What I can’t figure out about some of the most prominent people on the right is this: they lie, and know they are lying, but feel they are justified in their lying. In fact, they are downright smug about it. How you can lie in public that way about public matters is beyond my comprehension (I can understand Bill Clinton, that was a private affair and should have remained so).
What, do these rightists feel they have God’s compensation to lie? Or Leo Strauss’s (at least)? Strauss, after all, did posit that there are times when the elite must lie to the masses for the good of the masses. But these lies are so pervasive and (often) so transparent that I can make no sense of it. I mean, if you lie, wouldn’t you want to make sure you wouldn’t get caught?
Let’s take the case of my favorite whipping boy, David Horowitz. What he does is no different, really, from any of the others, be they the swiftboaters or White House spokespeople. Horowitz is a smart man (many of these people are), too smart not to know the weaknesses of the “research” he presents in his books. He went to Columbia as an undergraduate and earned a Master’s at Berkeley. He has to know something about what real research is, but is satisfied with sloppy cut-and-paste in his books. Ann Coulter graduated from a top law school, so she knows, too, just what good research is. Many of the others writing and speaking the lies, doing the half-baked research (the people at the White House who presented “proof” that Saddam had WMDs among them), are highly intelligent, well-trained people. They aren’t lying by accident.
Horowitz’s recent book, The Professors: the 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America is laughable due to its distortions and sloppiness and general pretense to a genuine intellectual stance (he claims to be using a sophisticated methodology, though one not appropriate to the situation, called “prosopography,” something historians use when data is minimal—but he doesn’t use it correctly, not at all). And now, every day, it seems, more of the errors in the work are unmasked.
What perplexes me so is that Horowitz and the rest are certainly smart enough to know that they could do a better job of lying, creating fabrications so strong that it wouldn’t be like shooting fish in a barrel to knock them down. The White House, for example, had to know that their go-to-war con would be discovered (maybe not so soon—which could be why they went after Joe Wilson with such venom). After all, people would demand proof, even if the debacle in Iraq had turned out more successfully (from their point of view). Even Horowitz has the resources (read “Scaife”) to do a better job.
The only answer that I can come up with is that these people really disdain Americans, consider us stupid, for the most part. And they must feel that the ones they can’t fool are irrelevant, anyway. Abraham Lincoln said, “"You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." The right seems to feel that it’s OK to lie, then, if you fool enough of the people enough of the time. Knowing they can’t fool all the people all the time, they don’t bother to try.
And this has succeeded for quite a few years, at least twenty-five. Only of the best early examples is The Real Anita Hill, published 23 years ago and written by David Brock who, of course, has since seen the error of his ways, becoming one of the most relentless debunkers of just the type of lying he used to do through his Media Matters for America. Even back when he was a rightist, the lies were easily debunked—but they worked.
Just three years ago, Al Franken’s book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right appeared, with a complete debunking of Bill O’Reilly (among others). But the lies have kept coming, and O’Reilly still commands respectful attention from millions of Americans. If anything, the lies have increased—they were what allowed Bush to beat Kerry in 2004. In other words, the lies have worked.
Perhaps it is as simple as that. Perhaps the Horowitzes, Coulters, and the like don’t put in the work to lie well simply because they don’t have to. Enough people have been believing them for so long that it may seem a waste of time to do more than just lie boldly and without substantiation.
One of the other reasons for the outrageous lie is that those who could easily rebut them don’t take them seriously. Coulter writes on McCarthy: scholars glance at her work, recognizing immediately that it has no real scholastic value, and toss it aside. Horowitz claims (as he did last year) that the American left and radical Islam are allied (because, to his mind, they have the same goals)—and the same thing happens.
With his more recent book, however, Horowitz made a mistake: he attacked American academics where they live. The response, this time, has been to pick him apart. Almost every paragraph of the book has been thoroughly debunked, and many, many times. Go to Free Exchange on Campus for plenty of examples.
Maybe it’s lucky for us on the left that the right continues to lie. The Americans who once believed the lies believed them because they wanted to, because the lies allowed them to continue with the points of view they had adopted without having to examine the situations. I doubt many of the people who buy Horowitz’s books—or Coulter’s, or any other from the right—actually read more than a few pages of them. They are convinced already, and just the feel of the books in their hands re-affirms their beliefs. They look good, are substantial, have lots of footnotes: they are “true,” of course they are.
But the situation has changed; the lies have allowed things to happen that are, now, starting to hurt those very people, so they are beginning to open their eyes to them. An economy getting better—but only for the rich. Victory in a war—but it is still killing our children. Health care solutions—but only for drug company bottom lines. And that, as you know, is the least of it.
The mistake of continuing faith in the lie, I’m hoping, isn’t Horowitz’s alone. People all over America are waking up to the lies (witness George Bush’s abysmal poll ratings). Enough isn’t enough, any more. What worked for a time is falling apart. The lies aren’t enough; truth, as they say, will out.
So here’s my hope: that O’Reilly, Coulter, Horowitz, and the rest won’t figure this out until it is too late, until they have painted themselves into such a corner that they can’t get out at all. That nothing they say, nothing at all, will be believed.
And I think it is starting to happen.