Kelly Denton-Borhaug Politics

Living in a World Built on All-American Lies

Disinformation has triumphed in our all-American world, the most notable being the lies that sparked our "forever wars." Is there any room left for moral courage in this context?
George W. Bush appears via satellite at the 2008 Republican National Convention. [Tom LeGro / PBS NewsHour]

By Kelly Denton-Borhaug | TomDispatch

Recent episodes of purposeful and accidental truth-telling brought to my mind the latest verbal lapse by George W. Bush, the president who hustled this country into war in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks. He clearly hadn’t planned to make a public confession about his own warmongering in Iraq when he gave a speech in Texas this spring. Still, asked to decry Russian president Vladimir Putin’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine, Bush inadvertently and all too truthfully placed his own presidential war-making in exactly the same boat. The words spilled out of his mouth as he described “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified invasion of Iraq — I mean of Ukraine.”

Initially, he seemed shocked that he had blurted that out and tried to back off his slip by shrugging and muttering, “Iraq, too,” as if it were a joke. Some in his audience even laughed. But his initial attempt to sideline his comment only deepened the hole he was in. Then he tried another ploy. He suggested that his slip could be forgiven or excused because of his age, 75, and that his invasion and the destruction of Iraq could now be forgiven because of his cognitive decline. All in all, it was a first-class mess. 

An Earlier Pathetic Attempt at Comedy

I remember another of Bush’s attempted jokes that got an immediate laugh from his audience, but soon fell seriously flat. It was in 2004. The Iraq War was underway and the president was at the yearly dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association, a black-tie event attended by both journalists and politicians.

After various comedy sketches, then-President Bush rose to present a short meant-to-be humorous slideshow featuring himself supposedly looking for the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Remember that, in the lead-up to war there, Americans were hammered with fearful and deceptive political messaging, emphasizing that only an invasion could stop that country’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, from having WMD. (None were ever found, of course.) At that dinner, Bush showed photos of himself supposedly searching for those devastating weapons in the Oval Office beneath a cushion on the couch and under the desk. “No weapons under there!  Maybe they’re here!” said the smiling president repeatedly in a sing-song voice, as if engaged in a child’s game. Horrifyingly enough, many in that audience of journalists did indeed laugh.

I was offended then, just as I was by Bush’s recent slip and his sorry attempts to minimize and excuse his responsibility for the blood on his hands, the massive death toll from his invasion, and so much additional destruction and suffering. According to The Costs of War project, more than 207,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in that nightmare, while the number who died from the indirect violence of that war was far higher, given the damage done to the Iraqi health care system and the rest of that devastated country’s infrastructure. More than 20 years later, people are still dying needlessly. And I also mourn the more than 7,000 U.S. servicemembers who died in the post-9/11 war zones Bush created, as well as the many more who were wounded.

I can’t help but wonder if George Bush doesn’t feel at least a little of this himself. Otherwise, why would he have made such a slip? Or maybe it wasn’t a slip at all, but an inadvertent confession.

That his telling gaffe about Iraq and Ukraine received so little attention certainly reveals something about our media’s ongoing uneasiness with Bush’s wars and perhaps the conflicted feelings of our citizenry as well when it comes to what they did (and didn’t do) during the Iraq War. How many who were initially enthusiastic about the Afghan and Iraq wars would now, like their former president, admit we were wrong? How many people who supported those conflicts have taken what happened to heart and are thinking more deeply about an American propensity for war and the war culture that goes with it? Like George W. Bush, too few, I’m afraid.

Worshipping Lies

This past July 24th, the New York Times featured “I was wrong” op-ed pieces by a number of its columnists. The editors defined “being wrong” as “incorrect predictions and bad advice,” as well as “being off the mark.” Of course, one of the definitions of the Greek word for “sin” (amartia) in the New Testament is “missing the mark.”  Fascinating. 

