Jun 142003

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.

–Rudyard Kipling

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.)

  31 Responses to “A Ring-Fence-Deer-Park Lie”

  1. Of course a prediction can be a lie–if the person making the prediction believes that the prediction is, in fact, unlikely to come true, and is stating it anyway with intent to deceive. After all, the predictor is saying–if he expects to be taken seriously–that based on his experience, expertise, and intuition he believes that such-and-such is likely to happen.

    That is, he can’t lie about whether the predicted event will happen or not–but he can lie about his belief in its likelihood.

    I’m picking nits, of course.

  2. Hey, that’s what blogging’s for, right? But you are right of course: there is an implied "I believe" in front of every prediction, which makes it a lie if you don’t really believe it.

  3. I know, of course, those aren’t (at least by my definition) lies. But that was the point. Meaning, that if you’re going to accuse Bush of this category of lie, then own up to your own lies about the war. Oh, you weren’t lying, you were just predicting, oh, then Bush wasn’t either. ("You," of course, doesn’t mean you, Aaron.)

  4. Howard: Fair enough, but you might have made that clearer in the original post. Or perhaps I’m just a bit thick.

  5. >You have no access to my inner life, or anyone’s except your own

    brings back the lovely memories of moral relativism arguments, doesn’t it… am glad you’re finally switching, aaron 🙂

  6. Switching? You must have misunderstood me in the first place. In general, I am and always have been for abstracting away from motive, which is nothing but trouble and requires information that we never have. Accusations of lying are one form of wallowing in that muck. Save motive for fiction.

    But all of this has nothing to do with moral relativism. Mass murder is evil, no matter who does it or for what reasons.

  7. i hope we’re not gonna get into this again, but being moral is simply having your actions conform to a set of principles. the set could be internal (moral relativism) or external (moral absolutism).

    certain actions are evil and should be punished by law, but this has nothing to do with morality of the action.

  8. This thread reminds me of the discussion about Bill Bennett, and whether one can reasonably accuse a public figure of hypocrisy. Is it really that hard to spot this stuff? I think not. Simply to examine a bit further Aaron’s example, how about when President Bush told a Polish TV reporter last month, "We found the weapons of mass destruction," apparently referring to a couple of trucks that could maybe, possibly have been outfitted to produce WMD (though no tests were able to demonstrate that this had in fact happened). How on Earth can we describe the President’s statement as anything but a lie?

  9. Alex: This takes us well beyond the scope of this thread, but briefly, to what does "evil" refer if not to some (external) moral standard?

    Michael: Your slip is showing. Your — unsourced — example suffers from the same problem as Max Sawicky’s: it assumes access to Bush’s inner life that you do not have. Accusing one’s political opponents of lying is really just another form of ad hominem. Bad, bad Republicans!

  10. Aaron, just type "We found the weapons of mass destruction" into Google and you’ll find dozens of references to Bush’s statement. As for his "inner life" — what exactly do I need to know about it in order to know that he’s lying? If Coalition forces had, as Bush claimed, "found the weapons of mass destruction," don’t you think that the public would know about it? And if there were a security reason that we couldn’t know about it, then Bush wouldn’t have made the public statement.

    In fact, he made the statement right after Coalition forces found the two "mobile labs." We had no idea whether these trucks had ever even used to produced WMD, let alone finding any weapons themselves. But niceties like this do not matter to liars. Bush pulled the sort of media-based bait-and-switch that his mentor Karl Rove is becoming well-known for: say a lie loudly and publically, and most of the people you’re lying to will never hear all the hedging, backtracking and fudging that follow, even as the analysis and repudiation of your lie consumes the media elite. Thus it is that something like half of all Americans think that we’ve already found WMD in Iraq, and (if memory serves) close to half think Iraq is partially responsible for 9/11.

    Of course I despise the Bush White House (what’s not to despise?), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t liars. You’re the one guilty of ad hominum here, aren’t you?

  11. To point out the obvious political motivation of these remarks is in no way ad hominem. Even party shills can be right, just as blind squirrels happen onto acorns. It is also irritating that you expect me to do homework to prove your point.

    The mobile trailers, however, are open to interpretation. I wouldn’t have called them "weapons of mass destruction" myself, but I wouldn’t call someone who did a liar either. But you seem to have no such scruples.

  12. You’re right, I don’t. A mobile trailer which *could* be used to make weapons, but bears no physical trace of said chemicals, cannot reasonably be called a weapon of mass destruction itself. Bush surely knew, when he made the statement, that Coalition forces hadn’t found actual weapons yet; nonetheless, he chose to tell the world that we had done so. That, my friend, is a lie, plain and simple.

