Tag Archives: Lying

Lying to my face

One of the many perplexities of the study of argument is that people often (but not of course always) deploy bad arguments to favorable audiences. You don’t straw man an opponent to their face–you do it to people disposed already to find your interpretation acceptable.

This raises an interesting question: I’m guessing that at least sometimes these audiences know that you’re doing it. They know you’re lying to them about your opponent’s view. Do they just not care? Or do they put up with it for “strategic” reasons?

This question came up yesterday in regard to Trump’s constant lying. It turns out, according to one report, that his supporters just do not care. An excerpt:

Robin Pierce, the owner of a men’s clothing store in Newark, said he doesn’t think anybody wiretapped Trump. But Pierce, 70, was almost gleeful as he offered an explanation for Trump’s claim.

“I think Trump just did that to freak them out — they were giving him bad times, so he gave them bad times. Mess with their brains,” he said.

He broke into a loud laugh.

“I like that,” he said. “Because we’ve had so much crap in Washington for years, and now we have someone shaking ’em up really good.”

Well, this is not reassuring. But here’s some research on point:

This research — and those stories — highlight a difficult truth about our species: We are intensely social creatures, but we’re prone to divide ourselves into competitive groups, largely for the purpose of allocating resources. People can be prosocial — compassionate, empathic, generous, honest — in their groups, and aggressively antisocial toward out-groups. When we divide people into groups, we open the door to competition, dehumanization, violence — and socially sanctioned deceit.

“People condone lying against enemy nations, and since many people now see those on the other side of American politics as enemies, they may feel that lies, when they recognize them, are appropriate means of warfare,” said George Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist and one of the country’s leading scholars of the presidency.

Unsurprisingly, people who tend to view these issues as a part of a contest or argument-as-war narrative are likely to act accordingly. This means foregrounding group-cohesion or coherence of a simple message has higher strategic value than getting some opponent’s view just right.

You Lie!

In an article on why it's wrong to call someone whose accuracy is deeply questionable a liar is out of bounds, Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal goes full Godwin:

The Obama campaign's resurrection of "liar" as a political tool is odious because it has such a repellent pedigree. It dates to the sleazy world of fascist and totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s. It was part of the milieu of stooges, show trials and dupes. These were people willing to say anything to defeat their opposition. Denouncing people as liars was at the center of it. The idea was never to elevate political debate but to debauch it.

The purpose of calling someone a liar then was not merely to refute their ideas or arguments. It was to nullify them, to eliminate them from participation in politics. That's what is so unsettling about a David Axelrod or David Plouffe following accusations of dishonesty and lies with "whether that person should sit in the Oval Office." And that is followed by President Obama himself feeding the new line in stump speeches without himself ever using the L-word.

For those who are new to the idea, Godwin's law has it, on one corollary at least, that one loses an argument as soon as one compares one's opponent to Hitler.  What's ironic about this employment of it is that there is a much easier argument against the "liar" accusation: it's not true. 

Sadly, that is a road Mr.Henninger has not taken.  He can't, of course, because that road is closed.

He is enough of a historian

Some may have heard of Saul Alinsky from Fox News or Newt Gingrich (same thing, of course).  The Chicago Tribune has a short piece on a book about him.  It included the following puzzling remark by the book's author:

"Newt realizes this is just an act, saying Alinsky is a dangerous radical. Gingrich is enough of a historian to know what Alinsky was about," Horwitt said. "This is something that he is feeding to a part of the conservative right. (Alinsky) was not a bomb-throwing radical by any means."

Newt, you mean, is lying.

Stand down

A few posts back (and for a couple of posts) I remarked on the tendency of "liberal" pundits to separate themselves from the "liberal" candidate by frequently criticizing him or her, usually for failing to look enough like the conservative candidate.  Yesterday Ruth Marcus provided another excellent example of this–going after one of Obama's campaign lines for "misrepresenting" John McCain's record.  I wouldn't quibble with the criticism, my view is that no one should misrepresent anything.  But there is a question of scale. 

