Hack Gaps and Noble Lies

by John Holbo on December 9, 2018

These days we are healthily cynical about the omnipresence of motivated reasoning in cognition and communication. Everyone is working to fool everyone, starting with themselves. (It used to be you had to read Nietzsche to learn this stuff. Ah, those were the days.)

Self-delusion squeezes the space for deliberate deceit. It is tempting, then, to believe that lies – that is, conscious untruths, told with deliberate intent to induce false belief in an audience – are … well, let’s start by saying: rarer than you might think. Let’s talk politics. When politically-motivated untruths are told, tellers are as victimized as audiences. To a first approximation, everyone is high on their own supply.

Politics is complicated. It’s easy to make mistakes and miss things and not understand things and not know relevant things. It’s easy to spend your scarce attention on convenient truths and downplay inconvenient ones. The will to believe will have its way.

So if someone says: politics, all lies! You should correct them: mostly delusions.

I confess to a skepticism about bullshit, in Frankfurt’s technical sense. Truth-indifferentism, that is. It’s interesting and real, but I tend to think the intense, self-righteous desire to have truth on your side swamps that effect. Indifference to truth doesn’t explain much. It’s a noble gas, you might say.

Obviously a lot of people are liars. Q is a liar, I assume. But Qanon is a broad base of delusion.

A lot of political actors – including politicians, needless to say – lie a lot to do their jobs. They know what is true and deliberately lie about it.

A lot of political actors are also pretty clearly severely delusional. They are ideologues or partisans who have cognized themselves into a pretty severe state of denial. (Just because you’re a liar about how they are out to get you, doesn’t mean you aren’t paranoid about how they are out to get you.)

Trolls are like liars, at least part-time, and there are plenty of trolls.

There are disinformation campaigns, massively well-funded.

But I’m still always a little surprised when I see professional or amateur pundits – thought-leaders and would-be thought-leaders – peddling what I think they themselves must think are ‘noble lies’, in Plato’s sense.

I was struck by an example from Rich Lowry this morning, and then – coincidentally – I read Kevin Drum saying he was pissed off at the obvious lie. It is pretty obvious. Like Drum, I find it hard to believe Lowry didn’t have a chuckle to himself about what a whopper it was, while he wrote it. But, then again, it’s no good as a noble lie unless it fools folks into believing what you want them to believe about justice. If it fools folks then, on average, it will fool the fool who tells it – who’s just folks. So perhaps Lowry’s brain succeeded in locking down, for the time it took to compose his nonsense, his awareness of its nonsensicality. Yet it allowed him access to some facts, and a crippleware logic engine. Oh, what a piece of work is man!

Here’s another example that struck me, from Mark Levin, a couple days ago. Again, not important, but striking because I have a hard time believing Levin – who is quite sharp, in a way, and legally trained – didn’t think to himself: ‘eh, I’ll tell my audience a silly lie about the Constitution. If any of them check Wikipedia, or think about what I’m saying for five seconds, the gig is up, but what are the odds?’

Then again, I think Levin is a nut, so why should I be surprised his paranoid craziness has spread to the point of infecting his grasp of (gasp!) the point of the emoluments clause itself? Why should his deceiving demon – a.k.a. Mark Levin – have trouble getting him to think whatever it wants him to think about emoluments? That’s straining at gnats.

I guess it comes down to this. I take for granted Sarah Huckabee Sanders knows the important part of her job is to tell lies. (Any fool can tell the truth.) I imagine it’s exhausting – an uncomfortable, undignifying mental juggling act. But you are getting paid, and you believe the country is better off, on the whole, if more people believe the lies. You think the small truths that are on the side of your enemies are the spear tips of their Big Lie; whereas your small lies are the spear tips of your Big Truth, yesterday and tomorrow. You are making a basically utilitarian calculation.

Politics is a trolley scenario and, somehow, the trolley always needs to run over some truth. So you keep pulling that switch, deliberately. You see yourself doing this.

But, despite being a utilitarian who thinks you should generally pull the switch, and a Plato scholar, I find the life of the Noble Lie cognitively alien and weird. I have no doubt that I engage in motivated reasoning all the time. I have many a time deliberately encouraged people to help themselves to enough rope to hang themselves, in debate. There’s an element of lying in that sort of Socratic maneuvering. (Heighten the contradictions. Things have to get worse before they get better.) But, to my recollection, I have never, in my life, with conscious, deliberate awareness and full intent, tried to reinforce someone’s healthy political belief (or undermine their unhealthy belief) by telling them what I myself regard – at the moment I tell it – as a ridiculous and utter untruth. One my interlocutor is, odds on, likely to swallow. Honestly, I couldn’t do it if I tried. It’s not principled squeamishness. I just couldn’t make my brain look for the bank shots and actually try to take them. I couldn’t be a politician. Or a press flack. My digestion would be shot in a week.

Just as pushing the fat man is viscerally unpleasant to contemplate, pushing the fat lie – even in a good cause! – triggers inner resistance.

Am I weird?

People tell lies to defend themselves and, in general, when their interests demand it. I don’t think I’m more truthful, under pressure, than the next person. I’m no moral hero. But few people’s interests truly demand going online and telling deliberate lies to trick people into believing some supposed, larger truth. A bit of trolling, sure. Some sophistical shading and coloring and emphasizing and de-emphasizing. Who can resist? It’s recreational. But out-and-out lies?

I think lying about politics sounds like a no-fun job, so for sure it’s a terrible hobby. (But I admit trolling is a popular hobby. But that’s roleplay.)

I guess I really don’t think I know how many liars are out there.

Does everyone who works for FOX News think that it’s a Noble Lie Factory? But the pay is ok and otherwise the Democrats will take over.

How self-aware is Trump of his penchant for lying?

What do you think? Tell me true.



Murali 12.09.18 at 9:24 am

John, as someone who teaches and blogs, I’m sure that there are at least some times where you tell the simple lie instead of the much more complicated truth. At least, I find myself doing that when I’m pressed for time and my more complicated variation on political liberalism is irrelevant.

Consider, in public reason issues, I actually don’t think reasonable disagreement is possible. I have a more complicated story to tell about why we must tolerate beliefs and why this does not line up with any plausible version of the reasonable/unreasonable distinction. And even this specification of may not be just quite true: it may be just that no plausible version of the reasonable/unreasonable distinction that fits quite well with other stuff that political liberals have going on allows space for reasonable disagreement.