I would have taken the editors’ definitions further though. Saying “I was wrong” means more than “rethinking our positions on all kinds of issues,” as the Times suggested. Often, the problem isn’t simply that people lack the best, most up-to-date information or data. Only by digging into ethics and social psychology will we better understand why people deceive not just others but even themselves with lies, slippery rationalizations, or comedic attempts at distraction to cover up deeper dynamics that have to do with privilege and power, or what religious traditions sometimes call “worshipping false idols.”

Moral psychologist Albert Bandera has explored some of the diverse mechanisms people rely on to morally disengage and excuse inhumane conduct. They shift their rhetoric and thinking to redefine and even rename what they are doing, “sanitizing” language (and their acts) in the process. In this way, they often shift responsibility onto someone else, minimize any damaging consequences for themselves, and dehumanize the victims of the violence they’ve let loose.

But there are other examples of moral disengagement that are even harder to understand. In such cases, people make decisions and act in ways that even undercut their own self-interest and values. For me, one of the saddest recent examples is Stephen Ayres, a witness at the House select committee’s January 6th hearings this summer. He had been part of the Trumpist mob that stormed the Capitol. A family man who, until then, owned a house and had a job with a cabinet company, Ayres came across in those hearings as a lost soul who couldn’t fully comprehend how he had willingly injured himself and his family by idolizing Donald Trump and his election lies.

His arrest for participating in the insurrection resulted in the loss of almost everything he had. With his wife sitting behind him, he testified about having to sell his house, losing his job, and struggling to come to terms with his actions. “I wish I had done my own research,” he said, trying to explain how he could have been so easily deceived by Trumpist lies regarding the 2020 presidential election.

Clearly, the social media bubble he slipped into that captivated and compelled him to head for Washington had given his life new meaning and an otherwise missing sense of excitement. He hadn’t planned to enter the Capitol building that day but was swept away by the moment. “Basically, we were just following what [Trump] said,” Ayres testified. In handing over his critical thinking to right-wing social media and a president intent on hanging onto power at any cost, he unwittingly also handed over his capacity for moral deliberation and, in the end, his very life.

Liz Cheney’s Struggle for Moral Clarity

In recent weeks, Liz Cheney, vice-chairperson of the January 6th committee, was questioned about a past moral choice of hers by Leslie Stahl in a 60 Minutes interview — specifically, how years ago she threw her lesbian sister and family under the bus for political purposes. It was a time when Cheney was struggling to get elected in conservative Wyoming. That meant coming out as anti-LGBTQ. Now, she says, “I was wrong” to have condemned her sister then.

Listening to her, I wanted to hear more about such moral grappling and how, in these years, her convictions had or hadn’t changed when it came to people, religion, family, political life, power, and the role her father played as George W. Bush’s vice president in those godforsaken wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, Stahl didn’t push her further.

I disagree with Liz Cheney on almost every policy position she’s taken in these years. Nonetheless, I find myself grateful for her rejection of Donald Trump’s mad election claims and her determined, even steely, leadership of the January 6th committee hearings. Cheney eventually discovered her moral bearings on her sister’s sexual orientation and family life. Now, I wonder if that past moral struggle influenced her decision to throw political expediency to the wind regarding her own House seat in a Wyoming primary that she might lose on August 16th. After all, by resisting the Trumpian tide, she’s become one of the few Republicans willing to do some serious truth-telling. 

Today, Cheney finds herself in another league from most of her party’s leaders and power players. In the state where I live, Pennsylvania, Republicans are coalescing behind the candidacy of Doug Mastriano for governor. Candidate Mastriano not only wants to arm school employees, but according to my local newspaper, he even organized buses for January 6th, now “rubs shoulders with QAnon conspiracy theorists,” and until recently had an active social media account at Gab, a site well-known for its white supremacist and anti-semitic rhetoric.

Mastriano continues to spread Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, is a Christian nationalist, and believes in an abortion ban without exceptions, and the list goes on and on. Nonetheless, Republicans like Andy Reilly, a member of the state GOP national committee, rationalize their support for Mastriano by saying things like, “When you play team sports, you learn what being part of a team means… Our team voted for him in the primary.” 