We have on the one hand Obama, in Marcus's world guilty of a straw man for not criticizing the strongest versions of McCain's one-time social security plan (Obama said had McCain had his way, many people would now be in dire straits–when in reality, only had this crisis happened a few years on, would people be in dire straits on account of McCain's plan–oops!).  Obama probably is guilty of that logical offense.  It's an offense nearly too typical, in my estimation, for one even to remark upon.  Candidates thrive by knocking down weak versions of each others' policy positions.  Obama didn't need to do it, however, as his point was independent of the specific facts of the case–in a privatized social security market, he had been saying, this is the sort of thing that could really doom us.  And no doubt he's right about that.

But that's not my point.  Marcus, for some reason, wanted to even the truthiness playing field, where McCain and Palin lie repeatedly and without apparent consequence about nearly everything, and Obama misrepresents McCain's position once.  Marcus bent over backwards for apparent even-handedness.  

To my very great and growing surprise, however, Marcus's righward colleagues, usually lockstep in their defense of their guy, have shown me to be astoundingly and thankfully wrong.  Here, for instance, is George Will:

Conservatives who insist that electing McCain is crucial usually start, and increasingly end, by saying he would make excellent judicial selections. But the more one sees of his impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events, the less confidence one has that he would select judges by calm reflection and clear principles, having neither patience nor aptitude for either.

It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?

Ouch. Notice also for a moment the huge difference between Will and Marcus.  Marcus takes Obama to task all of the time (and for the stupidest of reasons–such as he's not "regular" enough); Will, if you look at his recent posts (and search our Will archive) has almost never directly challenged the rightward guy.  He's made, in fact, a rather valient effort in recent days to make McCain's case (arguing, in one instance, that maybe one should not think about the economy, since life has so much else to offer than just money).  

There goes my theory about the right wing pundit corps, my theory of the non-existent left wing pundit corps still stands, for the moment.  

An Army of One

Perhaps I don't need to make the point (again) that there is essentially is no mainline liberal pundit army.  There are liberal pundits, maybe lots of them, but they don't work with the kind of mission-oriented military discipline as their conservative counterparts.  They're more likely, in fact, to criticize the liberal guy than to advance his arguments.  For more on that, see here.

Having said that, all of the griping about Obama not being forceful enough in his response to McCain's sea of BS seems somewhat misplaced.  Obama is only one guy.  McCain is more than that.  He has in the first place an army of pundits who will either repeat his talking points, or invent their own arguments to advance his cause, which they may see to some extent as their cause.  While George Will, for instance, may not emphatically support McCain, he cares enough to argue that whether one is economically better off should not matter anymore as a reliable guide in the current election.  It's a ridiculous argument, but it comes out just in time to support McCain and it seems in fact that Will thought it up all on his own.  No one needs to tell him McCain needs help.  On top of this pundit army, McCain also has a television network (Fox), and legions of well-disciplined bloggers. 

On top of this, of course, Obama can't even count on the press.  Here, for instance, is an actual exchange on the TV about the McCain campaign's tendancy to make stuff up:

ROBERTS: That would appear, Paul, to end any argument over whether or not she supported the bridge initially. But why can't Barack Obama make that point stick?

Roberts, a journalist, responsible for separating the true from the false, wonders why Obama can't make the point that the true and the false are different.  That's Roberts job, at least in a normal world.  What does Roberts say?

ROBERTS: We still have 56 days to talk about this back and forth.

That's just nuts.

With that, when Paul Krugman, not a huge fan of Obama, says:

Did you hear about how Barack Obama wants to have sex education in kindergarten, and called Sarah Palin a pig? Did you hear about how Ms. Palin told Congress, “Thanks, but no thanks” when it wanted to buy Alaska a Bridge to Nowhere?

These stories have two things in common: they’re all claims recently made by the McCain campaign — and they’re all out-and-out lies.

Dishonesty is nothing new in politics. I spent much of 2000 — my first year at The Times — trying to alert readers to the blatant dishonesty of the Bush campaign’s claims about taxes, spending and Social Security.

He's virtually alone.  If Obama is having trouble, this is part of the reason why–there seems to be only one top shelf pundit making actual arguments in his favor.

