Entry from November 13, 2015

Way back in 2012 in the pages of The New Criterion, I wrote an essay (see "Lexicographic Lies" in The New Criterion of October, 2012) on the subtle re-definition of the word "lie," which has had a much more profound impact on our public life even than I realized at the time. Briefly stated, the idea was that in virtually every up-to-date dictionary, the distinction between "lie" and "mistake" has been elided by the elimination from the definition of what had once been thought crucial to the meaning of the word, which was any intention to deceive. I wondered at the time whether this had been done retroactively in order to justify the chant of the anti-war left, "When Bush (or Blair) lied, how many died?"

Of course, neither Bush nor Blair had lied according to the traditional definition of the word. They (or their intelligence reports) had merely been mistaken about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. But it is one of the little-recognized legacies of the Western honor culture that the word "lie" still has a special potency derived from folk memories of the time — not so long ago, after all — when "Are you calling me a liar?" was the invariable prelude either to violence or to retreat. Only the other day, Bill O’Reilly used it to hint of his own righteous outrage, if not impending violence, against George Will for accusing him of poor sourcing in his book about Ronald Reagan.

Since my article was written, I have been amused by attempts by the media to reclaim the older definition of the word when it is one of their own whose veracity is being questioned. Glenn Kessler, the "Fact-checker" of The Washington Post did this the other day in attempting to debunk Marco Rubio’s claim in the third Republican debate that Hillary Clinton had lied in attributing the murder of four Americans in Benghazi in 2012 to an anti-Islamic video. The funny thing is that the context makes it clear that, in Mrs Clinton’s case there was "a deliberate effort to deceive" — however careful she was not to say directly that the attack was caused by the video, since keeping it before the public eye was her best means of deflecting blame from herself and the administration for their ill-preparedness to meet a situation that should have been foreseen.

As a side note, Mr Kessler has also, in my view, been promiscuous with much more dubious claims that Republicans have "lied" about this or that, though he also seems to want to extract some of the sting from the charge by making it in the form of little cartoon heads of Pinocchio at the end of his column. Being a liar can’t be so bad after all when it is seen in the context of a children’s story. Nothing to get violent about, anyway.

Now the Post has joined in with a more general media effort to portray Ben Carson as a liar, though it generally prefers to use words like "fibbing" (also attributed to Donald Trump) or "fabulist" to convey that impression. Mounting their spavined but still impossibly high horse, the Post’s editorialists found it incumbent on them to wag their fingers and scold: "The truth still matters, Mr. Carson." Well, yes; it does. But so does common politeness, and nowhere more than in politics. Free speech does not mean freedom to lie, but it does mean freedom for those we disagree with to take a much more latitudinarian approach to the truth than we think can possibly be justified, since we may be sure that they think the same about us. In those circumstances, to forbear from making allegations of bad faith against one another, let alone from treating mistakes and slips of the tongue or memory as instances of bad faith, looks like being a precondition for any discussion at all that is not mere name-calling.

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