James O'Keefe scored another victory recently, when his group tricked Ron Schiller, an NPR fundraiser into making statements that were soft on militant Islam and expressed contempt for Middle American conservatives. As much as I detest NPR and all its works, the attack on the fundraisers is either naive or disingenuous. Schiller may well have really believed everything he said, but some level of exaggeration and acquiescence is part of his job.
Fundraising, especially during hard times, is a tough racket. A good fundraiser has to avoid saying anything to antagonize a donor, and a knowing nod, friendly smile, an occasional "Absolutely" thrown in over a boozy lunch is all part of a day's work. I confess I am not good at it. I try to grit my teeth and listen to a rant on how the rising tide lifts all boats or how more freedom will save Americans from the consequences of original sin, but, in the end, I blurt out some inopportune truth that queers the deal. As one libertarian businessman, a generous donor despite differences of opinion, once told me, "You are one of the two worst fund-raisers I have ever met. You insult the people who give you money." It's true, but then the same man, who raised money for his favorite libertarian charities (nice phrase, eh?), admitted he was as bad as I am.
I'd like to be a better schmoozer than I am, and I respect people who walk the fine line between amiability and dishonesty. I also feel a good deal of sympathy for fundraisers who cross the line and tell a rich donor what he wants to hear, especially when he is raising money for an organization he really believes in. In such case, lying is clearly wrong, but how wrong would it be to exaggerate a little one's enthusisams for the Palestinians? That may be all that is involved in the NPR scandal. I feel sure Mr. O'Keefe himself has found himself overstating his case in order to attract donations for the work he believes is good.
Well, here is the problem. A number of intelligent and principled Catholic writers--I would rather not name names because I respect some of them (albeit not Peter Kreeft)--have been arguing for the virtues of lying in a good cause. It is ok for James O'Keefe to impersonate a pimp and a young woman to pretend to be a hooker, if they are serving the pro-life cause. St. Augustine and St. Thomas just did not understand modern theories of language and communication according to which truth is really not the object. Thus 2000 years of Christian theology is bunk, including "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."
Well, fine. But I do have two observations. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Let us suppose Schiller was actually lying. How can we condemn him? If it is ok for O'Keefe and his pals to lie when he is serving the pro-life cause, surely he and his pals are right to lie to NPR. But in that case, it would be meritorious for Ron Schiller to tell lies to gain support for the organization he believes in, wouldn't it? And what is true of Ron Schiller should be true of pro-abortion feminists and Marxists. Of course we already know that Marxists believe that truth is whatever serves the interests of the laboring classes. That is why we don't believe anything they say.
Then why should we believe the Catholic apologists who justify lying? Why should we even believe they are sincere in their defense of lying?
Here is an even more extreme case, and I wonder how the Catholic Liars would treat it. One Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, code name "Curveball," was the source for the story about mobile bioweapons that Colin Powell took to the United Nations in order to justify our imminent invasion of Iraq. Mr. Curveball now says he made it up, but he is not sorry.
Justification Numer One, personal revenge: "I had a problem with the Saddam regime," he said. "I wanted to get rid of him and now I had this chance."
Justification Number Two, a higher law: "Believe me, there was no other way to bring about freedom to Iraq. There were no other possibilities." He says this confronted with the Iraqi death toll (100,00 at least and rising) and with the fact that there is still no political freedom in Iraq.
Well, I had always heard that lying in a good cause was justified in Islam. There, however, is a long and complex debate among Catholics and Protestants about when it is not necessary or even wrong to tell the truth. A very fine casuistry was practiced not just by St. Thomas and St. Alphonsus, but also by learned Lutherans and Anglicans. Now we are being told we don't need all that fancy moral theology. Just be sure you are right--or just imagine you are right--then go ahead and lie your head off. It's going to be a pretty world.
PS In the near future, I believe, Scott Richert will be posting a more responsible and detailed analysis of this controversy.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.