My actual view is really complicated. Sometimes, I find myself saying that people should respect the fact of reasonable disagreement. It may be false, but far simpler to just say reasonable disagreement than to talk about why we should tolerate views which are unreasonable.

In secondary school in chemistry, we learn that electrons orbit the nucleus of an atom in circles. But this is false. We learn in A-level chemistry that orbitals are not circular and electrons don’t just move in regular orbits.

The same applies with newtonian mechanics in physics. We initially learn to calculate relative velocities by simple addition and subtraction and a bit of trigonometry. Then we learn something a bit more complicated when we build up to velocities near c. At some point we learn that all these theories are not quite true and we have not yet found a true theory of physics

A lot of education is a matter of initially teaching a simple lie and then teaching them a somewhat more complicated lie which is nevertheless closer to the truth. I would be very surprised if none of that went on in intro to philosophy classes.


John Holbo 12.09.18 at 9:46 am

Hmm, interesting point. But I actually find that sort of thing very painful. If I were saying something so oversimple that It feels like a lie – rather than a partial truth – I wouldn’t say it. I would feel compelled to flag and label it as a heuristic model. You say ‘there’s a more complicated story but let’s start here, even though ultimately I think we end up thinking about it very differently.’ Some warning label like that. I never try to make my students believe a proposition that I myself think is just out-and-out false.


John Holbo 12.09.18 at 9:51 am

I guess I just think it’s so rare for good ideas to be indefensible on the merits (because your audience is too morally/intellectually disordered) yet falsely defensible on the demerits, as it were.


SusanC 12.09.18 at 9:53 am

“Jesus lied for you” (c.f. C.S. Lewis)


Hidari 12.09.18 at 10:24 am

‘True’ story, insofar as anything is true anymore.

A friend of a friend (all true stories start like, obviously) went for some post in the Labour Party. This was a while ago, so it was Old Labour. In the course of the interview he was (he said) explicitly asked: ‘Would you tell an open lie, that is, would you deliberately state something that you knew to be false, to a journalist, if it was in the interests of the Labour Party?’.

He said ‘No’ of course, and didn’t get the job.

Of course he might have been lying. Or maybe the person who told me the story was lying. Or maybe I’m lying. Who knows?


christian h. 12.09.18 at 10:24 am

I don’t think a simplified model for a physical process is an untruth or a lie, noble, white, or otherwise, as long as it captures salient properties of and intuitions about the physical reality. If it was, physics could never be honestly communicated to folks who aren’t up on the mathematics – in fact I’d go so far and say if this was the case we couldn’t do science at all.


Hidari 12.09.18 at 10:36 am

In answer to your question:

‘How self-aware is Trump of his penchant for lying?’

I think that Trump, like the later Wittgenstein, does not believe that the key task of language is to tell ‘the truth’. I doubt very much that Trump has the cognitive capacity to understand Wittgenstein (although who knows. Perhaps he’s lying when he pretends to be stupid). But if it was explained to him that the later Wittgenstein believed that the key task of language was not to ‘tell the truth’ (in the simple ‘correspondence theory’ sense of that phrase) but instead was, more frequently, to ‘get things done’, he would probably agree with him.

In other words, I don’t think Trump (and those that surround him) thinks about lying when he lies. I simply don’t think that is a question that he asks himself. He would ask himself about whether or not his discourse was effective, whether it improved his opinion poll ratings, or helped his personal wealth etc. In other words, ‘what did my words achieve?’

Does an advertiser ask him or herself whether the claims in his/her advert are true? The question simply never arises. The purpose of advertising is neither to lie nor to tell the truth. It’s to sell commodities or services. Truth doesn’t come into it.

Trump, and the Republican Party more generally, are a product which are sold to the American public. Effectiveness is gauged via how many elections they win. Truth, beauty, morality etc. are simply not the criteria by which Republicans gauge their product. It’s true they sometimes use ‘moral jargon’. But that’s like the old joke:

‘The most important thing in politics is sincerity (pause). Once you can fake that, you can do anything.’

And this brings us yet again to the fact (or ‘fact’) that Trump is the logical end result of long term trends in American politics: the so to speak ‘capitalisation’ of politics (politics and politicians viewed as commodities, political discourse as a kind of advertising), the rise of the ironically named ‘reality’ TV (the very name of which is a lie), Trump’s origins in the notoriously truth free realm of New York real estate etc.


MND 12.09.18 at 2:35 pm

People I’ve known who make there career in politics have tended to get totally consumed by the aspects of it that resemble a competitive game. It seems to me that that’s the context in which lying gets normalized.

I’m a lawyer and I can’t lie to a court, but I can urge interpretations of the facts that I privately don’t believe. There is a well-understood (in the profession at least) ethical framework for this and so long as I am playing by the rules of the game according to my role, I don’t feel privately conflicted about this. There are lots of jobs where people mislead others according to some set of rules, from poker players to undercover police officers. I would draw a moral distinction between that and lying about politics, but I don’t think politicians or political hacks would.

I think people who make their living from politics one way or the other tend to similarly see it as a big game where the overriding objective is to persuade people to support your team, and that misleading others in the service of this objective is part of how things are done. I expect Trump would say (like Jim Hacker in Yes Minister did) that conversations with the press are not under oath, and just does not see telling the truth all the time as some moral imperative. It’s just how the game is played. They are no more likely to feel guilty about lying than a poker player is to feel bad about a bluff.


Layman 12.09.18 at 2:42 pm

I was discussing this same thing last week. It’s perfectly clear that when one looks at e.g. climate change denial, there are rubes who believe that nonsense and there are charlatans who sell it. The rubes at least are easy to understand; they don’t know any better. But the charlatans who sell it? What goes on in their heads? How big a lie are they willing to tell, and for what reason?

Max Boot published an op ed last week claiming that he now knows he was wrong — mistaken — to be a skeptic on climate change. Are we to believe that Max Boot was one of the rubes fooled by the charlatans? Isn’t it more likely he was one of the charlatans?


Yan 12.09.18 at 2:55 pm

Guys, everybody’s a liar but me. I even suspect everybody’s lying about everybody lying. It’s so foreign to my nature I honestly can’t believe anyone would be able to lie unless they first convinced themselves it’s the truth. Gosh, I know it’s wrong of me. I know I shouldn’t so often see the truth and refuse to pretend I don’t. I know I should be less logical and smart when it’s for the right cause. But what can I say? I’m just too weak to lie. Besides perfectionism, it’s my worst trait. Am I weird, guys? Don’t spare me. Give me the hard truth.


