The Machinery of Mendacity

Given a public policy debate, conservatives have decided to forgo real debate entirely -- to adopt instead a radical course: denying reality itself.

In his article "“Some Like It Hot,” Chris Mooney pinpoints a critical distinction in the battle over global warming. The think tanks, crank scientists, and pseudo-journalists who dispute climate change with the aid of millions of corporate dollars are not just arguing the economics of the problem, as they sometimes pretend. That activity, engaging in a thoughtful discussion of politics and priorities, the wisdom of one or another course of action, could be considered honorable regardless of which side one argued from. Rather, the mouthpieces are ignobly contesting the very science itself, using any tactic, any slipshod fiction, that might throw doubt into the public mind and so deflect the dictates of hard fact. In other words, given a public policy debate, conservatives have decided to forgo real debate entirely—to adopt instead a radical course: denying reality itself.

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Mooney’s article and its companion pieces on the global warming wars, by Bill McKibben and Ross Gelbspan, appear under the banner “Climate of Denial.” That banner could be stretched over other stories in this issue as well. It would certainly describe the experience of Dr. David Graham of the Food and Drug Administration (“The Side Effects of Truth”). Hired to investigate the dangers of drugs on the market, Graham was punished for doing his job too well. When he spotted the deadly effects of Vioxx, his superiors chose to muzzle the messenger instead of affronting the pharmaceutical industry.

More generally, “Climate of Denial” could serve as a title for the political times we live in. On issue after issue, this administration and this Congress continue to pursue policies that cannot stand the test of honest debate, and require a rewriting of basic facts. The dangers to the country are evident in myriad policy debacles: the illegal, expensive, and unnecessary war we were led into under false pretenses; the “reform” of Social Security based on the unfounded assertion that the program is in “crisis” (and pursued by ideologues pretending their goal is not to end it entirely); the economy plundered by fiscal improvidence; the budget busted by grand theft billed as tax relief.

The danger is graver because the negation of truth is so systematic. Dishonest accounting, willful scientific illiteracy, bowdlerized federal fact sheets, payola paid to putative journalists, “news” networks run by right-wing apparatchiks, think tanks devoted to propaganda rather than thought, the purging of intelligence gatherers and experts throughout the bureaucracy whose findings might refute the party line—this is the machinery of mendacity. Its products are not the cherry-tree lies of embarrassed schoolboys covering up their misdemeanors, but the agitprop of a political ascendancy that considers the manipulation of truth an essential tool. There’s no embarrassment in it. The same partisans who clucked loudly during their impeachment of President Clinton about the need for a government so transparent that the most private details of a president’s personal life should be open to inspection have wrapped such a dense cloak of secrecy around the current president that even the roster of his administration’s meetings is withheld from the citizenry, under the expressed claim that the White House can’t do what needs doing if the American people are allowed to know what that is. The point here is not the hypocrisy involved, though that is egregious. The point is the downgrading of truth and honesty from principles with universal meaning to partisan weapons to be sheathed or drawn as necessary. No wonder the Bush administration feels no compunction to honor the truth or seek it; it conceives truth as a tactic, valuable only insofar as it is useful against one’s enemies.

What are the ramifications for the left and the right?

For its part, much of the left has spent the months since last November (really, it has been spending years) wallowing in insecure self-inspection; the Democratic Party has invited everyone from linguists to preachers to exorcise the internal flaw that could explain its ineffectuality. Party leaders might heed the formulation of W.B. Yeats in his poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”: “For how can you compete / Being honour bred, with one / Who, were it proved he lies / Were neither shamed in his own / Nor in his neighbours’ eyes?” The Democrats need to recognize that their biggest internal problem may be their inability to size up their external one. Simply put, they have an unscrupulous antagonist.

The right faces a deeper threat. Its antagonist is fiercer than the one devouring the left, and it is indeed internal. Though it has always counted among its champions a truth-compromising cohort—read for evidence the Wall Street Journal editorial pages—the modern right was undeniably born of conviction. One of its motivating tenets, shared by both tightwad Midwestern Rotarians (feeling betrayed by FDR and LBJ) and former fellow travelers (feeling betrayed by Stalin and the ’60s), was the belief that the left had lost its senses in a festival of appeasement and softheaded idealism. The right prided itself on a mission: restoring the governance of the country to guidance by firm reality. Where does that leave them in their hour of victory? The movement born of principle has prevailed by renouncing it, and the former apostles of reality have prospered by purveying a potent mixture of wishful fantasy and outright lie. A few months ago a right-wing shill posing as a journalist, who for nearly two years had been allowed into White House press briefings, there to lob softball questions at President Bush, asked him, “How do you propose to deal with people,” referring to Democrats, “who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?” Hearing the foundational question of the neocon movement spilling from the mouth of a movement-sponsored charlatan must have sent chills up the spine of any principled conservative; the imposter was a herald. He shouted the unpleasant alarum that the American right is at a moment of extreme and self-inflicted peril.

Lastly, and speaking from the self-centeredness of our offices, what does all this mean for Mother Jones? When the crisis at the core of our nation’s political decline is a direct attack on the truth, the institution that should take the lead in confronting and correcting that danger is the press. That means us. We have been, since our founding, a reported magazine, and would rather spend our resources ferreting out the facts of a matter than spend our breath expounding opinions. In the current climate, and facing the present danger, we do not find our political orientation to be inconsistent with our devotion to fact. We’re better positioned to honor objective fact because we aren’t insulted by the charge that we’re “liberal media.” We have offered space in these pages to the dialogue about constructive course corrections that might avail the left. But we won’t respond to the political winds by calibrating our message. We have looked at the problem, and decided that the answer is not to accommodate. In upcoming issues, you, our readers, will witness our rededication to this fight, and our confidence that reality is our ally. Considering the demonstrated belief of leaders on the right that furthering their agenda requires bludgeoning any inconvenient truth, we evidently are not alone in concluding that the facts are on our side.