Monday, June 29, 2020

The Fallacy Of The Noble Lie

On June 15th, 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci announced to the world that he had lied about the efficacy of face masks when Covid-19 first hit the U.S. in January, 2020 and rapidly got out of control. Five months later, on May 28th, 2020, the disease had claimed over 100,000 lives. It’s also been well-documented that face masks are, indeed, effective: they prevent the majority of air particles from a cough – or just breathing or talking – from entering into the surrounding air.
Fauci’s admission was strange. He didn’t seem the least bit ashamed or chagrined or in any way caught off guard. He made his admission with the calm, self-assured sang froid of a professor lecturing on the history of the American Civil War, or the central nervous system. It was no big deal. The excuse he gave was that he and other health officials wanted to prevent the hoarding of masks – which were in short supply – and thereby helping to ensure that the medical community would have enough, the assumption being that people are too greedy and selfish to cooperate willingly on such a matter.
I found this admission shocking. Was this man so utterly lacking in self-awareness that the needless suffering and deaths he could’ve prevented by being honest about masks from the beginning? Apparently not. He looked very much like a man who was getting in an adequate amount of sleep every night. If his conscience were in any way compromised or troubled, he didn’t show it.
Equally shocking were the number of people I discovered on Facebook who supported Fauci’s specious argument. They would not be deterred. Fauci’s lie made sure there were enough masks. But, I argued, why would anyone get in a panic over a mask that was so easy to make on one’s own? Construction workers are able to make masks from a T-shirt in less than eight minutes. I saw a kid at the local grocery store who’d forgotten to wear a mask simply lift his shirt up far enough to cover his mouth and nose with one hand while he grabbed some candy with his other hand and brought it to the counter and paid for it. Mission accomplished.
Fauci’s lie, and consequent excuse, were damaging for other reasons as well. Fauci, in his role as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is a figure the nation should be able to put their trust in, particularly since there as been so much confusion and misinformation about this new virus. Trust is vital in a situation like this. People need a central authority. People need someone they can rely on for clear, honest information pertaining to an existential threat. That trust has now been considerably weakened, possibly permanently damaged. People have been finding it increasingly difficult to trust experts. The anti-vaccination movement is one example among many how science and scientists are no longer recognized as steadfast guardians of truth. They can be bought. They can be manipulated. They can be coerced and intimidated into making false claims and duplicitous distortions. The result: we’ve all slipped back into the middle ages. We live in a time of rumors and superstitions. Objective truth is totaled. Shattered beyond repair.
Fauci told what is characterized as the “noble lie.” The Noble Lie -  a myth or untruth knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony or to advance an agenda - makes its first appearance in Book III of Plato’s Republic. Socrates tells Adeimantus that in the interest of preserving harmony in the state, it may be necessary to perpetrate a “royal lie” or “needful falsehood.” He gives, as an example, the “audacious fiction” of how everyone’s character is prefabricated by God, and compares virtues to precious and not-so-precious metals. Some are made of gold, some silver, and others – “who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen” – are composed of brass and iron. Everyone fulfills a role based on their quality of metal. The fiction enforces obedience. The fiction preserves harmony in the state.
I like Socrates, but this is bullshit.
Immanuel Kant addresses the speciousness of this argument in a short essay titled “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Benevolent Motives.” Kant states that truthfulness is a human right. “Man has a right to his own truthfulness (veracitas), i.e., to the subjective truth in his own person.” Telling the truth is a duty. The broader acceptance of allowing a breach in this duty would be to nullify the binding force of all legal contracts. Chaos would ensue. If no one can be sure what is true and what is falsehood, what is accurate and what is a distortion, society becomes inoperable. Trust is the foundation of everything. “For a lie,” Kant declares, “always harms another; if not some other particular man, still it harms mankind generally, for it vitiates the source of law itself.” A lie – however well-intentioned – will invariably have unintended consequences that will have long lasting, deleterious effects. Such as the case with Fauci: his lie has nullified anything he may declare in the future, or anything another health official might state. There are no authorities people can trust. We’re on our own.
