A friend and I were discussing the sorry state of politics around the world when he reminded me of a scene from the 1967 bedroom farce A Guide for the Married Man.
In it, the character Charlie is found in bed, at home, with another woman. “Charlie, what are you doing?” his wife screams upon entering the room. “What?” he says.
“With her, there,” she replies, pointing to the naked woman in bed. At this point, Charlie and his paramour get up and quickly begin getting dressed.
Charlie’s wife continues to express outrage, while he continues to act baffled about what she’s talking about. “You know very well what I’m talking about,” his wife says. “Her.”
“Who?” he replies. At this point, “her” has dressed and has slipped out of the room. Charlie is now fully clothed and making the bed. When he finishes he goes into the living room, grabs the paper, sits down and starts reading.
“Aren’t you even ashamed of yourself?” she asks him.
“Why?” he replies.
His wife wanders back into the bedroom where everything seems normal. She begins to think maybe she imagined the whole thing. She returns to the living room and says: “Charlie, what would you like for dinner?”
While it’s a scene people might have chuckled at in 1967, it’s unlikely to seem as funny today. My friend’s point, however, was that it was akin to what is happening in our politics. Charlie’s strategy of “deny, deny, deny” is enjoying a renaissance. Brazen lying in the public realm is taking place with few, if any, consequences.
There always has been a certain amount of lying in politics, but those caught doing it were often held to account, were forced to pay a price. Then Donald Trump came along.
Mr. Trump, of course, lied repeatedly while in office, about everything from who won the last U.S. election to the size of his inauguration crowd, to awards he said he had received but hadn’t. Even when reporters pointed out his falsehoods it didn’t matter. Mr. Trump convinced many Americans that he was the one telling the truth; it was the media distributing fake news.
Politicians, especially in the Republican party, took note. Even if you got caught out in a lie it didn’t matter. There were no consequences.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is the latest example of this phenomenon. In recent months, he has played down any role Mr. Trump may have had in inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building. This was not always his view. Recently, it was reported Mr. McCarthy initially blamed the whole thing on the former president. He has denied this – despite the presence of a verified recording of him saying precisely that.
It’s the fake media, twisting his words and misrepresenting the facts, he maintains in his defence. Deny, deny, deny. Even Republicans who know Mr. McCarthy is not telling the truth also know he can get away with it. If Mr. Trump did nothing else, he helped delegitimize the media among many in his party.
We have not reached this point in Canadian politics – yet. But we should not kid ourselves about the potential of it happening here. Mr. Trump’s brash, take-no-prisoners style of politics already has a foothold here. Can the normalization of lying that he ushered in be far behind?
It is something we need to be on the lookout for because we have seen the damage that unrestrained deception in our political discourse can inflict. Our society is protected against dishonesty in so many aspects of our daily existence; there are laws against lying in court, about lying on financial documents, lying in advertising campaigns. We need to be just as protected against politicians who lie.
Some of this is the job of the media. We must be vigilant in calling out politicians who disseminate information that completely misrepresents the facts. A recent example is Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre’s video about the housing crisis, one that contained a series of statements that did not hold up to scrutiny.
It’s not just Mr. Poilievre who deserves examination, of course, it’s everyone from the prime minister on down. Lies by our public officials, regardless of how big or small, hurt us all – they eat away at our democracy and threaten the stability of our political discourse.
We have a front-row seat to what can happen when society allows lying to go unchecked. And we want no part of it in Canada.
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