What makes something fishy? What makes something sound?
Definition one for fishy: arousing feelings of doubt or suspicion.
Definition two for sound: based on reason, sense, or judgment.
When you hear an explanation of a public event, how do you tell the difference between the two? That’s an important attribute of good citizenship, right? You have to be able to tell whether or not someone is being straight with you. Out there in the wide world, some people are more honest than others. One of the basic skills you have to develop as you grow up is how to distinguish people who are honest from people who are not.
You could respond, “No, I just mind my own business. I don’t care that much whether or not someone is honest. They go their way and I go mine.”
That’s true to an extent, but what if your boyfriend or girlfriend cheats on you, and lies to you about it? Or what if you charge your mate with infidelity when he or she has been true to you? You’d want to make accurate judgments about honesty in cases like that, wouldn’t you?
The same need for good judgment holds for assessments of honesty in the public sphere. If you charge honest public officials with lying or fraud, you’ll eventually have nothing but liars and cheats in office. If you trust public officials who are liars and cheats, you’ll never get them out of office.
The worst case occurs when criminals acquire a lot of power. Hitler and Stalin are especially sobering examples in this respect. A lot of people – millions – die in wars, death camps, pogroms and massacres when evil leaders win other people’s trust. A lot rides on our ability to trust the right people.
I would say that generally, we’re sharper about making these judgments in personal relationships than we are about judging our leaders. Experience and observation indicate we process a lot of information about other people in real time. We use the information we have to make judgments about them, and to regulate our interactions with them. Without a steady flow of first-hand information about public leaders, we have to find other ways to make judgments about them.
Because more distance separates us from our leaders, our information about them is less immediate. That raises two possibilities. First, accurate judgments about our leaders may take longer to form. Second, accustomed to reaching fairly accurate conclusions in our personal dealings, we may jump to inaccurate conclusions in our public affairs. To avoid those mistakes, we would want to gather extra information, and deliberate more extensively about the judgments we reach. Research and deliberation do not come easily to people in a hurry.
Now let’s turn to our fishiness postulate. The postulate says that when something feels fishy, don’t believe it. When Jack Ruby shoots Lee Oswald in the basement of a Dallas police station during lunchtime, with policemen all around, that feels fishy. When World Trade Center 7 comes down in a controlled demolition at the end of a long afternoon, in seven seconds, that feels fishy. These are events where your spidey sense kicks in – you wonder what could be going on. You wonder what other people must be thinking. You don’t want to step out of line – no one wants to look weird.
The deep lesson of The Emperor’s New Clothes is that no one wanted to step out of line. No one wanted to call attention to the obvious. The tailors who pulled off that fraud could rely on people’s disinclination to stand out in a situation where something bad might come of it. “But Mom, he hasn’t got anything on!” said the young boy. The boy probably didn’t even care if the emperor was naked, but he couldn’t figure out why everyone was complimenting him on his new suit of clothes.
Public frauds are especially damaging. They force complicity from all who don’t want to stand out. Everyone has an opportunity to participate in a big lie, and all but a few stubborn misfits think of a good reason to do so. Who are misfits in times like ours? Theologians. Can you think of a more arcane and necessary vocation in this time and place? We have two theologians in our midst who deserve our recognition and gratitude: David Ray Griffin and James Douglass. If you don’t know who they are, you can find their books easily on the internet. I’ll say this about them: they care about the truth.
Today’s the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. One year past the tenth anniversary, some say we ought to move on: let’s put this memorable event behind us. Don’t say it! We don’t even know what happened that day. We can say only one thing for sure: that public officials have been dishonest in the stories they’ve told. Public officials spent seven billion dollars of our money to keep victims’ family members from asking questions about what happened September 11, 2001. Our leaders did not want any citizen to ask questions about their crimes. They published numerous reports about the event, each one with a sheen of truth, to overlay a rotten core of fraud. Don’t forget what they did.
When you feel something is fishy, trust yourself.
When your instinct is sound, speak up.