Tuesday, January 31, 2012

When is a Lie a Lie?

Politicfact.com, the fact checking organization most cited as reliable in ascertaining the truthfulness of politician’s statements, has a rating system that covers the spectrum of truth, designating those items it surveys as True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and Pants On Fire.

Those categories are useful only because the accompanying articles spell out the details of the charges and statements made, and parses them with an eye to ferreting out the truth and error in them.

It might be analogous to sorting through bags of potatoes classifying them: All Good, Mostly Good, Half Good, Mostly Bad, All Bad, No Longer Resembles Potatoes. If one must have potatoes, and there are no bags ranked “All Good,” such a system of classification allows one to choose the level of rottenness they are willing to tolerate. But no one should fool themselves into believing any of the bags offered is “All Good.”

Likewise any statement by a politician that must be ranked anything but “True” is in fact “False”. To be fair, it should be pointed out that there are many reasons why a politician (or anyone else) would make an untrue statement. Sometimes they simply have a slip of the tongue. Or, they may have gotten poor information from advisors or other sources. Or they may be drawing a wrong conclusion from the facts as they perceive them. They may, in the heat of the battle, speak rashly and say things they would not say in a calmer moment. All of these sources of truth-shading are excusable as a price we pay for having fully human politicians.

But they are excusable only if politicians are quick to admit their errors, and willing to amend their statements to agree with the facts. If they deny that their statement is untrue, or refuse to amend it (or refuse to make amends for the damage it caused) that is inexcusable.

But by far the most sinister attack on the truth is the “planned lie;” the commercial or the repeated stump-speech line calculated to give mis-information parading as Truth. This little Blog outburst is being prompted by Politifact’s investigation of Governor Scott Walker’s ubiquitous TV ad declaring that he “eliminated a 3.6 billion deficit and did so without raising taxes.” The Politifact conclusion is that the statement is Half-true.

Which, of course, means it is half false as well. Further they conclude that the Governor can make his claim only because he used accounting procedures he criticized predecessors for using and pledged that he would not use himself.

Sorting the truth from the untruth is a bit complex and the perniciousness of such ads lies in the fact that most people won’t take the time, even with a resource like Politifact.com, to understand where the deception lies. Some want the ad to be true and therefore resist any attempt to correct the errors in it.

But whose responsibility is it to stand for truth in political advertising? I contend that the responsibility rests solely and squarely on the shoulders of the person or persons who create and benefit from the ad or who make the deceptive statement. In this case it would be Governor Walker himself. He knows that he is shading the truth, telling us that the bag has good potatoes in it but neglecting to say that it has an equal number of rotten ones; pretending that the bag he is selling us is “All Good” when in fact it is a mix of good and bad that is unworthy of any candidate who promotes himself as a morally upright person.

Governor Walker claims to be living by the principles taught him by his parents. That may be true. If so, I regret that he had such parents, and offer him my sympathies for having to endure such a benighted upbringing. But I suspect his parents – his father was a Baptist minister – upheld a standard of truth that the Governor has forsaken. He also is very proud of his achievement of Eagle Scout status. That honor, too, should beckon him back to a standard of full truthfulness even when it seems expedient to shade the facts for his political advantage.

But if the Governor – or other politicians in this coming season of half-truths – is unwilling to square with the citizens he represents, then those who know he is shading the truth (lying) need to speak out and make it known.

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