Yan 12.09.18 at 3:21 pm

“I’m a lawyer and I can’t lie to a court, but I can urge interpretations of the facts that I privately don’t believe.”

To my mind this is worse than lying. As extraordinarily awful as Trump and the right are in their policies this is something I find worse in moral intention and character, and it seems more frequent among Democratic politicians. They don’t have the decency to tell an honest lie. (Incedently, that very ordinary phrase, an honest lie, deserves serious contemplation.)

Contra Kant, a bald faced lie does not reduce people to a mere means. It’s not manipulation but challenge, not coercion but battle. It involves a degree of respect that suggestion, omission, and indirect deception do not. The bald lie says, “Believe me or don’t, it’s up to you.” It tells me I’m being confronted and invites me to defend myself. The suggestive lie doesn’t say or tell, it operates behind one’s back, it knows better than you and so does not let you know, it’s paternalistic, it plays people like instruments. The true noble lie does not lie, it nudges. It’s more dishonest because it pretends not to be.


Adam Roberts 12.09.18 at 3:50 pm

I’m naive, I know, but the shift on the Right since, roughly, Reagan towards what amounts almost to an open valorisation of lying, or of breaking the rules more broadly, still surprises me. I’d expect people on the Right, motivated (let’s say) by respect for tradition and authority and fear of social contamination etc, to make more of a deal of telling the truth than people on the left; and I’d expect that a fortiori of evangelical Christians whose lies will be judged not by courts but by God.

It seems to me that what’s happened is that rule-breaking like lying has been conflated, on some level, with indvidualism and toughness, and rule-keeping with conformism and mimsy weakness. For example: torture. Nobody wants the rules actually changed so that the US becomes an avowedly and publicly torturing nation; but people, especially on the Right, do want a President strong enough ‘not to allow his hands to be tied’ by no-torture rules, a President tough enough to make the hard decisions etc etc, this idiom being code for valorising lying and lawbreaking. Or again: nobody wants an official policy of lying to foreign nations to their face, but right wingers want a President who will pretend to sign treaties and so on, but who will actually put America first. Given the importance of rugged individualism and refusal to confirm to the myth of the USA, I wonder how much of this is patriotically over-determined and place specific. Lying is a universal, but this (to an outsider) weirdly contradictory repudiation of and simultaneous celebration of lying seems distinctly US.


Dwight L. Cramer 12.09.18 at 4:43 pm

Really good original post, but the comments have gotten horribly bogged down in epistemology and morality. I’ll try not to go there.

To give the OP my answers to his questions–I think there is a great deal of flawed self-awareness and dubious self justification implying self loathing with the political operatives he’s wondering about. They are not innocents. But, if they were good German boys and girls assigned to work in a concentration camp, they’d function better in accounting and logistics functions, maintenance and that sort of thing, than dealing with the prisoners personally. If you want a handle on the Fox News Culture, read or watch the book/movie Thank You for Smoking. Are these people conscious instruments of absolute evil, true believers in their own secret Wannsee plan? Good Lord no.

I’ve never been a particularly good liar and, until recently, never wanted to be. That said, for the last year, dealing with parents in their 90s, one with moderate to severe dementia, the other with mild dementia, both residing in an assisted living facility that is very caring and professional, I’ve developed a whole new appreciation for the social realities and a different relationship to social truths. Wowza. A little bit of exposure to that world Trumps (!) a boatload of philosophical exploration.


Jim Harrison 12.09.18 at 5:07 pm

For a lot of people, truth is something we owe our friends but not our enemies. If you understand politics in the sense of Carl Schmitt, lying is as legitimate in politics as killing is to warfare. From this point of view, maybe honesty is like grue. One must tell the truth with Kantian rigor to one’s in-group and relentlessly deceive the out-group, just as it’s perfectly legitimate to disenfranchise the them, but not the us in elections. An awful lot of Conservatism is about who’s in the club and who isn’t. For them, the kingdom of ends is members only.


Lobsterman 12.09.18 at 5:33 pm

Do you think that Kevin Drum’s endless schtick of assuming the best about conservatives and worst about liberals at every turn, then being astonished when he’s proven wrong every day for decades, is a lie?

I kinda do.


Murali 12.09.18 at 5:34 pm

christian h @6

You’re confusing two distinct points: 1) When does an utterance count as a lie and 2) Is a given utterance permissible.

The traditional answer to (1) is that an utterance is a lie if the utterer knows it to be false. This is a sufficient condition and the definition of lying may be more expansive than just saying something you know to be false.

A plausible answer to when an empirical proposition is false is that an empirical proposition is false whenever the proposition fails to correspond to reality. When we say kinetic energy is 1/2 x m x v^2 simpliciter, we say something which corresponds to a high degree but not completely in many cases but not very well in cases dealing with very high velocities.

If we are aware of the theory of special relativity then we know that standard Newtonian mechanics fails to correspond in some cases and does not correspond completely in all other cases.

Thus, if you have an undergraduate degree in physics and tell your high school students that KE=(mv^2)/2 as you will tend to when teaching them physics you will be lying to them

Even if this is true, the fact that we couldn’t go about teaching science without these convenient lies is a good reason to think that these lies in particular are permissible even if lies in general are not.

The fact that we couldn’t go about teaching science without these lies is not a reason to think they are not lies, only that they are permissible lies.


politicalfootball 12.09.18 at 5:50 pm

I think dishonesty and ignorance are both inadequate to the task of explaining why there is so much falsehood in public life. Hidari has a key insight here:

I don’t think Trump (and those that surround him) thinks about lying when he lies. I simply don’t think that is a question that he asks himself.

Discerning the truth, in the sense that we’re talking about here, is not a particularly important task for many, many people. During the campaign, Trump was regarded as more honest than Hillary. The people who said that weren’t necessarily being ignorant or being dishonest themselves. They just have different ideas about what makes something true.

The more education Republicans have, the less likely they are to believe in climate change. Are the climate deniers lying? Are they engaged in motivated reasoning?

Maybe the latter, somewhat. But what they’re really doing is creating truth. Facts don’t exist, just interpretations of facts.

