Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Robert Redford

Easy Lies the Head

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday February 3 2017.

Colman's Column3

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

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?”




Truth Matters

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.


Nixon Part Four

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday December 29 2016

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Hiss Case as Paradigm

Nixon was always proud of his part in pursuing allegations that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. Alger Hiss (November 11, 1904 – November 15, 1996) was an American government official who was convicted of perjury in 1950. Before he was tried and convicted, he was involved in the establishment of the United Nations both as a US State Department official and as a UN official. Nixon would always consider the Hiss case a defining moment in his career and included it as the first of the “six crises” he described in his political memoir of the same name.


Anthony Summers, in his Nixon biography The Arrogance of Power, considered that the Hiss case was a paradigm for Nixon’s later career because of several themes that it brought out.

  • Delusion: Nixon could not resist exaggerating his own role. Robert Stripling, chief HUAC investigator, called Nixon’s account “pure bullshit”.
  • Addiction to intrigue: Nixon’s journalist friend Walter Trohan believed Nixon developed “a weakness for playing cops and robbers in the Hiss case. Maybe this led him to countenance Watergate”.
  • Vengeance: Nixon questioned the competence of the judge in the first Hiss trial and wanted to prosecute the foreman of the jury.
  • Resentment of the elite: The Ivy League types that Nixon detested thought Hiss could not be guilty because he was from their class.
  • Persecution complex: Nixon thought people were out to get him because of the Hiss case whereas he was repeatedly out to get others.
  • Rage to blame others: attorneys Vazzana and Stripling who worked on the Hiss investigation said Nixon became viciously abusive with them when evidence was questioned.
  • Cracking under pressure: he drove himself beyond his limits going without food and sleep and family life. During the Hiss case Nixon started using sleeping pills.



Perhaps Nixon’s greatest crime was to conspire to scuttle the Vietnam War peace talks on the eve of the 1968 presidential election. Nixon tried to project an image of himself as a peacemaker on Vietnam but had been an early adopter, disagreeing with Eisenhower, for sending in ground troops. He plotted to prolong the war for his own political advantage.

President Johnson surprised everyone by announcing a peace initiative in the form of a bombing halt. On March 31 1968, LBJ declared he would not be running for re-election. “I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing.” Peace in Vietnam was the last thing Nixon wanted at that point as it might hand the election to Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Nixon wanted to take the credit for ending the war himself.

Anna Chennault was the Republican party’s chief female fundraiser. She had friends in the South Vietnamese government and at Nixon’s bidding persuaded them not to participate in peace talks. Three days before the election the FBI sent LBJ a wiretap report that Chennault had contacted the South Vietnamese ambassador telling him “hold on We’re gonna win”. President Thieu announced that South Vietnam would not be sending a delegation to the Paris peace talks. LBJ correctly described Nixon’s scheming as treason and the Logan Act of 1799 provides severe penalties against private citizens who interfere in negotiations between the US and foreign governments.


Humphrey lost the election. With Nixon as president the war went on for another four years; 20,763 more Americans died; 109,230 South Vietnamese soldiers died; 496,260 North Vietnamese fighters died.

Cambodia was secretly bombed without congressional approval and when the truth emerged during Watergate one congressman, Robert Drinan, described Nixon’s actions as “conduct more shocking and more unbelievable than the conduct of any president in any war in all of American history”. The bombing contributed to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime – two million Cambodians died.


Nixon was fortunate to avoid prison for his part in the criminal activity and cover up relating to the Watergate affair. Fourteen of his associates who thought they were doing his bidding served jail sentences. Nixon avoided impeachment by resigning.


Much has been written about Watergate and I read a great deal of it with great fascination as well as following the news as it unfurled. Briefly here is what happened. On June 17, 1972, a security guard found five men in the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. FBI agents establish that the Watergate break-in was part of a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon re-election effort. On January 30, 1973, former Nixon aides G Gordon Liddy and James W McCord Jr were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate incident. Five other men pleaded guilty,


The FBI discovered a connection between cash found on the burglars and a slush fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP or CREEP), the official organization of Nixon’s campaign. An investigation conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee revealed that President Nixon had a tape-recording system in his offices and that he had recorded many conversations and the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the president should release the tapes to government investigators. The tapes revealed that the president himself was directly implicated in trying to cover up activities that took place after the break-in and used federal officials to impede investigations. There has been speculation that Nixon was trying to find out what dirt the Democrats had on him about the Chennault affair, funding from the Mob or his role in Cuba. Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974. On September 8, 1974, his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him.


