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Posts Tagged ‘lies

“A house divided against itself cannot stand”*…

It’s painfully obvious that America is a divided nation. The reasons are many, and have deep roots. Alan Jacobs contemplates three of the most fundamental…

The American Civil War was not that long ago. The last surviving Civil War veteran died two years before my birth. A conflict of that size and scope and horror leaves marks — marks on the land and marks on the national psyche — not readily erased.

I have come to believe that certain habits of mind arising directly from the Civil War still dominate the American consciousness today. I say not specific beliefs but rather intellectual dispositions; and those dispositions account for the form that many of our conflicts take today. Three such habits are especially important.

1. Among Southerners – and I am one – the primary habit is a reliance on consoling lies. In the aftermath of the Civil War Southerners told themselves that the Old South was a culture of nobility and dignity; that slaves were largely content with their lot and better off enslaved than free; that the war was not fought for slavery but in the cause of state’s rights; that Robert E. Lee was a noble and gentle man who disliked slavery; and so on. Such statements were repeated for generations by people who knew that they were evasive at best – the state’s right that the Confederacy was created to defend was the right to own human beings as chattel – and often simply false, and if the people making those statements didn’t consciously understand the falsehood, they kept such knowledge at bay through the ceaseless repetition of their mantras. (Ty Seidule’s book Robert E. Lee and Me is an illuminating account, from the inside, of how such deceptions and self-deceptions work.) And now we see precisely the same practice among the most vociferous supporters of Donald Trump: a determined repetition of assertions – especially that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen, but also concerning COVID–19 and many other matters – that wouldn’t stand up even to casual scrutiny, and therefore don’t receive that scrutiny. It’s easy to fall into a new set of lies when you have a history of embracing a previous set of lies. 

2. Among Northerners, the corresponding habit is a confidence in one’s own moral superiority. Because the North was right and the South wrong about the institution of slavery, it was easy for the North then to dismiss any evidence of its own complicity in racism. Our cause is righteous – that is all we know on earth, and all we need know. (But if our cause is righteous, doesn’t that suggest that we are too?) And then, later, whenever there were political conflicts in which the majority of Northerners were on one side and the majority of Southerners on the other – about taxation, or religious liberty, or anything – the temptation was irresistible to explain the disagreement always by the same cause: the moral rectitude of the one side, the moral corruption of the other. The result (visible on almost every page of the New York Times, for instance) is a pervasive smugness that enrages many observers while remaining completely invisible to those who have fallen into it. 

3. And among Black Americans, the relevant disposition is a settled suspicion of any declarations of achieved freedom. Emancipation, it turns out, is not achieved by proclamation; nor is it achieved by the purely legal elimination of slavery. Abolition did not end discrimination or violence; indeed, it ushered in a new era of danger for many (the era of lynching) and a new legal system (Jim Crow) that scarcely altered the economic conditions of the recently enslaved. After this happens two or three times you learn to be skeptical, and you teach your children to be skeptical. Brown v. Board of Education produces equal educational opportunity for blacks and whites? We have our doubts. The Civil Rights Act outlaws racial discrimination? We’ll see about that. I wonder how many times Black Americans have heard that racism is over. They don’t, as far as I can tell anyway, believe that things haven’t gotten better; but they believe that improvement has been slow and uneven, and that many injustices that Americans think have died are in fact alive and often enough thriving.   

I think these three persistent habits of mind explain many of the conflicts that beset Americans today. And if I were to rank them in order of justifiability, I would say: the first is tragically unjustifiable — and the chief reason why, to my lasting grief, we Southerners have so often allowed our vices to displace our virtues —; the second is understandable but dangerously misleading; and the third … well, the third is pretty damn hard to disagree with.  

As the man [William Faulkner] said: The past is not dead; it is not even past. 

From Jabob’s always-illuminating blog, Snakes and Ladders, “habits of the American mind.” You can follow him at @ayjay.

[Image above: source]

* Abraham Lincoln (in his speech to the Illinois Republican State Convention, Springfield, Illinois June 16, 1858)


As we dwell on division, we might recall that it was on this date in 1787 that an organic act of the Congress of the Confederation of the United States, the Northwest Ordinance. It created the Northwest Territory, the new nation’s first organized incorporated territory, from lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains, between British North America and the Great Lakes to the north and the Ohio River to the south. The upper Mississippi River formed the territory’s western boundary; Pennsylvania was the eastern boundary.