You give up a tremendous amount of control when you give facts an independent existence. Tomorrow, you could end up believing anything, merely because it’s true. A lot of folks don’t want to limit themselves that way.


nastywoman 12.09.18 at 5:55 pm

”Am I weird”?



Patrick 12.09.18 at 6:29 pm

I think a lot of people’s minds are so mercurial that they literally have no capacity to recognize the difference between what they have reason to believe and what they want to believe, unless someone sits them down and forces them to walk through it, step by painful step.

I have professional stories, but probably shouldn’t share them.

Not to sound all “internet white guy from 2003,” but a huge percentage of the country and the world profess a religious belief that once upon a time there were, for lack of a better word, wizards. Who ran around casting magical spells and communing with magical spirits, all of which very clearly and directly demonstrated the truth of their existence to loads of people, but don’t do so anymore for Reasons so you just have to believe.

I’ve been in churches where the reading has included lines 1, 2, and 4 from a section, and the sermon is about a conclusion that was directly contradicted by the omitted line 3. I didn’t say anything, except to my wife. So far as I know, I’m the only person who even noticed. Did the preacher even notice? Did he see it and have his brain just sort of glide off of something he didn’t want to see? I have no idea.

This is just life. People have a loose grasp on reality, but a very strong grasp of what they want to believe.


Donald A. Coffin 12.09.18 at 7:12 pm

Didn’t Nietzsche have something to say about the relationship between lies and truth? Or am I (a) wrong or (b) making that up?


Collin Street 12.09.18 at 7:15 pm

For a lot of people, truth is something we owe our friends but not our enemies.

I’ve mentioned this before, but the internal right-wing discourses aren’t any better/cleaner than the ones we get presented with. That strongly suggests epistemological problems, not knowing rhetorical strategy.

[and this also means we have to think about whether the causation is reversed: not people with right-wing beliefs adopting rhetorical strategies, but people with epistemological problems adopting right-wing positions.]

There are no charlatans, no knowingly-deceptive leaders.


b9n10nt 12.09.18 at 8:05 pm

Honest inquiry -is X true independent of my desire to believe it?- requires a great deal of personal training and social (emotional, economic) support. Institutionally, we ask it only of young adults who are ideally free from “the hustle” of social production and of adults who are also ideally protected from concern about status and material hardship. In both cases, consistent training and encouragement is required above and beyond the “safe spaces” provided.

Absent the provision of serious resources for the task of inquiry, the default use of speech will be for the production of “aspirational truths”: what should we all agree to believe as a community? What story should I consent to tell about myself? Truthfulness and honesty are secondary; effectiveness at furthering one’s desired relationship to the Group are primary.

Scientific and confessional truthfulness is regarded as a default setting for modernized people, as in the OP. But in fact we should expect aspirational speech to be the default, and truthfulness to be a rare skill that few practice outside of (ideal) universities and hermitages.

Trump knows he’s lying the way I know I’m mortal: the knowledge may be accepted as true but made irrelevant and inconsequential by the preponderance of my other interests & desires.


nastywoman 12.09.18 at 9:36 pm

”How self-aware is Trump of his penchant for lying”?

The problem is that he ”is” -(so obviously) and he ”isn’t” -(so obviously) –
like when he calls ”Paradise” – ”Pleasure” or denies ”grabbing” – while confessing ”grabbing” at the same time –
(whatever) –
and the real problem is – that he does all of it like a real a…hole – which makes it so unbearable – because he does all of this a…holery while walking completely aimlessly around and not knowing what HE -(or anybody else) is really talking about.

And – YES – at the same time – ”he tells lies to defend himself as, ”in general, when his ”interests demand it”.

And – Yes – his interests demand going online -(and offline) – telling deliberate lies to trick people into believing some supposed, larger truth – always at the same time ”a bit of trolling”- and out-and-out lies with NO ”sophistical shading and coloring and emphasizing and de-emphasizing” – as he can’t resist – as it’s not only recreational for him.

And lying about politics is never a-fun job – that’s why he is so YUUGE miserable and does -(and doesn’t) – enjoy the ”terrible hobby”. (But also the ”popular” roleplay)

I guess I really think I don’t know – either – how many liars are out there?
Even that I know that a lot of dudes who work for FOX News -(or any other Lie Factory) think that it’s a Noble Lie Factory -(like a lot of my American friends – who are currently ”absolutely miserable” but who lie to me – and tell me that they’re ”fine” – because ”only the French -(and ”them Germans”) tell everybody who doesn’t want to hear it – that they are ”toujours miserable”)

But as long as the pay – is ok and ”Non a…hole Democrats won’t take over… it’s fine to be the boss of any f… book.

And I can’t ”Tell me true” – as I never do on the ”Intertubes” – and that’s NOT ”lying” – it’s just that – why would anybody ”tell me true” on… ”teh Intertubes”?


Glen Tomkins 12.09.18 at 9:50 pm

I think you’re right to end on asking abut Trump. He is the apex predator in the political ecology these days. Understand his success and you have the key to the how telling untruths works in general, less effectively for those less gifted than Trump at this game, but for the same reason.

Trump is demented. He confabulates. He is immune to cognitive dissonance, at least when he speaks about public policy and politics, because he doesn’t have any cognition left for the understanding of those subjects.

You’re not odd. Of course it would wear on you to tell actual lies, untruths that you know to be untrue. No such wear on Trump, because, outside of matters he was familiar with before the dementia set in, he can no longer compare reality with whatever theory best suits his needs of the moment.

It’s the times he tells obviously, objectivity clear, untruths that prove he’s demented. He feels no compunction about claiming his inauguration crowd was the biggest in history, because it feels right (after all, he won the election when none of you sophisticated people thought he would), and he can’t process how actual facts might be readily available to those of us who can process new material, that make him look ridiculous for making this claim. He doesn’t claim to have won the Masters last year, because he’s played golf since long before his dementia, and he knows such a claim would just make him look ridiculous. He is able to compare reality and what he wants to believe in that case. He understands that there is a conflict, and he understands that telling obvious lies about your golf game makes you look the opposite of large and in charge, because he was around such golf legends in their own minds from early childhood.

