Monday, April 18, 2011

Who Can You Trust?

Only the most naive would actually believe everything a politician said into a microphone or wrote on paper. It's pretty much axiomatic that even conservatives are liberal when it comes to the truth. But even knowing that, we still tend to assume that, at the core, there is some truth hiding there. We expect hyperbole, but most people, deep down, assume that a given statement is based on fact. We really have to believe that, don't we? Because once you lose even that little fragment of trust, what does that leave you with?

In what has become a huge media and social networking phenomenon, United States Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) stepped beyond hyperbole in a statement from the floor of the US Senate. During the last days of the budget battle, a little over a week ago, the whole budget agreement seemed to come down to the funding of Planned Parenthood. According to one source, federal money accounts for about a third of Planned Parenthood's total funding. It's an odd sticking point for the entire federal budget, since this item makes up a mere sliver of the, already tiny, slice that is discretionary spending. It would be like a married couple, budgeting for the year, in a knock-down drag-out over the purchase of single caramel latte! This is far more about social agendas than budgetary restraint. Not to mention that we already have a regularly invoked provision, the Hyde Amendment, that has restricted Federal funding for abortion services since 1976! It's so inconvenient when these 'facts' disrupt a perfectly good narrative though, isn't it?

Jon Kyl's place in this debate was immortalized when he claimed that abortions made up "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does." It's, of course, normal for a conservative to wave the red flag of abortion to rile the base, but the percentage he stated raised everyone's eyebrows. Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, put it this way. "I'd love to see that statistic checked by, uh... Anyone!" Apparently many felt this way and when CNN, MSNBC and others contacted Kyl's office to ask where the statistic had come from, the Senator's spokesman informed them that, Kyl's "remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions in taxpayer dollars, does subsidize abortions." Further investigation turned up the real statistic, which was about 3%. As Stephen Colbert put it very well, Kyl "just rounded up to the nearest 90."

Humor aside, and there was a lot of that in the days following the Senator's statement, what does this say about even the most basic filament of trust in our elected government? If he had announced that "much of what Planned Parenthood does is abortion" he would have been guilty of hyperbole. Pretty wild hyperbole, but still just exaggeration. But he didn't say that. He used a percentage that was calculated to sound like a fact. I believe that was exactly what it was- a calculated decision to say something that would make those for whom abortion is a trigger issue, gasp in horror. He lied, clearly and with every intention of misleading.

Am I naive to think that blatant lies by politicians should be shocking? Or have we just become so jaded that we are more shocked by truth? This is actually a very important issue. We don't have to believe every word of every statement, but where does it leave us, as a country, when we just assume we are being lied to all the time? Shouldn't we be outraged when it gets to this point? Even the constituency Kyl was pandering to should feel betrayed because he was obviously just manipulating them like pawns on a chess board. Or is manipulation OK as long as it seems, as far we know, to coincide with our individual beliefs?

Personally, I don't want to be lied to by politicians, whether I agree with their aims or not. Truth is the only way a democracy can function. Once lying becomes the norm, that's when the government becomes little more than an authoritarian state where the 'unwashed masses' just do what they are told. When I write something and I'm going to cite an absolute of some kind, such as a cost or percentage, I look it up. I find what seems to be a trustworthy source for the information I plan to quote. I could just make up numbers that fit my narrative, but I can't. It's not because I never lie, ever. It's because I have a certain sense of personal integrity that will not allow me to just make something up. That's what I expect from elected officials, naive though that may sound to some. This isn't pie in the sky idealism! I don't expect them to be paragons of honor and virtue, but at some point, where it really matters, I expect a basic level of personal integrity. You can lie about some personal foible and I may be disappointed, but when the lies affect thousands or millions of people who have put their trust in you, then I have no sympathy to give. It's way over used, but it's also a truism. With great power comes great responsibility. We must demand more from our government. If not, every lie uttered without repercussion adds another crack to the foundation of our democracy. To those who say I'm just gullible or naive to feel this way and that this is not how the world works, I have to ask, how long can a democracy last when the government realizes that it no longer has to tell us the truth at all?