Why honesty and ethics should matter

100 years ago when I was a collegiate debater, I didn’t really think that speaking style and charisma should matter because I was ‘right’ (i.e., I had the best evidence to support my position). I was firmly committed to this belief because dammit, I’d sat through my philosophy classes, read The Republic  by Plato, and believed in the pursuit of knowledge and ‘truths’ (i.e., verifiable facts).

Here’s the trouble with placing too much providence on being right and not enough on being persuasive — we live in a world with a lot of competing messages. So, when my coach asked me, “Would you rather be right and keep losing debate rounds or would you like to start winning?” I was like, “fuck, this sucks” because he annoyingly correct. My interest in being competitive made me see a new ‘truth’ — having the right information on your side doesn’t matter if no one believes you. That’s a rotten pill to swallow, but it makes a lot of sense. Once I realized that resistance was truly futile, well… let’s just say that my debate record improved and the trophies piled up.

So, as I abandoned my overly rigid interest in merely being right both because I hated losing debate rounds and because I was growing up enough to realize the absolutist positions that Plato advocated were equally undesirable (seriously, Gold, Silver, and Bronze people… leave the cave dude, just leave the cave) because they just didn’t make sense in the real world.  About that time, I was introduced to Jean Baudrillard who made the argument that our day-t0-day world was no more real than Disneyland… that both were just inventions of humans that the reasons why we go to work, live the lives that we do, and make the choices that we make are because we all agree to the rules of the game.

I thought that I had become one with the game of selling the right message to the right audience at the right time — hell, it’s what I study, what I do professionally, and what I sell in my classroom. But I just can’t get past this whole ‘truthiness’ thing. Now, let’s make a distinction here — I don’t believe that there is one way to view the world. That’s one of the bonuses of not being dogmatic and not believing in “one true” anything — people can reason from the information and come to different and equally legitimate conclusions. But this is what’s been driving me crazy in the Fox News, G.W. Bush, anti-intellectualism (i.e., the “Golly, if s/he is someone that I could have a beer with, that’s who I should vote into office” approach to life), bullshit era that we’re living in — it’s not that I am hearing people who simply disagree with the conclusions about life and government (e.g., Rick Santorum), it’s that I’m seeing people willing to say anything to get into office, to get their next promotion, or to just “be polite” even if it’s not true.

I get that the stakes are high and if you feel like you’re right that you’re going to try to win the game, but at what cost? This can’t be a perversion of utilitarianism, where all that matters are the ends because if we travel down a bullshit road, that’s what we have when we get to the end of it, so we get to where we’re going, but we can’t enjoy it because we stink. To me, this is what has happened to the Republican party. President Bush was elected, in part, due to the swift boat campaign during the 2004 election — an attack that was discredited by almost everyone. Yet, that seemed to open the flood gates for ‘facts’ themselves to be open to debate in the modern era. We saw an explosion of lies about then Candidate Obama emerge in 2008 — ranging from his status as a ‘natural born citizen’ (and let’s face it, the crazy train that rode was unbelievable as there were bullshit explanations for everything including the birth announcement… that it had been placed just to cover up that he was born out of the US) to his willingness to support terrorism. I mean these got so bad that an unfortunate Senator McCain had to stop his own rally to (honorably) defend that Obama was a patriot and an honorable man.

But the crazy kept going with conspiracies about Obama trying to brain wash our children because he wanted to give a ‘welcome back to school’ address in 2009, that the Democrats were trying to implement death panels to kill grandma with the health care reform, and it grew into a movement known as the Tea Party — whose supporters came from frustrated Americans hurting in the economic crash, but whose big lie was its purpose. This wasn’t a grassroots party like the popular mythology liked to say, this was a party developed funded and promoted by the incredibly wealthy Koch brothers and until his ranting became too crazy, front-manned by Glenn Beck. Yet, time and again, their assertions have been based in lies and they prey upon the same chronically misinformed demographic of Americans that watch Fox News and can’t separate fact from opinion.

Now we come to this year’s presidential campaign and what I cannot believe is that candidate Romney’s campaign seems to be based in lies and gross misrepresentations of reality. This is the point that I started this blog with because I could not believe what I saw in watching the first debate.  And then last night as I watched the second debate, fact checking and reading the fact check report, here’s my basic conclusion — telling the truth needs to matter to Americans. I’m not making the same argument that I made when I was 20 — that charisma and style shouldn’t matter, but that it matters whether we’re considering a leader who is willing to try anything to win.

Sure, every politician is going to cherry pick information — duh, it’s called presenting yourself in the best possible light. That’s not what I’m talking about — I’m talking about the reality that almost every substantive claim that Romney makes is another pile of bullshit on our road to the election. Whether or not his policy goals are “right”, whether or not anyone likes him, whether or not people are unhappy with President Obama, none of that should matter because we fundamentally cannot elect a man who is willing to say anything just to win. Mr. Romney is not a stupid man — quite the opposite and that is even more damning. This isn’t Sarah Palin who frankly didn’t have the background, the ability, or the preparation to be on a national political stage — this is a man who’s well-educated, highly successful in very complex fields, and has a heck of a resume behind him. He is neither naive nor stupid. Yet, in most of his campaign ads, substantive arguments in the debates, and political speeches bases his assertions on information that is simply not credible.

Mr. Romney is betting that enough of the American public is too ill-informed, too apathetic, too frustrated, or just plain too stupid to know that he’s greasing the wheels of his campaign with bullshit. Yet, based on our elections in 2004 and 2010 he’s got good reason to believe it could work. That’s what’s tough to reconcile… it’s not that Romney represents style over substance because most of the time President Obama is just darned elegant. It’s not that Romney actually represents the conservative right — hell, they know he doesn’t (but they’re just going on the premise that he isn’t Obama). So, it comes down to the people in the middle and whether they are willing to hold their nose to vote against Obama because Mr. Romney is no one that we should vote for — not because I disagree with his politics, but because I don’t think that we can allow someone in the White House whose support for his case can be disproved in a 30 second Google search.

Who do we want to be as a people? This time, the question isn’t about whether we want a world that ‘traditional’ conservatives support — one focused on low taxes, low government intervention, high private sector etc…. nor is it a question about whether we want a world that ‘traditional’ liberals support — one with a strong safety net, strong public sector in addition to private sector, etc. This time the question really is are we willing to be a people who will vote FOR a candidate whose primary goal is winning, not leading; a candidate who will change his arguments depending on what he thinks will be what ‘people’ want to hear; a candidate whose honest reflection on the American people is that 47% of us aren’t worth his time; and a candidate who is simply not ethical in his advocacy? Because ultimately, we’re voting for the person and not their policies because the policies change because of circumstances and events.

President Obama — even though people may not like his policies — is a fundamentally good man — he is the American dream personified. Mr. Romney may be a good family man and I don’t doubt that he also cares most of the time, but I just think that he’s too willing to hold his nose and do what gets him what he wants.

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