This sort of nonsense, of course, is not why he is effective. He won the election because that same absence of cognitive dissonance that makes him tell unflinching counterfactuals about inauguration crowd size also lets him confabulate with ease about public policy. He doesn’t care at all about public policy. Most of the voters don’t know enough about it to know he’s spouting nonsense. Public policy, unlike crowd size, is hard and complicated and subtle. Trump’s reptile brain is still intact, and he’s still good at making fun of others, humiliating them. He’s already got the audience on his side just by engaging in character assassination of politicians, whom everybody hates, because they all do some complicated mix of lies and BS and messaging. Then he attacks with absolutely none of the usual concern to at least make the attack look half-way square with reality, and the voters can see that he is obviously the only truth-teller in politics. He’s the only one who doesn’t throw off the massive amounts of flop sweat spewing this nonsense they all spew. They don’t understand the issues, but they know when a non-demented person is lying to them from the flop sweat.

Lesser beings than Trump do a less effective, but still pretty good, job of avoiding cognitive dissonance and the resulting flop sweat, by the careful practice of refusing to sweat the small stuff. The big picture is us against them, and they know that if you let yourself get bogged down in the details of what your side is for, the other side will snipe your specificity mercilessly and unfairly. So the knee-jerk response to any attempt to talk about details of what you’re for is to change the subject to ground where you can attack the other side’s plans, or their refusal to say what their plans are.

Climate science is hard. Interpreting the Constitution is hard. Of course neither Lowry nor Levin have parsed this out, paid enough attention to the subject matter to know that the positions they’re staking out are ridiculous. They really don’t care about the underlying issues of climate science or the conduct of elections. These just provide clubs to use to beat the libtards. Levin may or may not be a really smart guy, but he is clearly smart enough to know that the game is not about figuring out what the Constitution really means, it’s about how you can pull this or that bit of verbiage together to make your opponent look weak or stupid or both. It’s not his job to worry about reality, it’s his job to beat the libtards. That’s an end in itself, it’s not a means to some public policy end.

Their game is about dominating and humiliating the folks on the other side, that’s their idea of politics. Of course their best guy at this game is someone who doesn’t see to care at all about public policy. Okay, maybe Trump once gave a thoughtlet or two to public policy back in the 70s, thus his concern over protecting the US automobile industry with tariffs. That might have made been relevant back then, now it’s something out of a time capsule. But he still has his reptile brain. He still enjoys character assassination and otherwise humiliating and dominating other people. That total absence of any agenda beyond personal gratification of his libido dominandi is what makes him king among the tribe of the Rs, because they all are that way, just not so completely committed to the purity of it.

Don’t sell Frankfurt short. He is on to something with identifying the lack of concern for truth status as a separate and worse problem than lying. It isn’t an emotional force in itself, it’s a prioritization of emotional forces that takes place before the critical rational mind comes into play. It allows other forces to lead where reason ought to. He probably got the idea from the Gorgias (ameleia is not a woman’s name!), and no arrow shot from that bow ever misses its target.


Patrick Linnen 12.09.18 at 10:01 pm

I believe Terry Pratchett said it best in Hogsfather;

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”


“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”


“So we can believe the big ones?”


“They’re not the same at all!”


“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”



Birdie 12.09.18 at 10:35 pm

The very most important thing for any well socialized human is to be in cognitive alignment with the local group. That’s the frame within which is adjudicated … that which is adjudicated. “Acceptability.” The surprising thing to me is how much small-scale family life turns out to resemble large-scale party politics, although I suppose it’s really the other way round.

… Long ago I attended a small suburban political gathering, in the course of which I blurted out a most absurd anti-fact, evidently with conviction since more than one person worked on giving it legs in support of the next point. When I noticed what I had done, I was embarrassed. After the meeting the organizing operative gave me a number to call, but I never did.

@3: The classic Buddhist example of “expedient means” is when you promise the children a golden elephant if they will just leap from the burning building. For children in such emergencies, MAYbe (would it work??) but thank you for never lying to your students.


William Berry 12.09.18 at 10:55 pm


“Am I weird?”

Yes, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong! : )


Cola Vaughan 12.10.18 at 12:38 am

Well if it’s not the truth it ought to be. Dammit!


bob mcmanus 12.10.18 at 12:46 am

How self-aware is Trump of his penchant for lying?

I think more self-aware than Glen Tompkins does. He probably has lost some mental capacity, but I think he has developed a method over 60 years, an intuitive anti-rational method? A confidence in Will? He says what he wants (within limits, if he was senile we would hear the n-word the c-word more often.) He states what he wants to be true in the confidence that saying it long enough hard enough it will happen. He is in control. A violence of language?

There may be better comparisons, but I am reminded by Trump of Kingsley in Sexy Beast, although that character didn’t lie.

The better question for the crowd is How does Trump get away with it? If he is so dysfunctional, why is he rich and freaking President? Is this about to catch up with him, what now after 60 years? What a pathetic hope. Were Kasich and Jeb (or Clinton) that much smarter? It doesn’t work for me to say his followers are also crazy, cause a lot of them have benefited from Trump’s delirium, we need a frightened and frustrated opposition. Why isn’t Trump really scared of “getting caught?”

Part of liberal capitalism is making truth pay, making us dependent like little children on reason and intelligence, creating structures that make violence and unreason ineffective.

Thomas Disch said once that the science fiction fan was a case of arrested development, teenage intellectuals who believe that intelligence and honesty does rule and never growing out of that delusion. We are all sf fans now.

Force rules. Violence rules. Desires rule. Lies rule. Because reasonable truth-tellers live scared of emotions and violence. Fascists love this. Marxists hate it, but know the problem is not with the lying capitalists, but with the domesticated and intimidated truthers. It is about finding security in chains.

The French are showing us what “resistance” looks like. Trump could have been driven from office in first month. Am I lying? Nah I believe it, have to believe in popular power. I also believe that revealed preferences get revealed.


faustusnotes 12.10.18 at 1:14 am

I have noticed in the Americans I know a kind of tired cynicism about politics and social life that if I saw it in Australians I would think was depressingly affected, but seems real. I have an American friend who is sure that the Chinese have interfered in American elections just as the Russians did – in fact that every country does – and that Trump was just unlucky to get caught. He also thinks that foreign aid is done entirely for selfish nationalist purposes, no other reason. I recall another friend who simply couldn’t believe that a student of mine was on a scholarship from a private company, and spent 10 minutes trying to figure out what their angle was – why would they just give money away!? All my American (male) friends are/have been deeply cynical about dating and dating culture, and see all women’s actions in this sphere as selfish and manipulative. You also see this online in those uniquely American concepts like “virtue signalling” (people only defend minorities or the vulnerable to make themselves look better) and “white knighting” (you’re only defending that chick so you can get laid) and so on. Nobody has genuine or real motives, everyone has a selfish and secret reason for what they do, all politicians lie, everyone’s just in it for themselves. The absolute conviction among American economists and political scientists that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that all government action has huge negative consequences that “do-gooders” didn’t expect but which cynical economists were absolutely certain would occur, is another example of this.

