is nothing more tragic than watching a public figure fall from grace.
Recently, the UK witnessed a spectacular. Charles Kennedy, leader
of the Liberal Democrats, the third most powerful political party
in the UK, resigned after denying and then later admitting he had
a drinking problem. Allegedly, the problem was not that he was an
alcoholic, but that, when asked about his drinking habits a few
months earlier, he had denied it, thus effectively lying. This opened
the door for accusations of dishonesty, which ensured his political
controversy surrounding Kennedy is a familiar one in politics. Remember
the attempted impeachment of Bill Clinton? The issue was not that
he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, but that he initially denied
having sexual relations with that woman.
says that governments have different rules to individuals when it
comes to honesty. From a Machiavellian perspective, one wants politicians
who can tell lies. Telling lies can, in some circumstances, protect
the interests of the State and its citizens. This distasteful truth
is offset by democracy. Democracy demands a bond of trust between
citizens and the State. You must trust your political leaders enough
to know they will lie or keep secrets, only if absolutely necessary
and to defend life. If they lie to the electorate for other reasons,
they should be held accountable.
lying is a tricky business, and a governments access to power
often means that it can shape how a lie is understood.
According to the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, a lie is a declarative
statement to another person, that one believes to be false, made
with the intention that the other person may believe that statement
to be true. In other words, lies, by definition, involve active
deception. Politicians seldom own up to any form of deception. Take,
for example, what I would call the recently invented honest
lie introduced during the Iraq war scandal. When Tony Blair
claimed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that
they posed a serious and current threat and was subsequently
proved to be wrong, he said it was the fault of the intelligence
services. He claims he believed the information presented to him
and, as such, had not lied. He sincerely, or so he says, told the
nation what he thought was true. He told a sincere lie.
is that different from the situation with Kennedy? When asked publicly
if he was an alcoholic, he said no. What we know about alcoholism
is that it is common for those afflicted to fail to recognise their
condition. In this sense, perhaps, he equally lied in all sincerity.
But is it only the sincerity of a lie that matters, and not its
consequences? The sincerity of a lie seldom matters to the victims
of it. This is undoubtedly the case for the colleagues who had to
cover for Kennedy when he was allegedly too drunk to perform his
public duties or to Iraqi civilians and allied soldiers killed as
a result of alleged misinformation.
individuals are treated differently to governments. If an individual
acts against another in preemptive self-defence, having
been misinformed about the level of threat, she or he must face
the law and pay the price. If a politician, on the other hand, causes
the death of thousands based on misinformation about the level of
threat, it is apparently entirely excusable. Unlike active deception,
incompetent deception is seemingly completely forgivable when it
comes to politicians.
one mans inability to be honest about his fondness for a tipple
is enough to topple him and cost him his political career, then
another mans failure to ensure that information used to end
the lives of thousands is accurate, no matter how sincerely he believed
it was, should be equally damning.
Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis
of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its
relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.
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