Lying to Others and Oneself

What enables such self-deception? According to journalist Mark Leibovich, author of Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission, what “made Trump possible” even after the January 6th insurrection was “rationalization followed by capitulation and then full surrender.” Reviewing Leibovich’s book, Geoffrey Kabaservice added this: “The routine was always numbingly the same, and so was the sad truth at the heart of it. They all knew better.” In other words, “knowing better” doesn’t assure anyone of doing the right thing. Instead, too many Americans were swayed by “greed, ambition, opportunism, fear, and fascination of Trump as a pure and feral rascal.”

Tim Miller, author of Why We Did It: Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell, adds “hubris, ambition, idiocy, desperation, and self-deception” to the mix of reasons why so many politicians do what they do. “How do people justify going along?” he asks. But he, too, played that game once upon a time. A Republican gay man with a husband, he rationalized helping the GOP pass anti-LGBTQ legislation by “compartmentalizing” his personal life from his professional one. As he now says, “Being around power, being addicted to power,” along with the insatiable compulsion to “be in the room where it happens,” is a recipe that leads people to act self-deceptively, while deceiving others.

It’s like placing scales over your own eyes and those of others, to blind as many people as possible, yourself included, to the immorality of your acts. And some lie even more to themselves, claiming that they can resist the worst tendencies of destructive power-mongering. They say, “We need to have good people in the room” to stop the worst from happening, even as they capitulate to power players and justify what should never be justified. 

Many of us are waiting to hear an “I was wrong” from so many politicians (though I can’t imagine Donald Trump ever succumbing to honesty), including most of the Republican leadership. Just for starters, I’d like to hear “I was wrong” regarding Muslim bans, the demonization of immigrants, the refusal to seriously address gun violence, the denial of women’s human rights, the gerrymandering and weakening of voting rights, religious nativism, and sidling up to white supremacy, not to speak of the supposed “steal” of the 2020 election. But given the likelihood that people in power will lie to themselves and others, I’m not holding my breath.  

Telling the Truth about U.S. Military Spending

What I’m also waiting for is an “I was wrong” from both Democratic and Republican politicians in Washington who, year after year, support ever more outlandish military budgets, despite so many other existential crises in our country and on the planet, despite the death-dealing costs of war to the servicemembers Americans claim to highly esteem, and despite the fact that our violence abroad simply hasn’t worked. 

Remember that the United States spends more than half of its entire discretionary federal budget on militarization and war, a tally greater than the military budgets of the next nine highest-spending countries combined. Tragically, it doesn’t appear that this will change any time soon.

According to an analysis by the anti-corruption group Public Citizen , in 2022, the congressional armed services committees only added to the already gigantic military budget the Biden administration requested for 2023. The House added another $37.5 billion, while the Senate added $45 billion. Our leaders refuse to learn from the last decades of unremitting war. Instead, power and privilege continue to hold sway. 

As the same report explained, after military-industrial-complex corporations donated $10 million to congressional armed services committee members, “the Department of Defense received a potential $45 billion spending increase.” This was in addition to the president’s $813 billion recommendation. The report concluded, “The defense contractors will have clinched a return on its $10 million investment of nearly 450,000%.”

It’s discouraging to see how deception and rationalization so regularly undermine truth and moral courage. It’s also sobering to witness individuals who willingly lie to themselves and, in doing so, subvert their own and others’ wellbeing. But I’m also encouraged by times when, as with Liz Cheney on that committee, some of us demonstrate what it means to dig deeply for moral clarity against the prevailing headwinds of moral disengagement, disinformation, power, and privilege.

The fact is that truth-telling and confession, while difficult, are good for the soul. I wish for more and hope it will be enough. God knows, all of us and this beleaguered planet truly need it.    

