09/18/2012 01:49 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

Presidential Debates and the Culture of Expediency

The buzz about the upcoming presidential debates between Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama has made me think back to my first stint of anthropological fieldwork in West Africa. More than 35 years ago, I conducted a demographic survey to gather data on ethnicity and multilingualism in a small town in western Niger. After determining a representative sample, I interviewed 180 people over a period of two months. When I had finally completed this painstaking work, my last respondent, a shop owner named Mounkaila, asked me about my previous interview.

"How many languages did Moussa say he spoke?" he asked me.


"Hah, " he said. "I know he speaks only two languages.


So I went over to see Moussa, also a shop owner. He admitted that he spoke only two languages.

"Why did you tell me you spoke four languages?" I asked.

"What difference does it make?"

He laughed so hard his entire body shook. "How many languages did Mounkaila say he spoke?" he asked.

"Two, " I answered.

"Hah! Moussa exclaimed. "I know for certain that he speaks only one language."


So I went back to Mounkaila's shop and discovered that, indeed, he spoke only one language.

"How could you lie to me?" I asked.

Mounkaila shrugged: "What difference does it make, Monsieur Paul?"

Given this turn events I thought it prudent to check up on the other 178 interviews I had recorded. I discovered that everybody had lied to me!

What difference did it make?

In the culture of expediency, you lie to protect yourself, as in the West African case, or you lie to procure an advantage in a competitive environment. Expedient behavior, of course, is not limited to my West African example. It seems as if we in America have wandered into the boundless netherworld of expediency in which our buzzword has become "whatever."

Some my students engage in the culture of expediency. They often select courses that are "easy," meaning that minimal effort magically produces maximum results. When students learn that they have to write two or three research papers in a number of my classes, many of them drop the course, usually citing time constraints. On some occasions I discover that students buy research papers on-line and turn them in as their own work. In the culture of expediency, these on-line research paper clearinghouses do a booming business. It is an expedient way to cut corners and still perform brilliantly in the increasingly competitive classroom. The massive cheating scandal at Harvard University, of all places, is a case n point.

What difference does it make?

Expedient behavior, however, may well reach its zenith in the arena of contemporary American politics. Politicians of all persuasions, few of whom are candidates for "profiles in courage," usually take the expedient path. In their presentations and platforms, they omit, misdirect, and even lie--all to stay on message. Staying on message, they think, will garner the votes that will lead them to an all-important victory.

Although the Obama campaign engages in expedient behavior, the chutzpah of Romney-Ryan ticket has redefined the culture of expediency in America. Here are some well-known examples:

-----Unlike all presidential candidates in recent times, Governor Romney refuses to make public the last ten years of his tax returns. It is not expedient to expose financial details that the opposition might criticize. Resisting pressure even from allies in his own party, it appears that Governor Romney will remain steadfast in his refusal. What difference does it make?

-----Romney-Ryan continue to peddle the beneficence of trickle down economics even though the historical data show irrefutably that cutting taxes has not produced an economic boom--quite the contrary. And yet they keep reciting the same old mantra. What difference does it make?

-----Both Romney and Ryan have a consistent record of "fixing the truth." It has been widely reported that Ryan's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was filled with misleading information and lies. The exposure of these misleading statements, half-truths and lies hasn't seemed to bother Mr. Ryan. For his part, Governor Romney's craven reaction to the attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was factually incorrect, but gave him an opening to criticize President Obama as a sympathizer of radical Islam. Thinking that his false message was a vote winner, Governor Romney has refused to correct himself. Sounding like George W Bush on speed, he has "doubled-down" on the factually incorrect narrative of Obama as a president who "apologizes" for America. If this "made-up" narrative gets him the votes he needs, why should he care about its truthfulness?

What differences does it make?

Sadly, this list scratches the surface of a GOP alternate universe in which there is no proof of climate change, in which sustainable technologies that will secure our energy and protect our planet are mocked, in which Darwinian evolution becomes heretical, in which teaching critical thinking endangers "family values."

What difference does it make?

It makes a profound difference because in a universe in which falsehoods, half-truths and lies are pooh-poohed or given "whatever" status the universe becomes an illusory world without foundation. Indeed, the disastrous record of George W Bush's Administration is a sober reminder of the economic, political and existential ramifications of a groundless worldview.

The upcoming presidential debates will no doubt showcase politically expedient behavior, which means that viewers will be compelled to isolate a few rivulets of truth from a flood of fiction. In so doing, they might want to evaluate the debate in accordance with a wise adage from the Songhay people of the Republic of Niger:

"You cannot walk where there is no ground."