Entry from November 12, 2002

Speculation by the top Democratic thinker and strategist, Barbra Streisand, that there may have been foul play in the death of the late Senator Wellstone, is only the latest example of the poisonous political atmosphere which I discuss in “The Scandal Lobby” in this month’s New Criterion. The Republican victory in the recent elections seems to have made this even worse. In the latest number of The Nation, for instance, Eric Alterman boldly and courageously comes right out and says: “President Bush is a liar. There, I said it, but most of the mainstream media won’t.” There follows a philosophical discursus on the timidity of the media — and he doesn’t mean liberal columnists like Paul Krugman or Michael Kinsley who are quite happy to call the president a liar but news reporters and editors — in labeling official White House statements as “lies” at the time they are reported. “Part of the reason is deference to the office and the belief that the American public will not accept a mere reporter calling the President a liar. Part of the reason is the culture of Washington — where it is somehow worse to call a person a liar in public than to be one.”

One hates to burst Mr Alterman’s bubble, but it is not “the culture of Washington” against which he has his gripe. It is rather the culture of the West, of Europe and America, in which it is and always has been “somehow” worse to call a person a liar than to be one. And not only worse but much, much worse. He should go back and read the dueling manuals of the 16th century, where the theory of the mentito, or giving a man the lie, was first formulated. Lying, that is, is often in the eye of the beholder, hard to pin down and even harder to identify as a product of the will to deceive. But to say to someone, “You lie,” is clear, unambiguous and deadly. Or at least it was back in the day — the day of the duel. A man was then expected to care more for his honor than his life and therefore could not allow himself to be called a liar without challenging the man who dared to call him so to deadly combat.

The reason why some people in Washington are still reluctant to give the lie long after duels have ceased to be fought among the gentlemen, or even the ladies, of our political classes is illustrated by Mr Alterman’s own article. For he goes on to detail “just two particularly egregious examples” among the many lies he alleges against the President but otherwise fails to specify. Both of them have to do with the offensive capabilities of the Iraqi war machine. Presumably the President’s estimates of same strike Alterman as excessive. Perhaps they are. But they are in any case “unverified” (as he admits) and, indeed, unverifiable. What he is calling a “lie” is thus not a lie at all in the usually accepted sense of a statement demonstrably contrary to fact, since the alleged falsehood is no more verifiable than the alleged truth. An Alterman “lie” is itself a lie, by its own definition.

But of course this is a definition that no one but the most fanatical partisan would accept. Such a bizarre idea of “lying” is really just a dysphemism for the unwillingness of Alterman — like Representatives McDermott and Bonior or Dana Millbank, whom Alterman accuses of pussyfooting for writing that “For Bush, Facts Are Malleable” and citing a “Presidential Tradition Of Embroidering Key Assertions” — to trust their president. This refusal of trust is as damaging to the political process as any lie could be. Politicians of both sides engage in what Alterman calls “lying” all the time. It is in the nature of politics. Politics could not be conducted without it. On what planet would the leaders of his own party thunder forth in public not, as Mr. Alterman does, that the Bush administration is leading the country to ruin — opinion, not fact — but that the Bush administration is doing things that some people think is leading the country to ruin?

To call it “lying” when forceful opinion is stated as fact is to refuse, in effect, to take part in the political process, which depends absolutely on the presumption of good faith on the part of political opponents. Even our old friend the liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof writes that his fellow Democrats are showing signs of turning as rabid over Bush’s supposed falsehoods as some on the right did over Clinton’s, writing that “the intelligent left is dumbing down and showing signs of slipping into a similar cesspool of outraged incoherence. It’s debasing and marginalizing itself by marshaling epithets rather than arguments.” Amen to that, Nicholas D.

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