Copyright 2022 Kelly Denton-Borhaug

Kelly Denton-Borhaug, a TomDispatch regular, has long been investigating how religion and violence collide in American war-culture. She teaches in the global religions department at Moravian University. She is the author of two books, U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation and, more recently, And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Culture.

27 comments

  1. Kelly i have a lot of mixed feelings on what you wrote. First Islam and its followers have no place in our civilized world. Muslims need to stay in muslim countries, and their presence in the west is a soft jihad like the end of a penis is soft, but the shaft is very hard and we are going to get shafted. Look at England after you remove the scales from your eyes. Politics is a criminal disaster. Satan is running the show. Covid is biological warfare against the people.

    1. That’s… bizarre. Penises, scales and Covid. It’s a little unsettling to think that there are people walking around who have such concepts of the world.

    2. Sure as soon as white people and Jews leave the lands they have officially colonized leaves too

    3. Donald and his clansmen agrees with you.
      Burma’s Buddhists dominated government is still blocking the return of their separatist yearning Rohingya Muslims.
      Probably, China has an effective method of integrating them into modern society from a 15th century mind set but we tend to view it as genocide on the scale of our treatment of Natives when Columbus arrived in the new found lands.
      India now has very popular song and lyrics filled of Muslim hate.
      Islam cannot exist with other cultures and religions, others must change to their perfection.
      You must visit Notre Dame, St. Peter’s, Milan cathedral, Seville cathedral, Liverpool cathedral, others before they become another Hagia Sofia by the end of the century.

  2. I’d offer that Liz Cheney’s stance on Donald Trump and January 6th is little more than a voluntary resignation from Congress, in a face-saving gesture to seek absolution for her family’s role in history.

    Too little to late in my estimation…. A rat swimming away from a sinking ship can be bestowed some credit for survival instincts…. Yet in this case, the only reason to hang a medal around it’s neck is to drown it.

    1. NEOLIB Ds + NEOCON Rs?

      Her conscience may be real, but I have my doubts. How far from the PNAC snarling Cheney tree did this cone fall?

      The neolib Dem ruling elite seems to have formed an alliance with neocon Rs. Defining themselves as centrism; giving us politics as the “All-American” choice between D oligarchy or R plutocracy. All to shore up a failing econ system dependent on exploiting people and nature.

      1. “huck Finn was morbid and haunted; he was a racist precisely because he did follow his conscience” Sacvan Bercovitch

    2. Yep. The movement to turn Liz Cheney into a hero is truly sickening. More so the media working at building excitement for her to make a run for president. The sickness is deep.

  3. “amerikans have been liars and braggarts for 3 centuries. amerikans live in a thicket of illusions–they demand illusions about themselves”. Daniel Boorstin
    “american parents lie to their children american children lie to their parents–it is expected…amerticans bewilder Europeans”. Geoffrey Gorer
    “the cult of sincerity—americans are not sincere; it is a performance”. David Riesman
    “Americans are entirely confused about themselves”. Simone de Beauvoir
    “the men americans most admire dare to tell them the most extravagant lies–the men they most despise try to tell them the truth”. HL Menkhen
    “obama’s job is to lie to a nation of liars”. Kiese Laymon

  4. History repeats. The conditions and environments and thoughts of Germany of Nazi era is uncannily re-emerging in today’s USA.
    The people know that they are being lied to but have vested interests. The rest of the world knows that average Americans are not dumb or easily fooled.

    Volksgemeinschaft: is a concept that is extremely important to GOP and blessed by Donald. And Slavs have always been considered as inferior to be conquered or exterminated for their huge amount of resources.
    Lebensraum: or economic Lebensraum is required for Western capitalism and supremacy.
    Führerprinzip: a concept that democracy does not work and propaganda, lies, and myths are needed to create a God like leader to be worshipped and obeyed unconditionally to save the nation from the evils of others.
    ( sure sounds and smells like some one we love and adore who might go to jail or not) . July 2016, Cleveland, ” I am your voice, I alone can fix it” and the convention crowd cheered.

