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Caner, O’Donnell, Kirk, Blumenthal

So when the Ergun Caner situation came to light I was kind of surprised at some of the reaction and how the communities that accumulated around the issue behaved. I was surprised to hear one side say Caner was a liar pure and simple, while the other side by turns suggested that Caner occasionally misspoke, occasionally exaggerated for effect in a well-understood way, but was and is basically a man of integrity etc. There were times that I thought I was hearing people use language appropriate for a political campaign, especially a campaign in which there are only two candidates to choose from and everything either side knows it knows mostly-to-exclusively through broadcast media. In some instances the model worked pretty well, especially in cases where one side or the other introduced James White as a figure in the discussion of Caner, and whether White’s relative goodness or badness was pertinent to the question of whether Caner was or wasn’t a liar, etc.

So the Caner situation sprang unbidden to mind when I recently heard American Prospect columnist [link] Paul Waldman’s recent appearance on WNYC’s On The Media [link], where he rehashed the major points of his recent article on political lying from The American Prospect [link]. The takeaway, in two bullet points, from Waldman’s article is this:

  • Lying about yourself is worse than lying about your opponent
  • Lying about personal matters is worse than lying about policy

Waldman illustrates his points with recent political examples (all from the right, since Waldman is er left-leaning; the OTM segment mentions Democrats, too, including the current Secretary of State) that I think are helpful in understanding what was so troubling about the Caner situation.

[Christine] O’Donnell appears to have generously padded her resumé, particularly in the area of her educational accomplishments, claiming to have graduated from one institution when she hadn’t and to have attended other institutions when she hadn’t (see here for more details). … But it gives us the opportunity to highlight the rules of lying in American politics and to ask whether they’re serving us well.

And later (emphasis in the original):

Look at what happened to O’Donnell’s fellow Senate candidates Mark Kirk in Illinois, who was caught inflating his military record in multiple ways, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who said at various times that he had served “in” Vietnam when really he had served “during” Vietnam. This is the kind of lie reporters find outrageous — when candidates make themselves look more heroic or accomplished than they actually are. A lie about your opponent may draw attention, but the discussion will be about whether the attack was out of line; in other words, what you did. A lie about yourself, on the other hand, will spur a discussion about who you are.

And finally:

..reporters think policy is less important than “character,” but whatever the cause, candidates can, with few exceptions, get away with murder when it comes to policy.

I don’t know what the analog to policy is in the Caner situation (Doctrine? Practice? Institutional leadership?) but the narrative line Waldman has taken here is helpful for a couple of reasons:

  1. Questions were fairly raised about Caner’s presentation of his educational background, in particular passing off an honorary degree as an earned degree, if memory serves
  2. Caner sensationalized his life experience, presenting himself as an ex-jihadi, or at bare minimum an ex-devout-Sunni who spent a fair amount of time in Turkey, when in retrospect it seems more likely he was a fairly secular Sunni who grew up in Ohio and may never have visited Turkey under any circumstances.
  3. As a result it’s fair to ask questions about who Caner is, in a way it wouldn’t have been fair if he’d simply mishandled a pat sermon illustration.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that when a preacher tells a story from the pulpit, either as an illustration or Heaven forbid the main point of a sermon, there’s a substantial difference between telling a story about say one of his children when in fact the events happened to another of his children, on the one hand, and misrepresenting important facts about himself on the other. Because preachers are public figures, and because they are accountable to their audience only in an indirect sense, we can look at them as if they were politicians running for re-election, as a kind of rough model for our interactions with them and ways in which we might be interested in their integrity and might hold them to one standard rather than another.

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