There is pleasure in the wet, wet clay,
When the artist’s hand is potting it.
There is pleasure in the wet, wet lay,
When the poet’s pad is blotting it.
There is pleasure in the shine of your picture on the line
At the Royal Acade-my;
But the pleasure felt in these is as chalk to Cheddar Cheese
When it comes to a well-made Lie.–
To a quite unwreckable Lie,
To a most impeccable Lie!
To a water-tight, fire-proof, angle-iron, sunk-hinge, time-lock, steel-faced Lie!
Not a private hansom Lie,
But a pair-and-brougham Lie,
Not a little-place-at-Tooting, but a country-house-with-shooting
And a ring-fence-deer-park Lie.
What’s a lie, anyway? The question is not so obvious. One might say it’s an untrue statement, which seems a bit harsh, as it makes habitual liars out of all of us. A while back I wrote that the Supreme Court’s decision in Buck v. Bell was unanimous, when it was actually 8-1. Was I lying, or was I merely mistaken?
Or one might say that it’s a statement that one knows to be false. In this case I’m off the hook for Buck v. Bell, which I thought was unanimous. Of course you will have to take my word for that, and therein lies the difficulty. You have no access to my inner life, or anyone’s except your own. The Bedlamite may really believe he is Napoleon Bonaparte.
Predictions, by any standard, cannot be lies. As a rule any statement in the conditional or future tense is disqualified. When Bush says that we will find WMDs in Iraq, he can’t be lying if we turn out not to find them. When Max Sawicky writes that “the biggest lie…is the Bushist denial that a successful Iraqi occupation would require many more troops than it is currently within the power of the U.S. to station,” he is discussing a policy disagreement, not a lie, unless Bush has personally informed Max that he knew better all along, which I rather doubt. When Howard Owens lists among anti-war lies that “there will be 500,000 dead and wounded,” “Saddam will destroy his oil fields,” “the Arab street will revolt,” and “there will be more terrorist attacks on the United States,” sorry, but those aren’t lies either.
This is not to say that Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell et al. weren’t lying. Maybe Powell really did fabricate evidence of Iraqi WMDs for his UN speech, although that would be pretty foolish, and Powell has been accused of many things but rarely foolishness. Maybe all of Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s talk about Iraqi-sponsored terrorism was calculated to distract the public from their secret plans for world hegemony. Maybe. The point is I don’t know, and neither do you.
In general trying to catch politicians lying is a fruitless exercise. They are expert in avoiding it. Even the First Golf Cheat had to be subpoenaed before he was finally nailed in a ring-fence-deer-park lie. Error is objective, and for the most part we would be best off sticking to that. It makes for less catchy slogans though.
(Update: Howard Owens comments.)