    Lies matter not, truths are subjective, facts or alternative facts, because the Empire need propaganda, hype, doctrine, even lies, to continue.

    1. “Wehrwirtschaft” is another Nazi sneeze/expression that Americans need to get wise to.

    2. mcmaaag hilarious —scholars refute your lies
      “democracy in amerika means my ignorance is as good as your knowledge”. Isaac Asimov
      “america is a culture of stupidity”. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
      “stupidity is a virtue in america”. Charles Pierce
      “Americans are ignorant and unteachable”. George Santayana
      “nothing can thrive in s invAmerica unless inflated by hyperbole and gilded with a fine coat of fraud. Americans cannot think except by means of slogans–they identify garbage as quality. the stupidity and ignorance of Americans has long been a topic of hilarity in Europe”. Paul Fussell
      “americans cannot make connections; they only comprehend discreet disconnected facts…amerikans bewilder Europeans”. Geoffrey Gorer
      “USA has always been an anti-intellectual nation”. John Mc Worter
      “americans are the living refutation of the cartesian cogito ergo sum. americans are yet they do not think. the american mind puerile primitive lacks characteristic form and is therefore open to any standardization”. Julius Evola
      “americans are not trained to think historically or sociologically…the functional illiteracy and ignorance of americans has made us an international joke”. Morris Berman

  5. Note that this is Biden’s war — not Putin’s. First, we saw the significant buildup of US/NATO troops in Eastern Europe, along Ukraine’s western border, and along segments of Russia’s border — in violation of the 1991 NATO treaty. Review the US role in the 2014 coup in Ukraine. And finally, in 2019 we saw the US/UK essentially install multi-millionaire Zelensky as president of Ukraine, in opposition of much of the Ukrainian public. Since 2014, the US has sent some $7.3 billion to help finance Zelensky’s war. Every step of the way, they have continued to threaten Russia’s security. All of this, and the US acts shocked – outraged! – when Russia hits back.

  6. Most Americans are not well enough educated to know the true facts of our.history.As a Few Good Men stated”you can’t handle the truth” I am also convinced that most people just don’t give a damn about the past.They do not know the past has created the present and the present helps creates the future
    . Most citizens are too self involved to.get active which probably will cause our doom.

    1. “of all peoples in an advanced stage of economic civilization americans are least accessible to long views always and everywhere in a hurry to get rich they give no thought to remote consequences–they perceive only present advantages: amerikans do not feel, they do not remember—amerikans live in a materialist dream”. Moisede Ostrogorski
      “those that do not know history are doomed to repeat it”. George Santayana
      80% fully supported invasions Vietnam., Iraq, 90% Afghanistan

    2. History is written by the victors or by influential new people with personal stakes, so the other side of the events are not public.
      Yes and we, all have our own narratives, slants, and perceptions but we will do nothing to upset or Doom our comfy undeserving lifestyle.

      But the average American although smart is wilfully blind, deaf and, shamelessly dumb.
      If we were honest, America would talk of –
      the fear of Browning of America,
      -a return to Confederacy and not Trumpian lies / truths.
      An honest discussion of American white and non white peoples are overdue on the domestic stage.

      On the Internation stage, More than half of the world does not agree or like American led wars based on western viewpoints and out right lies, such as WMD.
      The rest of the world is very used to experiencing American lies about everything and anything, and now America is also experiencing daily lies over Blue vs Red facts.
      No one in their right minds from the Global South believes a word from Americans but our Western allies are hostage to our words.

      If the kingdom of SA takes other currency for oil, the mighty US$ will erode and lies will be eventually seen for what it is.

      1. Saddam wasn’t ousted from power because he was an evil man…. And his “mistaken” connection to 9/11??… Please!

        There isn’t a butcher on the planet that America won’t embrace if it serves the elite’s agenda. (Some southern neighbors are unhappy examples.) Saddam openly flirted with the idea of selling oil for currencies outside the closed-loop hustle enjoyed by the Federal Reserve, and got exactly what thugs and gangsters deliver best.

