Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.
~ Mark Twain
It is always amusing to observe members of the political establishment — or any other unholy alliance of scoundrels — scurrying for cover like roaches when a light is suddenly shone upon them. For many months, the Internet, foreign news sources, and a handful of American journalists, have provided sufficient evidence of material wrongdoing in the Bush administration to force the political establishment into a damage-control mode. In an effort to prevent the ship-of-state from sinking, its owners began throwing overboard the least-valued freight. Lewis u201CScooteru201D Libby was the first over the side.
Libby’s indictment on charges of perjury, making false statements, and obstruction of justice has given a false sense of hope that the Bush administration’s lies, duplicity, corruption, and crimes against humanity, are about to get a more formal public airing. The idea that the established order has any interest in ferreting out the deeper truths of Washington criminality fails to understand the nature of politics. No more wrongs are to be acknowledged by state authorities than are necessary to maintain or restore public confidence in the system.
Just as an ant colony will, when endangered, rescue and protect its reproductive center, the queen, so too does the political establishment insist upon protecting the image and machinery of the state as its primary concern. Anything that diminishes respect for the state apparatus or its purposes weakens the popular sanction upon which all political power ultimately rests.
Defenders of statism will undertake any action and against as many people as necessary to safeguard the basic structure of the state. Even the figureheads atop the totem pole may be sacrificed if need be. The Nixons, Clintons, and Bushes are all fungible, each capable of replacing one another. This is a principal reason that elections always come down to a choice between standardized, indistinguishable candidates; and why, no matter who you vote for, the political establishment always gets elected. This is also why you have heard so little objection from the Democrats to the Bush administration’s depraved policies and moral transgressions: they don’t want to do or say anything that would denigrate the system they hope to control one day.
The Washington poker game has begun, and the state system has anted with u201CScooteru201D Libby, in hopes that public criticism of this administration will be satisfied with a low-stakes game. But disapproval of governmental practices may insist upon deeper inquiries: perhaps into authorship of the Niger yellowcake forgeries; or into the events preceding 9/11; or into the identity or purposes that were insistent upon war with Iraq. Such questions may raise the stakes far beyond the charges now faced by Mr. Libby, arising from the relatively innocuous offense of Valerie Plame’s outing.
The media has made numerous allusions to Nixon’s Watergate fiasco, reminding the public of the alleged offense known as a u201Ccover-up.u201D But what gets politicians and government officials into trouble is not the covering up of their misdeeds, but their failure to do so. It is the failure to hide or disguise official wrongdoing that brings the state into disrepute by allowing evidence of political dishonesty to become public knowledge, thus weakening popular sentiments about the allegedly noble, public-serving purposes of political systems. The sanctity of the state apparatus itself must be protected. The threat of u201Ccover-upu201D is, for government functionaries, akin to the warnings airline passengers encounter about making jokes regarding bombs.
It is at this point that memories from one’s high-school civics class are stirred, and the question gets asked: why can’t truthfulness prevail in politics? Why do lies, deceit, and cover-ups have to dominate political systems? Why can’t the system save itself so much difficulty and embarrassment by being forthright in every thing that it does?
The question answers itself: because all politics is grounded in lies and distortions of reality. We have been conditioned to believe that governments are necessary to protect our lives, property, and liberties, and yet it is our lives, property, and liberties that are under constant attack by the state from its very beginnings. The state confiscates our property through taxation and eminent domain; restricts our liberties through Byzantine networks of regulations; and kills us through the wars that aggrandize its powers. Every government is a racket that allows those with access to its coercive powers to foster their interests at the expense of others. The state is able to accomplish these purposes only through a pyramid of the most absurd lies taught us in government schools and reinforced through the operant conditioning of the media.
Truthfulness in politics would destroy the system! This is why so many members of the war party label as u201Ctreasonousu201D the acts of telling the truth about the war in Iraq.
The state’s war against truth has been assisted by various means: classifying embarrassing information as u201Ctop secretu201D and redacting much of what is made public; holding u201Cclosed sessionsu201D of Congress; secret courts whose decisions are kept secret; and outright censorship are among the better-known tactics. The occasional honest government employee who might be tempted to publicize political transgressions (i.e., the u201Cwhistlebloweru201D) can often be dissuaded by threats of reassignment from Washington, D.C., to field offices in Williston, North Dakota, or Winnemucca, Nevada.
But when all of these efforts to filter truth out of the minds of people fail, and the egregious wrongs of the state become common knowledge, you can be assured that one or more people will be offered up as a sacrificial scapegoat to atone for the sins of the system. It is an act of purification known to our earliest ancestors who would sacrifice a child to appease angry gods.
This is not to suggest that the person offered as a scapegoat is necessarily innocent of wrongdoing. In this age of empirical evidence and due process, it would be a terrible blunder for the state to try to make scapegoats out of innocent men and women. This is why using the Iraqi people as scapegoats for 9/11 has proven so offensive to decent people everywhere.
Even the post-World War II u201CNuremberg trialsu201D served the cathartic purpose of cleansing the German state for having committed horrible crimes against human beings. The German officials who were convicted were hardly innocent of the systematic butchery in which they participated on behalf of a government that was, itself, using Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other minority groups as scapegoats for the post-World War I plight of Germany.
Underlying the rage for justice that energized these trials was the same political motivation at work beneath the surface of modern war-crimes trials: the need to protect the sacred image of the state. The political system will not long survive if the state is seen as being capable of the wholesale dehumanization, torture, and butchery that ended in the deaths of 200,000,000 people in the century just ended. Far better — from the state’s perspective — that such atrocities be explained away as the acts of depraved madmen.
And so, the scapegoating has begun. Mr. Libby may well be proven to be guilty of the charges against him but, like the charges leveled against Bill Clinton in his impeachment, they are de minimis in contrast with the greater wrongs practiced by the current administration. If — like lies about dress stains — Americans are satisfied that u201CScooter’su201D alleged perjuries go to the heart of the iniquities of the present regime, the state will recover relatively unscathed from all of this. As H.L. Mencken so aptly expressed it: u201CNo one in this world, so far as I know . . . has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.u201D
But perhaps hope can be drawn from even this narrow a bill of particulars. If perjury — knowingly false statements made under oath — is to become a sufficient offense with which to charge even presidents, it may serve the public interest to require politicians and government officials to make all of their public pronouncements under oath. Any statement made without the taking of such an oath would be presumed to be a lie. Those who knowingly made false statements under oath (e.g., about weapons of mass destruction, yellowcake purchases, or purposes for going to war) would be charged with perjury and face prison time under the same mandatory sentencing guidelines that now send teenagers to prison for smoking marijuana. If it’s good enough for u201CScooteru201D it ought to be good enough for his bosses!
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.