Indifference to the truth

The controversy over Mitt Romney’s first television ad — the one that shamelessly wrenched a President Obama quote from context, misleading the public — has largely come and gone. But the Romney campaign’s blatant dishonesty left a bad taste in the political world’s mouth, made worse by the campaign’s failure to come up with a coherent defense.

By way of an explanation, a top Romney operative told the NYT that the manipulation of facts in campaign commercials is fine because ads are “propaganda” and “agitprop.” Referencing Democrats, the unnamed member of the Romney campaign added, “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.”

Greg Sargent wasn’t persuaded by this.

So here you have it: The Romney camp’s standard for accuracy and fairness seems to be that there is no need for any such standard, because all ads are by definition “manipulative” and “propaganda.”

But come on: You can make an assertion or depiction designed to persuade that also happens to be … true. […]

Between this new quote and their boast that the ad’s mangling of context was strategically brilliant because it won reams of media attention, it almost seems as if Romney advisers are trying to persuade political reporters and commentators to abandon any standards they might use to judge tactics and rhetoric throughout this campaign.

I suspect this is very much a part of the Romney campaign’s strategy. Ever since the ad generated pushback, a wide variety of officials on the Romney team — including the candidate himself — have all effectively said the same thing: people shouldn’t get so hung up on what is and isn’t true.

It gets back to something we discussed a couple of weeks ago. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote a fascinating book several years ago called “On Bullshit,” drawing a distinction between b.s. and lies. The key difference is considering the truth irrelevant.

A liar makes false claims. A b.s. artist doesn’t much care what’s true or false, because facts are extraneous details that have no bearing on the person’s larger agenda. Liars care what’s true and deliberately say the opposite; b.s. artists are indifferent to what’s true and tend to see facts as inconveniences that simply get in the way.

In this case, the Republican campaign has been quite candid about it perspective on this, and has repeatedly said that the dishonest ad “worked” and was “effective” because it generated attention and an angry response.

So, Romney and his team lied. Then they got caught. Then they were pleased.

Truth, facts, evidence, reason, decency, fairness — for Romney and his team, none of this matters. It’s not that they’re considering whether to be honorable; they’ve convinced themselves that the question itself is irrelevant. Their messages to voters, after all, are “manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”

Usually, professionals are slightly embarrassed when they get caught lying, but the embarrassment is motivated by a sense of shame — the truth is good, being good is worthwhile, deliberately ignoring the truth is bad, and no one wants to be bad.

But there is no embarrassment when such moral niceties are thrown out the window.