This kind of cynicism makes you an easy mark for political opportunists, and it also explains the willingness of America’s public intellectuals to tell such easy and hypocritical lies. If you assume that the Dems really do believe that election fraud happens, probably are doing it, and only object to Republican voter suppression because it interferes with their fraud, then of course they’re hypocrites when they talk about the NC election fraud, since they either don’t really believe that it happened, or they’re making it up, and even if it did happen their outrage is confected since they didn’t care about it when they were doing it (and remember everyone’s doing it! My cynicism assures me of that!) I see Americans doing this all the time, surveying the landscape with this deeply cynical eye in which all actions are suspect and all behavior, no matter how pure, is driven by cynical self interest, and they think they have seen through to some secret dark heart of what is really going on – when in fact they’re just tricking themselves into believing that good things can’t be done and all positive change is impossible.

This is a very convenient worldview for politicians whose sole goal is to make sure that positive change doesn’t happen. And it’s very easy for conservative politicians and commentators to manipulate to believing that no effort should be made to change things or stop bad things.

We saw this a lot here during the election campaign when people refused to believe that Clinton had any motives except selfish profit-making, and that she would not allow herself to be dragged to the left since she wasn’t in it for the public good. It’s an easy cynicism to adopt, and it makes you look cool in certain circles, but we all saw where it ended up.


J-D 12.10.18 at 1:18 am


Were classic Buddhists acquainted with children who could understand ‘golden elephant’ but who could not understand ‘the building is on FIRE!’?


Cola Vaughan 12.10.18 at 1:22 am

Well if it’s not the truth then it ought to be. Dammit!


Alan White 12.10.18 at 2:13 am

John, you ask as great question. I’ve argued here on CT in bits and pieces that Trump is a functional–not a reflective–emotivist, using any means necessary to get his base in emotive attitudinal agreement with him. Concerns for truth are completely subservient to having his base in such “gut” lock-step. What I have not addressed in my brief remarks is his motivation and means for getting that done. His motivation is I think well-known–he’s a narcissist whose self-image has inflated to god-like proportions by the lucky fact that he has always evaded any serious consequences for anything immoral and unlawful that he has (no doubt many times over) done. His means for the success of his emotivist strategy lies (sorry) in the fact that he guessed–based on some experience with early political rallies–that there was a significant population of manipulable white males and increasingly desperate evangelical social conservatives who could share his emotional “gut”, and who, like him, cared more about their own anger and sense of alienated privilege than anything about abstract-able facts and truth that ran counter to that. Along with other factors of Russian interference and Comey’s stupidity about his own self-image, it all was just enough for Trump’s emotivism to become pragmatically successful as well as strategical.

The test will be what the public thinks about the strength of charges that will no doubt arise from the Mueller report. I do not underestimate Trump’s ability to push his functional emotivism to win the day, as he has done to make the Republican party also essentially functionally emotivist in service to the plutocracy of which he is also the de facto standard-bearer.


JimV 12.10.18 at 2:17 am

From Control Theory (an engineering subject) we learn that using positive feedback to control a system tends to produce instability (wild swings about the desired results) and negatvive feedback produces stability (minimal overshoot and hunting). That is, this is a mathematical fact that applies to electronic and mechanical controls (e.g., temperature control, steering). I don’t see any reason it wouldn’t apply to human behavior as well.

If so, to get rid of (most) lies there needs to be punishment for liars. Ideally this would be internal, as it is for some, but obviously that is not the case for all, or even most; and for some I’ve known personally, there seems to be no internal effect at all. So as long as liars don’t have to pay fines or even publish retractions and corrections, the liars you will have with you always, and a lot of them.

I’m ignoring the issue of intent, because ESP doesn’t exist and neither yet do practical lie-detecters. Just as ignorance of the law is not a legal excuse, ignorance of the facts should not be. Probably there are exceptions involving complex reasoning, but the rule should be something like don’t make claims you haven’t fact-checked. For a trivial example, the Clinton Foundation was rated significantly higher than the Red Cross on both Charity Watch and Charity Navigator, at the time when some guy told me (here) that it wasn’t . That guy was lying.

As for scientific models, it seems to me all the teachers need to do is inform students that they are teaching a model, and the model may not completely correspond to reality, but does so well enough to be very useful. E.g., Newtonian Dynamics will get you to the Moon and back (alive), and allow you to design cars and bridges and ariplanes that work. In fact I think that I knew that in my high school physics course. That’s what the scientific method implies.


Cranky Observer 12.10.18 at 2:18 am

= = = The better question for the crowd is How does Trump get away with it? If he is so dysfunctional, why is he [Trump] rich = = =

Assumes facts not in evidence, although bringing up this point also generates a similar related question. All publicly available data for the last 10 years (possibly 20) shows that Donald Trump, son of Frederick Trump, no longer has much wealth and may be personally bankrupt. Over and above his standard tactic of drawing investors into a disposable LLC, skimming off cash, then “discovering” the LLC is bankrupt there is the possibility that the Trump Family’s master corporation may be bankrupt as well. Hence the refusal to release tax returns during the Presidential campaign.

The related question of course is how does Trump manage to convince people that he is stupendously wealthy when he is clearly not. Another question of interest is where does the money he spends so freely come from, but we’re not allowed to ask that.


Omega Centauri 12.10.18 at 2:25 am

I grew up thinking about truth as John Wayne saying “A man’s only as good as his word”. So devotion to truth wasn’t just a moral imperative but also a practical one. Tell the truth, and you can have a sterling reputation which might come in handy some day when it is your word against his word. So we learned that truthfulness was one of the most important attributes that one should strive for.

Now of course we also acknowledged that there could be important strategic/tactical situations, where winning was everything, and “tricking” the enemy into making some disastrous move was
of the utmost importance. Think of the more important deceptions the allies in world war two played on the Germans, for example. So it was clear that in some situations of existential danger great honor could come from a great feat of trickery. I suspect that this is the origin of the slippery slope into outright lies and propaganda, that in the mind of the practitioner is serving a higher truth.