Considered one of the most important legislative acts of the Confederation Congress, it established the precedent by which the federal government would be sovereign and expand westward with the admission of new states, rather than with the expansion of existing states and their established sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation. It also protected civil liberties and outlawed slavery in the new territories and set legislative precedent with regard to American public domain lands.

The prohibition of slavery in the territory had the practical effect of establishing the Ohio River as the geographic divide between slave states and free states from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, an extension of the Mason–Dixon line, helping set the stage for later federal political conflicts over slavery during the 19th century until the Civil War.


“Lying is done with words, and also with silence”*…

The redoubtable John Bayley deconstructs deceit in his 1990 review of Philip Kerr‘s The Penguin Book of Lies

Kipling’s unspoken criterion, that if a thing is well done enough it must be the case, has caught on in a big way. It is all made up by the media, and by those faithful camp-followers of art who tell us on radio or TV what they were ‘trying to do’ when they wrote, painted or composed. The fashionably perceptive novel, like Julian Barnes’s memorable Flaubert’s Parrot, cannot find out what it is looking for, or what is going on inside itself. The fashionable thriller does not know the answers, or which side is which. These reactions against realism discard, often to great effect, the idea of truth as solution. So, fortuitously, did Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, and Stendhal’s Fabrice when he could not find the battle of Waterloo, or be sure that he had taken part in it. That truth is a lie shows that life is stupid: once art could fix that, but now this is not so certain, even of the best art.

As Philip Kerr has perceived, and embodied in his choice of extracts, a self-consciousness about truth goes with scepticism about it to produce the modern science of propaganda. Truth is the first casualty in war, whether hot or cold; when Churchill remarked that truth in wartime was ‘so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies’ he was not just being cynical, like Bacon’s jesting Pilate, but assuming that truth, like right, must be on one’s own side: enemy truth, attended by her SS bodyguard, must be a false creature. As Orwell saw, faith in the truth leads to lying. Since the Party is always right, the concoction of deliberate lies is a moral duty. The victims of the show-trials in Moscow and Prague found relief in the lies they were made to utter. In 1940 Orwell supposed – which is interesting in the light of what happened later in the Soviet Union, and indeed in 1984 – that ‘already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying a historical fact.’ Today science can appear just as much ‘the father of lies’ as Herodotus himself: not because of our appetite for wonders, but because the scientist has become much more aware of the possibilities of propaganda, whether personally or ideologically motivated…

More on the forms of fabrication: “Art’ll fix it,” in @LRB

(Image above: source)

* Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying


As we ponder prevarication, we might rejoice in the naively and nobly inventive: it was on this date in 1605 that El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (or The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha— aka Don Quixote), the masterwork of Miguel de Cervantes (and of the Spanish Golden Age) and a founding work of Western literature was first published. Widely considered the first modern novel (published in the Western world), it is also considered by many (still) to be the best; it is in any case the second most translated work in the world (after the Bible).

Original title page


“Ask no questions and you’ll hear no lies”*…

Police thought that 17-year-old Marty Tankleff seemed too calm after finding his mother stabbed to death and his father mortally bludgeoned in the family’s sprawling Long Island home. Authorities didn’t believe his claims of innocence, and he spent 17 years in prison for the murders.

Yet in another case, detectives thought that 16-year-old Jeffrey Deskovic seemed too distraught and too eager to help detectives after his high school classmate was found strangled. He, too, was judged to be lying and served nearly 16 years for the crime.

One man was not upset enough. The other was too upset. How can such opposite feelings both be telltale clues of hidden guilt?

They’re not, says psychologist Maria Hartwig, a deception researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. The men, both later exonerated, were victims of a pervasive misconception: that you can spot a liar by the way they act. Across cultures, people believe that behaviors such as averted gaze, fidgeting and stuttering betray deceivers.

In fact, researchers have found little evidence to support this belief despite decades of searching. “One of the problems we face as scholars of lying is that everybody thinks they know how lying works,” says Hartwig, who coauthored a study of nonverbal cues to lying in the Annual Review of Psychology. Such overconfidence has led to serious miscarriages of justice, as Tankleff and Deskovic know all too well. “The mistakes of lie detection are costly to society and people victimized by misjudgments,” says Hartwig. “The stakes are really high.”

