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September 11, 2009

Everything's a Lie

By: Bernard Chazelle

We are swimming in an ocean of lies. My esteemed colleague Harry Frankfurt calls it bullshit, but he's too kind. When Obama promised he'd fight "the lobbies" and Geithner now works overtime to keep bonus caps off the agenda at the next G20 meeting, does that mean Obama was bullshitting us? No, that would be insulting him. He was lying.

Everything's a lie. You turn on the radio and hear commercials (lies), then some guy tells you we're making progress in Afghanistan (lies). Then you're stuck at the airport and the PA system tells you your plane is only an hour late (lies). The president, of course, is the liar-in-chief. He tells you Afghanistan is a war of necessity (lies) and it is part of the American character to care for one another (funny lie that one). Obama said that, without your trillions of dollars to Wall Street, the world would come to an end. We now know it was a lie. Elizabeth Warren (bless her soul) says that the world of Wall Street would have come to an end but everyone else would have been basically fine. Not long ago, another president assured us that Saddam had WMDs, etc, etc.

The issue, as Kant said, is not the falsehood but the intention behind it. You can lie for someone's good and that can be fine, as in telling a terminally ill patient that she'll be OK. (I know, Kant would not have approved but let's leave the great man alone.) Politicians lie for their own interests, however. They're the dental hygienist and the public is their floss: the means to their ends.

But here's the funny thing. People don't seem to mind very much. This is pure Hegelian alienation: the acceptance that some creatures, by virtue of their function status, are normatively alien from us. They may do things (lie, kill, steal) that no one else would be allowed even to consider. Normative is the key word here, because they can't just do anything. They are strict norms of conduct they must abide by. So a senator who steals a stamp may go to jail, but if the same senator pushes for a billion-dollar bill to favor a baby-killing (military) industry that will make him mega-rich once he leaves office, that's fine. He can go on and give speeches about taking on the baby killers. If a president lies about his intern's extracurriculars, he gets impeached. But if he lies about a bogus threat and bombs the crap out of the Sudan, that's OK. So it's not true that anything goes. The modalities of lying have to be accepted. It's what you might call a normative alienation. See the division of labor: they get to lie and the little guy doesn't, but the little guy gets to approve the norms and they don't. This applies not just in politics but across all modes of power.

Back to lying. Mothers don't lie (though sometimes you wish they did). They don't lie out of love, but love is a private matter of no relevance to the public sphere. No one loves humanity. Nor did anyone love Lady Diana or JFK (except their friends and relatives). Call it infatuation, admiration, idolatry, but that's not what love is about. The proper relation to humanity is empathy and respect, not love. How does lying fit into that? Obviously, lying is showing a lack of respect. But why do we put up with it? Bush lied and was reelected. And even those who opposed Bush pretended to care a lot about the lying but probably not as much as they thought. (Of course, it's self-flattering to oppose someone else's lying.) Suppose Bush had not been lying but had been honestly mistaken and therefore, obviously, still had gone to war. How many Bush opponents would have said, "Oh well, he didn't lie so the war is fine"? The lies bothered us because they made going to war easier. But an honest mistake would have had exactly the same effect. So ask yourself: would you be more indulgent toward Bush if you'd known he'd made a mistake. Probably not. The reason is that your No1. problem is that he wanted to go to war no matter what. This means that the lies disgust us for consequentialist reasons. But Kant would say that consequences shouldn't matter. Being used as a means to an end is the sin in and of itself.

I think Kant has a point, which we forget at our own peril. Some will say: well, the way the game is played, a president must lie in order to get things done. So, yes, Obama's speech was full of lies -- "We're all in this together... (well, except for the bankers and their million-dollar bonuses that I just approved)." -- but if that gets the job done, what's the big deal? The big deal is that a democracy entirely based on lies does not get the job done. (Proof: look all around you. QED.) Those who accept the lies as the price to pay are exactly where the liars want them to be. If you act as a lapdog, don't be surprised if you're treated like one.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at September 11, 2009 08:19 PM

Bush lied about why we were attacked on 9/11. See new video: Purpose of the 9/11 Attacks

Posted by: Tom at September 11, 2009 09:07 PM

Tom: If I get your point, I have a question: Don't most people like whomever Al Qaeda hates?