No one will know how many deaths Fauci’s lie may be responsible for, but it’s highly probable that it was in the hundreds, if not thousands. The fact of which does not seem to register on the man.
I’m not a fan of lying, but I can see its necessity as well. There are many white lies I’ve told over the years to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. White lies are convenient, but even there, you’ve got to be a little prudent. Even a seemingly harmless white lie can detonate unexpectedly into a deeply embarrassing revelation that will leave you without credibility and quite possibly do irreparable damage to a friendship.
And lies do prevent people from getting hurt. In the Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying people tell the truth with utter disregard for how one’s true feelings and perceptions may cause injury to someone. The set-up is hilarious; when screenwriter Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) goes to pick up a date  - the wealthy and beautiful Anna McDoogles, played by Jennifer Garner – Anna tells him, matter-of-factly, that she’s not attracted to him but is going out with him as a favor to his best friend, Greg Kleinshchmidt (Louis C.K.). The first lie is “invented” when Mark’s rent is due, he’s out of money, and he goes to the bank to close his account. The teller tells him the computers are down. Smelling an opportunity, Mark tells the teller that he has $800 dollars in his account, the precise amount needed to pay his rent. No problem. She gives him $800 dollars. Mark quickly realizes the great rewards and conveniences this newfound ability can achieve. This is a parallel universe where people are sublimely unaware of falsehood. There’s no prevarication. No deceit. It’s an absurdly truthful world of bruised feelings and low self-esteem. But imagine the power in being able to tell people any fiction – any fabrication or fairy tale however ludicrous – and have it be believed. You would have unlimited power – at least until everyone figured out what a lie was. And then you’d have some explaining to do. Which, of course, no one would believe.
The Invention of Lying came out in 2009, right after the debacle on Wall Street. Gervais did not elaborate on the consequences of lying to that extent. He avoided the larger political ramifications and kept his plotline tidily confined within the happier framework of a romantic comedy. It was a hypothesis assembled for laughs and a little insight into the human condition.
The threats facing humanity are now multiple. There is the very real specter of financial collapse and possibly the end of capitalism (which could lead to something good, but only after a great deal of suffering), ecological disaster, cataclysmic climate change, the rise of fascism and rioting in the streets after a black man was murdered horribly – and in broad daylight - by a Minneapolis cop. The times are apocryphal. And now, diffused throughout all this corruption like a ubiquitous death deity walking invisibly among us, we have a virus whose symptoms remain dormant for fourteen days before its victim is aware of contaminating people. That’s insidious. This is the kind of thing that emerges from the brain of a demented sci fi writer high on amphetamines and tequila.
If ever there was a time for people to put their trust in a higher authority, in panels of experts, in a consortium of sane and rational voices, it would be now. What Dr. Fauci did was far worse than trick a bank teller into giving him $800 dollars. Fauci took all of his years in science, all his work and investment of time and money, and treated it like garbage.
The psychology behind this is baffling. Why did Dr. Fauci so automatically and autocratically assume that people would horde masks and prevent the medical community from having an adequate amount? And why would anyone choose to uphold this strategy when it’s so manifestly untenable as a moral position? Are people that desperate for leadership that they make excuses for their deceits and abuses like a battered woman who continues to believe that – deep down – the drunken husband who just slammed her head against the wall truly loves her?
These are strange times. Wall Street has gone psychotic, the police have grown murderously violent and irrational, and now even our science officials have begun to treat us like kindergarten children, feeding us fairy tales rather than knowledge. Their contempt for we mortals must be colossal to have such little trust in the capacity of people to take right action when a harsh but incontrovertible truth has been revealed. But to do otherwise, even if a convenient fiction is able to preserve some semblance of stability, is to court a much worse disaster. The death of truth and the birth of endless iniquities.
It’s obvious that Covid-19 isn’t the only destructive virus out there. Our institutions have been enfeebled and killed by a contagion of lies. A virus attaches to a host cell using a set of proteins on the viral envelope to bind to receptor proteins on the target cell. A lie attaches to a host believer using a set of semi-credible fictions to bind to the receptor gullibilities in the target population and thereby use this as leverage to maneuver and achieve its goals – however well-intended or nefarious - while destroying the host. 

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