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WHAT TO DO WHEN A NAZI KNOCKS! Where were you in 1997? One professor was living on air: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, MAY 28, 2011

Did Carter really say that: We were intrigued by the highlighted part of Rick Perlstein’s op-ed column in praise of Hubert Humphrey:

PERLSTEIN (5/27/11): [A]t a time when other liberals were besotted with affirmative action as a strategy to undo the cruel injustices of American history, Humphrey pointed out that race-based remedies could only prove divisive when good jobs were disappearing for everyone. Liberal policy, he said, must stress ''common denominators—mutual needs, mutual wants, common hopes, the same fears.''

In 1976 he joined Representative Augustus Hawkins, a Democrat from the Watts section of Los Angeles, to introduce a bill requiring the government, especially the Federal Reserve, to keep unemployment below 3 percent—and if that failed, to provide emergency government jobs to the unemployed.

It sounds heretical now. But this newspaper endorsed it then, while 70 percent of Americans believed the government should offer jobs to everyone who wanted one. However, Jimmy Carter—a new kind of Democrat answering to a new upper-middle-class, suburban constituency, embarrassed by industrial unions and enamored with the alleged magic of the market—did not.

''Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy,'' President Carter said in his 1978 State of the Union address, a generation before Bill Clinton said almost the same thing, cementing the Democrats' ambivalent retreat from New Deal-based government activism.

Did Carter really say that? Intrigued, we looked it up.

By the way: When did Clinton “sa[y] almost the same thing?” More on these questions next week.

Special report: Any given Sunday!

EPILOGUE—WHAT TO DO WHEN A NAZI KNOCKS (permalink): In many ways, 1996 was a very bad year.

Yes, Bill Clinton won re-election, but the mainstream press corps was already starting to transfer its enmity to his vice president. (Just this month, Jonathan Chait bravely explained where this enmity led.) Meanwhile, the crackpot wars against Clinton were still going strong, election results be damned.

There also was a bit of good news: In 1996, Gene Lyons described the journalistic corruption behind the Whitewater pseudo-scandal in his book, Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater.

Predictably, there wasn’t a lot of press coverage for Lyons’ book. When you write a book attacking the press, they’ll disappear what you say every time.

(Fools for Scandal was published by Harper’s magazine, one of our great publishing entities. Harper’s promoted the book for years. Even with that kind of backing, the book got disappeared.)

Sad! We recall how pleased we were when Lyons turned up on C-Span’s Washington Journal, sharing time with conservative Ben Wattenberg in July 1996. (To watch the program, just click this.) It was hard to find coverage of Lyons at all. We were thankful for what we got.


In academe, the royals were dozing. To this day, Sissela Bok seems to have no idea about the way Lyons and Joe Conason tore apart James Stewart’s heralded but execrable book, Blood Sport, during those war-torn years (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/27/11). But then, what else is new? The press had its story lines down cold—and the professors were sleeping soundly, sometimes in France. In the process, the public was pretty much told to go hang. As far as people like Bok were concerned, they could untangle the riot of political deception all by themselves!

At this point, let’s offer an obvious observation. On a personal level, we feel quite sure that Sissela Bok is a thoroughly good, decent person. But what kind of “philosopher” is the professor? Beyond that: As a ranking academic, how has she discharged her duties as a high-ranking, near-royal citizen?

For years, we’ve been asking a basic question: Where have the professors been as our political discourse has become more and more illogical, distorted, bizarre? Bok’s peculiar review of James Stewart’s new book brought all those questions to mind.

Let’s return to the very bad years when the crackpots were chasing Bill Clinton around—when the coming attacks against Candidate Gore were starting to take their form. What was Bok pondering during those years, when she should have been knee-deep in these matters? To consider the general worthlessness of the rest home once known as academe, consider the radio interview Bok did in the fall of 1997.

Ever since 1978, Bok had been the nation’s go-to academic expert on the subject of lying. You’d think she might have been intrigued by the endless claims that President Clinton, and Candidate Gore, were the world’s biggest known liars. But alas! In the modern world, our ranking professors don’t dirty their hands with such matters, which simply stink of the-things-in-themselves. Instead, Bok was off on some very thin clouds, discussing some vacuous “theory.”

What were professors thinking about in the late 1990s? What is the stuff of “philosophical” work? Why did so few of these lofty beings intervene in the nation’s political wars? On October 26, 1997, Bok did a 30-minute radio interview with philosophy professor Hugh LaFollette, host of the weekly program, “Ideas and Issues,” on WETS-FM. To listen to the full session, click here. We thought you should see the things Bok was thinking about as the war against Clinton rolled on, as the war against Gore was starting.

Sissela Bok is an expert on lying! She’s also a world academic royal—by birth, by marriage, by reputation. About ten minutes into her radio session, LaFollette asked this question:

LAFOLLETTE (10/26/97): Would this be fair to say, that you are not an absolutist, that is, you do not believe that lying is always wrong? On the other hand, what you do believe is that we lie far more often than is justified? Is that a fair assumption?

Lying isn’t always wrong? Was LaFollette trying to stump her?

Bok went on to explain her non-absolutist views. In the process, she showed us the soul of the academic elite which has relentlessly failed to serve the public in the past thirty years. Lying isn’t always wrong? As Bok began to explain her stance, she noted one type of exception:

BOK (continuing directly): Yes, I think that is a fair assumption. I would argue that there are some exceptional categories when saying what you don’t mean in order to mislead other people may be justified, but that they are very narrow categories and the whole impulse when we are in the perspective of the person thinking about telling a lie, the whole impulse is to expand those categories and to think up new excuses for ourselves and to imagine that we’re not doing very much harm.

One kind of case that I took up is the same case that many philosophers have, most famously Immanuel Kant, discussed, namely: What do you say to someone who is coming to kill, intending to kill your friend? Your friend is hiding in your house, or you know where your friend is, and here comes the person who is going to try to kill him. And it’s an innocent person, your friend, also. In our days, it might be a Nazi—people often have used that example—looking, hunting down Jewish families and you are hiding them in your house. So should you lie to them? Kant said, even then, you must not do it.

My argument and probably most peoples’ argument is yes, you can, in those, under those circumstances. It is too important to protect the person, to protect the innocent human life and therefore a lie would be all right.

Interesting! According to Bok’s “argument,” it’s OK to lie to a Nazi who wants to murder your friend! But for minds of high academic distinction, such matters will rarely be that simple. As Bok continues, we see the problem under which we’ve all struggled for lo, these many years.

Yes, she really said this:

BOK (continuing directly): However, I would say also that if you could do something else, if you could bore the person to tears, for instance, so that he forgot altogether that he was hunting a victim that would obviously be better. I believe also actually that Kant, being so brilliant and so articulate, would probably have detained this supposed murderer for so long that the friend would have managed to escape and hide. Kant wouldn’t have had to lie. But I do feel that most of us are not up to that kind of, that kind of delay tactic.

So that is one exception.

According to Bok, it would be better to bore the Nazi to tears, making him “forget altogether” that he was trying to murder your friend. (Kant himself could have done this with ease! His friend could have escaped, then hidden!) Question: Might this Nazi become suspicious when you behave in such oddball ways? When you stage a puppet show, let’s say, in lieu of a simple denial? Not to the lofty minds of academe—the lofty minds who avoided the political wars which have, by now, produced death and destruction in many parts of the world.

We know—you think we invented that passage. You think that no one has ever said such strikingly silly-bill things. But you can hear the whole interview here.

Now, for Bok’s second exception:

BOK (continuing directly): Another exception that isn’t really an exception is when you’re involved in circumstances where everybody indeed is saying what is not true, let’s say some kind of card game, like Bluff. Well of course it’s all right to lie in that kind of game, or poker or something like that, because that’s what’s expected, those are the rules. And I see no problem about that. However, I don’t really think that what’s going on there is deceptive in the same way.

It’s OK to lie to a murderous Nazi—and when you’re playing cards! Of course, our modern professors think long and hard. Bok had a third exemption:

BOK (continuing directly): A third category might be when there is literally nothing at stake at all, a truly white lie, so-called. But that I think is actually rather hard to find, and there I think very strongly that we have to try to use our imagination to think of things to say that are not deceptive. People often say, “Well, what are you supposed to say when your spouse comes and asks, ‘How do you like my necktie or my hat?’ ” And there I think there are all kinds of humorous things you can say, or imaginative things. You don’t have to lie at all. That example is often brought up.

So there are those three, then. The first being some extreme crisis, the second being some practice or game in which it is accepted that you lie or try to mislead the other people, and the third, a totally innocent, innocuous white lie. All of them however I think are such that, all those three categories are such that it is very important to lean over backward not to believe that you are in one of them.

“All those three categories are such that it is very important to lean over backward not to believe that you are in one of them!” Question: When’s the last time you mistakenly thought a Nazi was trying to murder your friend?

At any rate, there you have it. You can lie about your husband’s necktie—although it’s better to say something humorous. You can lie while playing cards, or if a Nazi is trying to murder someone. Bok was focused on these concepts as the wars against Clinton rolled on—as voters were told about Bill Clinton’s murders, as a rioting mainstream press corps recited a blizzard of lies.

Beyond that, those thoughts help explain why Sissela Bok was asked to review James Stewart’s new book about perjury. In the crackpot world in which you live, such thoughts establish lofty professors as high-ranking experts on truth.

Can we talk?

No Nazis knocked at the Harvard president’s home while Sissela Bok was in residence. But Jerry Falwell knocked on everyone’s door a few years later, telling wild tales about Bill Clinton’s murders. The New York Times landed on Bok’s front steps, including Jeff Gerth’s front-page reports inventing the Whitewater “scandal.” Dan Burton shot pumpkins in the back yard, showing that Vince Foster surely must have been killed.

And James Stewart wrote a garbage-can book, Blood Sport, which Lyons and Conason were soon debunking. Soon after, Rich and Dowd started making up lies and pretending that Gore had said them.

Where was Bok while these doors were knocked on? When she reviewed Stewart’s new book, she praised his bungled 1996 book about the Clintons even as she noted the comically awful blunders in his latest offering. She seemed to have no earthly idea that there was a history here.

For years, we’ve complained about the moral absence of the nation’s professors. Where are the logicians, we’ve asked, noting the comically bollixed logic of our ludicrous public debates.

Bok is a high academic royal—and she’s an expert on lying. But uh-oh! Last Sunday, she showed no sign of knowing about the wars of the Clinton-Gore years. In fairness, she managed to notice Stewart’s latest damn-fool blunders. But she seemed to have no earthly idea that this had all happened before.

Where were you in 1996? How about in 1997? Lyons was trying to get whistles blown. But like the bulk of her royal class, Sissela Bok was off in the clouds, offering massively vacuous thoughts. She was living on very thin air, on massively swollen tuitions.

By now, the detachment of this fatuous class has enabled many knocks on the door. Or do we still agree to pretend that we don’t know how we got to our current mess? Do we agree to keep disappearing Fools for Scandal, and The Hunting of the President? Do we agree to keep playing it dumb about the war against Gore?

Do we agree that Blood Sport was “riveting” work? That Dowd and Rich didn’t do what they did? It’s a pretty world when we play it that way.

Many elites just keep playing that way. The professors are sleeping in France.