June 11, 2007

on second thought

Now that I'm a little less angry about Giuliani's ginormous lie (partly because I'm angry about something else1), it occurs to me that this is exactly the sort of issue Plato was addressing in the Gorgias.

For those who are rusty on their Plato, the Gorgias (reproduced here, discussed here) is about rhetoric, and people who teach rhetoric. It starts out as an argument between Socrates and Gorgias about whether teachers of rhetoric are responsible for the misuse of what they teach by unscrupulous politicians. Halfway through, Gorgias, more or less defeated, hands the argument over to Callicles.

Callicles wins. Socrates gets him into a corner in which he must either accept that certain desires are more important than others, or lose his argument. Callicles tries to wiggle out of the corner, but ultimately, pinned down by Socrates, accepts all of the potentially unpleasant ramifications of his argument. Socrates objects that Callicles doesn't really think those things; Callicles feigns total sincerity. After Callicles has shown that he will say anything to win, the tone of the argument turns and Socrates is suddenly markedly less convincing.

Part of the point, we decided in that political theory seminar, was that if you are willing to say anything to win an argument, you're going to win the argument. Giuliani (like Bush and some others) seems to be literally willing to say anything to win an argument. In Giuliani's world, we had to go to war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein kicked out the UN weapons inspectors; in reality, we had to pull the UN weapons inspectors out because we wanted to go to war with Iraq. Those sentences contain many of the same words, but they are not equivalent. Giuliani is willing to say either, depending on which will be most politically useful - right now he's betting that the false version is more politically useful, and, like Callicles, insisting that it's true.

I hope we can all agree that having candidates for president say things that are blatantly false is bad, but maybe not. If we do agree, we need to put some serious thought into how we prevent such lies. One way is to change the stakes, change the incentives: Giuliani, Bush, and the others don't necessarily want to lie (they may prefer not to or they may not care), but they've made the reasonable calculation that lying will not damage them politically. So, it needs to damage them politically. Blog coverage is a start, but someone has to have the job of keeping candidates honest. Wait, didn't someone have that job? Wasn't it newspaper reporters? Right, and they're not doing it. So now we have someone to pressure other than Giuliani. I don't know how best to do that. Again, blog coverage is a start but no more. An option that has occurred to me is to write gazillions of letters every time a candidate says something that is clearly factually untrue, and ask why the paper is not reporting on it. My question, oh luminaries of the lighthouse, is what else we can do to change the stakes.

1. All right, I have to go into detail. My principal decided, in her infinite wisdom, that on Friday the entire school should watch Stomp the Yard in the auditorium. I actually don't think that's a bad idea: it's the Friday of finals week, it's a half-day, very few people are actually doing any work. However. Four of my students were working on a project (a difficult project! about exponential functions! that required my help and a graphing calculator!), and wanted to finish it instead of watching the movie. So I said they could stay in my room, that I'd help them, and that whenever they finished I'd walk them down to the auditorium. I arranged for the teacher next door to keep an eye on my students in the auditorium. And for 45 minutes, until the principal found out, we had a great time and they learned quite a bit. When the principal discovered this example of student investment in learning, she screamed at me because I was not authorized to keep them out of the assembly. Yes, you read that correctly. I got in trouble for helping students learn.

She's like a tinpot dictator of a country too small to mean anything, so she has to search high and low for things to yell at people about. Like teachers helping kids learn.

No comments: