Letters

Syrians Are War Correspondents, Too

A response to Terry Anderson's "Running Toward Danger."

Dear Mr. Anderson,

I read "Running Toward Danger" yesterday and I had to tell you how much it moved me. Syria is being ripped to shreds, the people are suffering, and the cities are being destroyed. We didn't expect this degree of ruthlessness as a response to the people's demands for freedom after 40 years of Assad tyranny, but as we know well, freedom is not free.

Your thoughts on war correspondents sacrificing everything for the truth applies not only to the brave journalists like Austin and Marie and Anthony and the dozens of journalists inside Syria now, but also to the Syrian men and women who stood behind the cameras, documenting the truth. We have lost dozens of citizen journalists in this revolution. Young men who were students, employees, fathers one day and became threatening targets the next day because of their cell phones, cameras, and laptops. They knew Syrians have been silent too long. Last year, they decided to never cover up Assad's crimes with silence again. And they are paying a heavy price for it.

I don't know what my dead friends would have answered your question, "Was it worth it?" But I do know what the ones who are alive and still film and photograph in Homs, Aleppo, Hama, Idleb, Daraa, and across Syria would say to the question, "Is it worth it to die for your camera?" They would say, "Yes." Because they know for the first time in their lives, their voice matters and they are doing the most important job, to tell the truth while so many are telling lies. Telling the truth, in a way, has become even more important than freedom. It's the road to freedom.

I've been writing about the revolution since the beginning. I didn't expect to take on the role I now have when I began; telling my stories evolved into telling Syria's stories. I only cared about one thing: telling the truth. Sometimes it seems like an impossible task. And many times the truth hurts. But we have to keep going and hope that what's good in the people prevails over the evil.

When I read your piece, I remembered Anthony Shadid, a journalist who changed my life, and how much I miss his voice of truth. And I thought of Austin too. I pray he is safe and will return to his family soon.

Most of all, I wanted to tell you that your words made a difference to me. God bless you.

With much respect,
Amal

Letters

The Biggest Liars

If politicians are unusually dishonest, we citizens bear some of the responsibility.

Dan Ariely's engaging and provocative article on political lying ("Liar, Liar," September/October 2012) offers a valuable corrective to the widespread view that politicians are unusually mendacious, lying is unusually bad, and therefore politicians are unusually bad.

Even if you believe that politicians are unusually dishonest, it's worth pointing out that democratic citizens are complicit in the deception. Voters who returned U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to power can hardly claim they didn't know what they were getting. More generally, democratic politics puts unbearable strain on politicians when it comes to truthfulness.

Accountability processes -- whether news conferences or legislative probes -- are increasingly designed to put politicians on the spot. If these leaders state politically embarrassing truths, we immediately proclaim that they have committed a "gaffe" or "shot themselves in the foot." The predictable result is shiftiness under fire, and public suspicion of politicians becomes self-reinforcing.

Admittedly, politicians' sanctimony plays into the scapegoating. Keen to ingratiate themselves with voters, they feed demands for the impossible -- for example, that the public get ever better returns for even fewer tax dollars. But even this sanctimony stems from the unreasonable call for politicians to be plaster saints; when they fail, public comment basks on the fertile shore where moralism is irrigated by schadenfreude.

Politicians' lying, or being economical with the truth, matters insofar as what they are misrepresenting -- such as the grounds for going to war -- is false. But there are also strong public-interest defenses for lying, as when U.S. President John F. Kennedy denied striking a backroom deal with the Soviets over U.S. missiles in Turkey in 1962.

Political lies, in other words, can sometimes be good. By contrast, when congressmen talk, say, of "legitimate rape," it raises a more chilling prospect: that they actually believe what they say.

GLEN NEWEY
Professor of Political Theory
Université Libre de Bruxelles
Brussels, Belgium


Dan Ariely replies:

Glen Newey highlights an important point about politicians: In democratic societies, they hold their positions thanks to voters who put them there.

In a study I conducted with Heather Mann, a graduate student in my lab, we asked Americans how acceptable it was for politician X to engage in "ethically gray" activities in order to get elected and carry out his agenda. We asked half the people this question about President Barack Obama, and the other half the same question about presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Afterward, we asked people to indicate which party they were planning to vote for in this November's election.

What did we find? First, people planning to vote Democratic found it unacceptable for Romney to be engaging in ethically gray activities. People planning to vote Republican found it similarly unacceptable for Obama to do so. However, when we asked participants the same question about the politician they supported, people on both sides indicated that "ethically gray" behavior was much more acceptable. For both Democrats and Republicans, ratings jumped from below 15 to more than 40 on a scale ranging from 0 (completely unacceptable) to 100 (completely acceptable).

These results suggest that people think that within the current system, some degree of ethical compromise is necessary to advance the greater good (which, of course, means the opinions and policies of "our side"). This also leads to a chicken-and-egg question: Do people want their politicians to behave in morally questionable ways, or is it the morally corrupt system that makes people want politicians who can function in this type of system?

As politicians scramble to win votes, they "feed demands for the impossible," as Newey points out. In such a reality, who, if not their own voters, will hold these politicians accountable? And if their voters want them to succeed in a corrupt system by being dishonest, who is left to defend honesty?