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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

lying or exaggeration? « Previous | |Next »
June 20, 2003

Christopher Sheil over at Troppoarmadillo makes the following statement.

"Those pursuing WMD-Gate without making much headway would be well to remember that unquestioning support for the Howard government’s decision to involve Australia in the Iraq invasion is psychologically and emotionally compulsory for many ... as is support for much else that government of whatever persuasion does in this country."

In other words Christoper Sheil is saying drop it. You are hitting your head against a brick wall. The neo-conservative Howard has public opinion locked in. There is little point in launching a political attack on the Howard Government because Australians are happy with the outcome of the war. It was a good thing to do because the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein was bad.

But what does havign public opinion 'locked in' mean?

Consider this article by Robert Kagan from the Washington Post downloaded into The Age. Kagan says:

"There is something surreal about the charges that George Bush lied when he claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Yes, the Bush Administration may have - repeat, may have - exaggerated the extent of knowledge about what Saddam had in his WMD arsenal. But the critics' real aim is to prove that, as a New York Times reporter recently put it, "the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq may mean that there never were any in the first place".

There is justification for 'the Bush lied claim' as can be seen in this interview with Noam Chomsky. He says the Bush administration gave contradictory responses, that then implies you should not believe a word they and implies that they are lying.

Let's dump the lie claim. I'll repeat that. Bush, Howard and Blair did not lie. Why not? I concur with Ted Hinchman over at diachronic agency on this. Being contradictory does not mean we should dismiss them as lying. We live contradictions daily and when we see them in our friends we do not dismiss them. We try to interpret the contradictions so as to make sense of them. This is what we should be doing with the Bushies.

But these guys sure exaggerated. We can dump Kagan's 'may have' bit. He's being precious and coy. Why dump it? Because exageration in politics implies spin. Spin is standard operating procedure in politics. We see it, distrust it, and try to counter it. Spin is another name for rhetoric---finding ways to persuade public opinion to support the war by appealing to their emotions. These leaders and publcists thought the WMD would do the trick--- it would get the fear working over time and shift public opinion over to their side of the debate. Lets calling it playing the Hobbes card.

It didn't work. So these leaders turned to another basic notion trust, which as Tim Dunlop points out, is the key virtue in a democracy that connects governors and governed. Trust is better than Christopher Sheil's faith and belief as the fundamental relation to make sense Christopher's experience of the relationship between governors and governed.

Trust goes something like this. In a liberal democracy the people give their representatives power freely with consent and without coercion. And in accepting that power, public office holders take on a special, and kind of responsibility based on trust. The people say to the public office holders that you wield that power within boundaries set by certain principles. We will trust you with that power if you act in according to these or guidlines about what is acceptable or unacceptable, admirable or contemptible, right or wrong.

This appeal to the trust card----we are liberating the Iraqi people from oppression----worked a treat. It locked public opinion in, and ensured that a neo-conservative government would retain power. And the rhetorical exaggerations?

Ted Hinchman says that "their [Bush, Blair, Howard] strategy was perfectly intelligible and no worse than the 'spin' that we're all entirely used to and know how to interpret." Well yes. But. The Bush regime pursued realpolitik to ensure that US strategic interests in the Middle East were protected. And it did so without regard to moral or legal constraints--eg., the pre-emptive strike, the right is might and the hostility to the UN constraints on the use of US power. This realpolitik was wrapped up in the appearance of conforming to moral and legal norms. Blair and Howard tagged along for realpolitik reasons.

So why call Bush & Co out on the rhetorical game? Because they abused this trust by not addressing the antiiwar arguments, not engaging in public debate mocking the critics by calling them appeasers and supporters of oppression. By doing this they were breaking the ethos of the guidlines about what is acceptable or unacceptable in the exercise of power. So they should be made accountable for the breach of the trust in the court of public reason.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:30 PM | | Comments (2)


No Gary, I don't say drop Wmd-Gate by any stretch of the imagination. While the evidence is not yet conclusive, I suspect the government lied, and lied repeatedly and deliberately.

In my post I was attempting to contribute to the real-world landscape that stretches before those (including me) who are outraged by this extraordinary business and believe that our government should be held to full account.

In taking the case forward, however, we must appreciate that it will be a difficult and unpopular cause in many quarters, simply because the whole idea of this degree of government incompetence or evil is very unsettling for a great many of our fellow citizens, who would just prefer not to know. As the solicitor said: "You have to have faith that John Howard did what he thought was right for the country based on the information that was given to him at the time." So, why do you "have to"? The alternative is too alarming, that's why.

I take back the 'drop it' claim. I misread your text.

We probably disagree about lies v rhetoric. --but that can only be sorted through an inquiry.

As an aside I think that lies is a bad political strategy: its too black and white and gives you little room to move. Rhetoric is what politician do but to be persuasive the ornamentation of the argument needs to have a skeleton of truth.

And I would argue that lefties need to redescribe the solicitor's 'faith' as trust. Faith is religious--it is all or nothing. It has an absoluteness about it, is totally subjective, and impervious to reason. Very hard to argue with. Its designed to prevent debate and shifting your position in reposnse to what others say. Faith is rock solid.

Trust, on the other hand, is a political concept.Though it is necessary to have trust in the government of the day for liberal democracy to work that government can break that trust or we citizens can mistrust what the government is up to. Trust gives you room to move in a public debate.

Most will dismiss this as philosophical quibbles--- but the terrain that you fight on is very important. It needs to be chosen. My reaction to your comments was that you described the phenomoment very well but didnt'look at the terrain on which this is happening.