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Truth to Tell

What would the Greek philosophers make of P.J. Crowley?

On March 10, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley committed the sin of speaking frankly. During a talk at MIT, he was asked by a researcher to explain the treatment of Bradley Manning. Though he did not think Manning’s treatment amounted to torture, as the questioner had alleged, and though he thought the commander at Quantico was acting within his legal authority, Crowley nevertheless said that the conditions of Manning’s detention were “ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid.” Three days later, Crowley was out of a job.

As a philosopher, I found his remarks fascinating. The ancient Greeks had a term for Crowley’s actions. They called it parrhesia, the ability to speak one’s mind even when doing so involves social risk. Crowley’s remarks were striking because parrhesia is rarely practiced in American politics, and almost never practiced, at least on the record, by government spokesmen. I wanted to know more about what Crowley had done, so I arranged to meet him for lunch in Washington.


Going into our conversation, I realized there was a possibility that Crowley had simply spoken impulsively. But as our lunch progressed, it became clear to me that Crowley understood what he was doing. When I am interviewing someone, I do not just listen to what they say (and, in any case, I did not expect to extract a backstory from a seasoned spokesman). Instead, I listen for the moment when I can hear their life’s energy enter their words. One of the words that I heard Crowley say with this kind of energy was “credibility.” The Vietnam war was a formative experience for Crowley, as it was for so many other members of his generation. At Holy Cross, he was ROTC corps commander, and he entered the Air Force at a time, as he put it, “of great tumult.” “Our country was being torn apart, but that was rooted in a loss of credibility and, in the case of Watergate, a loss of nobility.” Of Vietnam he said, “The media didn’t lose Vietnam. What lost Vietnam was the loss of credibility because of a gap between what we were saying and what we were doing, and what people saw. ... Having come into the government at the tail end of the Vietnam war, I thought if ever I was in the position I was in, I would try to keep the gap as narrow as possible between what we would say and what we were doing.”

Crowley did not talk about parrhesia, and I did not want to play the role of philosophy professor and raise it with him. But he was clearly saying that he had spoken frankly on purpose. He emphasized that if the MIT researcher’s question had been different—something more anodyne, like, “What about Bradley Manning?”—he would have given a different answer. “But,” he explained, “the question posed by an American citizen was, ‘Why are we torturing Bradley Manning?’ It was a question that, in my judgment, I needed to answer. If I ducked the question, I would have left at least him—if not a larger group—disillusioned. Going back to this relationship between the American people and its government: I thought it merited an honest answer.”

With his talk of credibility and the relationship between people and government, Crowley was not just saying that he had meant to speak frankly. He was making a point about the relationship of parrhesia to government—about the importance of frank speech in politics. One of the clichés we have inherited from the Vietnam era is the concept of speaking truth to power. The paradigm is protest. But Crowley, as I understand him, was working from a different paradigm: speaking truth as power. For diplomatic speech to be successful, he was saying, it must be persuasive; and it cannot be persuasive if it isn’t frank. Frankness requires a willingness to answer difficult questions on the spot, sometimes manifesting the obvious truth that bureaucracies do not really speak with a monolithic voice. Sometimes, as in the case of Crowley’s comments, it is simply a matter of saying what everyone already knows.

We have entered an era in which persuasive political speech is going to have to be frank speech. In the age of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and 24-hour news coverage, we all know too much for things to be otherwise. My point is not that new media technologies are inevitably taking us in the direction of truth. At the moment, 25 percent of the American people think Barack Obama was not born in the United States, while another 18 percent say they don’t know, and the Internet has played a crucial role in sustaining this nonsense. Because of its openness and pervasiveness, the Web will continue to be a source of gossip, misinformation, and prejudice. But it is also true that, for all their drawbacks, these technologies have the capacity to cast a glaring light on discrepancies between what our diplomats say and what our country is seen to be doing. And when the discrepancies grow too large, diplomats’ words are emptied of meaning. Parrhesia in this new century is going to be a diplomatic requirement.

This is the context in which to understand Crowley’s remark. It is not simply that he was speaking frankly. It is that he was heard as speaking frankly; and that at least opened up the possibility for him to speak persuasively on other subjects. Parrhesia created a space of trust.

President Obama does not seem to realize this; he seems to be sticking to a worn-out paradigm about the nature of political speech. Asked about Manning’s treatment, he said this: “With respect to Private Manning, I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assure me that they are. I can’t go into details about some of their concerns, but some of this has to do with Private Manning’s safety as well.” This is an attempt at judicious speech that fails because the evasion is simply too obvious. Obama does not say that he has looked into the charges and found them baseless—only that he asked the Pentagon and they gave him assurances. In the moment, Obama’s sights seem to be set on maintaining protocol, protecting the Pentagon from embarrassment, and projecting the image of a president who stands with the military. This is not the remark of someone whose sights are set on our core value of presumed innocence; it is not the remark of someone concerned that an individual is being mistreated on his watch—and it is obvious that this is so. In this era of instant scrutiny from all angles, the avoidance of parrhesia comes across not as judicious, but as evasive and untrusting.

Imagine what a remarkable moment it would have been if Obama had asked Crowley to stay in his job. Suppose, in response to a question about why he was not fired, Obama had said, “We are a country of competing views, with honest and honorable disagreements. Our government has room to express those differences openly. Mr. Crowley may have spoken more bluntly than is to my taste, but it is certainly true that in pre-trial confinement a person charged with a crime must be treated as innocent until proven guilty.” Here, Obama would have been invoking our highest ideals while also acknowledging that parrhesia is tolerated, even encouraged, in the United States government. It is that kind of moment that would make us the envy of the world.

Jonathan Lear is a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. This article originally ran in the May 26, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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