Science-based reforms have yet to make significant inroads among police and other security officials. The US Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration, for example, still uses nonverbal deception clues to screen airport passengers for questioning. The agency’s secretive behavioral screening checklist instructs agents to look for supposed liars’ tells such as averted gaze — considered a sign of respect in some cultures — and prolonged stare, rapid blinking, complaining, whistling, exaggerated yawning, covering the mouth while speaking and excessive fidgeting or personal grooming. All have been thoroughly debunked by researchers.

With agents relying on such vague, contradictory grounds for suspicion, it’s perhaps not surprising that passengers lodged 2,251 formal complaints between 2015 and 2018 claiming that they’d been profiled based on nationality, race, ethnicity or other reasons. Congressional scrutiny of TSA airport screening methods goes back to 2013, when the US Government Accountability Office — an arm of Congress that audits, evaluates and advises on government programs — reviewed the scientific evidence for behavioral detection and found it lacking, recommending that the TSA limit funding and curtail its use. In response, the TSA eliminated the use of stand-alone behavior detection officers and reduced the checklist from 94 to 36 indicators, but retained many scientifically unsupported elements like heavy sweating…

In a statement to Knowable, TSA media relations manager R. Carter Langston said that “TSA believes behavioral detection provides a critical and effective layer of security within the nation’s transportation system.” The TSA points to two separate behavioral detection successes in the last 11 years that prevented three passengers from boarding airplanes with explosive or incendiary devices.

But, says [Samantha Mann], without knowing how many would-be terrorists slipped through security undetected, the success of such a program cannot be measured. And, in fact, in 2015 the acting head of the TSA was reassigned after Homeland Security undercover agents in an internal investigation successfully smuggled fake explosive devices and real weapons through airport security 95 percent of the time…

You can’t spot a liar just by looking — but psychologists are zeroing in on methods that might actually work: “The truth about lying,” from @knowablemag.

[Image at the top: source]

* James Joyce, Ulysses (barmaid Miss Douce, in “Sirens,” 11.219)


As we deliberate with Diogenes, we might recall that this date in 1954 was, according to the True Knowledge Answer Engine, the most boring day since 1900. The site analyzed more than 300 million historical facts and discovered that April 11, 1954 was the most uneventful news day of the 20th century. No typically newsworthy events occurred at all… though of course now the day has become a bit more newsworthy, because it has the distinction of being so completely uneventful.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 11, 2021 at 1:01 am

“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept”*…



One of the stranger rituals performed by the media in the Trump era has been to keep an obsessive count of the president’s lies since he took office. By September 2018, TheWashington Post reported, he had already passed the 5,000 mark, including a new one-day record of 125 on September 7. The Poynter Institute’s nonpartisan fact-checking project PolitiFact keeps a running list, and The New York Times did likewise throughout 2017.

There is a certain pointlessness to these exercises. Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to Donald Trump should recognize that, since long before his presidential campaign, he lies as easily as he breathes. He says whatever he thinks will get him what he wants, and whatever he thinks he can get away with. But if there is nothing truly revelatory about the number of Trump’s lies, keeping track of them still serves a variety of symbolic purposes for the commentators who repeat the steadily mounting figures with gleeful outrage. One is simply to underline the extent to which this is not a normal presidency. Another, far more debatable, is to hold up Trump as a symptom and symbol of what is often called the “post-truth era.”…

Princeton historian David Bell, reviewing Penn historian Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and History: a Short History

Not only does she make short work of the “postmodernism is to blame” argument; she provides the historical background necessary to understand our current truth crisis. That a crisis does indeed exist, Rosenfeld has no doubt. But it is not one that came upon the Western world from nowhere, like a meteor strike vaporizing a peaceful pastoral landscape. Instead, it broke along an epistemological fault line that has existed in modern democratic regimes since their founding: Who has the authority, in a democracy, to determine what counts as truth—an elite of the supposedly best, most intellectually capable citizens, or the people as a whole?…

Rosenfeld cannot resist mentioning the Trump lie count at the start of her book. But rather than treat it as a shocking sign of the new “post-truth era,” she uses it to note the obvious fact that truth and democratic politics have “never been on very good terms.” If we are now living in an age of unprecedented mendacity, what was the Nixon administration? For that matter, no less an American icon than George Washington complained, at the end of his presidency, of the “ignorance of facts” and “malicious falsehoods” with which hostile newspapers had tried to destroy his reputation.

