by Maclin Horton

A week never seems to go by without my thinking of these lines from Yeats:

For how can you compete,
Being honour bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors’ eyes.

If judged by the frequency and enthusiasm with which we practice it, lying appears to be an important and valued element of human life. The direct lie, the deliberate falsehood meant to deceive, for the benefit of the liar and the detriment of the one lied-to, is probably no more frequent now than ever. But what Yeats describes seems to be more common than before: lying which, if exposed, brings no shame to the liar. 

In such cases, the liar feels no shame because he is neither honored nor presumed to have his own sense of personal honor. What else can you expect from him? He is regarded with a certain disdain. He has not failed to meet a standard of honesty, but has merely been caught ignoring it. It is as if he tripped and fell, an accident with no moral significance.

Yeats’s friend, in contrast, “being honour bred,” takes a sort of healthy pride in his integrity; he presumes that others will presume it, and intends to behave in such a way that they will have no reason to doubt it. If he gives his word—his word of honor—he cannot fail to keep it without suffering shame and disgrace, in his own and in his neighbors’ eyes. 

We like to mark the turnings of history by events that may not have actually constituted the turning but are effective symbols of it. The late days of Bill Clinton’s presidency struck me at the time, and still do, as such a symbol. The episode marked a point where his supporters witnessed a president lying brazenly and, as far as anyone could tell, unrepentantly, about a very important matter, and chose to accept it rather than give a political victory to their enemies. If the cold civil war that we call the culture war had not been in progress, things might have gone differently. Democrats might not have felt that keeping Clinton in office was a matter of life and death and might have demanded that he resign, as Republicans had done with Nixon a generation earlier. If Clinton had been a nobler man, he would have resigned of his own free will. But neither of those things were true, and so the standard was lowered. And once lowered, standards tend to stay low and only keeping dropping. 

This dreary expectation has been met by our current president and his immediate predecessor. They don’t seem to be ashamed, and their partisans don’t seem to care. It has become less and less effective to attempt to shame a public figure by accusing him of lying, or even proving that he has lied. Yet the frequency of such accusations seems to have increased. It’s as though the shame that should be produced by the exposure of one or two lies of substance can be reanimated by the multiplication of instances and the intensification of the passion with which the charge is made. And since there are no more consequences for making a false accusation than for any other kind of lie, there is no risk in the tactic.

Along with this has come a deterioration of language in which any statement, sometimes even a mere opinion, that can be shown or merely asserted to be false is treated as a lie. The distinction between an error made in good faith and a lie is so elementary that there should be no need to mention it. Without it the question of honesty does not arise, and the word “lie” has no ethical significance. But apparently the obfuscation has some tactical use.

The war which helped keep Clinton in office has grown steadily more intense. Trump’s election renewed accusations of “Liar!” from the Democratic establishment, which of course includes most of the news media. There was certainly some justification for it. I did not support Trump and still regard him as a somewhat ludicrous figure. I don’t think he has much regard for the truth, though most of his falsehoods struck me as jive and bluster which sensible people did not take seriously.

The Washington Post exemplified the scattershot approach in keeping a database of Trump’s “false or misleading” statements. Prudently backing off from the word “lie,” they allowed themselves to paint with the broadest possible brush a picture of extreme and culpable dishonesty. And when he was finally out of office they claimed that he had made thirty-thousand five-hundred seventy-three such statements during his four years as president. That comes to more than twenty a day, every day, for four years. 

I grant that Trump is a uniquely weird case, but did he even utter serious declarative sentences at that rate? How many of those “false” statements were inconsequential errors or meaningless bombast? How many of the “misleading” ones are no different from anything else in our commercial and political culture? This wild number is useless except as propaganda.

And we now have in office another president who has a long history of playing loose with the truth, often in an inflammatory manner (voter identification laws are “Jim Crow on steroids”). Naturally the Washington Post discontinued its database of presidential falsehoods a few months into Biden’s administration, though it continues to fact-check his speeches. 

The culture war in fact has been the ruin of the journalistic establishment, if the collapse of professed ideals can be counted as ruin. Though journalists see themselves, and insist that they be treated, as dedicated to truth, they have made themselves combatants and demonstrated the adage about truth being war’s first casualty. They have turned their work into a weapon, propagating false or misleading “narratives” with a complete lack of the hard-headed skepticism which once was their pride.

Many people have complained for decades, with good reason, about bias in journalism. Now “bias” seems to me an outdated way of thinking about the problem; manipulation by selection and omission have become normalized, and in practice they are a form of lying. If these are not the same sorts of lies that Yeats had in mind, at least it can be said that they seem to give rise to just as little shame.

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