As a lazy, dishonest person, I appreciate the value of shame. Take this blog: were it not for the literally several of you who expect a post each weekday, I would probably wake up early and excuse myself from writing almost every morning. Fortunately, I find time in the day to do that anyway, but my point is that shame is a powerful motivator—for me, at least, and I suspect for a lot of other people, too. One of the aspects of conservative orthodoxy I actually agree with is that our contemporary culture exerts dangerously low amounts of shame. I totally disagree with conservatives about where that shame should be placed; we still exert way too much shame on gay people and immigrants, for example. That’s valuable shame that could be more effectively directed elsewhere. Maybe, as Thomas Edsall suggests in the Times, we could redirect our shame at people who make obviously false and/or misleading statements to the general public. Earlier generations called such statements lies.
As part of its ongoing plan to behave as if Republicans liked him—Mitt Romney calls it his Wedding Night Strategy—the Romney campaign produced this advertisement attacking President Obama. It uses footage from a 2008 campaign speech Obama made in New Hampshire, in which he criticized John McCain for ignoring the economic concerns of ordinary Americans. As evidence for this point, Obama said, “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.'”
It’s pretty obvious from his phrasing and his multimillion-dollar campaign to convince Americans that McCain was wrong that Obama did not agree with this statement. Yet the Romney campaign edited footage of the speech to present only the moment when Obama said the words he was attacking McCain for saying. The move is similar to recording your wife saying, “It really bothers me that you never do the dishes,” editing it down to “never do the dishes” and playing it over and over for your kids. Again, such behavior is what 18th-century agrarian cultures referred to as dishonesty.
Over at Romney headquarters, however, they call it politics. A person Edsall describes as a “top operative” in the campaign defended the ad, although not on the grounds that it presented accurate information to the voting public. Instead, he argued that pretty much everybody was doing the same thing. Quote:
First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business…Ads are agitprop…Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context…All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.
Remember when I told you I had gotten a vasectomy and then, a few weeks later, you found out you were pregnant? Man, that was a successfully manipulative piece of persuasive art, wasn’t it? Second—since our operative never really got past his “first of all,”—”all ads” do not mischaracterize the explicitly stated views of people who were not involved in making them. When you see a Burger King commercial on TV, it’s a picture of a Whopper, not footage of some kids opening a Happy Meal bag to find a writhing mass of dying mice and worms. Ads are gross and manipulative, agreed, but we still expect them not to present ideas that are patently untrue.
Gail Gitcho over at Romney headquarters seems to have anticipated this objection, since she released this explanation of why the ad wasn’t really dishonest on the same day it came out. Gitcho’s argument is that 2011 Obama is doing the exact same thing 2008 Obama criticized McCain for doing. “Now, President Obama’s campaign is desperate not to talk about the economy,” she writes. “Their strategy is to wage a personal campaign—or ‘kill Romney.’ It is a campaign of distraction.”
That explanation sure contextualizes the use of a quote taken out of context, doesn’t it? It’s almost as if Gitcho and the Romney campaign knew what they were doing was wrong even as they were doing it, and that this sense of truth and falsehood was so powerful they produced an apology for the act even as they continued to prosecute it. Of course, it wasn’t powerful enough to actually prevent them from lying, but hey—at least they felt guilty about it.
What they did not feel is shame. Readers of the Times may know that Gitcho and Romney are liars, but the American public will likely give them a pass. That’s the point of the ad: you see it and you don’t know that it’s misleading. That’s the point of a lie. It’s also the point of shame. What you know you’re doing and what everyone knows you’re doing are two different matters. An apathetic public doesn’t just make bad elections. It makes liars, and a nation of liars is a bad nation. Maybe Mitt Romney can think about that next Sunday at church.