I met with my landscaper a month or so ago to talk about projects around the yard; mainly things I can do myself, but which have gotten far enough away from me as cause stress and distraction. You see, each year as winter melts into spring, I tell myself that this is the year that I’ll do all my own yard work. I’ll get my vitamin D from the sun instead of a pill, my exercise from useful work instead of a stationary bike, and I’ll save a couple of bucks in the process. Some years I have more success than others. This year was a good year. I made it through the end of June before I broke down and called Gonzalo for help. I’ve only made it this far a few times, so I’m pleased with my efforts.
I’ve relied on Gonzalo for the last seven or eight years, and there’s a specific reason why. It’s not because he’s the best. He does a good job, though he’s not perfect. It’s not because he’s the cheapest. He’s reasonably-priced, though I can get the neighborhood kids to do some of the work for cheaper. It’s not because of his customer service. He doesn’t have a receptionist, so he’s not as easy to reach as other landscapers might be. I use Gonzalo because he’s honest. To be sure, those other qualities are important. Competency, value, and service are three fundamental pillars of a successful business. But honesty is even more fundamental. It is the foundation upon which those pillars of success sit. Without it, the rest will crumble and fall.
It doesn’t matter how good you are at your job if your recommendations are always skewed to maximize your gain at my expense. I couldn’t care less how reasonably-priced you are if you don’t stand by your word and your work. It does me no good that you take my calls right away and act like my bestie if I can’t trust the words that leave your face. I will take an honest, good mechanic any day over a great but dishonest one, because the honest mechanic will tell me the truth, even if that truth means less money in his pocket. The great but dishonest mechanic will only tell me the truth so far as it doesn’t conflict with his own best interests.
My wife and I have finally arrived at a pretty good place with respect to our service providers. We have weeded through the bullshit of false smiles, broken promises, and self-interested advice to settle upon a group of people we trust. We love our dentist, our doctors, our car mechanic, our financial advisor, our carpenter, our insurance rep, our various repair professionals, and of course, Gonzalo, our landscaper. It’s taken a lot of work on our part to get here. Being an informed consumer and switching service providers until you find the right one takes time and can add stress to an already stress-filled life. But in the end, being able to work with people we trust has provided a peace of mind that has made the effort more than worth it.
There is, however, one aspect of our lives for which we have not found a service provider we can trust: our elected representatives. Simply put, the whole of the political machine makes every conceivable abuse of the truth on a daily basis, from the bent and twisted views they peddle to us (that at least start with some nugget of truth), to the outright fabrications that they hope we’ll swallow simply because they say them loudly and often. It is both sides of the aisle. It is all levels. And it is nearly universal. Even the minor cogs of the political machine are involved in the dishonesty. They might claim innocence, sidestepping the controversial with non-answers and keeping an optimistically safe distance from the overt liars. But every party-line vote, every tacit approval that their silence gives to lies of others, every knee-jerk allegiance to party over people, every promise they make to serve us while feeding at the trough of the political machine is a lie. It is daily, and it is willful.
The scary part of their behavior is that the role that we’ve allowed our elected officials to play in our lives is without a doubt more important than those of all the rest of our service providers combined. We have tasked them with running our country, providing for its security and general welfare. We’ve charged them with developing and implementing policies to address today’s challenges and to forge a brighter future. We have asked them to represent us to the world, strengthening our relationships with those who would stand by us in support, and forestalling the plans of those that would do us harm. Most importantly, we have entrusted with them the maintenance and protection of our Constitution, our rights, and our freedoms, without which we stand very little chance of protecting any of the other things we hold dear. And yet, we tolerate from our elected officials a continuous stream of dishonesty and lies, just a single one of which would get them fired from any other profession.
On one hand, I know that politics is politics. I’m not so naïve as to believe that the rampant dishonesty is going to suddenly go away, leaving us free to develop the utopian society we were always meant to have. Lying has been a part of our politics since day one and it will continue to be long after this batch of liars is through with us. In one respect, dishonesty in politics is like fighting in hockey; it’s not technically required for the execution of the job, but it seems to be an integral part of it nonetheless, and is accepted as such by both players and spectators.
On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that the bar we’ve set for our elected officials continues to get lower and lower. It used to be that a lie didn’t happen until it was caught. If the public found out that you’d done the thing you said you hadn’t, you were out. But now, in a world where everything is documented and no data ever truly dies, even the most visible of lies is somehow brushed off.
John Q Public: “You did this horrible thing.”
Mr. Politician: “No I didn’t.”
John Q Public: “We have you on video doing it! Three angles, with audio!”
Mr. Politician: “That’s not me.”
John Q Public: “It’s your video!! You provided it to us!! On national television!! Watched by 23 million people!!”
Mr. Politician: “Even if I did that thing, no one thinks it’s horrible.”
John Q Public: “Everyone thinks it’s horrible!!! Just yesterday you said that that type of thing was horrible!!! That’s on video, too!!!”
Mr. Politician: “Fake.”
I’m pretty sure that if we met Mr. Politician in any context other than political, we’d walk the other way as fast as we could. The compassionate amongst us might stop and try to get this guy some kind of help, but even those thoughtful people wouldn’t invite him into their lives. They certainly wouldn’t give him anything that could be used to hurt themselves or others, like scissors, heavy equipment, or launch codes. Yet in the context of politics, we’ve placed a whole slew of these folks in public office. “I wouldn’t trust them to feed my cat, but let’s let ‘em run the nation. Come on! It’ll be a lark!”
