I recently heard a radio interview with Sissela Bok, philosopher, author and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Bok spoke about notions of happiness in promoting her new book, but the radio show prompted me to think back on a writing exam I had to take as part of a graduation requirement for the University of Montana. The dreaded Upper Division Writing Proficiency Assessment. Most people fail the exam the first time out, but also don’t bother to read the assessment text which is made available two weeks prior to the test.

Below is what I handwrote in the two and a half hour timed exam in response to Bok’s 1978 article entitled “Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life”. I received the highest score possible on the assessment and for a few years the essay was published online. Five years later, I feel some useful thoughts and information remain in regard to the respective rights of government and citizens as our country continually engages in debate over topics such as the effect of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, WikiLeaks and the current Congressional fight over tax cut extensions. The essay may lose a little of its strength without access to Bok’s original work, but I believe it stands on its own. Thanks for reading.

October 2005 UDWPA Exam
Author: Joshua Fisher, Junior, Social Work, University of Montana

The excerpt from Sissela Bok’s work, “Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life” raises the question of the government’s boundary between discretion and deception. While some argue that deception is a right and tool of the government and those in power, Bok argues that unrestrained power in this regard leads to corruption. Thus, the public should at least have the right to question the government and have a forum to discuss what can or should be kept from the masses. In the historical context in which the article was written and in light of events that have since occurred, it is necessary to agree with the author in inquiring into political deception, yet it is also important to discuss whether the government’s power of deception is indeed warranted.

Bok published “Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life” in 1978, a time at which government deception was a hot topic open for moral and legal debate. Just four years previous, President Nixon found himself in the midst of the Watergate scandal; he lied to the public and then resigned the Presidency. In 1976, two years prior to Bok’s article, the United States Navy revealed the results of their investigation into the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana, Cuba in 1898. This had been the seminal event in the fighting of the Spanish-American War. Although at the time the cause of the explosion was unknown it was widely believed and propagated that the Spaniards had sunk the Maine. The 1976 investigation showed that the Maine actually had exploded from spontaneous combustion in the ship’s coal bunker. A war fought nearly eight decades before the report was shown to the American public to have been fabricated, perhaps as a “noble lie,” but certainly as a “myth played on the gullibility of the ignorant” as Bok describes. Events such as Watergate and the Navy investigation into the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine were bringing the American public out of their trusting nature and gullibility.

Bok maintains that “noble lies” are the result of “gennaion,” a sense that the noble or powerful of society are both “highminded” and “wellbred.” In other words, the powerful of society viewed themselves as both qualified to lead and more intelligent than the lower classes. Bok cites both Plato and Benjamin Disraeli as examples of championing this attitude. Additionally, Bok references Arthur Sylvester, the Assistant Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, as being more blatant in his “gennaion” influenced speech, stating that the government has a right to lie, especially to save itself. While in 1978 the government’s right to lie was open for debate, it had certainly been made clear by Watergate and Nixon that the government certainly would lie, regardless of their right, in order to save itself.

It is also important to note that “gennaion” manifests in not only protective self interest, but in predatory self interest
as well. Disraeli, and his assumptions of the superior noble, is best known for being the British Prime Minister who brought India under British rule in his pursuit of imperialism. This imperialism was evident just decades later in the United States government’s involvement in the previously mentioned Spanish-American War of 1898. One has to ask, if there was no evidence that Spain attacked the U.S.S. Maine, then what motivation did the United States have in starting a war? Or perhaps more appropriately phrased, what did the noble elite stand to gain from a war at the expense of deceiving the public? The answer lies again in self-interest, and the lie that Bok presents which states that the powerful feel they have the right to determine what is best for the public and to act upon this conviction without the public’s consent. This was certainly the case of the Spanish-American War which was first “furnished” by influential newspaper moguls William Randolph Hearst of the “New York Journal” and Joseph Pulitzer of “The World” who created war propaganda against Spain in order to fuel newspaper sales. Once the gullible public had bought into the idea of“Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain,” the government quickly followed suit, appropriating $50 million dollars for war in what amounted to a war declaration. What did the government stand to gain? Their own imperialistic self-interest in the name of the public good. At the end of the war the United States had gained control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam at the expense of nearly 2,000 United States soldiers’ lives. While the government felt justified in their actions, one has to wonder how the soldiers families would have felt to know their sons died in a war that was not necessary to fight.

