Observations, Politics-Government.

There is "spin", and there is bearing false witness

One of the most difficult things for me is to watch politicians, governments, corporations, and organizations of all stripes, tell lies in order to persuade their intended audience to support them. This is clearly a naive reaction on my part: Why be perpetually bothered afresh by something that is pervasive and nearly universal? After all, “everybody cheats”, and the most important thing for these entities is that they survive, they prevail, or that their influence waxes rather than wanes, not that they do the “right thing”. To this question I have no pragmatic answer, except to say that I believe that honesty has more potential to make people and organizations successful, to make the world that more loving place called for by the major religions, than does the selfish manipulation that is the lie. The lie all too often gets you what you want, but at what cost to others, and at what cost to yourself?

Lies are features in classic recipes for the successful exercise of power, such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War or Machiavelli’s the Prince. These works define the mechanism of propaganda as the artful blend of truth, half-truths and lies designed to manipulate a malleable person or group into acting in the interests of the propagandist. This naked and unadorned embrace of the lie is part of the fabric of the amoral exercise of power, part of an explicit recognition that the end justifies the means.

Most of these lies emanate from the chronic “spin” or one-sided advocacy generated by these groups. They are often lies of omission, the routine evasion of salient points that might counter or weaken positions that have been taken on one subject or another. But some lies are more powerful than others; the lie that stands out above the morass of daily “spin” is one of bearing false witness, that is, a lie that is calculated to damage another or degrade another’s reputation or dignity. This type of lie graduates from base manipulation to maliciousness. In the Jewish Torah, via its inclusion in the Decalogue (note 1), the Ten Commandments written down by Moses as dictated by God, we find: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” In the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, this particular kind of lie has been elevated to the top ten commandments from God as the most pernicious of lies.

-PD-USGOV, Library of Congress

Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, Army-McCarthy hearings. Attrib: Library of Congress, PD-USGOV.


McCarthyism remains a 20th century icon of bearing false witness in the political arena. Today’s defenders of McCarthy (Yes! There are today defenders of McCarthy) argue that, based on recently available archives from Soviet-era Russia, there is evidence that indeed McCarthy was right, that indeed there were Americans who spied for Soviet Russia in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. This is correct; however, what these apologists leave out is a lot: McCarthy and the various anti-Communists who served on, for example, the House of Un-American Activities committee, rarely had specific information to act on. Most of the (small number of) spies identified in the 1990’s and 2000’s were unknown in McCarthy’s time.

McCarthy and his ilk, including two future presidents of the United States, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, accused and smeared many thousands of innocent people with little or no evidence of wrong-doing, and destroyed many careers and in some cases, lives (some were driven to suicide), in doing so. This is the fruit of bearing false witness; destroying others with lies in order to gain, in this case, political ascendancy; knowingly manipulating a highly fearful population, one very afraid of possible nuclear attack in those early post-nuclear times, into turning on their neighbors for their own protection or gain, if not just for basic security, but to remove potential rivals, or in gaining access to property once held by a now ruined rival, and so on.

These malicious acts fray the edges of the social contract so vital to civilization.



1. Torah: Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21

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