Juan Williams, the “Greater Good”… It’s All Semantics

October 29th, 2010

By Dan Miller

Apparently some lies are good, and some are bad. The trick is to know which is which.

Dogs and other “less than human” critters probably don’t lie. People are different. They can and do lie, frequently. It is said that George “Cherry Tree” Washington never told a lie. If so, he must have been a disagreeable chap with few friends. “Do you think I’m fat, George?” “Yes, dear.” Polite people generally don’t say that sort of thing, even if they have to lie (or fake a coughing fit) to avoid it.

In recent years, the concept of polite lies has expanded to the increasingly vast universe of political correctness, where approved lies are encouraged and not telling them can get you fired — pronto. Politically incorrect truths are “inconsistent with [NPR’s] editorial standards and practices, and undermined [Juan Williams’] credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” Some credibility; some news analysis! Happy fund raising week! NPR and its affiliates may need it more than ever. There is no truth (probably) to any rumor that Helen Thomas has been hired to replace Williams.

No matter the absurdity of a mere opinion, it is not a lie to the extent that it does not purport to state a fact — either about what was done or said or about what the speaker thinks was said or done. It is my opinion that the honorable (but floundering) Barney Frank is no less despicable than fortunately incarcerated but equally honorable Bernie Madoff, and I can express that opinion truthfully. It may not be accurate as to Messrs. Frank and Madoff, but it is not a lie because I stated that it is merely my opinion and it is. On the other hand, if knowing for a fact that the moon is made of rock (having been there and brought back to Earth moon rock samples), Neil Armstrong were to claim to think it is made exclusively of Gorgonzola cheese, that would be a lie because it is not his opinion.

In politics, lies as to objective facts and the nature of one’s opinions concerning them are not always easily distinguishable. When Barack Obama, our incredible shrinking president, declaimed against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision during his State of the Union address on January 10, he said:

[L]ast week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. (Applause.) I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.

Citizens United, based on apparently inconvenient First Amendment prohibitions against infringement of free speech, involved a small non-profit corporation with “an annual budget of about $12 million. Most of its funds are from donations by individuals; but, in addition, it accepts a small portion of its funds from for-profit corporations.” It produced a film unfavorable to Senator Clinton to be presented during her run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination during a “blackout period” (thirty days before primaries and 60 days prior to elections). It was produced and to be distributed independently of any political party or candidate. During oral argument, the government conceded that books produced by or for unions or corporations could fall under the same prohibition as movies. It was apparently a tough concession to make.

The decision that the statutory prohibition was in violation of the First Amendment is applicable to for-profit as well as to non-profit corporations, no distinction having been made in the statute. It also opened a door for unions (which have been outspending corporations almost 3:1. Oh well). Justice Sotomayor dissented, and Attorney General Kagan presented the final oral arguments for the government.

The decision had nothing to do with contributions to political parties or candidates, and it affirmed the constitutionality of existing disclosure requirements, stating: “we find the [disclosure aspects of the] statute valid as applied to the ads for the movie and to the movie itself.” Nor did the decision upset statutory restrictions on foreign donations. It stated, among other things:

We need not reach the question whether the Government has a compelling interest in preventing foreign individuals or associations from influencing our Nation’s political process. Cf. 2 U. S. C. §441e (contribution and expenditure ban applied to “foreign national[s].”

President Obama must have known that he was being “less than candid” either about what the Supreme Court had actually done or about his understanding of it. He is, after all, a world class constitutional scholar and very bright; at least he would have us so believe. President Obama could presumably have asked his attorney general or solicitor general what the actual decision did. He did not say, “I haven’t read the Citizens United decision, so this is just based on my gut feeling that the justices who decided the case are beastly union-hating corporate shills.” Still the beat goes on.

There’s no evidence for it, but it is claimed that those dastardly corporations might even outspend unions due in part to dirty foreign money — which some unions (the SEIU and Teamsters, for example) may well themselves use for political purposes; lots more is on the way. President Obama may have opened a Pandora’s box. Mr. Justice Alito’s silent mouthing of “not true” may have been impolite, but it was well deserved and true. Perhaps he does not think that the president should just follow his heart as emphatically as some would like, rather than the laws and the Constitution.