Watergate led to calls for greater controls on fund raising as well as condemnation of government surveillance. The achievements of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein led to them being portrayed onscreen by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffmann. Aggressive investigative journalism enjoyed a vogue.


How do the effects of Watergate look after 40 years? The tactics covered by the term “Watergate” were used in the name of national security to attack political enemies. Could that happen today? We were already getting nostalgic about Obama before he left because we were so horrified at the prospect of Trump. Obama may have had the excuse of an obstructionist Congress for failing to achieve some of his aims. However, in matters of national security, he exercised largely unchecked powers. After 9/11, national security concerns (much as during Nixon’s formative years of the cold war) have presented a good argument for unimpeded presidential powers in all areas of national security, just as the Executive Presidency was argued to be a good thing in Sri Lanka in order to defeat the LTTE, but still remains seven years after the defeat of terrorism. I have just been watching Oliver Stone’s film Snowden. It seems that the courts, the Congress and much of the public now tend to agree with Nixon: “When the president does it, it’s not illegal.”


During his election campaign, Donald Trump seemed to believe that if he were to be elected he could do anything he wanted. He could lock up Hillary Clinton just by telling his Supreme Court to get the job done. He could deport Mexican immigrants by diktat and build a wall to prevent more coming in and expect Mexico to pay for it. He could lock up Muslims. He could stop the press criticising him. Richard Nixon tried all that kind of stuff and ended up losing the presidency he had wanted so much.

Trump probably did not want the presidency as much as Nixon did. To Trump, the election was an advertising campaign for Trump Enterprises and the surprise bonus of the real presidency itself provides a unique marketing opportunity. Nixon was intense about politics, Trump not so much. Nixon was thwarted. Can Trump be thwarted?

Next week – did Nixon have any good points?



It’s a Jungle in Here!



Sir Thaddeus O’Grouch

 I wrote this on Open Salon back in 2009 under yet another of my multiple identities.

A despatch from our correspondent in Sri Lanka.


My dear wife, Lady Tourette O’Grouch, is engaged in philanthropic work like distributing potato peelings to the serfs, thrashing the minions, or, like that Jane Seymour character on the electric television thingy, bandaging the indigent. I do not hear any screams of terror, which is the usual indication that she is carrying out a job appraisal review.

I see my faithful manservant, Kotte (Old Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer) asleep in a heap exuding kasippu fumes and on the point of spontaneous combustion.

Little Dobbie Driblette, the maid of all work, “shod in shoes of silence”, is gainfully employed pilfering items from the stores under the mistaken belief that because her own eyesight is poor, I cannot see her. Not only see but smell – there is an indescribable fetor surrounding her like a miasma and one can register her presence at several hundred yards.

The Buddhists have a concept of merit arising from good works – they call it ping – and we have long tried to inculcate the idea of the merit of good works into Dobbie but the idea of any kind of work is anathema to her. No ping but plenty of pong.

I am in the kitchen attempting to make myself a restorative koppe (I am quite the new man, you see. Not like these Sri Lankan boy-men or Irishmen who are proud that they cannot make themselves a beverage without the assistance of some female)

It rather disconcerting to observe that the sugar is on the move. Huge red ants are trying to make their escape from the jar.

In an ancient comedy show on the steam wireless thingy, the English comedian, Tony Hancock, complained to his housekeeper, Griselda Pugh (played by Hattie Jacques, a huge, mountainous woman who wobbled when she breathed) about her lack of culinary skills. “My mother was a rotten cook but at least her gravy used to move about a bit.”

Personally, I prefer my food to be immobile, meat to have been already slaughtered before it arrives on my plate. After a night on the ould arrack, I can cope with the tremors of my hands (Lady Tourette chaffs me that the tremors are my notion of foreplay!) but I would like the sugar to keep still while I am making a strong coffee in the morning.

