09 January 2010

Decade of Deceit : Our Leaders and their Lies

A catalog of calumny:
The Decade of Deceit

Lie: a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive.
By Sid Eschenbach / The Rag Blog / January 9, 2010

Bookended by two lies, George Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism” and Barack Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In,” the first decade of the 21st century should go down in history as the decade when we all, collectively and individually, occasionally from the left and generally from the right, repeatedly admired the emperor’s new clothes -- only to discover that, like the original meme, there was no reality behind the image.

It’s difficult to say whether this decade is remarkable for the scope and impact of the frauds perpetrated, or whether we are simply more aware of them, as the onions of information are peeled open by modern technologies that allow greater access and quicker diffusion than ever before. Whichever it is, the lies told in this first decade of the 21st century are whoppers, among which the following deserve special mention.

  • The lie of fair elections
How many deceptive or completely false ideologies, facts and policies did we fall for in the decade? Well, it started with the election of George Bush and the electoral coup perpetrated in Florida. Not only did he not win the election, but we were forced to accept an argument that it could and should be settled by the Supreme Court instead of an actual recount -- a body that has acknowledged that it had no jurisdiction in the matter -- and the decision of which is so fraught with problems that it is legally barred from being used in any other case in the future. Yet we, the American people, accepted the deceit.

Alan Dershowitz stated at the time:
“[T]he decision in the Florida election case may be ranked as the single most corrupt decision in Supreme Court history, because it is the only one that I know of where the majority justices decided as they did because of the personal identity and political affiliation of the litigants. This was cheating, and a violation of the judicial oath.”
Well after the election, in 2001, a New York Times study showed that, had a full recount been adopted and had over-votes been tallied correctly in all of Florida, Gore would have picked up an additional 8,285 votes, far more than needed to win Florida and thus the national election.

With the ascension to the presidency of George Bush we should have learned that the United States is not Reagan’s “beacon on the hill” -- an idealized country as we imagined it to be and were taught that it was in our high school civics classes.

Rather, and under certain conditions, that the fight for succession of power in the American republic is as crude and ruthless as in any other, determined not through the “free and fair” elections upon which we have constructed our virtuous self-image, but by the machinations of political and economic elites. It is an ugly truth, but those are the real colors of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Cartoon by Mr. Fish / truthdig.

  • The lie of ‘compassionate conservatism’
Yes, one might ask, what exactly would that be? The idea that these two historically contradictory concepts could be pandered to a public desperate to believe, to see the emperor’s new clothes where there are none, is silly enough in it’s own right. However, the real deceit was greater, for “compassionate conservatism” was in reality nothing more but a great deal less than the old concept of “noblesse oblige,” the idea that society’s most privileged would, out of their sense of entitled wealth, be kind and compassionate to those less fortunate and well beneath them.

Further, it’s part and parcel of another fantasy peddled to the gullible public, that “free” market economics better helped the poor than government social intervention. The reality is that it served and serves to sanctify greed, as it’s used as a prop for the selfish, a salve for those who only think of themselves in their frantic rush for riches -- allowing them to believe that the battle for their personal success in fact helps the least among us.

In the same way, this salve allowed the political leadership to talk of helping the poor and socially handicapped, without really doing anything to help them at all other than pass the ball to the private sector to resolve more competently than, they asserted, government could.

Former President Clinton summed it up well when he said that the message of compassionate conservatism was: "I want to help you. I really do. But you know, I just can't.” All up, it comprised the basis for George Bush’s appeal to a religious, conservative and ignorant poor while simultaneously energizing the richest, strongest, best educated and most privileged members of society -- politically a very potent and entirely fraudulent marriage of conceptual and social opposites.

Like Professor Dershowitz did in the previous example, this deception was also pointed out -- but to no avail, given the public’s manifest desire to believe in the emperor’s new clothes. One commentator, Joe Conason, wrote in 2003 that "so far, being a 'compassionate conservative' appears to mean nothing very different from being a hardhearted, stingy, old-fashioned conservative.”

All this, of course, fell on the deaf ears of a faithful religious public that, in furtherance of their need to feel good about themselves, believed that there actually was such a thing as “compassionate conservatism” and that they were a part of it. The historical facts, unfortunately, have proven otherwise.

