Liar is one of the most powerful words in our language. Calling someone a liar is not exactly endearing. In fact, it's probably led to more arguments, yelling, slapped faces, punched noses, duels and lawsuits -- not to mention the occasional war -- than any other reason in history. Being called a liar or accused of lying used to be a grievous insult, and being caught in a lie brought many public careers to a screeching halt.
Not anymore. I can't recall the exact date and time, but somehow lying has become OK, especially in politics and government. Telling a whopper in political debates or discussion over national policy is acceptable. A United States Senator can stand on the floor of the Senate, tell a bald-faced lie and it's okeydokey. Congressional leaders can hold endless news conferences to lie their heads off and it's just exercising strong leadership. Candidates for the highest offices in the nation can tell whopper after whopper and no one seems to take offense.
They get away with it for three reasons: media cowardice, party loyalty and low expectations.
How often do you hear a reporter -- not a talking head, but an actual news reporter -- question the veracity of a public official's statement to their face? When have you seen a journalist with the stones to take issue with some totally fallacious utterance: "Excuse me, Senator, but doesn't the record show that...?" "But Congresswoman, didn't you actually vote against...?" "Doesn't every single public opinion survey on Earth show overwhelmingly that what the American people really want is...?" Can't remember one? Neither can I.
A lot of lies are told to stir the pot of partisan loyalty, either to fire up the base, or sometimes for the opposite reason: to keep them temporarily tranquilized so that they don't rise up like a swarm of hornets and sting anyone who happens to be close. This is done in the certain knowledge that many people will believe the most outrageous lies because they want to believe them, because the lies are congruent with what they already accept.
Unfortunately, another characteristic of what passes for political dialog these days is borrowed from Joseph Goebbels. Tell the lie, and keep telling it. Even when you know you're wrong, keep telling it. Even when you're proved wrong, keep telling it.
The third reason our national political dialog has degenerated into a contest of ideological chants and incantations is that a large proportion of the population doesn't expect politicians to tell the truth. This is nothing new. People have written off politicians as liars since the infant days of the Republic. Nevertheless, it's still a bit disheartening to admit that we simply don't demand better from the people we elect to public office.
How do we get out of this mess? How do we improve the system? Beyond all the obvious pronouncements about a better informed electorate and political leaders willing to put their responsibility to govern before gaining or holding power, it's largely a matter of keeping the game honest. But, the government sure can't be the referee.
Perhaps the news media could band together and form one huge political fact-check organization, modeled after the Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org, or the St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact.com. Both are nonpartisan, authoritative and a gift from God. The problem is that you kind of have to be looking for them to find them.
But we need a process that's mandatory, staffed by professionals who take a single and solemn vow to uphold the truth -- sort of "truth monks." Every political ad or statement would have to be submitted to the truth monks for a fact check. Those that passed could display a fact-check seal of approval. Those that didn't would not be included in coverage by the media, or at least, they'd be conspicuous by their lack of the seal. During political and Congressional debates on national issues, like health care in 2009, the future of Social Security and Medicare last year and increasing the debt ceiling this year, the truth monks would evaluate all the arguments offered and determine their accuracy. Of course, this could only be effective in elevating the national dialog if the truth monks had the power to politically excommunicate anyone who just flat refused to tell the truth.
But until someone creates an order of truth monks, we're just going to have to wait until the public gets sick and tired of systemic dishonesty and begins to demand more from our leaders. No lie.