This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday February 3 2017.
The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
Sissela Bok is a very brainy person who is the child of two Nobel laureates and the wife of a president of Harvard who inspired the hatred of Richard Nixon. When I was the victim of some particularly egregious lies, I was inspired to re-read her wonderful book Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life. The book was published in 1978 and is still in print and available on Kindle. Everyone should read it.
Bok argues that everyone benefits enormously by living in a world in which a great deal of trust exists – a world in which the practice of truth-telling is the norm. All the important things you want to do in life are made possible by pervasive trust. In a world without trust one would have to waste a lot of time and psychic energy finding out first-hand the truth about the simplest matters.
Lies and Lying Liars
Donald Trump is certainly not the first politician to have told lies. Ronald Reagan said he did not know about the Iran-Contra deal. Bill Clinton said he did not have sex with that woman. Novelist George V Higgins wrote in 1974 about Richard Nixon: “He became a virtuoso of deception, a wizard as a manipulator of reality and facts, and of the nation’s trust.” George W Bush, like Nixon, used smears and lies to become president. The other day, I watched Robert Redford playing the role of CBS anchorman Dan Rather in the movie Truth. Rather was ousted by CBS for allegedly presenting forged evidence on revelations in 2004 about Bush’s National Guard years. Bush, the coward, was running against war hero Senator John Kerry, but the Republicans discredited Kerry’s greatest asset to compensate for Bush’s liability. Witnesses remember Bush drunk and never going near the National Guard while Kerry was being decorated for bravery in Vietnam. CBS wanted Bush to win and branded one of its own as a liar for exposing the truth.
The Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) was created in 2001 to lie overseas for the US, but after an outcry, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quickly announced its closure. However, he was not telling the truth when he said the US government had stopped lying. The OSI’s duties were taken over by the Information Operations Task Force
There is a long history of politicians using euphemisms for telling porky pies. Churchill used the phrase “terminological inexactitude”. Alan Clark wrote in his diaries about being “economical with the actualité. Simon Hoggart did not find Clark convincing: “There’s quite a bit in the diaries which appears just a tiny bit fantastical – not in the Jeffrey Archer sense of being outright lies, but a sort of tweaking of the facts.” Journalists have been having a good deal of fun with Sean Spicer’s ludicrous attempts to inflate the size of the audience at Trump’s inauguration. Kellyanne Conway tried to explain Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts”. This was reminiscent of Nixon’s press spokesman Ron Zeigler announcing, “All previous statements are inoperative”. Trump himself used the phrase “truthful hyperbole,” a term coined by his ghost-writer.
A blatant lie is a “now-disavowed claim.” Intelligence is “discredited,” “dubious,” “disputed,” “tainted,” “flawed,” “suspect,” “questionable,” and “faulty”. Many people caught in an untruth bleat: “My remarks were taken out of context”. We are told about “misstatements,” “false pretences,” and “an assertion not approved by the CIA.” We read of “deficiencies,” “distortions,” “questions about pre-war intelligence”.
There were many euphemisms for lying during the GW Bush era. Senator Carl Levin stopped short of accusing Bush of lying about Iraq: “The key question is whether administration officials made a conscious and a very troubling decision to create a false impression about the gravity and imminence of the threat that Iraq posed to America.” Senator Chuck Hagel referred to one of Bush’s lies as “another example of a very serious inconsistency.” Senator Jay Rockefeller said that Bush’s statements were “potentially misleading”. Al Gore spoke of a “a systematic effort to manipulate facts.” Senator John Edwards talked about the “myths perpetrated by the Bush administration.” One of Bush’s aides said that the president “is not a fact checker.”
Saddam Hussein and Scott Ritter were not so mealy-mouthed. Saddam said, “What will the liars Bush and Blair tell their people and mankind, what will the chorus of liars that backed them say, and what will they tell the world after they wove a scenario of lies against Iraq’s people and leadership?” Former UN weapons inspector Ritter said, “The entire case the Bush administration made against Iraq is a lie.”
Trump’s Lies – a Selection
Truth and Trump have long been strangers. A lot has been made of the fact that Trump won the election by appealing to white working class males who felt disempowered while Hillary Clinton ignored them in favour of harpyish rabid feminism. The Vox journalist David Roberts did a word-frequency analysis on Clinton’s campaign speeches and concluded that she mostly talked about workers, jobs, education and the economy. She mentioned jobs almost 600 times, racism, women’s rights and abortion a few dozen times each.
Maria Konnikova wrote on Politico: “The sheer frequency, spontaneity and seeming irrelevance of his lies have no precedent. Nixon, Reagan and Clinton were protecting their reputations; Trump seems to lie for the pure joy of it. A whopping 70 percent of Trump’s statements that PolitiFact checked during the campaign were false, while only 4 percent were completely true, and 11 percent mostly true.” KONNIKOVA
He lied about the weather at his own inauguration. He lied about releasing his tax returns. He lied about making Mexico pay for his wall. He lied about losing the popular vote and about the election being rigged. He lied about opposing the invasion of Iraq. The more Trump frets about his legitimacy, the more he lies. The more he lies, the less legitimate he appears. Trump relies on the illusory truth effect -the tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure.
There is a method in Trump’s Twitter madness. He posts his tweets to divert attention from the real news. For example, his reaction to the polite protest to the vice president by the cast of Hamilton succeeded in making people forget about the settlement of the Trump University lawsuit.
Relativity and Truth
Forgive me for quoting American philosopher Richard Rorty yet again. “Language is just human beings using marks and noises to get what they want.” This seems to be how Trump operates. The doctrine that there can be no absolute truth seems to have sprung from the discovery that scientists can err and that cultural factors inevitably colour our perceptions. Other philosophers such as Mary Midgley combat this post-modernist relativism, maintaining that without a concept of absolute truth, “how, then, could we describe the world?”
In his bestselling little book On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt defines lies as statements that are not germane to the enterprise of describing reality, promises unconnected with an intention to fulfil. All jurisdictions punish perjury, because justice cannot be done unless all parties adhere to the truth. The absolute language of the oath has a pragmatic purpose. Professor Bernard Williams writes about the two virtues, accuracy (doing everything we can to make our beliefs sensitive to the truth) and sincerity (expressing what one really believes without deception).
Williams sees any person lied to as a victim of an abuse of power who has been put in a powerless position that results in resentment and rage. Trump’s lies have dire consequences.