I don’t much like the way, in another jar, evil little weevils are reducing the chick peas to gram flour.


Later, when I am on the old Thunder Box, taking a relaxing constitutional, scanning the newspaper in vain for cheerful tidings, mosquitoes the size of small helicopters emerge from the toilet bowl and swarms of wasps land on my head.

In the shower, a small frog, the size of a mung bean, with big bulging eyes like Ray Bans, glares at me. A larger frog, warty as Robert Redford, leaps around the tiles.

Taking an improving tome from the extensive O’Grouch library, I discover that I am holding only the spine in my hand and a pile of dust; armies of white ants are hurtling about the shelves carrying their eggs. The library ate my books.

There was a small hole in the plaster in the baronial hallway of O’Grouch Towers. Without my bleary eyes noticing, it had got bigger and bigger. I steeled myself to peer into the hole and – the horror, the horror; begorrah the horror- there was something moving in there! During the daily downpour which refused to stay outside but came tumbling through the roof and ceiling and flooded the floor, the creatures emerged, huge flying ants that soon formed a foul fog that obscured the whole interior from sight.

Similar creatures are eating away at the brand new wooden frame of the window in the master bedroom.

Outside, the rains flushed out numerous scorpions like prehistoric humvees and centipedes like malevolent moustaches.

Opening the hood of the newly acquired Grouchmobile, I find that some hooligan elements of the rodent domain have set up home as squatters therein and have been eating various bits of foam and plastic. No doubt, they will soon set to work on something important like the brake cables.

During the day a serpent eagle rides the thermals looking for snakes full of frogs which are full of ants and flies. I think it may have its eye on the cat, which is full of geckoes.

Huge skrawking crows circle doomily around the Muslim slaughterhouse next door.

Relaxing in the crepuscule surveying the O’Grouch estate with a bumper of claret in my hand, eye-flies laying eggs on my long lashes, beetles like Stukas (or is it Fokkers?) diving into my hairy ears, I helplessly watch several leeches attached to my ankles rapidly taking on a corpulence the colour of the claret. Lady Tourette was recently severely discombobulated to discover one of the little buggers securely attached to her left buttock.

Small, but probably rabid, bats fly dangerously close to my face. Much larger sinister bats, hang like innumerable Christopher Lees from the Sapu trees.

Large frogs hop about eating the flying ants. Coucals and snakes carry away the frogs for supper.

At night, sleep is impossible because of frogs and crickets chirupping away cacophonously throughout the night and unidentifiable creatures (polecats, mongooses, elephants?)  wandering around in the roof space. I am unable to move because the family cat, Minnie the Merciless, sits on my groin like a broody grumpy hen trying to hatch my family jewels. What sounds like something rather large arrives in the ceiling at the same time every night and applies itself assiduously to gnawing away in a determined fashion at the timberwork. I think it may possess a drill. Soon it will consume the electric cable. I am afraid to sleep on my back with my mouth open for fear of what might fall therein. Once there was a frightful clatter and squawking and I found that two huge rats had fallen from the ceiling and were fighting in the kitchen sink.

Frequently there is the patter of tiny feet in the ceiling accompanied by frenzied eeking and a ponderous slithering followed by silence. One day, the shower area was populated by tiny mousicles, each the size of a thumbnail.

True darkness never descends on the bedroom. Fireflies blazon the night, roosting in my hair like stars. It is like trying to get to sleep inside a fully lit Christmas tree.

One of our hounds, Cerberus, I think it was, or maybe Fang, Zoltan or Gnasher, I am not sure, was kicking up an awful row last night. This morning there was a small, chewed-up civet cat on the driveway, by its mouth was a small chewed-up mouse. What did that Irish fellow – Swift was it? – say about ad infinitum?

Dawn breaks with an ecumenical decibelling from various denominations. I think it is the Mosque that starts the competitive cacophony with a call to prayer. Next, the Hindu Kovil joins in with some wailing followed closely by pirith from the Buddhist temple. Bringing up the rear, we have bells from the Anglican Church. All of these are on tape so they can all crank up the volume in their attempts to outdo each other.

Red in tooth and claw, or what?

It is a jungle in here!

 Who is in charge here?



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