Posted by: N E at September 11, 2009 09:56 PM

I quite like Al-Qaeda. They're pretty honest I think. You know if I got to know them better that might not be true, so please don't burst my bubble, but you know, I think they play it fairly straight.

Bush was pretty honest for a US president. I mean we go on about him lying about Iraq but frankly everyone knew he was doing it because he was such a crap liar. And look at his take on torture. Every other US president outsourced the job and Bush got into trouble for being too outspoken, too direct, too honest about it.

And he didn't even bother to fake evidence of finding WMDs in Iraq.

Of course faking 9-11 was a bit dishonest ;)

I do think lying is an insignificant moral issue compared to what all they get up to. I think people do feel better about the ones that play it straight though. Perhaps not so much because they don't lie (they all do) but because people appreciate someone with the balls to put it out there without dithering and pretending quite so much.

Posted by: DavidByron at September 11, 2009 10:30 PM

I do not fucking get it. If you say, "I'm not voting for so-and-so because he blatantly lied about a life and death issue" people look at you like you're insane.

The people in this country who vote for the lesser of two evils are weird. Not only do they think it's okay to support the lesser of two evils, they think it's a moral obligation.

Posted by: Christopher at September 11, 2009 11:11 PM

Baby Killing? Are you referring to abortion here?

Posted by: Jenny at September 12, 2009 02:16 AM

I don't know if Walter Mondale was uniformly honest, I imagine he wasn't. But he was honest about the possibility of raising taxes, and got walloped in '84. Bill Clinton promised everybody that he would be a warm, huggable kind of conservative-- essentially-- and was wildly successful.

I'm lying myself, because that's not what Clinton said in '92, but a more accurate description of how he refashioned himself in '95.

But my point is that these are the excuses dems have been telling themselves(the lies they want to hear?)for close to 20 years now, and these excuses are a big part of the reason that dem politicians have been gutless, and conservative ones increasingly bolder and nuttier. (And why Nancy Pelosi is never going to listen to Mike Meyer, God bless him.)

If regular readers of lefty blogs all sit on their hands and stay out of the 2010 midterms, I'm guessing this will reduce turn-out by 1 or 2 percent at the most. If those same blog readers go and vote for whoever among 3rd party candidates make the ballot-- even if it's libertarians-- then presumably 3rd party candidates might poll at 1.5 to 2.0 percent nationally, instead of 0.5 to 1.0 per cent.

But some liberals would blanch at the thought of doing this, in part out of fear that the TV talking heads would spin it as support for social security privatization. (But most who think of doing it but decide against it, I'd wager, would only stop themselves because of the thought that it might mean the republican might get in or stay in.)

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at September 12, 2009 02:21 AM

this blog is consistently the most depressing and the most true thing I read

Posted by: somebody at September 12, 2009 04:18 AM

As I noted in a comment in the thread below, the nice thing about Obama is that he tells you what he is going to do, bad as they are. Of course, the not so nice thing, and what makes him an odious little man, is that he lies about the reasons for trying to do what he says he's going to do. His rationalizations for engaging in evil are spectacular to watch. Your post brings that out beautifully and concisely.

Posted by: drip at September 12, 2009 08:55 AM

"They are strict norms of conduct they must abide by. So a senator who steals a stamp may go to jail, but if the same senator pushes for a billion-dollar bill to favor a baby-killing industry that will make him mega-rich once he leaves office, that's fine. "

There's a general rule here that I need some pithy way to formulate. It's not quite that the interest in a scandal is inversely proportional to its importance, but it's something like that. I think it's more like "the mainstream interest level in scandals small and large is constant, unless the scandal is really really big, in which case it tends towards zero". Though if the scandal is imaginary interest level rises again because then it can be debunked. However, I won't get into that again. Anyway, my proposed rule needs fewer words and more pith.

