Issue 95, Fall 2004

The Odor of Mendacity

Didn’t you notice the powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?…

 —Tennessee Williams, Cat on A Hot Tin Roof

By the time you read this, the election season will, hopefully, be behind us. It would be a mistake, however, to forget the stench that accompanied it. Presidential debates were spun before they began, arranged to prevent the exchange of ideas, regulated to restrict what was seen, and designed to foreclose confrontation and follow-up.

Politicians are aided and abetted by the mainstream media and the audience who buys in—in short, all of us. We have ceased to demand the right to unfiltered words and images or to probing questions and unedited responses.

At the same time, any foolish or mistaken comment is repeated endlessly. Thanks to technology, even 20 year old opinions are frozen in time as if issued yesterday. Who can risk voicing a controversial viewpoint, knowing it is always lurking, ready to pounce if circumstances change, or if there’s a tempting opportunity for distortion.

The problem is not just technology; it isn’t just Republicans or Democrats, independents or libertarians. The bigger problem arises from our collective failure to use the "marketplace of ideas" as intended—to explore the world of fact and opinion, and to distinguish the valid and germane from the spurious, flawed, or irrelevant.

Independent and foreign media sometimes provide an alternative vision. A recent example is BBC’s probing interview with Hamid Karzai raising important, if troublesome, issues about the fragile state of democracy in Afghanistan. Such reports in US media outlets might well be perceived as undermining US foreign policy and discouraging democracy abroad.

The charges of "aiding and abetting" have been leveled against critical reporting since 9/11/01, but the issue is no longer confined to reports about terrorism. Last Spring, for example, a bill was introduced to impose Congressional oversight on federally-funded area studies programs, like mid-east studies; some proponents argue that such federally-funded academic programs should be scrutinized for alleged anti-American bias (CN 93). However, the suggestion that higher education, no matter how funded, should be evaluated for its adherence to official policy creates a palpable threat to independent and critical thinking. The chill is in the air.

Campaign reform, as it turns out, may require more than breaking the link between political favors and financial support. Raising the quality of political debate, not just its volume, may be the only way to let some fresh air in.