Obama’s Noble Lies
Stop worrying whether the president’s statements conform to ossified standards of truth.


Victor Davis Hanson

What is the common denominator of the Obama administration’s serial scandals — the Justice Department’s spying on AP, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, the NSA surveillance, the lies about Benghazi and the ACA — and much of the White House damage-control rhetoric? In a word: the advancement of postmodern notions of justice at the expense of traditional truth.

By the 1980s, in law schools, university social-science departments, and the humanities in general, the old relativist idea of Plato’s noble lies was given a new French facelift. Traditional morality and ethics were dismissed as arbitrary constructs, predicated on privileged notions of race, class, and gender. The new moral architecture did not rely on archaic abidance by the niceties of “truth,” which simply reinforced traditional oppressive hierarchies.

Instead, social justice by definition transcended the sham of traditional ideas of truth and falsity. The true became the advocacy of fairness, while the real lie was the reactionary adherence to a set of oppressive norms. All this was faculty-lounge fluff, but soon it filtered out into the larger culture.

In this regard, it was understandable that the New York Times characterized the president’s not telling the truth on over 20 occasions as cases of “misspeaking.” Translated, that means he lied but his lies were really true: Misspeaking means that Obama was not sensitive enough to those of us still mired in calcified definitions of true and false. The privileged still cross t’s and dot i’s; their victims have no such luxury.

Earlier, Obama himself had falsely claimed that he had never stated that Americans would not lose either their health insurance or their doctors, and would not pay more for their new coverage (e.g., “If you had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really liked that plan, what we said was you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed” [emphasis added]). But so what?

What does it matter whether Obama had never once added the qualifier “if it hasn’t changed since the law passed,” so long as he (or rather “we”?) had wanted to say it, and if saying it now enhances a progressive program? What difference does it make whether the president of the United States has lied about his earlier lies — given his consistently noble intent?

Those who object that the issue is health care, and not lies, fail to see that the two were always inseparable. Obama knowingly and serially said something that he knew was not true because he did not wish to take the trouble to explain to the American people that, yes, several million people with individual plans would lose their existing health insurance — and many of them would have to change doctors and pay more in premiums — but they would in the long term, and in theory, be better off, and in fact, in the short term, would serve the public good by subsidizing the care of the less well-off. But the president knew that many Americans would see that as a socialist stretch. He lacked the confidence that he could sell that argument politically, and so he chose not to try. Why play the reactionaries’ game?

In the postmodern world of the New York Times and Barack Obama, again, “truth” is a relative concept. For reactionaries stuck in ossified notions of absolute truth, perhaps indeed Obama did “misspeak.” But for progressives of our brave new world, Obama was all along speaking truth to power merely by using linguistic gymnastics to advance a larger good — the idea that the privileged who had managed to acquire good health insurance should at last pay more in order to cover those who in the past undeservedly had been deprived of commensurate coverage.

If ACA navigators on occasion have urged poor applicants to fudge on their eligibility, what is the big deal? Are those really lies — given that the system that reduced some Americans to poverty and the status of the uninsured is one big lie to begin with? When “regulations” are enforced about voter IDs, Obamaphones, or eligibility for disability insurance and food stamps, poor people suffer; when they are ignored, the real truth emerges and a higher justice is served.