The fact that it was a transparently duplicitous political ploy used to convert the selfish rich and the religious poor to the Republican cause was demonstrated in 2001, when after the events of September the 11, it was rarely if ever mentioned.

  • The lie of Iraq
“I cannot tell you everything that we know. But what I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling. What you will see is an accumulation of facts and disturbing patterns of behavior. The facts on Iraq's behavior demonstrate that Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort -- no effort -- to disarm as required by the international community. Indeed, the facts and Iraq's behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.”
With these words describing the supposed “facts” about Iraq from (a later repentant) Secretary of State Colin Powell began the aggressive selling of a particularly heinous lie, the justification to invade a nation as a necessary and moral act.

It is the ultimate irony that a combination of fear and ego drove Saddam Hussein to facilitate this crime through his own perfidy, hiding the fact that he didn’t possess any weapons of mass destruction at all, that he was not nearly as powerful as he wanted others to believe -- and thus wasn’t particularly more or less dangerous than any other unstable megalomaniac in any part of the world.

This fact, however, doesn’t dismiss a simple and core truth -- recently admitted by then British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- that had WMD not been available as an argument to justify invasion, he simply would have “deployed different arguments” to justify an inevitable, pre-arranged and concerted military action.

This statement, the absolute height of arrogance and cynicism, is proof of what has been alleged from the beginning of this entire tragic endeavor; that lying and deceiving the people is a legitimate tactic because the ends justify the means: that getting rid of the Hussein regime was more important than the truth itself.

Unfortunately, Powell’s words were not the last, but among the first in a long parade of lies told to justify and explain the Iraq War:
  • “We believe that Saddam has reconstituted nuclear weapons,”
  • “Saddam supports and protects Al Qaida,”
  • “We will be greeted as liberators,”
  • “It will be paid for out of Iraqi oil monies,”
  • “It will only cost $50-$60 billion dollars,”
  • “Waterboarding is not torture,”
  • “The United States does not torture,”
  • “People in Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent,”
  • “Major combat operations are over.”
All these and many more lies were told -- so many over so long a time that it became standard and accepted operating procedure to lie to the people “for their own good.” Never in modern American history have so many blatant lies been told in the name of national security, lies generally accepted as truth by an easily manipulated public, lies that lead to over 100,000 civilian Iraqi deaths, 35,000 American dead and wounded, and an expense to the nation of what will probably end up exceeding $2.5 trillion dollars -- and lies that are still defended today by those guilty of telling them.

  • The lie of post-industrial prosperity
“Free trade lifts all boats,” said the Friedmanites. “Free trade (NAFTA) will cause a giant sucking sound as jobs go south,” said Ross Perot. Twenty years later, it’s clear that the second was the truth and the first was the lie, used again and again by the ersatz American capitalists as they moved manufacturing en masse to countries that provide relatively unprotected and low cost labor.

While they did this, Americans continued to believe the lie that it was just the “bad” jobs that were being outsourced, leaving the “high-paying creative jobs” to the highly paid and presumptively creative American workforce.

Of course, this is a fantasy closely related to any sightings of the emperor’s new clothes, and in the end whether the CEO’s believed it or not is irrelevant. The simple fact is that there is no known economic state of post-industrial prosperity. No nation has ever achieved it, and none ever will.

This lie is possibly more pernicious than others of the decade because, unlike the others, it’s entirely possible that the American political, financial and manufacturing leadership don’t really know that they’re telling a whopper. It’s unclear as to whether they understand the end result of a policy that exports jobs and imports goods, just as it’s unclear whether the industrialized nations will wake up before they are overwhelmed and marginalized by the newly industrialized states of China and India.

What is clear, however, is that until the U.S. and to a lesser degree the E.U. change their trade policies to protect their industrial sectors, there can and will be no real “recovery” based upon the jobs held by a large middle class.

Strangely, if this industrial “readjustment” continues and overcapacity continues to be an economic fact of life (and there is absolutely nothing emerging out of the Obama administration to suggest that it won’t), it matters little to the national economy whether the goods are imported or not, and the reason for this is efficiency.

In the face of the advantages enjoyed by goods produced in cheap labor and low regulatory environments, all surviving businesses in the high labor high regulatory environments will have one thing in common -- extraordinarily high efficiencies. What that means to employment is that where there once were 100 workers, now there are 10 or less producing the same amount or more goods.

