Thursday, August 12, 2004


Lost In A Thicket of Lies

In one of Dashiell Hammett’s stories, "The Golden Horseshoe," his nameless protagonist, the Continental Op, finds himself in a Tijuana bar staring at a sign on the wall—"Only genuine prewar British and American whiskey served here." He is trying to figure out just how many lies that nine-word sign contain. He’s counted four, but is sure that he’s missed a couple, when the action resumes.

Today, we live inside that sign. It’s the 24/7 spin-cycle of the disinfotainment age. There are no simple lies anymore, as there once were, not so long ago. The recent deification of Ronald Reagan reminds us of the last great hurrah of the era of the simple lie. He told us black was white, and that was it. The contra terrorists in Nicaragua and the mujahadeen terrorists in Afghanistan were both the moral equivalents of our Founding Fathers (perhaps even their physical reincarnations, we’d have to ask Nancy’s astrologer).

You can’t get much more black-is-white than that. But Reagan would cheerfully try.

That all changed with the 1988 election. George Herbert Walker Bush was no Ronald Reagan. He could not tell a big lie nearly half as well. He needed help—and plenty of it. Help like Lee Atwater making Willie Horton into Michael Dukakis’s running mate. Help like the military over-running Panama and capturing Manuel Noriega just so that he wouldn’t look like a wimp. Help like the entire Republican Party closing ranks behind him to hinder, frustrate, and demonize Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s Iran-Contra investigation. Things got…complicated.

Complicated in a way they had always been beneath the surface, in the subterranean world that Hammett and Chandler wrote about. But now the complications were seeping through everywhere. The shiny veneer that Reagan had brought to its peak was irretrievably cracked—not in two, but into a thousand pieces.

It only got more complicated with the labyrinth of lies laid out in the hunting of President Clinton, followed by the lies of the 2000 election, and another avalanche of lies in the Florida post-election conflict. John Nichols summed it all up in the title of his book about it—Jews for Buchanan.

9/11 changed all that, or so one might believe. 9/11 changed everything, remember? Remember that lie? Sure you do. The world was divided neatly in two—the perfect set-up for the return of simple lies. There were good guys on one side, bad guys on the other, and torturing bad guys was a moral imperative that only sissies would question. Moral clarity, remember?

But after Abu Ghraib, suddenly, we’re all sissy-boys now.

Can we get a quote from Governor Gropenator of California on that?

We’ll get back to you.


What we need is a way to get a handle on things. You can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and you can’t identify complicated lies without a way of naming them.

Outright lies are simple—a lie’s a lie and that’s that. The New York Times might forbid columnist Paul Krugman from using the word—as it did when he wanted to call George Bush on his lies during campaign 2000. But that’s a separate problem—media self-censorship. Both the Times and Krugman knew what the word was, and what it meant. Our problem is a deeper one—finding the words in the first place.

The classical rhetoricians helped us out with the first level of complication—the naming of logical fallacies. These are ways of taking even true facts, and producing falsehoods as a result. Take the rooster fallacy, for example (post hoc ergo proctor hoc, for all you Latin fans out there). The rooster crows, the sun comes up, the rooster takes credit for the sun rise. Post hoc ergo proctor hoc—after the thing, therefore because of the thing. "Post hoc" for short.

Bush plays the rooster rather frequently. A few months ago, he tried to pretend his "war on terror" was working—despite appearances to the contrary—because terrorist incidents and deaths were down dramatically. No causal relationship could be proven, of course. It was simple, straightforward rooster crow/sunrise logic. Then it turned out that the numbers were bogus. A new report showed more than twice as many terrorist killings as the original. Suddenly, the rooster was silent. No taking credit for that!

But if one rooster fell silent, roosterdom did not. Next, Team Bush was crowing up a storm on the economic front. Tax cuts three years ago. Three months of strong job growth now—cock-a-doodle-doo!

Only it’s more complicated than that—and you don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to figure it out. A couple of mouse clicks, and you could bypass the corporate media filter to go direct to an economics professor’s deconstruction of the multiple lies involved.

Still, the economics professor doesn’t have a way of naming the lies any better than the Romans did 2000 years ago. And that’s what we need, really. A way of naming and communicating about the complex ways in which today’s lies are woven together into a seemingly seamless web. That’s what this blog is all about.

You may have noticed that all the lies I’ve been talking about come from the rightwing side of the political spectrum. There are reasons for that. Not because the right has a monopoly on lying—no one does. And not because people on the right are stupid or evil—no one has a monopoly on that, either. Indeed, the most important reason that lies predominate on the right is because of how much liberals and conservatives have in common. Without those lies to divide them, they very well might discover how much they really have in common. As we begin to examine the lies that divide us, it makes good sense to consider that common ground. That is precisely what we’ll do in our next installment, which considers the lie that liberals are unpatriotic, even hostile to America.

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