Do Words Count More Than Deeds?

Ford Edsel and New Coke are spectacular examples of how even the most sophisticated marketing and biggest bucks cannot sell a product people don’t want.  But we are talking about tangible products in these cases.   Each time you tasted New Coke, you were given another chance to test for yourself.   Everybody who saw or drove an Edsel could make his/her own judgment.   Imagine if you had ONLY the advertisements about these products and/or you had to depend on what others said about them.  Go one further. Imagine that much of what you had almost no opportunity to make independent verifications and that almost everybody involved in explaining to you had a vested interest in misleading you, or at least spinning the facts.  Now you are in the world of public affairs.

Abraham Lincoln famously said that “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”  This sentence is designed with the encouraging part as the punch line, but it not really very encouraging.    Phase it just a little differently.  Some of the people are always fooled.  Some of the people are sometimes not fooled, but all of the people are fooled some of the time.  Mr. Lincoln wisely didn’t speculate about how many people would sometimes not be fooled or the amount of influence they might exert on the benighted majority.

We can recognize mass deception epidemics in retrospect.  We know how they turned out so we can see the errors. But what do we learn?  By the time the facts are known, we have moved on to other things and with the wisdom of hindsight people convince themselves that they were not really fooled at all.  As someone who loves ancient history, I can think of widely believed hoaxes that persisted for thousands of years.  But let’s limit ourselves to recent ones that we can all recall w/o too much effort from our own lifetimes.  We had the missile gap, the population bomb, global cooling, nuclear winter, imminent collapse of the global financial system (about once every ten years), WMD, diet coke, breast implants, power lines etc causing cancer, and the biggest of all – communism.   This last one was interesting to me professionally, since my dislike for communism was the big reason I joined the then USIA.  Until 1989 most experts predicted the continued health and expansion of communism.   In fact, I was in Vienna on the very day the Berlin Wall came down listening to experts tell me that the East German government was fundamentally sound and enjoyed the grudging support of its people.  It was naive, they said, to expect any real change.  By 1995, you almost couldn’t find an expert who didn’t claim to have known that the communism was about to collapse. 

Self-deception is the most effective kind.

Communism didn’t work, plain and simple, and it was horribly oppressive to boot, but for a bankrupt ideology, communism enjoyed a remarkably popular life. At least fifty million people died as a result of communism, making it the biggest killer in history.  You can understand how people living under those ghastly systems attenuated their criticism, hoping to avoid joining those millions already moldering mass graves, but communism was also widely accepted among intelligencia in the free nations, where people with the freedom to speak and inquire should have known better.   Even today pictures of Che Guevara adorn dorm rooms and t-shirts on college campuses.  And they are not usually adjacent to picture of Charles Manson or similarly murderous cult leaders.

You can fool some of the people all of the time and sometimes for many years. We Americans are a pragmatic people and we have grown up in a country with long traditions of democracy, free flow of information, free media, free markets, free inquiry and a lot of choices in general.  We have trouble understanding how uncommon our happy situation is, both historically and geographically. This gives us an exaggerated confidence that the truth will come out and that it will be accepted by most reasonable people.   But remember in closed countries they sold products a lot worse than Edsels or New Coke and people were content to get them.  They still do.

As pragmatic people, we also believe that what we do makes a difference and we take responsibility for our actions.  We appropriately hold ourselves to higher standards.   But that should not prevent us from making objective comparisons and should not lead to assumptions of moral equivalency with nasty enemies … or worse. We suffer from the effects analogous to excellent students from very stringent grading system competing with mediocre or poor students from a lax one for admission to an engineering program.  If administrators consider a B in highly competitive course in advanced calculus less than an A in the everybody-passes basic arithmetic curriculum, you better drive carefully over the bridges designed by their graduates. 

Or if you permit, let me provide another analogy.   The couch potato can easily criticize the players in the Super Bowl, but we all know he could not have leap high enough to catch that pass in the end zone nor kept both his feet in bounds when he came down. Deeds count more than words only when people have the independent ability to judge, effects are reasonably close to actions in time and space and when feedback is available and reliable.   Otherwise they are like the tree that falls in the wood with nobody around to hear it.    

So, what do we do?  I certainly don’t advocate lowering our high standards or hiding our mistakes, but we should raise our expectations of others & don’t overlook their shortcomings either.  After the President’s SOTU speech, some leaders in countries where democracy is viewed with limited enthusiasm said that they would wait to judge his deeds.  Judge his deeds – great!  That goes both ways.   Let’s see how the couch potatoes do on game day or the wizards of basic arithmetic perform on the practical exam.  AND we always ask the “compared to what?” question.  You don’t win respect by lying down in the face of criticism and the truth will come out only if it has some sturdy and persistent advocates.   

And as Lincoln understood, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, some of the people will be fooled all of the time.