Normally, of course, increases in productivity are accompanied by increases in wages. But not in this case. Wages will stay flat OR FALL while productivity increases -- not a particularly salubrious outcome for the industrialized nations. The reason for this, of course, is that in the absence of a policy that might level the playing fields between rich, industrialized and regulated economies and poor, developing and un-regulated economies demand it.

Unfortunately, given the wholesale adoption of the free trade lie, that is the best possible outcome for the industrialized nations -- flat to sinking wages combined with high unemployment for the foreseeable future.

The Corporate Egregore: the corporation as legal entity. Image from Nowarchy.

  • The lie of free speech
At the core of all good lies is a kernel of truth, and the “truth” at the nexus of money and “free speech” has that element in spades. In a nation that treats corporations as individuals and gives them the same rights as individual citizens, the ability of corporations and groups of corporations to dominate the context, process, and outcomes of political discourse is unfettered. That is because of the legal “truth” -- the fact that we consider their corporate rights as “individuals” to be equal to the rights of individual persons.

This dangerous conflation, of course, gives them an unrivaled advantage over real, human “individuals,” simply due to the huge financial advantages they enjoy. If we continue to ignore this problem, continue not to remedy this structural flaw that lies at the very heart of the American political and legal system, this abuse of the right to “free speech” will continue to distort, debase and corrupt the legislative system designed over 225 years ago by the founding fathers.

The recent health care debate is just the latest in a long line of corporate shaped policy outcomes paid for “fair and square” by donations from corporations to the men and women who write law in the halls of American democracy. The lie at the heart of the argument, of course, is that corporations are individuals and should enjoy the same rights of individuals -- including the right of “free speech.”

In decision after decision, most recently in 2007 (Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc.), the courts have upheld corporate rights to participate in the political process based upon their first amendment rights -- a canard at best, a farce at worst -- but it is that legal obstacle that has, to date, successfully hobbled real campaign reform.

Among similar fantasies sold to a credulous public, the idea that restrictions on corporate financial intervention in the political process somehow threaten the foundations of the citizen’s right to free speech is as silly as the argument that banning automatic weapons is the first step to disarming the citizenry -- but that is indeed the argument that is made, and with, at least in public, a straight face.

The healthcare debate may not have settled the debate over healthcare, but it should have settled any serious debate over who writes legislation in the modern version of the Great American Experiment, and it is not the legislator nor the citizen, but rather the best lobbyists that corporate “free speech” money can buy.

Art by R.S. Janes/ LTSaloon.

  • The lie of family values
It’s more than coincidental that those who preach most loudly about moral virtue are not only the most “virtue” challenged, but also have built into their system of beliefs a very convenient catch-all when they are found in their tawdry affairs: confession and redemption. Hypocrisy in any form is worthy of contempt, but to be able to “fall from grace” and find “redemption and forgiveness” so easily is the absolute nadir of disgusting irony.

President Clinton never made a case that he was a paragon of virtue, and yet his transgression was fodder for four years of “investigation” and then impeachment. Of course, those who pursued his scalp most vigorously always said “It’s not about the sex,” when, of course, it always was.

A short list of these hypocrites would include Newt Gingrich, Jim Bakker, Mark Foley, Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, Bob Allen, Glen Murphy Jr., David Vitter, Helen Chenoweth, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, some 20 odd bishops and cardinals of the Catholic Church, Jimmy Swaggart and some two dozen other major evangelical figures -- all men who lied as they preached, creating one more false narrative among many others in the decade of deceit. The recent (second) divorce of Carl Rove, long an advocate for “traditional marriage” and family values, is just more of the same duplicity, the “do as I say not as I do” talk show nonsense for which he is appropriately nicknamed "The Architect.”

One of the most valuable cultural values that emerged out of the Enlightenment is a value that was and is at the heart of Western Civilizations greatness: the belief that we all ultimately had to answer before our protestant god for our human errors. Whether one is religious or not, from a sociological point of view it’s easy to see the virtue of this belief, as -- unlike with the Catholics (through confession and forgiveness) -- it became much harder to say one thing and practice another.

