July 2, 2017

Another Way to Describe Trump's Lies, This Time The St. Augustine Way




Iam not going to pick the NYTimes description of Trump lies over Wired or vice versa. I am posting about the phenomena in the way a man that gets where he wanted to be, a pinnacle that very few successful and rich can win. Trump is even said he didn't even think he could do it (I added "without big help") to the man that has already made it there and now has a chance to make a difference. Not to pay off favors or votes but to do better, to make a difference on people's lives. If health, eduction, equality for all Americans and national security are not things to make a difference on then why else would we need a president? 

[This time is Adam Rogers at Wired]

Just look at the finials and crenelations the Timeshas built onto this wall. These aren’t merely “dubious statements” or “careless errors.” No, the key details that make these lies bad are that the President uses them “to serve his purposes.” They are “deliberate.” Like philosophers before them, the Times writers are saying lies are bad if the liar knows they’re untrue and means them to do bad things. The key is intent.
I don’t think they go far enough. Occasionally the President and his spokespeople have tried to wriggle out of the intent trap, as when White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump was “kidding” about inviting Russian hackers to become involved in the presidential election. They’ve also attempted to deflect, saying, essentially, that the press lies about him, so, who you gonna believe? So it’d be good to have some other ways to categorize and think about lies—some different heuristics.
It turns out if you want to talk about lies, St. Augustine is the main dude. “Whoever utters that which he holds in his mind either as belief or as opinion, even though it be false, he lies not,” Augustine wrote around 395 AD. “Not that he is without fault, although he lie not, if either he believes what he ought not to believe, or thinks he knows what he knows not, even though it should be true.” In other words, Augustine applies intent as a criterion. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re a dope, but you’re not necessarily a liar.
So by Augustine’s lights, if you think the President is a cretin (or at least uninterested in the details of governance), then you don’t also get to call him a liar. Another story in the Times suggested that even senators don’t think the President understands the upper house’s version of a health care bill. Plenty of first- and second-hand accounts of conversations with Trump say or imply that he doesn’t know stuff. That’d put him on the “dope” side of the dope/liar spectrum.
Come on, though. Trump might be someone’s useful idiot, but he can’t be that useful or that much of an idiot. Which means he falls under Augustine’s broader criteria for lies and their badness. To Augustine, the severity of a lie depends on who benefits (and how) and who gets hurt (and how). Saving yourself from pain or death? Probably OK. Hurting someone else to gain money or power? Bad. Without getting inside the President’s head, no one can know the known knowns and known unknowns behind the Times list of lies. So Augustine doesn’t get him off the hook.
Thomas Aquinas had a different heuristic: “A jocose lie is told in order to make fun, an officious lie for some useful purpose, and a mischievous lie in order to injure someone.” Again: It’s the target that matters, not the weapon … except in a fourth, special case, lies told just because the liar delights in deceiving for its own sake. The jocosity exemption might cover some of the lies, but surely not all. We still couldn’t know which lies were “useful” or just aimed at injury.
At least in the quotes I’ve cherry-picked, these old guys haven’t taken into account imbalances in power between the liar and the lie-ee. I don’t think I’m being too post-modern here. Even a small lie from the most powerful person on Earth is more consequential than a massive one from my seven-year-old son. No matter what the intent of the lie, the power of the liar makes a difference in how the lie lands.
Sisela Bok, who famously wrote about lies in the aftermath of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers scandals, said that liars are often able to convince themselves they’re not doing anything wrong. Specifically, they take themselves off the hook when they think their lies avert harm, are harmless themselves, or protect a secret. Combine all that with a liar who thinks he’s working for the public good, and you get “the most dangerous body of deceit of all,” Bok writes. “Rulers, both temporal and spiritual, have seen their deceits in the benign light of such social purposes. They have propagated and maintained myths, played on the gullibility of the ignorant, and sought stability in shared beliefs. They have seen themselves as high-minded and well-bred—whether by birth or by training—and as superior to those they deceive.”
Trump may indeed see himself as high-minded and well-bred. Despite all the stories about his apparent lack of interiority, I’ll at least assume that the President sees himself as the protagonist of his own story—the good guy. But just as a matter of observation, Trump’s lies don’t look like a 12-dimensional-chess framework designed to serve some greater good. He looks like he’s trying to dominate his perceived enemies, to humiliate people, to cast himself in what he thinks is a good light. When Trump says something that contradicts something else he’s said, he doesn’t seem to notice or care. It’s a weird kind of zen, in-the-moment lying. It’s all id. There’s no, ahem, executive function saying, Don’t say that! It doesn’t make sense! It’s not internally consistent!
Strikingly, Bok doesn’t call out only political and societal leaders for thinking themselves immune from the rules for truth-telling. She throws journalists in the same box. Just like the President does. That’s what he means, I think, when he sprays accusations of fake news—sorry, FAKE NEWS. Those attacks land not only because he’s saying the press lies, but that the press thinks they—we—can get away with it. Bok says much the same, that journalists often believe they can only get a story, fulfill the ideals of the profession, by dissembling. That hasn't been my experience.

A few days after the Times posted its lie wall, three respected reporters resigned at CNN after the network retracted a story about the investigation into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia. Some media associated with the political right and the President pounced on this as “evidence” of CNN’s fake news-ness (To be sure, others complimented CNN on the ruthlessness with which it had enforced the ethics of my profession.)
By the Augustinian-Aquinian-Bokkian heuristics, publishing a news article and then retracting it is not lying. If the network had known the story was false, and only retracted it in the face of criticism, that would meet the criteria. But then why also pressure the reporters and editors to resign? It’s possible, that the network found out that the reporters and editors had acted with intent, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Even while some other reporters saw CNN’s response as an overcorrection, the retraction and resignations are evidence of a system self-correcting in the direction of truth. (No, I can’t explain the side of the CNN operation that allows "experts" to come on the air and overtly lie or dissemble, but I tell myself it must make the solid reporters of CNN’s news division as crazy as it does me.)
But now I’ve let myself get distracted by fake-news shouting—which is the point of it. For the President and his adherents, appropriating and disseminating the “fake news” notion serves a dual purpose. It plays into the rampant what-aboutism that has made political arguments so much less fun in the past six months—"I'm lying? Well, they lie more!" But more importantly it muddies the very idea of truth. It leaves a little scratch on whatever lens all of us use to find the truth for ourselves. Those scratches build up; eventually the lens will be opaque. “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie,” Bok writes, “but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”
To Trump and his followers, it doesn’t matter if we can’t believe the President as long as they ensure we can’t believe anyone else, either. Sure, the apotheosis of all this will make traditional governance—passing laws, making treaties, regulating in the public interest—impossible. But the people in charge will be able to do all kinds of other stuff while no one’s watching, or while no one can see. They can change regulations to make them more favorable to allies and donors. They can figure out how to suppress their opponents’ voters. They can embed moneymaking enterprises into governance. The tsunami of lies will recede, leaving behind only the swamp.

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