Peter T 12.10.18 at 3:09 am

There’s a line of expectation in all of us between the “real” (as in Dr Johnson’s stone – it doesn’t matter what you or anyone think, it still hurts to kick) and the rest. The real demands honesty, because you can’t lie to it, or safely about it. The rest is negotiable. The slick used car salesman may tell you this car get great mileage, but he does not lie to himself about how often he fills the tank, else he would spend a lot of time by the side of the road (failure to maintain this separation is one sign of mental dysfunction – Trump’s numerous bankruptcies suggest that he could not keep his salesman’s view of the accounts separate from the real numbers).

People who deal with the real every day – people who work with their hands, or with nature, or those whose disciplines rest on some agreed tests of the real, have to keep this line firm – they don’t fantasise about the bricks, whatever else they may dream about. Those, like politicians, who deal only with people, or with social rather than physical realities, may have more trouble. Stay long enough in those environments and you lose the awareness that some things are not negotiable. Some people cultivate this lack of awareness, as it is really not comfortable grappling with the fact that the physical universe pays no attention to your ego.


J-D 12.10.18 at 3:38 am

Patrick Linnen


Milk, blood, grass, and mould are all real, but you can’t find a molecule of milk, a molecule of blood, a molecule of grass, or a molecule of mould.

Electrical resistance is real, but you can’t find a molecule of electrical resistance. Alzheimer’s disease is real, but you can’t find a molecule of Alzheimer’s disease.

Cruelty is real, but you can’t find a molecule of cruelty. People don’t believe in the existence of cruelty as part of an ideal order by which the universe may be judged; they believe in cruelty because people really do behave cruelly.

And people really do behave kindly as well. If I endeavour to be kind is not because I believe that kindness is the natural order of the universe; indeed, if kindness were the natural order of the universe I wouldn’t need to endeavour to be kind.


eg 12.10.18 at 3:42 am

@ Murali 16

Are the imperfectly representative equations you reference really lies, or merely approximations?


bruce wilder 12.10.18 at 3:48 am

The truth is too cognitively demanding. Morally valuable. But, actual, certified bona fide truth entails a lot of hemming and hawing as we acknowledge that the only application of truth in the cloudy chaos of our overwhelming ignorance is as a carefully qualified hedge. Not the stuff of great movie drama: “You can’t handle the truth!” thunders Jack Nicolson’s bully.

We want the confident self-assurance we think must come with knowing the truth, the moral clarity of purpose. Actual truth comes clothed in so much doubt we can scarcely recognize it.

So, we live in the subjunctive. The truth of the counterfactual. The truth of our theory, expressed not in a messy factual historical interpretation of ambiguity, but in projections and confident summations contrasting what would have been that out what little we know about what is into sharp relief. We seek meaning not in contemplating what is, but by speculating on imagined dramas that might yet be.

Our interpretive subjunctive, projections of the future and excited speculations provide some the emotional satisfactions of knowing, but without the unbounded cognitive demands. If we share our willingness to “believe” in some counterfactual with others we even gain some of the satisfactions of a shared construction of a consensus reality — without the burdens of the reality part.

We notice the frayed edges of the other guy’s counterfactual, the other tribe’s self-deluding subjunctive worldview. We do not notice that our “truth” is not much like actual statements of fact let alone the appreciation of scientific analysis.

We are not lying and “they” may not be lying either, just cocooned in the warm embrace of a theory expressed in counterfactual speculation and projection of alleged trends and patterns.


Omega Centauri 12.10.18 at 3:56 am

Peter @37.
I don’t think your people who work with their hands, or otherwise are dealing with something real, which won’t respond to fakery are likely to do much better on average than anyone else, once they are outside of their domain. To many of these people Trump seemed authentic, his lies matched their own gut instincts, and didn’t sound like the typical double-speak they are used to getting from the political class. I don’t think are many professions that render people highly aware of the need to know the truth or suffer because your actions are ineffective or worse.


bruce wilder 12.10.18 at 3:58 am

In politics and in society generally, the cognitive demands are too great for truth. We conserve our strength by living in the subjunctive, substituting unambiguous counterfactual for factual interpretation of a necessarily dubious character. We cannot accurately predict so we speculate freely or we take some supposed but feeble trend and project forward.

It only seems like lying, when someone we do not like does it.


nastywoman 12.10.18 at 5:30 am

”If he is so dysfunctional, why is he rich and freaking President”?

BE-cause he always wanted to self-destruct.
-(like all a…holes)
And he always wanted all of these New Yorkers -(and all other Americans) being forced to talk about him as if he would be NOT be just a asocial a…hole.


Peter T 12.10.18 at 6:12 am


Quite right. The key is “outside their domain”. There’s a large domain of ordinary unassailable truths (“that stove is hot”, “my dog is a terrier”), many overlapping domains of somewhat less ordinary truths (“water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen”, “this manuscript was written in north Italy between 700 and 850”..), truths according to agreed tests and, finally, a lot of domains where there is no anchor in either material reality or agreed tests. People slide along from one to another without thinking about what makes something true until, as Orwell remarked, their classifications collide with reality on a battlefield. But I would suggest that people who have never grappled with an uncompromising reality are particularly prone to thinking it does not exist – that anything can be fudged if you are persuasive enough.


Murali 12.10.18 at 6:48 am

eg @39

There are two ways one can present an approximation. The first way is by flagging that it is an approximation. This is not lying. The second way is by presenting it as not being an approximation. That is lying. I do not know of any secondary school physics syllabus which does the former.

The chemistry example with the circular orbitals is a more obvious example.


faustusnotes 12.10.18 at 8:07 am

It’s worth remembering, with regards to Trump’s specific power to get people to agree, that he’s probably a narcissistic and borderline personality disorder, and those people are very good at getting people around them to agree with their worldview, even when it’s false, because they keep social arrangements in a state of constant chaos where agreeing with the powerful narcissist/bpd person is essential for stability. You can see that in action in the remarkable way Trump brazens his way through questions from the press, James Comey’s disturbing description of their private meetings, and the impossibility for normal people interacting with him to even begin to keep up with his lies, fabrications and changes of direction. You can also see that in the behavior of (now dead) Jimmy Savile, whose remarkable ability to be awful but admired was out of this world.