Hypocrisy was controlled. One did what one said one believed and would do. Integrity became a virtue -- and it is this virtue that we are in the process of collectively losing, a fact demonstrated by the parade of hypocritical “family values” politicians spouting “family values” while they practice another kind of value altogether.

  • The lie of financial security
A popular television commercial used to promote a Wall Street business with the slogan, “We make money the old fashioned way -- we earn it!” Unfortunately, no one really knew how right they were, as it turned out that the “new fashioned way” was to create money out of thin air, through financial sleight of hand.

The recent near catastrophic collapse of the entire financial superstructure upon which the planet as a whole depends is nothing less than the logical outcome of the real world application of Milton Friedman economics. Mr. Friedman could not conceive of good government, legitimate taxation, or necessary regulations. On the other hand, he could not believe that the “market” could fail, that businesses could act against their own long-term interests, or that the efficient market hypothesis was wrong. Unfortunately, it turns out he was wrong on all counts, and September of 2008 proves the case.

Beyond the big time “legal” hustles of financial “blind’em with bullshit” wizardry, -- the “legitimate” public scams of making governments pay you off to the tune of billion --, the decade also played host to some of the greatest and many of the lesser con men in the world of “private investment.”

Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford are just at the top of a pile of multi-billion dollar scam artists who preyed upon those desperate to be counted among the rich and famous, willing to entrust obvious liars with hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for a few percent more on their “investments.”

In their case, the credulous paid for their own credulity. Unfortunately, the damage was not limited to just those individuals who had “skin in the game,” because society as a whole sustained a solid body blow, a strike to the heart of a social system based, in its ultimate expression, on trust.

When we stop trusting, we stop lending. When we stop trusting, we stop investing. We stop working to “get ahead” because it’s all seen as a sham -- there is no ahead, but rather merely a series of chimeras created by a system built on deception -- and this is not any way to run an economy. It remains to be seen if we have learned anything from this latest discovery that the financial wizard’s new clothes are no more credible than the emperor’s new clothes, but only time will tell. One thing is sure: when the citizenry stop believing in both their economic and their political systems, it’s serious and something serious will happen as a result.

Graphic by Mike Rosulek / mikero.com.

  • The lie of change we can believe in
Due to the realization by a great many people of the truth of the forgoing, a societal thirst for change emerged that came to be embodied by a senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. He was swept into power on the strength of a promise, that real change could be affected in the political, economic and social fabric of the American society. Unfortunately, this too is a lie.

This is a most interesting lie because it’s not like all the others, lies told in full knowledge of their value to deceive. The lie of “Change We Can Believe In” was not delivered to be a lie -- it just turned out that way. In the process, it turned up a greater lie yet: that fundamental change through electoral outcomes is possible.

The healthcare battle stands as testament to the impossibility of significant change from electoral outcomes. The paralysis of government is all too easily achieved by those opposed to change. A transformative president’s demonstrable inability to change the quality and the outcomes of national dialogues in what was once the great American Experiment, the first government of the people, by the people and for the people, uncovers a startling truth: that what has become an American Empire has become so massive that the laws of political and economic inertia cannot be either quickly or easily overcome -- even by a popular president pursuing policy changes backed by the majority of the people.

That may, as many argue, be the ultimate virtue of good governance; it’s inability to be easily or quickly swayed by individuals or groups, however strong. Stability, even for all the wrong reasons, can be seen as a virtue. However, the laws of evolution within nature are immutable: biology teaches us that for species to survive they must change, adapt… or die -- and this is surely also true for social systems. If the American socio-political and economic system is unable to right itself, to review, learn and correct the errors of the last 30 years, it will quickly cease to be the dominant planetary culture. And that is not a lie; it is a fact.

The lies told by those who have dominated the public square over the past 10 years have not only brought the world to the edge of economic chaos, but continue to promote the polices that got us to that point in the first place. It remains to be seen if we have collectively learned anything over this decade that will allow us to THINK FOR OURSELVES, to say “The emperor has no clothes,” and thus begin to restructure society so that we can actually deliver on what is promised -- not just continue to console ourselves by going along with those who want to believe what they are told, to see clothes where there are none, to accept the lies.

[Sidney Eschenbach, 61, lives and works in Guatemala. His thoughts regarding developmental economics and trade are based on decades of development work in Latin America at various levels, community, corporate and national.]

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