Editors Note: For anyone who hasn’t heard of him, Stephen Colbert is the host of a faux news show on Comedy Central that grew out of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show.” He plays a parody version of Bill O'Reilly. This is quite a feat, for which Colbert has been nominated for seven Emmy Awards .... it’s a difficult job, because O’Reilly is a parody of a journalist.


Truthiness, Justice and the American Way

 

“Steal a little, and they put you in jail.
Steal a lot, and they make you king.

Bob Dylan

 

 

Our first president couldn’t tell a lie, and our sixteenth was nicknamed “Honest Abe.” I’m not gullible enough to swallow all the presidential mythology, but, at least in those days, integrity was something to which politicians aspired.

In the midst of the most depressing election in recent memory, honesty seems like a quaintly anachronistic notion. As fact and fiction become inextricably conflated, candidates and their handlers barely bother to even pretend they matter.

Stephen Colbert, Bill O’Reilly’s alter ego at Comedy Central, has coined a term that captures America’s political ethos. “Truthiness,” which Merriam-Webster cited as Word of the Year in 2006, involves something a person “knows” intuitively to be true, without data, logic, evidence, information or intellectual examination — i.e., it’s a quality of the heart, rather than the head, that defines those things we wish were true. Theologians call it “faith.”

As political parties increasingly appropriate the characteristics of religion, the vagaries of truthiness make compromise impossible, as they undergird that most-triumphalist of creeds: “We’re right, and everyone who disagrees isn’t.” An Islamic fundamentalist co-worker once explained to me how he could prove that he was going to heaven and I wasn’t: “The Koran says all infidels are damned; the Koran is true, because Allah wrote it, and we know this is true because the Koran says so.”

This circular chain of illogical truthiness works equally well if you replace “Koran,” “infidels” and “Allah” with “Bible,” “unsaved” and “Jehovah, respectively.” At its core is an empty tautology — “I believe it because I believe it” — which involves faith, but no facts.

In 1974, as Richard Nixon neared impeachment, Indiana Republican Earl Landgrebe, one of the president’s last diehard supporters, was confronted with the damning evidence that turned out to be the long-sought-for “smoking gun.” The congressman’s classic response has become the basic tenet of truthiness: “Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

At the first presidential debate of 1984, Ronald Reagan drifted off a couple times while answering the moderators’ questions, prompting speculation his age (and potential senility) could become an issue. In that otherwise hopelessly one-sided campaign, this provided his hapless opponent with what turned out to be his one brief spark of hope.

However, at the start of the second debate, Mr. Reagan managed to deliver two obviously scripted lines: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I’m not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

To this day, Reagan hagiographers speak in hushed tones of how “masterfully” his ability to recite those words “defused the age issue.” It succeeded because even the supposedly left-leaning mainstream media acquiesced in the fiction that a onetime actor’s ability to speak 23 words in the correct order rendered his previous incoherence irrelevant. No one wanted to believe our president might be a bit senile, so truthiness prevailed.

Conservatives feel the same way about Clint Eastwood’s incomprehensible rambling at the 2012 GOP convention. Clint’s rant included accusing an empty chair of thinking it was a good idea to invade Afghanistan, as if George W. Bush had never been president.

Paul Ryan’s Tampa speech was also rife with false accusations — from President Obama’s doubling the size of government to his shutting down a GM plant that closed during the Bush administration. Even some nonpartisan fact-checkers were taken aback by his blatant disregard for reality.

However, the triumph of truthiness was most clearly epitomized by the way Republicans rallied around a campaign ad that erroneously accused Obama of gutting the work requirements of Clinton-era welfare reform. GOP pollster Neil Newhouse’s rebuttal, quickly seconded by right-wing media from the “Weekly Standard” to Fox News, was classically truthy spin-doctoring: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

Once facts don’t matter, truthiness runs amok. Democrats feel free to take Mitt Romney’s comment that he “likes to fire people” out of context to enhance his image as Gordon Gecko, while GOP ad men continue disingenuously dissecting Obama’s “you didn’t build it” speech to support what conservatives already believe about him.

Romney’s 47% gaffe backfired on him because it neatly conforms with his image as a heartless, out-of-touch rich guy (Thurston Howell III with a bad attitude). On the other hand, if you don’t look too closely at the numbers, it also has that aura of truthiness about poor people the conservative base finds so heart-warming.

To turn this issue around, Romney will need to stick to his guns, which could be tough for someone even members of his own party have labeled a “flip-flopper.” Still, the lack of a consistent core of beliefs doesn’t carry the stigma it once did, because what’s most important to the Right is defeating Obama, who is, according to GOP truthiness, a socialist/communist foreigner and a radical Muslim who hates America. Truthiness requires little contact with reality.

With Obama leading in the battleground states, many pundits believe Romney will need to win the debates decisively. This could happen, because good answers are far less important than seeming presidential and getting off a few good zingers. And isn’t that what a truly truthy election is all about?


Click here to return to the Mark Drought home page.