The thing is that we actually still seem to care about honesty. Parents still try to teach their kids not to lie. No one I’ve ever met wants to work for or with a liar (though we certainly are often required to). We can be pretty ruthless in removing from our lives anyone whose lies have hurt or taken from us. And for those of us who’ve picked one of the two sides the political machine has offered, we seem to be plenty aggrieved at the lies of the other side. So where’s the disconnect? Why do we tolerate this new low level of political honesty?
The simple answer is that we tolerate the lying because we feel that we have no other choice. And the reason that we feel that we have no other choice is because the machine has told us as much. It has promised us whatever ends our hearts desire, and sold us on the fact that only the machine can deliver these ends. It has created false boogeymen, false conflicts, and false heroes to deal with them. And it has persuaded us that all of the issues we face only ever have two sides, blue vs red, “us” versus “them”, and that blind devotion to one or the other is a suitable replacement for educated consensus. For the last twenty years, the machine has steadily eroded the concept of cooperative government, replacing it with this false all-or-nothing system that the machine says is our only option.
By accepting this false reality – that there is nothing better than what the machine offers – we have stopped holding our politicians universally accountable for their actions and words. We have stopped holding them accountable for not doing their job of governing. We have accepted that anything they do is a justifiable means to the ends which they have promised us. We have stopped asking for better, or seeking better from outside the machine. We have slipped from tolerating the imperfect civil servant to tolerating the perfectly self-serving. We have stopped taking the hard road of becoming educated and making informed decisions, choosing instead the easy road of having someone else tell us what we should think. We’ve let our support of specific people, parties, and agendas define the behaviors that are acceptable, instead of defining the specific behaviors that are acceptable, and letting those behaviors set the standards for the people we elect. We have stopped listening to each other, working together, and believing that governance lies in consensus, not domination. And we have stopped seeing the political machine for what it is; a self-serving, self-perpetuating entity whose primary goal is to maintain the power it has been slowly accumulating for the last twenty years.
Yet despite where we find ourselves, we are far from being in a hopeless situation. Yes, the machine has convinced us to turn to it as the only viable option, but we are not yet compelled to do so. We still have the choice and the free will to decide for better. And despite what the political machine thinks of us, and what we often think of each other, we’re actually a rather clever bunch of people. Once we get our heads out of our preconceived notions and let our automatic defenses drop, we can tackle pretty much any problem put to us. So yes, this where we are … but this is not where we have to stay.
Every day we have a choice as to how we live. Let’s choose to start seeing the political machine for what it is. The machine does not represent a battle of good versus evil. It does not represent our greatest, best hope for a better future. It is not our salvation, or our champion, or our friend. The machine is a self-interested entity that seeks to perpetuate its own existence. The machine’s continuity is the only goal in which it believes, and there are no moral or ethical limitations to the means it will exert to achieve that end.
Let’s choose to stop putting our faith in the faithless. The machine is a proven liar, lying to us from both sides of its mouth. It lies regularly, without remorse, and to whatever greater or lesser extent meets its needs. The machine doesn’t leave us out of the lies just because we think it’s our friend. It doesn’t lie as a last resort, when all other options are exhausted. And it certainly doesn’t reserve its lies to use only against evil, or only to further causes of good. Today it lies to us: tomorrow about us. It lies reflexively and without hesitation. And since when do we require the illuminating light of lies to expose evil for what it is, or to light our paths forward into righteousness? Since never. Liars lie. Hoping that they’ll suddenly stop, or believing that they’ll lie only for the greater good is naivete at its worst.
Let’s choose to make our own judgements and decisions. We know that the machine lies, and does so solely for its own interests. Why would we ever again take anything it tells us at face value? When was the last time you gave a chronic liar a third, fourth, or fifth chance? How ‘bout a nine- or ten-thousandth chance? Let’s choose to question everything. Let’s look for people and data sources we can actually trust, not because they echo back to us what we already think, or tell us what we want to hear, but because we have truly looked at them with a skeptical eye, and they have passed the truth test. And if we don’t have time to suss out the truth of an issue, then let’s at least resist the urge to reflexively spread or “like” what we simply don’t know to be true.
Let’s choose to make morality and ethics matter more than party or position. Let’s stop allowing the machine’s cogs to be our standard bearers. No great idea needs the support of lies. No moral and ethical cause needs immoral and unethical people to champion it. No pool from which we are supposed to choose the best of us should contain only the worst of us.
Let’s choose to make the means matter more than the ends. Let’s stop tolerating any and every horrible behavior simply because we desperately want to achieve our objective. The means and the ends are not separate things; they are intimately related. How we conduct ourselves in applying the means, directly impacts the ends and who we are when we get there. A king who burns and plunders to consolidate power ends up as a lesser king of a lesser kingdom; the end is achieved at great cost to all.
Let’s choose to hold all of our elected officials accountable for what they say and do. Let’s stop rewarding those who have taken us to this place of non-governance with reelection. Let’s call out the bad behavior wherever it occurs, and leave behind the fear that if we attempt to hold “us” accountable, we will be denounced for supporting “them.” Accountability is what drives change. If we hold all of our elected officials accountable, better will come.
None of these choices require us to change our allegiances. They don’t require us to abandon the pursuit of our ideals. They don’t require us to suddenly like that which we’ve despised for years. They do, however, require us to make conscious, considered decisions. These choices require us to take ourselves off of the machine’s autopilot of right and left, decide first the type of people we want to represent us, and then find and support those people.
We cannot completely eradicate dishonesty from politics. It’s part of the game. But if we do not choose to demand better from the people we hire to represent our interests, if we do not start raising the bar now, we will eventually arrive at a point where we are no longer able to do so.