President Obama said on April 27, 2010 that the then new Arizona immigration law was bad because:

[This] law that just passed in Arizona — which I think is a poorly conceived law … (applause) … you can try to make it really tough on people who look like they, “might be illegal immigrants.” One of the things that the law says is local officials are allowed to ask somebody who they have a suspicion might be an illegal immigrant for their papers. But you can imagine, if you are a Hispanic American in Arizona — your great-grandparents may have been there before Arizona was even a state. But now, suddenly, if you don’t have your papers and you took your kid out to get ice cream, you’re going to be harassed. That’s something that could potentially happen. That’s not the right way to go. (Applause.)

He lied, by pretending that he knew what he was talking about (there seems to be a quaint but fading assumption that presidents usually do know what they are talking about). He evidently didn’t since he grossly mischaracterized a law as to which even his attorney general two weeks later had no more to go on than “what he had heard” and had “read in the newspapers.” Yet President Obama flatly stated that it could do precisely what it prohibits.

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4 Responses to “Juan Williams, the “Greater Good”… It’s All Semantics”

  1. Tom Carter |

    I think you could leave more room for the category of statements that the speaker believes to be true but aren’t. You say that if “Neil Armstrong were to claim to think [the moon] is made exclusively of Gorgonzola cheese, that would be a lie because it is not his opinion.” Actually, it wouldn’t be a lie if it really is his opinion, it would just indicate that he’s a moron.

    Same with Obama — he probably believes some of the things he says that you believe are lies, but in reality he’s just a … well, you know.

    Like Bush and WMD in Iraq. Leftists have gone way overboard calling him a liar, but in reality he believed what he was saying, and with good reason. I knew a lot about the subject, and I believed it and said it, too. If it’s true that there were no WMD in Iraq at that time or later, then we were just wrong, not liars. And maybe we were also morons, but I won’t go that far for obvious reasons.

    Now for legitimate liars among politicians, it’s hard to best Bill “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” Clinton. Of course, that egregious lie doesn’t bother those on the left, just like they’re pretty tolerant of former KKK leaders in their midst and senators who drown young girls while pursuing a little strange.

    Fact is, politicians of left and right, most of them, are getting pretty tiresome. Many of them lie, cheat, and steal with abandon (not to mention being morons). If you haven’t voted yet, take care of that on Tuesday. Throw the rascals out!

  2. Jon Benton |

    Well said Tom, to be wrong in something you said does not make you a liar, unless you know what you are saying is not true. I would not be against tossing out all the current members of Congress and start over. Though I don’t agree with much of President Obama’s politics and ideology, he really believes he is doing the right thing and he sticks to his guns and really that is what the president should do.

    When 2012 comes we as American’s will judge his job and decide if he deserves another 4 years. I personally think he doesn’t based on the first 20 months, but that is my opinion.

    Skype – soonerdad3

  3. Dan Miller |

    Tom, I agree but only in part. As you noted, Neil Armstrong would be a moron to claim that in his opinion the moon is made solely of cheese; he is not a moron, so it would as unlikely be an accurate statement of his opinion as would its validation as his actual opinion based on an assumption that he is a moron.

    I agree that to state an honest opinion is not a lie, and whether the opinion turns out in retrospect to have been erroneous does not change that. As noted in the article,

    It is my opinion that the honorable (but floundering) Barney Frank is no less despicable than fortunately incarcerated but equally honorable Bernie Madoff, and I can express that opinion truthfully. It may not be accurate as to Messrs. Frank and Madoff, but it is not a lie because I stated that it is merely my opinion and it is.

    It may all be a matter of semantics, but then I am not anti-semantic.

  4. Tom Carter |

    Well, I’ll have to reserve judgment on whether you’re anti-semantic. I’ll let you know when I unravel the second sentence of your comment. I suspect there’s some anti-semanticism lurking in there….

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