '30s "is likely to break forth from time to time as long as the Republic shall last." Lewis notes that "Jackson added, in an almost regretful tone":
Public opinion, however, seems always to sustain the power of the Court…. The people have seemed to feel that the Supreme Court, whatever its defects, is still the most detached, dispassionate, and trustworthy custodian that our system affords for the translation of abstract into concrete constitutional commands.

Lewis follows Breyer in looking back to Bush v. Gore the decision that ended the 2000 presidential contest, which Lewis lumps in the category of "particularly egregious Supreme Court decisions." He allows himself to fantasize:
Suppose, for example, that there had been a popular uprising against Bush v. Gore in 2000—that the recount of votes in Florida had gone forward despite the Court’s decision and that Al Gore had won and become president. The United States would not have invaded Iraq. Lax financial regulation would not have brought us close to an economic meltdown. John Roberts and Samuel Alito would not be on the Supreme Court. The fantasy has its appeal. But the price would have been high: the loss of fealty to the one institution that holds this vast, disparate country together: law.

Breyer writes that he and three other members of the Court thought Bush v. Gore “was very wrong, [and] so did millions of other Americans. For present purposes, however, what is important is what happened next…. The public, Democrats as well as Republicans, followed the decision. They did so peacefully.” It was, he said, “the most remarkable…feature of the case.”

One thing we'll never know, of course, is whether or how Republicans would have accepted a court ruling that insisted the votes in Florida actually be counted. We already know how actively, and extralegally, they were working to prevent that eventuality. It's one of the ironies of modern American political life that the party which styled itself the upholder of "law and order" turned out to be the party that says the law is whatever the hell we (and our goons on the ground) say it is.

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At 10:42 PM, Anonymous Dissertation help said...

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At 5:25 AM, Anonymous Mark Scarbrough said...

Brilliant. Did you read Mark Morford this morning in the SF Chronicle, his letter to the tea party? Similar--except he's more than willing to call out the liars (as you here on this blog). We need more of this. Much more.

At 6:44 AM, Blogger Retired Patriot said...

Great post Ken. Thanks for pointing out the Perlstien article - he gets it and fortunately, he has a small platform from which to shout about it. The NYROB article by Lewis was exceptional. My take away from it is that the cycle of American history has turned against the rule of law and to the rule of (the most powerful) men.

But, I have little doubt about this: One thing we'll never know, of course, is whether or how Republicans would have accepted court ruling that insisted the votes in Florida actually be counted. There's no doubt in my mind that the (then smaller) vocal and violent minority would have acted out violently and, unless matched by counter-violence, would have won the day. They were organized and they were, and remain, more than ready to "eliminate" those they've been taught to hate. Those of us on the other side watched this extra-Constitutional usurpation, did little but complain and trust in our society. And we've been paying for it since.

Indeed, the veneer that holds our crazy-quilt society together is very, very thin. Thicker went most liberal policies rule, thinner when the reactionaries take charge. And after a decade of reactionary mis-rule and mendacity, that veneer is wafer thin. The lesson for progressives and liberals? Its time to stop being civil and start preparing to defend their past achievements - even as that 25% who really need those achievements fall under the brainwashing spell of Rushbo, Beckkk and the Billionaire Boyz. A good first step is to call the liars what they are. And take every effort to get that simple message out to our family, friends, neighbors and community. And be prepared to hold that position even in the face of violence.

Or, to accommodate ourselves to the new normal and submerge below the waves to live again when (if?) that cycle of history turns our way again.


At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

Bravo Kenni. MORE

At 10:48 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, all. I had the feeling as I was assembling this post that probably it was too much for one gulp, and seeing it finished (more or less), I couldn't help feeling that the two halves should have been separate posts. But the link between the coming of mendocracy and the erosion of respect for basic legal institutions (and not, unfortunately, the ones that deserve erosion of respect, like the Roberts Court) still seems to me too important to break. I still don't have an answer for t his.



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