Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising to find Dr. Johnson in circulation during his tercentenary year. He was quoted in a recent article on the health care debate:

Intellectual integrity is not only an abstract virtue; it is a tool for constructing sensible public policy. If we damage that elegant and essential apparatus, no such happy outcome is possible. I do not refer to the occasional exaggeration or elastic fact or massaged statistic; such misdemeanors are common to nearly all parties in nearly every debate, an unattractive but endurable feature of democracy. I refer only to rhetoric that defies reason, oratory that the proponent knows or should know to be untrue. We call such things falsehoods, and most ethical systems, secular and religious, discourage them.

Alas, the prevaricator who sincerely believes his lie transforms it, at least to himself and his confreres, from deceit to ideology. They think he is telling the truth. Dr. Johnson put it this way in The Idler, No. 10: “Of all kinds of credulity, the most obstinate and wonderful is that of political zealots; of men, who, being numbered, they know not how nor why, in any of the parties that divide a state, resign the use of their own eyes and ears, and resolve to believe nothing that does not favor those whom they profess to follow.”

Lacking a Debate Umpire, our best recourse is aggressive skepticism. Each adversary must be alert to the frauds and follies of the other; each ordinary citizen must be vigilant for the deceptions of both.

Cohen quotes Johnson and also Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” a great touchstone for those seeking to discover the political mendacity of the times but sadly a bit overused at this point. Perhaps a moratorium on Orwell is in order, now that he’s been thoroughly internalized.

Cohen gets extra credit from me, however, for pulling out an apt Johnson quote. And he gets further gold stars for not quoting the good Doctor out of context. Political debate does seem to call forth a special kind of willful blindness from those involved.

Anyone interested in reading the entire Idler essay from which the Johnson quote comes can do so here.

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