Your last paragraph about how the game is played and how if we accept this we're lapdogs is exactly right.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at September 12, 2009 08:57 AM

without dithering and pretending quite so much

Yes, they all lie, people with power, whether he is an elected official, or CEO of a bank or a major industrial corporation. But pretending to do something or mean something which they do not intend to do or do not mean.... it is so galling, they think we do not know or understand that they are lying and it is insulting people's intelligence i.e. showing total disrepect. They are the ones that make my blood boil and I want to tell them, 'how dare you?'

And I have never understood, how these corporations that tell lies ( tobacco company or hazardous watse companies etc ) always use women as their spokespersons!

Baby Killing? Are you referring to abortion here?

I believe it refers to armament industry (military-industrial complex)

Posted by: RupaShah at September 12, 2009 10:22 AM

Donald Johnson -

I don't have your pithy formulation, but I often have the same thought. It occurred to me a lot especially back when Rod Blagojevich was in the news all the time. I live in IL and had some reason to be outraged. But why were friends from other states writing to me about it?

I told them all they should be outraged about the Pentagon budget or Billy Tauzin leaping from Congress to PHArMA instead (a pet peeve of mine). But the Blago controversy was pocket-sized, very handy, and didn't threaten anybody important. Hence the systematic disintegration continues happily on.....

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at September 12, 2009 11:26 AM

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Meaning: intentions don't mean shit.

It's quite possible to love humanity, but you better watch your mouth. Loving something just means that you want the best for it (that is ALL). The problem is that if you love the truth and humanity, and you try to hook the two of them up, you are in trouble. Nothing new, ask Jesus, ask JFK, etc etc. Truth is anathema for humanity.

The idea I get from people like Obama, is that he (thinks he) loves humanity, but is indifferent about the truth. He will use his "love" as rationale to do his own will, and convince himself that it is love.

The key word is Rationalize.

Posted by: tim at September 12, 2009 12:03 PM

Jonathan Versen: Quite right, Pelosi will never listen to JUST Meyer. But add a Versen, Schwarz, Shsh, Datesman, Johnson, N E, drip, jenny, Christopher, DavidByron, Tom, and a whole lot of somebodies and she will listen. (of course, ALL will be THROUGHLY investigated, but then EVERYBODY IS being looked at to some level anyways. Its the AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY thing to do.)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 12, 2009 12:13 PM

Add a tim to that. Typo-ShAh- My appologies to YOU Rupa. IF U&I don't tell power what to do then someone else will.

Posted by: Mke Meyer at September 12, 2009 12:20 PM

The main thing that Frankfurt was pointing out was that at least the liar holds the truth to be important.

A bullshitter cares nothing about the truth, but only about getting you to believe what he wants you to believe, he is not interested in the truth in any way.

Posted by: Euripides at September 12, 2009 05:34 PM

"Tom: If I get your point, I have a question: Don't most people like whomever Al Qaeda hates?"

N E, your question struck me as a desperate attempt at obfuscation and you rely on what I think is an assumption about what or who people "like." I think your question is strange but as for an answer I would say not necessarily. And it depends what you mean. Do most people like people who kill Muslim men women and children? I don't think so, so the assumption of your question was wrong. From what I have read, al-Qaeda does hate people who do that.

Are you are trying to claim that when ever some people of a group or nation are victims of violence, that suddenly that nation or group become saints? The heads of ten school children were chopped off (clearly an disgusting act of terrorism) BUT that did not make the white community a bunch of saints. (the school children where white and were targeted by Nat Turner's terrorists)

you wrote "If I get your point," well I say explicitly what my point is in the video Purpose of the 9/11 Attacks which you are asking me about. I use those words so why are you asking be? BTW, do you think it is OK for politicians and pundits to lie to the American people about why terrorists attack?

Posted by: Tom at September 12, 2009 07:22 PM

Tom: I was obfuscated, not obfuscating, but i'm sure it was accidental and certainly not desperate. If I was trying to claim anything, you would have known. When I do that, I just keep on claiming until somebody smacks me.

Posted by: N E at September 13, 2009 02:08 AM