  13. If plain white envelopes with a little bit of white powder can kill numerous people, stop Congress from sitting and wreck havoc to the postal service, then finding the means of the production of the powder (which even blind squirrel Blix admits to having existed) would constitute discovering a means of production of weapons of mass destruction. Not exactly right but not a lie either.

    To paraphrase Springsteen, "Is a nightmare a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something better?"

  14. Michael, for Chrissake, could you miss the point of the post by a longer stretch? Calling something that might be used to produce a biological weapon a biological weapon may be mildly inaccurate, but to call it a lie robs the term of any meaning. Think about the bona fide lies that you have told or been told in your life, and compare and contrast.

  15. Don’t spoil their therapy, Aaron. The left is still suffering from their whole-hearted defense of a fairly creepy man.

    I don’t really believe, however, that it is so difficult to infer motive from action. We do it all the time, and often on far less evidence than politicians provide us. In fact, we need to do it. Of course, our judgments usually wouldn’t stand up in court, but that is a high standard. My problems with the "Bush is a liar" theme are different.

    The first is that it isn’t that hard to discern that Bush is not the kind of person who lives well with dishonesty. As Montaigne tells us, dishonesty consumes a lot of mental energy, and Bush doesn’t strike me as someone who wants to work that hard. I don’t doubt that he would stretch the truth to please people, but his history doesn’t suggest a manipulative person.

    The second is that politics is and always has been a bit of a shell-game, and below a certain level it just isn’t interesting to point this out. No successful politician can be entirely honest because the electorate does not want to hear bad news. Those who want to selectively interpret the evidence will always be able to do so.

  16. Too lazy to lie, eh? Maybe so. I’m interested in your remark that we "need" to separate motive from action. Could you elaborate?

  17. I’m not sure I would call it laziness; just a desire to limit stress.

    As to motive and action, I would compare the distinction to the distinction of theory and evidence. Evidence almost always underdetermines theory, i.e., theory tends to assert more than evidence can establish. It is the theory, however, that enables us to comprehend the evidence and make predictions for the future. Determining motive seems important to me in the same way. We are trying to judge character, and need to make that judgment for the actions of an individual to hang together.

  18. Eddie, if you’re suggesting that I — apparently of "the left" — need "therapy" because I defended Saddam (that’s the best I can make of your remark), you’re wrong; I’ve supported this war all along, and do so today. Taking out that regime was the right thing to do, period, whether we ever find WMD there or not.

    That doesn’t absolve our President of the charge of dishonesty, though. Aaron writes:

    "Calling something that might be used to produce a biological weapon a biological weapon may be mildly inaccurate, but to call it a lie robs the term of any meaning."

    How absurd. The term "weapons of mass destruction" is quite clear; it refers to weapons that can be used to kill large numbers of people at once. A mobile bio-lab, while certainly an indicator that such weapons might exist somewhere, is not a weapon itself, period. And the damn labs checked out CLEAN, anyway. Either

    A) Bush actually believed, based on practically zero evidence, that the discovery of these trucks constituted a smoking gun, or

    B) His statement to the European media was a deliberate attempt to mislead listeners, which is about as clear a definition of a lie as one can muster.

    You can believe A if you find it credible. I do not.

  19. Eddie: I’m not sure that people’s actions "hang together" at all. I sometimes do things for no reason, or at least none I can access, don’t you? I find general evaluations of "character" a very slippery business indeed.

    Michael: In other words, when you say you don’t find choice A "credible," you are willing to call someone a liar on the basis of speculation about his inner life. Which was the point of the post.

    By the way, I’m sure Eddie meant not Saddam, for whom "fairly creepy" hardly suffices, but Clinton.

  20. Michael: I guess since my comment came in the midst of your exchange with Aaron that you thought it directed at yourself, but I didn’t intend that. I was only responding to the original post. And Aaron was right that I meant Clinton; it seems pretty clear to me that the need to paint Bush as a liar is fueled (for many, not perhaps yourself) by the belief that Clinton was treated unfairly.

    Aaron: People’s actions probably don’t hang together in the sense of being consistently rational, but it is hard for me to imagine that they really happen for no reason at all. Your inability to access all of those reasons is evidence that we are not always the best judges of ourselves. Still, however slippery the business is, it seems imperative to undertake it. My previous response to Michael makes that point, I believe. He may still disagree with my argument, but I hope that he realizes I was not accusing him of being either a leftist or a defender of Hussein.

    Any you didn’t respond to my analogy to theory and evidence. Didn’t you like it?