That situation sounds familiar as we near the year 2006. Soldiers are again being injured and killed in a war that could be seen as a concrete example of the “noble lie” and government deception. Against the threats of terrorism and a promise of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction America has again arguably entered into an imperialist mode for the sake of self interest. What is the self interest the deception is based on this time around? That is what the public wants to know. As Bok argues, from the perspective of the deceived there are no persuasive arguments for keeping the truth from us. We indeed have learned through scandals such as Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair that “much deceit for private gain masquerades as being in the public interest.” If the public is ever to trust and approve of our government again a dialogue must be opened on the subject of discretion versus deception for the public good. The longer the American public is deceived, and especially knowingly deceived, the less attachment and loyalty people will have to the country. But is this sense of “gennaion” and these “noble lies” actually a violation of our rights as citizens implicating an “unwarranted” use of power or is a public forum on the issue of deception a right that we do not have and instead need to fight for?

It is easy to view the government’s use of power, discretion and deception as unwarranted in light of most people’s view of democracy as a government “by the people, for the people.” But upon closer inspection, a government “by the people, for the people” is not necessarily protected. In fact, this common definition of democracy is not found in the Constitution, but in President Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” While the founding fathers revolted against the absolute power and “tyranny” of King George and instituted the balance of power between the executive, judicial and legislative branches as a combatant against absolute power, did they protect the right of the people to govern? With the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution and the institution of a voting and citizen supported democracy of elected officials it is easy to assume that the Founding Fathers viewed all people equally. Yet we know this is not entirely true because the only people who could vote in the late eighteenth century were white male landowners (wealthy). It seemed to be that the founding fathers also had the concept of “gennaion” ingrained in their thought. They wanted to protect the power of the people, but only in so far as those people were of elite status.

This idea of the “noble elite” and “highminded”and “wellbred” is apparent in some of the more important documents in this nation’s history. In Federalist Paper 68, James Madison makes it clear that government and other important decisions should be made by the “most capable.” As an example of protecting an important decision against the stupidity of the electorate, the “College of Electors” was created and instituted to ensure a selection of a President approved of by the “noble elite.” Known today as the Electoral College, the results of the Presidential elections today are still in the hands of 538 “electors.” While most electors follow a winner takes all format of electoral votes following the majority vote of the public, in most states the elector is legally free to cast electoral votes however they wish free of penalty or illegal charge. This allows for the possibility of the electoral college and the “noble elite” to possibly override the public’s choice for Presidency at any time. While this power has not been taken advantage of and corrupted, the possibility and right of the government still exist in this regard. But then again this loophole has not needed to be tested because there have been no Presidential candidates in modern history who had a legitimate shot of winning the election who did not also already belong to the “noble elite.” As in the past this “noble elite” is still constructed of people made noble by birth or by “training” through education. Nevertheless, it appears as if the public has indeed been duped into overestimating their rights.

Sissela Bok is correct in stating that the public should no longer stand for the bypassing of consent of the governed in order to be able to hold government leaders accountable to corruption, whether it be a “noble lie” or not. These “noble lies” have come in the form of both self-interest for protection or self-interest for gain, but it is time for the government to have the people’s interest as priority. This change can be started by calling for an open discussion of political deception, but it is important to acknowledge that although the government has acted in deception and corruption at times, that these actions are not necessarily unwarranted as the noble elite are protected by history and our own founding fathers. Instead, the public and the people need to rise up and fight for equality and representation to combat corruption. In order to make our democracy truly a government “for the people and by the people” we must fight and advocate to have our voice heard and to gain the right of consent through Constitutional change.

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