American Notebook: The Politics of the Lie Detector

American Notebook: The Politics of the Lie Detector

In his recent quarrel with the U. S. Army over Schine & Cohn, Senator McCarthy suggested that everyone concerned be subjected to a lie detector test. This proposal, which for the time at least has dropped out of political sight, followed upon a similar suggestion by McCarthy during the debate over the confirmation of Charles Bohlen as Ambassador to Russia. Subsequent analysis of this debate by writers of both right and left paid little attention to this curious proposal; most of them treated it as just another amusing vagary of the McCarthy mind. Few mentioned the fact that he had made the same suggestion during the Malmedy investigation or that Richard Nixon, then in the House of Representatives, had proposed the use of the lie detector during the Hiss affair.

The problem here is not whether the lie detector works; for the sake of argument we may assume that it can do everything it is supposed to do. The problem is, Why the lie detector? Or to put it in somewhat academic terms: What does the perceived appropriateness of the use of the machine tell us about certain orientations to the problems of men and society?

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