Slow boat

As many may remember, the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" made up stuff about John Kerry in order to call into question the veracity of his accounts of his naval service.  As false as the stories were, the media couldn't get enough of the interesting questions such scurrilous accusations raised.  Should the media, the media wondered, cover such obviously malicious and false accusations?  There was an episode of Nightline in which Chris Bury (I think it was him) asked the viewers whether they found it to be an interesting fact that the media were covering this story.  In other words–don't you find it interesting that I am writing this–I do.  But most of all, people obsessed over what Kerry's response to the swift-boating said about him.  Everyone knew in polite society that the charges were false, but Kerry seemed so powerless to respond to them, didn't he?  Maybe that means the liar–the ones who make or refuse to dismiss such baseless charges, such lies (lies is the word I think for the things a liar says, I ask because I rarely hear it said)–has the advantage, that perhaps Kerry is weak and ineffectual.  That, I think, is the thought of a profoundly warped mind.

A warped mind–very much like Richard Cohen:

What Obama does not understand is that he is being Swift-boated. The term does not apply to a mere smear. It is bolder, more outrageous than that. It means going straight at your opponent's strength and maligning it. This is what was done in 2004 to John Kerry, who had commanded a Swift boat in Vietnam. Kerry had won three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star and emerged from the war a certified hero. It was that record that his opponents attacked, a tactic Kerry thought so ludicrous that he at first ignored it. The record shows that he lost the election.  

Cohen's point is not that the tactic of "Swift-boating" ought to be exposed for the lie that it is, but rather that Obama–the recipient–ought to learn to respond, because his response has been ineffectual so far:

"It's a real puzzling thing," Obama said matter-of-factly. And then he went on to recount his experience as a community organizer, ending with the observation that "I would think that that's an area where Democrats and Republicans would agree."


It is true that on the stump, Obama goes on the attack. But those are fragments — maybe 15 seconds on the evening news. It is with extended interviews, such as the Sunday shows, that we get to visit with the man — and that man, for all his splendid virtues, seems to lack fight. Maybe he's worried about how America would receive an angry black man or maybe he's just too cool to ever get hot, but the result is that we have little insight into his passions: What, above all, does he care about? The answer, at least to the Sunday TV viewer, was nothing much.

And this is the response the Swift-boater is looking for.  It's a clever, but completely immoral tactic.  But it only works as long as there are people like Richard Cohen, who cannot bother to care whether something is a lie.  Instead of using his perch at the Washington Post, and his position as an alleged liberal commentator, to call a lie a lie and to talk about liars, he falls right into the trap.  

Ad matrem et filium

Is this charge from Kathleen Parker just a lie, a reverse ad hominem tu quoque, or nutpicking?

Politicizing Bristol Palin's pregnancy, though predictable, is nonetheless repugnant and has often been absurd. It may be darkly ironic that a governor-mother who opposes explicit sex ed has a pregnant daughter, but experienced parents know that what one instructs isn't always practiced by one's little darlings.

We try; we sometimes fail. There are no perfect families and most of us get a turn on the wheel of misfortune.

Were it not for the pain of a teenager who didn't deserve to be exposed and exploited, the left's hypocrisy in questioning Palin's qualifications to be vice president against the backdrop of her family's choices would be delicious. Instead, it leaves a bad taste.

Would anyone ever ask whether a male candidate was qualified for office because his daughter was pregnant?

Some also have questioned whether Palin, whose son Trig has Down syndrome, can be both a mother and a vice president. These questions aren't coming from the right—so often accused of wanting to keep women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen—but from the left.

Did someone switch the Kool-Aid?

I wonder this because Parker doesn't name anyone who makes those charges–no, saying "the left" doesn't count as naming anyone.  She might even be able to find someone, perhaps some anonymous diarist at the Daily Kos, but that would be nutpicking: trolling the comment threads of blogs looking for the person who says just what you need them to say, claiming all the while such a person represents "the left" or ("the right" for that matter).  But doesn't even bother to do this minimally sophistical thing.  That would at least give some cover to the false assertion.

It's clear that she wants to make the charge of hypocrisy.  But in order to do this she ought to have some minimum of purported hypocritical behavior.  So rather than speciously misrepresenting some particular charge against Palin, Parker has just made something up. 

Where I come from (Michigan), that's called "lying."

And it's still lying even if it's on the opinion page.