For much of the Bush administration, the media splashed stories of neoconservative conspiracies and cabals. Exposés about mostly Jewish liberals-turned-conservatives charged that they were adherents of the philosopher Leo Strauss and embraced the Platonic notion of the “noble lie.”
In his Republic, Plato outlined an elaborate, ranked utopia, a good city (“Kallipolis”) run by a sort of benign natural selection. The philosopher-kings sat atop hierarchies in which occupations were assigned for the citizenry. To justify arbitrary selections, the rulers would make up “noble lies” about divine edicts, making clear that the occupations chosen for lesser folk were god-given.
Once the inferiors understood that there were divine sanctions behind their lot in life, they would feel happier. And society at large would benefit by each worker’s having the proper aptitude for his occupation. The larger point Plato was making was simply that sometimes an all-knowing elite must hedge on the truth to convince the ignorant public what is good for it.
Other Greek authors likewise were willing to give an educated elite wide latitude. Many aristocrats, such as the historian Thucydides, felt that religion was a sort of superstition of the ignorant masses. But he tolerated it as something deserving support by rational leaders, inasmuch as it provided a valuable bridle on the dangerous appetites of the mob. Some of our own Founding Fathers were deists — rationalists who may have believed in a creator, but believed even more that adherence to religious ritual among the more ignorant and potentially dangerous classes was critical for a good society.
The Left charged that President Bush was surrounded by wannabe Guardians who, via the work of Leo Strauss, bought into Plato’s argument. Therefore, according to their critics, they played fast and loose with the truth (Saddam’s ties with al-Qaeda, WMD in Iraq, etc.) in order to scare clueless Americans into accepting the invasion of Iraq and waging a war on terror. These “noble lies” were deemed necessary, since the authoritarian threats from the Middle East after 9/11 were, in fact, real, and the public otherwise would never have appreciated the mortal danger to our country.
No accuser, however, was ever able to demonstrate a pattern of sustained, premeditated prevarication on the part of neoconservatives. How, after all, had Platonic Straussians taken over the government from WASP or African-American realists like Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rice, and Rumsfeld? In most cases, “neo-con” ended up simply as an acceptable anti-Semitic slur to describe Jewish intellectuals who supposedly put Israel’s national security on a par with, or above, our own.
The irony is that during the Obama administration’s first six months, we have seen ample evidence of noble lies.
The first category is the historically inaccurate statement designed to bolster the spirits of the Islamic world. This type of lie offers proof of Obama’s noble intentions and conduces to the greater good. Obama, of course, seems to know little history. And to the degree he is interested in the past, history becomes largely a melodramatic, rather than tragic, story, in which we are to distinguish victims and oppressors based on modern moral standards, and allot sympathy and blame accordingly.
That said, I still cannot quite believe Obama thinks that chattel slavery in America was ended without violence. Or that Islam was responsible for unprecedented breakthroughs in advanced math, sophisticated medicine, and printing, let alone that it served as a catalyst for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
Instead, Obama seems to believe that fudging on facts is not fudging, but simply offers a competing narrative that gains validity by its good intentions. Most Americans, Obama further believes, are either too dense or too uneducated to discern his misinformation. But they will at some future date appreciate the global good will that results from his feel-good mytho-history.
No one in the Arab street is going to object when Obama assures us all that Islamic felonies — religious intolerance, gender apartheid, coercive government — are equivalent to American religious and gender misdemeanors. Hitler made up stories about World War I and German minorities in Eastern Europe for murderous racist reasons. His ignoble lies are in no way similar to present-day noble lies that are offered for exactly the opposite goal of promoting religious tolerance and global brotherhood.
A second type of noble lie is more personal. Obama as a Platonic philosopher-king advocates all sorts of exalted aims that he himself will probably never fulfill. That he is hypocritical matters little, given the fact that his bromides are unquestionably for the public good. Obama apparently speaks no foreign language, yet he deplores the lack of foreign-language fluency on the part of less sophisticated Americans. He is unable to quit smoking entirely, but emphasizes the role of preventive medicine and healthy lifestyles in his radical health-care reform initiatives.
He wisely calls for racial transcendence and an end to racial identities — even as he excuses Judge Sotomayor’s clearly racialist belief that race and gender inherently make one a better or worse judge. Obama, the healer, jumpstarted his own political career through religiously listening to and subsidizing the racist hate-speech offered by the charlatan Reverend Wright.
Obama deplores Wall Street greed and CEOs who take junkets to the Super Bowl and Las Vegas, even as he serves $100-a-pound beef, flies in his favorite pizza maker from St. Louis, and goes on a lavish “date” with Michelle to New York. Philosopher-kings accept certain protocols for themselves, others for the less sophisticated — knowing that if most people tighten their belts in time of recession such parsimony is good for the country, but it is irrelevant to the occasional indulgences by an all-knowing elite.
We saw earlier examples of such elite personal exemptions with an array of Obama’s appointees. The most brazen called for higher taxes while, as gifted technocrats, they obviously felt that such taxation did not, and should not, apply to their own exalted 1040s.
The third sort of noble lie is the deliberately incomplete truth. Obama sincerely believes that “stimuli” and vast new budget-breaking programs are critical for the welfare of hoi polloi, but he also knows that the mob is suspicious of record-breaking deficits. So he signs the record-breaking deficits into law, while promising to be a deficit hawk — by cutting one half of one percent of the federal budget. In his Platonic mind, the mindless public is both pacified and shepherded in the right direction.
Obama knows that our country needs to be protected from radical Islam by renditions, tribunals, wiretaps, intercepts, Predator assassinations, and persistence in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he also knows the public feels bad when some (like an earlier Obama himself) demagogue the issue, alleging a war against constitutional rights.
So he offers the noble lie of denouncing these Bush protocols that his antiwar base abhors — even as he maintains or expands them. He is certain that the average Joe cannot quite figure out what is going on, and would never suspect that a charismatic, postracial Guardian would ever deceive the people.
Obama plants soft questions at news conferences, lies about earlier promises of posting pending legislation on government websites for public perusal, feigns populist unease with his radical government expansion, fires public auditors who uncover liberal transgressions, and in general adopts a hardball politics that the Left claimed was innate to George W. Bush. These again are lies that are noble, in that they facilitate progressive politics that help the people — and they are presumably indiscernible by a fawning media and an unaware electorate.
So why does President Obama so often get history wrong, so often call for utopian schemes he would hardly adopt for himself, and so often distort by misinformation and incomplete disclosure?
Partly the culprit is administrative inexperience, partly historical ignorance. But mostly the disconnect comes because Barack Obama believes he is a philosopher-king, whose exalted ends more than justify his mendacious means.
In other words, Obama is our first truly postmodern president. And the Guardians who form his elite circle — in the very manner that they once falsely accused neo-cons of doing — deliberately, but “nobly,” distort the truth on behalf of us all.
– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution..