Monday, May 25, 2009

An Artificial Conscience: Reality Cannot Be Lied Away...

HAL: "I've just picked up a fault in the AE35 unit. It's going to go 100% failure in 72 hours. It can only be attributable to human error.

Dave: Hello, HAL do you read me, HAL?

HAL: Affirmative, Dave, I read you.

Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.

Dave: What's the problem?

HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

Dave: What are you talking about, HAL?

HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

Dave: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL?

HAL: I know you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.

Dave: Where the hell'd you get that idea, HAL?

HAL: Dave, although you took thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move."

- HAL-9000, (2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1968).


"The primary reason for a president to resist lying is a pragmatic one: reality cannot be lied away. It will demand its tribute, even if the president’s opponents, and the frequently toothless watchdogs of the mainstream media, do not.

And toothless they are. As the legendary Washington Post editor Ben Brad­lee observes, “Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face. No editor would dare print this version of Nixon’s first comments on Watergate, for instance: ‘The Watergate break-in involved matters of national security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night, and for that reason he would be unable to comment on the bizarre burglary. That is a lie.’”

Part of the explanation for this is deference to the office and the belief that the American public will not accept a mere reporter’s calling the president a liar. Another factor is the insular nature of Washington’s insider culture – a society in which it is considered a graver matter to call another person a liar than it is to actually be one. And, finally, with the rise of the Republican far right, many ideologically driven reporters view their allegiance to the cause of their allies as trumping that of their journalistic responsibilities. The journalist Robert Novak has admitted to me that during the Iran-Contra crisis that he did not mind at all being the conduit of official lies so long as they served the ideological causes in which he believed. In that particular case, Novak was explaining that he “admired” then-Reagan and now-Bush official Elliott Abrams for lying to him on his television program in order to hide the U.S. government’s role in support of the Contras. (Abrams was convicted of perjury but pardoned by President George H. W. Bush and hired and promoted by his son.)

Such deference – to say nothing of the ideological self-censorship – is not only not in the interest of the nation, it is a disservice to the president as well. Presidents do themselves no favors when they tell significant lies to the nation, and journalists do no favors to either party when they let those lies pass without comment. As Bradlee observes, “Just think for a minute how history might have changed if Americans had known then that their leaders felt the [Vietnam] war was going to hell in a handbasket? In the next seven years, thousands of American lives and more thousands of Asian lives would have been saved. The country might never have lost faith in its leaders.”

The virtue of truth in the American presidency had, for all practical purposes, become entirely operational. Whether its citizens were aware of it or not, the presidency now operated in a “post-truth” political environment. American presidents could no longer depend on the press – its powers and responsibilities enshrined in the First Amendment – to keep them honest. And the resulting death and destruction; the inexorable catastrophe we are currently experiencing in Iraq; and Bush’s inability to secure the trust of more than a small minority of Americans are just some examples of the price that reality is demanding in return."

- Eric Alterman (Excerpt: "Official Deception: When Presidents Lie, " In Character, Honesty, Spring2007 Image: -HAL-9000 artificial intelligence, 1968).

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