  21. Spelling mistake – change "Any you…" in the last sentence to "And you…".

  22. Well, if we’re going to bring Clinton into it, "I did not have sex with that woman" is about as blatant a lie as one can imagine. 😉

    Aaron, I did understand the point of your original post. I just don’t feel that we always need to make assumptions about a public figure’s "inner life" to accuse him of dishonesty. We know enough about a contemporary President’s daily security briefings, and the intel that goes into his public remarks, to hazard a pretty fair guess about what Bush knew by the time he spoke to that Polish TV crew. It isn’t Bush’s statement that I found non-credible; it is the theory that he could have believed at the time that we really had found WMD. I do not believe that he could have believed that, and therefore I believe he knowingly lied.

    But enough; this dead horse is starting to stink.

  23. Aaron:

    I think your definition of a lie is too narrow. Making a claim that one knows to be untrue is one kind of lie, but making a claim that one knows something to be true when one does not know it to be true is another, and that’s the kind of lying the administration seems to have engaged in with regards to Iraq. I’ll concede that almost all our politicians now engage in this sort of lying all the time, but it’s still lying, and one does not have to accept it as inevitable–as most people now seem to do. It corrupts the republic. And we live in a very corrupt republic.

  24. Agreed, John, about the types of lying if not your overall assessment of America’s level of corruption, which I suspect is actually pretty low by historical standards of government.

    Meanwhile, just this week the White House showed us yet another example of lying: the lie of omission. As reported in the Times yesterday, a long-awaited EPA report on what is known (and not known) about environmental problems was bowlderized at the last minute by the White House, which reduced a long section on global warming to one paragraph about the need for "further study." The Bushies don’t like the issue, so they, quite literally, censored their own EPA.

  25. Michael, that’s enough. There is no such thing as a "lie of omission" — for all your protests about understanding the post, each subsequent remark makes it clear that you did not — and this is not a Bush-bashing forum.

  26. Aaron:

    What do you mean there’s no such thing as a "lie of omission?" If I am on a witness stand and am asked a question and my answerr is not "the truth, the WHOLE truth, and nothing but the truth"–as I understand it–them I am guilty of perjury. Outside a courtroom, that’s known as lying, which is the common word for dishonesty with words.

    And with regard to Bush-bashing, your posting fairly begged for it. Bush lies all the time, although I will concede that in this he differs from Clinton mainly to the extent that he’s a blither and ballsier liar. Clinton weasled on the truth, but Bush lies through his teeth.

    Of course, all this is just how things look from my seat in the Peanut Gallery.

  27. John: It’s nice to see Michael get some sympathy around here for once. I’m acquainted with the words of the oath. However, to my knowledge, no one has yet been convicted of perjury for failing to tell the whole truth, whatever that might mean. If you have a contrary case I would like to see the citation.

    My point was that what are commonly called lies are mostly cases of confirmation bias, and that unproven accusations of lying merely poison discourse. The instances that you and Michael cite do nothing to disprove it.

  28. Now at least you will know what you are all lying about:

    lie1 [la]
    verb (lies, lying, lied)
    1 [intransitive] to speak untruthfully with intent to mislead or deceive

    2 [intransitive] to convey a false impression or practise deception
    example: the camera does not lie
    3 an untrue or deceptive statement deliberately used to mislead

    4 something that is deliberately intended to deceive

    5 give the lie toa to disprove
    b to accuse of lying
    Related adj: mendacious

    By the way, Sisela Bok’s book on Lying is pretty good, but somewhat narrow.

  29. "Meaning, that if you’re going to accuse Bush of this category of lie, then own up to your own lies about the war. Oh, you weren’t lying, you were just predicting, oh, then Bush wasn’t either."

    You’re either thick or dishonest or both. The "category" was

    "Of course a prediction can be a lie–if the person making the prediction believes that the prediction is, in fact, unlikely to come true, and is stating it anyway with intent to deceive."


  30. "Calling something that might be used to produce a biological weapon a biological weapon may be mildly inaccurate, but to call it a lie robs the term of any meaning."

    This is so blatantly dishonest that to *not* call it a lie robs the word of any meaning. These mobile labs were scoured for even the slightest trace of agent, and none was found. This is a part of a pattern of deception, including forged Niger documents, claims that tiny drone planes could deliver horror to American cities, and on and on and on and on.
    You intellectual frauds of the right can micro-parse what "lie" means all you want, but deception is deception without any need for a mind-reading device, you know it, and we know it.

  31. Ah, a refreshing (and anonymous) blast of cool reason: "thick," "dishonest," "intellectual frauds of the right." If you stamp your feet petulantly a few more times you might make it so. The major point was that calling one’s opponents liars is just a particularly noxious form of tu quoque, in which you yourself seem to specialize. But apparently "we" which refers, I take it, to all righteous-thinking people are interested only in continuing to argue that they are liars. They are! They are too!

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