        Saudi’s will continue to except our staggeringly debased currency until our military might, and unipolar position of power are toast…. The end of this hustle is in sight, and it wont be a soft landing.
        (The Weirmar Republic’s Papiermark is a sad preview to the dollar’s future.)

        The current dust-up in Ukraine proves that racist nationalism wasn’t defeated in WWII, so much as transplanted…. Some of these apple-pie Nazis have made plans for a slick getaway, once the shit hits the fan.

        Have a look at the mid-2000’s real estate acquisition of the Bush wolf-pack. (Christ! What is it with Nazis and South America?!)

        https://watchingamerica.com/WA/2015/06/18/bush-family-buy-up-guarani-aquifer/2/

  7. Based on this deplorable situation of Black Americans being cheated out of their appreciated equity in property — as Reported in “these ‘TIMES’ they are a-changing” (slightly progressively, but far too slowly) in this article today:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/18/realestate/housing-discrimination-maryland.html?campaign_id=0&emc=edit_cr_20220818&instance_id=0&nl=comments-notifications&regi_id=135450&segment_id=0&user_id=a02c20a175a10e71aa341b83f3c9053d#commentsContainer&permid=119930636:119930636

    “Home Appraised With a Black Owner: $472,000. With a White Owner: $750,000.” — I wrote this further exposure as a reader comment in the ‘Times’ regarding the entire scope of ‘Accumulation by Dispossession’ [David Harvey]:

    This situation would be even more revealing had the home involved here been in an area where the appraisals were on UHNWI or arrogantly self-appointed “Masters of the Universe”. It is of no small import that, when the data for 2022 comes in, that the GINI Coefficient of Wealth INEQUALITY in America will almost certainly show that “We’re #1”, “We’re #1”, “We’re #1” — in not only passing Russia’s GINI Coefficient of Wealth Inequality, but also crossing the Golden 0.90 mark — in a world where the GINI scale equates with 0.0 meaning that all people in a country share equal wealth, and where 1.0 means that one person in a country has captured and controls all the wealth in that country. This result certainly comports with “Quiet American” Oligarchs being far more wealthy on the GINI scale than Russian Oligarchs, and also orders of magnitude richer in total Gross Wealth in our world. BTW, China’s GINI Coefficient of Wealth Inequality is below the mean of all countries at 0.70. How would our White House be appraised?

  8. Oh look, another article where everything is the Republicans’ fault and every position taken by the Democratic Party is right.

    People like Kelly are mindless drones. It’s either team red or team blue, all while the endless wars and looting continue. Maybe one day Kelly will wake up and realize that identify politics was created to distract us while they fight their banker wars.

    “If you agree with 80% of what I say, vote for me. If you agree with 100%, see a psychiatrist.”

    1. Percentages subject to keener calculation; you hit it square on the head Shaun.

      Create a false dichotomy that divides and riles in equal measure, then gleefully continue your criminal enterprise as the peasants aim their pitchforks at one another.

      Though I will confess a bland preference for blue arsenic over red cyanide.

      At least when FDR packed the Court he didn’t include drunken frat-boys representing the Christian Taliban-West.

  9. Allow me to amend the last comment…. Your assessment of Kelly as a mindless drone was unkind and unfair…she states half of the orchestrated narrative pretty eloquently.

  10. This article avoids giving the proper credit to democrats for their part in this. Biden is followed every bit as blindly as Trump & his policies are every bit as vile & destructive. Plus there is the little matter of him managing to get us in a war footing with not one but two nuclear powers. Insanity abounds in both parties. & they’re both nothing but liars & thieves.

    1. Amen Bruce. The whining dip-shits who correctly recognize the nationalistic fascism of Donald Trump; preferring the global neoliberalism of “We came. We saw. He died” Hillary, are emblematic of the ignorance that’ll eventually shove this mentally retarded nation down the shitter. (P.C.?…not so much. True??.. You better believe it.) Jesus Christ people!… This ain’t rocket science.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: