Truth and politics in America

“Suppose we want truth,” writes Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, “why not rather untruth? and uncertainty? even ignorance?” Philosophers have concerned themselves basically with two sorts of issues: the truth about the world and the conditions by which the truth can be known.  Nietzsche says they presume the value of truth. “There is no pre-established harmony between the furthering of truth and the good of mankind.”

It is a lesson that Americans are probably learning today as they deal with the reality of a severely discredited presidency in a time of global urgency.  As Russia moves unsteadily into the brink of political dissolution and economic disaster, and three-fourths of the world’s economies ground to a halt, and war threatens between Iran and Afghanistan – the American Congress stands before the world to ask whether the term “sexual relations” includes oral sex.  One searches in vain for the wellsprings of such pettiness.

Last week, the US Congress voted to post in the Internet the full report of the Starr investigation into the relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.  The graphic and detailed description of the sexual encounters between the president and Monica violates every conceivable rule of privacy and decency in the modern world.  The electronic publication of this official report exposes not only the American president to public ridicule but also the young woman who was forced to testify under pain of imprisonment.  Most important of all, it exposes the entire American nation to global ridicule.

Not content with the wounds they have already inflicted on their president, US legislators this week voted to release for public consumption the videotape and transcript of the testimony of Clinton before a federal grand jury.  This is a 4-hour video documentation of the American president undergoing ruthless interrogation by a team of lawyers determined to trap the most powerful man on earth.

Portions of the transcript of the president’s deposition have already been leaked to media.  They show a president attempting to stretch definitions beyond what commonsense and everyday usage may allow in order to make the point that, while he may have misled the public about the extent and nature of his affair with Lewinsky, his account of the relationship has remained truthful and legally consistent.  Clinton was conscious not to supply his interrogators evidence they may use to recommend his impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice.

The Starr report has been submitted to Congress.  It is now up to the House Judiciary Committee to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant impeachment proceedings.  But instead of scrutinizing the report in the restricted context of committee hearings, Clinton’s enemies in Congress have released the report to a wider audience.  Their intent is not simply to let the truth speak for itself, for truth cannot be divorced from life.  Their objective is to damage Bill Clinton and, by extension, the Democratic Party, in ways that an ordinary impeachment process will not accomplish.

Impeachment proceedings are bound by legal usage and practice.  In contrast, when the Starr Report is read by ordinary people outside the context of a judicial inquiry, they can only be guided by everyday commonsense.  In such a setting, Clinton’s replies will only be understood as the desperate prevarications of a guilty man.  Consider the following exchange between the president and his prosecutors:

Q.: “So you didn’t do any of those three things with Monica Lewinsky.” A.: “You are free to infer that my testimony is that I did not have sexual relations, as I understood this term to be defined.”

Q.: “Including touching her breast, kissing her breast, touching her genitalia?”

A.: “That’s correct…”

Q.: ‘The question is, if Monica Lewinsky says that while you were in the Oval Office area you touched her breasts, would she be lying?” A.: “That is not my recollection.  My recollection is that I did not have sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, and I’m staying on my former statement about that…. My, my statement is that I did not have sexual relations as defined by that.”

Q.: “If she says that you kissed her breasts, would she be lying?  And that calls for a yes, no, or reverting to your former statement.”

A.: “I’m going to revert to my former statement.”

Q.: OK.  If Monica Lewinsky says that while you were in the Oval Office area you touched her genitalia, would she be lying?  And that calls for a yes, no, or reverting to your former statement.”

A.: “I will revert to my former statement on that….If the deponent is the person  who has oral sex performed on him, then the contact is with – not with anything on that list, but with the lips of another person.  It seems to be self-evident that that’s what it is….Let me remind you, sir, I read this carefully.”

No one who reads this for the first time, and without any appreciation of the whole context in which the 4-year relentless pursuit by Starr has unfolded and reached this point, will likely have any sympathy for Clinton’s evasive way of answering questions.  This is the effect that the Republicans want to produce.  They want the American nation to be convened as a jury, a jury that will decide in the November elections.  They may well win the coming elections.

But Clinton will be president for two more years, unless he is compelled to resign.  It is difficult to see how an American president who has been treated the way he has been treated in his own country can command any degree of influence or authority in the rest of the world community.


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