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Thursday, September 18, 2003

On the Convenience of Making fine Distinctions

Ok, Ok, it was red rag to the bull stuff, and (no offence implied or intended) Joerg has responded to the bait. Why, he is asking, should we make the distinction between accusations of spin, and accusations of lying?

As a politician or journalist, I would not have accused the Bush admin of lying instead of hyping. But as a private citizen, I probably did.

a) Private citizens often do accuse each other of "lying" instead of "hyping". They cannot possibly avoid doing so.

b) Any exercise in "hyping" begs the question why it is being undertaken. Motives are only considered to be real if they form a consistent pattern - if they remain stable over time. You will automatically be criticized for nepotism if your judgment of merit starts to show signs of being clouded by partiality. Blix is just being nice when he says Bush
believed in his claims. Bush must also believe that what he said about Iraq is true about North Korea. A policy that is designed for a world which doesn´t exist - one in which the U.S. can continue boasting the strongest military forever - is the equivalent of what dramatist Henrik Ibsen called a "Lebenslüge", an existential lie. People are right to be
afraid of falling into such traps. So they use every available mnemonic to scare themselves away from them - which includes subsuming spin and hype under the category of lying. Only persons acting in the public sphere can be expected to spare the time needed to make the fine distinction you are calling for here.

That "Lebenslüge"-thing is what is so puzzling. What the Clintons did to themselves, Bush does to the nation. His opponents simply cannot believe the nation to deserve a leader so obviously lacking moral stature. That leads them to start accusing him of leading a minority government. They moralize because it is so hard to ridicule........In the case of Bush, ridicule would run roughly along the following line: "What could be more dangerous to the lives of our citizens than an administration that is running scared about being threatened by a country that doesn´t have WMD - while another one openly announces that it wants them and gets away with it?"

O.k., now I may look to you like an accomplished spin doctor. But I certainly didn´t demonstrate ignorance or dishonesty.

I think inadvertently we have the point here. Joerg distinguishes between the private and the public. In the private sphere we may - or may not, depending on our temperament - give vent to our spleen. In the heat of argument with our nearest and dearest we may say things we have cause to later regret (here the do you hate me? thing comes to mind - one of the major problems of the public sphere discourse in the US is that it unecessarily brings all the strong emotions of inter-personal rage into the public arena: viz the 'why do you hate America so much' stuff). The whole point about the public sphere is that it needs to try and rise above this, there needs to be what the German philosopher Habermas would call a 'speech community'. This speech community implies that you do not question the authenticity of the other's communication every second minute. That those who many of my readers may consider to be worthy of the epithet 'liar' resort to this kind of strategy, I do not doubt. It is rather like the professional foul in football, a simple tactic to disrupt the opponent's rhythmn. In the political context it distracts attention from the content to the form of the message, a distraction which can only benefit the side which has the weaker argument. That is why I think it incumbent on those who consider their arguments to be superior to those of GWB (and I have nothing, please note, against irony and ridicule, in fact they are among my favoured 'gentle' techniques), I think it incumbent on them to avoid this 'hot' zone like the plague. Basically political life should not be reduced to the level of a domestic argument, and those who place themselves in the public sphere should be expected to be able to spare the time to make the distinction. Why, in the final analysis, do we approach the other with an open hand? To show, of course, that we are not advancing armed. Why do we try to sit the parties to a dispute round a table, and why do we accuse people of spin and not of lying? Bottom line: I am sure Hans Blix is currently putting the US administration under more pressure than certain other people who are perhaps attracting more publicity of late.

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