Rosenfeld also insists (borrowing, yes, from Foucault) that different societies exist under different “regimes of truth.” Not all truths are self-evident, and not all facts are easily verifiable, so societies need particular evidentiary standards and forms of authority to determine where truth lies. These can change from place to place and from era to era; they are rarely (if ever) stable or uncontested, but continuities are still discernible.

Our own regime of truth dates back to the 18th century, when a host of Enlightenment thinkers challenged established churches and rulers. They insisted that no single individual or institution should “hold a monopoly…on determining what counts as truth in public life” and disputed the idea—long promoted by absolute monarchs—that good rulership involved keeping most information secret and lying when necessary to protect the state. They put a premium on the values of openness, transparency, sincerity, freedom of expression, and unfettered debate. In short, they created the “truth culture of the transatlantic Enlightenment.”…

How does truth fit into democracy?  Read in full at “An Equal Say.”

* George Carlin


As we contemplate context, we might recall that it was on this date in 1825 that the U.S. House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams to the Presidency.  The election of 1824 had been contested by four candidates from the Democratic-Republican Party: John Quincy Adams, Andrew jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay.  Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote, and a plurality– but not a majority– of the electoral college vote… so the race went to the House of Representatives.  Per the Twelfth Amendment, the House considered the top three vote-getters in the electoral college.  That eliminated Clay, who threw his support to Adams– who prevailed.

After the election (the first in which a president did not receive the most popular votes; so far the only race settled in the House), Adams named Clay to the coveted post of Secretary of State– deemed “the corrupt bargain” by Jackson, who went on to form (what evolved into) the Democratic Party.  The Democratic-Republicans became the National Republican Party (AKA, the Anti-Jackson Party), then the Whig Party.

lossy-page1-220px-JQA_Photo.tif source



Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted”*…



“Joesph’s Tunic” by Velasquez (in which Joseph’s sons lie to him…)

On the sad occasion of the passing of scholar, showman, and sleight-of-hand expert nonpareil Ricky Jay, your correspondent revisited this 2009 interview, conducted by another remarkable, filmmaker Errol Morris in the late, lamented New York Times‘ Opinionator blog….

We think we know what a lie is, but the moment we try to define it, we run into trouble. Take the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary. (A dictionary definition in an essay should be seen as a red flag, or at the very least, an amber cautionary light, but please bear with me.) According to the O.E.D., a lie is “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” The O.E.D. complicates matters by telling us that to deceive is “to cause to believe what is false, to mislead as to a matter of fact, to lead into error” [emphasis mine] [6]. It also tells us that “in modern use, the word [“lie”] is normally a violent expression of moral reprobation, which in polite conversation tends to be avoided, the synonyms falsehood and untruth being often substituted as relatively euphemistic.” This is where the trouble begins. Are “falsehood” and “untruth” really synonyms for a “lie?” Is lying an attempt merely to mislead or an attempt to get someone to believe that which is false? Or is lying used in two different ways? Here, I believe the O.E.D. is merely reinforcing a standard confusion. I would argue that all that is needed for lying are beliefs about what is true or false — not knowledge of what is true or false.

The fact that there are these two senses of lying gets us into trouble. When we focus on intent, the goal of lying seems utterly clear. When we focus on truth and falsity, we are often led into error…

Read it and reap: “Seven Lies About Lying, Part One and Part Two.”

* Mark Twain, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”


As we think about trickery, we might send mannerly birthday greetings to a master of the sly deception and the flattering white lie, Baldassare Castiglione; he was born on this date in 1478.  A Renaissance soldier, diplomat, and author, he is most famous for The Book of the Courtier.– a prime example of the courtesy book, offering advice on and dealing with questions of the etiquette and morality of the courtier– which was enormously influential in 16th century European court circles.

Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione



Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 6, 2018 at 1:01 am

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