Now that the wingnuts have moved on to their latest outrage of the day, let’s take a closer look at the notorious Nuremberg analogy. On reflection, I’ve come to think that it’s inappropriate — and not because it gave Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh (and Brit Hume!) one of their patented umbrage woodies. Three reasons:
First off, never violate Godwin’s Law. It’s a law for a reason.
Two, the Nuremberg trials resulted in executions. I’m opposed to state-sanctioned execution in all cases, but would certainly never advocate it merely for the crime of being a lying scumbag.
Third — and more to the point — Nuremberg was primarily about prosecution and punishment. I’m not a particularly vindictive person, and I’m not that interested in retribution. What I’m interested in is the truth: that the truth be aired; that those who have lied own up to it and be held accountable; that those who suffered as a result of the lies be allowed to tell their stories.
For these reasons, a far better analogy for what I had in mind would have been South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or perhaps what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung:
Vergangenheitsbewältigung describes the attempt to digest and analyze the past and to learn to live with the consequences of the dark chapters of such a past. The focus on learning is much in the spirit of George Santayana‘s famous quote that "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it".
All the lies and distortions about tobacco’s effects, and now those about global warming, from all the industry operatives, pseudo scientists, and unprincipled think-tank commentators … they had and have concrete effects, of course. They delayed our country’s reckoning with some very difficult problems, and every bit of delay means more suffering and death. (In the case of global warming, that suffering is farther down the causal and temporal chain, and more diffuse, but let’s never forget that it is real.)
But almost as bad as the concrete effects is the less tangible degradation of our public life, our public discourse. The campaigns of deception have had the effect of compromising or crippling institutions we rely on to inform the public. They have filled the air with a haze of information pollution. We have, in practice, been reduced to a kind of de facto postmodernism. The public is losing hold of the notion that there can be such thing as “the truth.” They’re coming to accept that there is our truth and their truth, and no way of weighing them against one another. In that atmosphere, persuasion falls by the wayside, and only the raw struggle for political power remains. Epistemology becomes ideology. That is precisely what the leadership of the modern American right wing wants.
That’s what I most resent: not the lies themselves, but the concerted effort to derogate all sources of independent, verifiable information — to derogate the very possibility of such information. The attacks on science, the attacks on the media, it’s all part of the same project.
What I want is some sort of public forum where the liars can be exposed for what they are and cast, once and for all, from polite company. It isn’t economic or legal punishment I seek but simple social opprobrium. Shame. It needs to be made clear that knowingly lying about matters of grave social concern is not OK. This is not a game.
This isn’t about everyone who fails to believe in the reality of global warming. Plenty of people have never been directly exposed to the science. A much, much smaller group has seen and processed the science and chooses to believe it’s mistaken. Let them all speak — the answer to incorrect or malicious speech is more and better speech. No one is more of a First Amendment absolutist than me. Bring on the open, good-faith debate.
I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill skeptics. I’m talking about the people who know they’re lying, or simply don’t care what the truth is. They just want to suck as much financial advantage from their current position as possible before the piper comes calling. Not being a religious believer, I can’t anticipate a hell for these folks, so I’d just as soon they eat a little crow while they’re still around.