Entry from September 11, 2008

From both left and right today come righteous appeals to truth and against the mealy-mouthed media’s unwillingness to call a lie by its proper name. In the Washington Post’s blogs, Michael Kinsley asks: “Why Do Lies Prevail?” and cites as the “lie” under the Kinsleyan microscope the McCain campaign’s complaint that Barack Obama had insulted Sarah Palin with his now notorious comment about putting lipstick on a pig. “If Obama had even thought that his words would be misinterpreted as calling Palin a pig, he wouldn’t have said them,” claims Mr Kinsley. “The whole controversy is ginned up, a fraud, a lie. All obvious.” Why aren’t people saying so? “One reason,” he suggests,

is that the media have trouble calling a lie a lie, or asserting that one side is lying more than the other — even when that is objectively the case. They lean over backwards to give liars the benefit of the doubt, even when there is no doubt. Objectivity can’t be objectively measured. What can be is balance. So if the sins of both campaigns are reported as roughly equal, the media feel they are doing their job — even if this is objectively untrue.

Boy! Is that ever true! But wait a minute. How does he square that “objectively untrue” in the last sentence with the assertion only two lines previously that “Objectivity can’t be objectively measured.” Well, never mind. We can assume — can’t we? — that we all know a lie when we see one. Certainly Clifford May over at National Review Online does. There we find him complaining — quite rightly, I think — about an article in The New York Times (he saw it in the International Herald Tribune) by Michael Shenkman on the prevalence in the Arab world of various exculpatory conspiracy theories about the terror attacks of 9/11, all of which boil down to the contention that it was America itself, or Israel, or both, that brought down the twin towers. Mr May is properly annoyed that his former employers at the Times are treating such preposterous claims seriously and even, in Mr Shenkman’s article, blaming his fellow countrymen not for blowing up the towers but for not doing a better job of persuading the Arabs that they didn’t. “The demands of political correctness in the elite media being what they are,” he writes, Mr Shenkman “has not found a single source who will suggest that the prevalence of such attitudes reflects the fact that governments and media in the Middle East routinely spread anti- American and anti-Semitic slanders.

He does not note that schools in the region instill bias while neglecting critical thinking. He can’t even raise the possibility — however gently — that the persistence of such beliefs, long after the details of al-Qaeda’s plot have been made public, may reveal a pathology in the culture of the contemporary Arab Middle East. Instead, the only theory given ink is that such ideas demonstrate “the first failure in the war on terror — the inability to convince people here that the United States is, indeed, waging a campaign against terrorism, not a crusade against Muslims.” So it’s due to the inadequacies of U.S. public diplomacy that the fabled Arab Street thinks Americans incinerated fellow Americans as part of a “crusade” against them?

Outrageous. But now let me put my cards on the table. I agree with Mr May and disagree with Mr Kinsley. I am angered by people, Arabs or Americans, who claim to believe that some nefarious plot within the Bush administration or the CIA or Mossad or oil companies or right-wing fanatics was “really” behind the attack on our country, or else the cover-up of whatever was really behind it. About this I would echo Mr Kinsley’s words: “The whole controversy is ginned up, a fraud, a lie. All obvious.”

About the McCain campaign’s protest, however, I think he is mistaken. Not lying, mind you; just mistaken. I have heard the clip of Senator Obama’s speech and the roar of the crowd which greeted the word “lipstick” — something that must have been understood by them (even if not intended by Senator Obama) as an allusion to Governor Palin’s address to the Republican convention and her joke about the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull. Also lipstick, if you remember. Therefore, he is quite wrong to say that Senator McCain could not “possibly have thought that Obama was calling McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, a pig, since Obama didn’t even mention Palin.” He didn’t have to mention her. All he had to mention was “lipstick.” Could it be that Mr Kinsley is himself being — uh — disingenuous in not recognizing this?

But then, unlike either Mr Kinsley or Mr May, I reflect that my views on both these matters cannot be entirely unrelated to the fact that I am on Mr May’s side in the relevant conflict — that of America and Israel against Arab terrorism — and I am not on Mr Kinsley’s, which is the side of Barack Obama against John McCain. Could it be that “truth” and “lies” are more complicated than we give them credit for being? The liberal view, implicit in Mr Shenkman’s piece in the Times and the IHT, is that the obscurity in which “truth” may be supposed to lurk is that of the famous “grey area” between those cartoon extremes of “black” and “white” which are still so widely popular among those who are intellectually less well-endowed than our liberal elites. But here it seems that the problem is not at all of that comforting, split-the-difference sort. On the contrary, it almost begins to seem that we must be driven back upon an explanation not unlike that of the “bias” taught in Arab schools on which Mr May animadverts. It might almost seem that truth — in politics at any rate — is a function of which side you’re on.

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