I’m intimately acquainted with this personality type after working with one who had a lot of power for many years. I’ve watched in meetings as he slipped and slid and changed positions he had held only a moment before, denied saying things that had only just left his lips, and constantly changed tack and topic to disorient and confuse. I’ve watched him browbeat people who had officially more authority than him, and work within the confines of the system to always benefit himself. It’s always easier, if you’re caught in these people’s orbit, to agree with them and lie for them than to confront them. Trump does it with his subordinates and the press all the time. It’s a unique power of narcissists and people with borderline personality disorder. They have no reality or allegiance to facts except as these things serve their own rhetorical purpose.

I think there is also something going on in the older generations of the USA and the UK, in which a lot of them are attracted in some way to those kinds of personalities. That is part of the reason that an otherwise awful and obvious liar like Farage is able to continue to command respect, and the way oily creeps like Boris Johnson and Jeremy Clarkson (who is a violent liar) are able to be popular with a certain generation. I think it has something to do with the way power was wielded in schools and workplaces of their generation, which makes them identify with these horrible people as powerful and right. I don’t know what it is exactly but it’s a thing and a large part of the reason that we are being ruled by the horrible people we see before us now.


arcseconds 12.10.18 at 10:50 am

I’m glad you raised this, as I struggle with this myself. Like you, I reflexively care about the truth, and I have difficulty supposing other people don’t.

However, I’m pretty sure that many people, perhaps most, have a ‘flexible’ attitude to the truth, and I’m broadly with Peter T — people usually have at best a domain-specific grasp on truth (and do worse when, and b9n10nt — people who consistently care about truth the way we’re supposed to have to be trained to do it, although specialist training is, I think, neither necessary nor sufficient. Plenty of ordinary people do OK on this score. And I’m thoroughly in agreement with Hidari and others who say that the likes of Trump are just not even trying to give a picture of the world. A picture, maybe, but whether or not it corresponds to anything real is beside the point.

You see the world as consisting of largely people who have some care for the truth, so there’s a lot of deluded people and liars in your view, but not so many bullshitters. But I wonder why you think so.

If we operationalize ‘caring about the truth’, so that one cares about the truth insofar as one makes statements when one has warrant to do so but not otherwise, checks sources, is sensitive to contrary evidence, revises opinions, admits to mistakes, agrees with even enemies if they say something true, acts upon what they believe to be true, etc. then we see that few people actually do care about the truth consistently and across the board, and to do this requires the right background.

(Liars could ‘care about the truth’ in this sense if they do that kind of thing privately, so someone deliberately running a Ponzi scheme certainly cares about the truth (e.g. checks and rechecks, develops systems to track) of what’s happening to the money they’re taking in and giving out, although of course it can be difficult to tell)

Instead, beyond a practical reality they are competent with, people care about what they prefer to be true, what supports their favourite narratives, or care about being seen to be right, or ‘face’, or showing up their enemies.

I agree that many people probably think nevertheless that somehow they’re giving a picture of reality, but I also wonder what difference this really makes. If you look around it’s not that hard to see cases where the tire fails to hit the road. People who say they believe in the most dramatic of conspiracy theories involving the government, yet show no concern with making these opinions public on the internet. Pro life advocates who have no regard whatsoever for the huge number of early miscarriages. People who seem sure of some imminent apocalypse (or ‘the singularity’) yet who still save for their retirement, etc. I don’t think these people believe one thing and say another, so they’re not liars in the usual sense, but there’s nevertheless a sense in which they don’t entirely believe what they say they do.

There’s always a social game (and probably also a psychological one) being played when one makes a truth claim, and the best that one can hope for is that the social game happens to coincide with good epistemological practice, but one can see even when one has honest people with a good regard for truth how things apart from a regard to truth influence the discussion, and even the belief-holding — ego is an obvious one, but so to is sympathy with one’s fellows — often we don’t want to believe our friends are wrong. And that’s the best case scenario!

You say that the desire to be right counteracts bullshittery, but is that the desire to have the truth, or the desire to win the argument?

I wonder why it’s so tempting to think people care about the truth. Projection, perhaps? But I suspect it’s also just easier to model. It’s easier to understand and track Trump’s belief if he looks at the picture of his rally and says to himself “Oh, dear, a poor turnout. Oh, well, can’t have my followers thinking that! I’ll just say it was the greatest ever, that always works”, just like when you know it was you that stole the cookies, but tell Mother it was your sister. Much harder to work out what could be going on if he immediately goes into denial, says what he wants to say about it, and goes about believing what he just said, until that becomes awkward and he starts believing something else, and much harder still if he actually doesn’t believe anything at all about the numbers at his rally in the way that would connect with a photograph or an informed history, but rather just knows the statement that resonates emotionally with himself and his fans.


CDT 12.10.18 at 11:47 am

As noted above, I think dementia has added a new element to Trump’s original narcissistic, amoral, and bullshitting developer baseline. As for the others, recall Arendt’s explanation that, for the totalitarian masses, consistency and identity matter more than teuth. Believng untruths and, indeed, rejecting critical thinking is a form of cirtue signalling for sociopaths.


SusanC 12.10.18 at 1:14 pm

When we teach undergradute-level Fourier analysis, it usually comes with the disclaimer that what we are about to say is mathematically nonsense (Dirac delta functions aren’t actually functions, etc.); that it can be fixed up, but the audience hasn’t yet done the necessary courses to understand the fixed up explanation, but if you really care about justifying it you’re welcome to go read a book on measure theory.

This sort of pedgogical cheat (or forward reference) is arguably different from an actual lie.


bruce wilder 12.10.18 at 1:27 pm

re: with regards to Trump’s specific power to get people to agree

Most of what we identify as ordinary arguments meant to persuade take an hypnotic form. They are definitely not theorems, meant to establish logical validity, nor do they carefully examine the implications of empirical tests.

Trump’s behavior in front of a crowd is the behavior of an hypnotist in that he is willing to say or do anything to get a response from his subject, the crowd, and then to “train” subsequent responses. Most salesmanship is like this: structured to be effective hypnotically.

When we talk about “belief”, we are usually talking about the non-factual propositions that are communicated in hypnosis, not Peter T’s ordinary statements of fact. Things like, “You sure are lucky.” or ” That was tragic. ” statements with moral implications for status, with emotional associations, but with only tenuous connections to factual reality or logical validity

Most politicians are practiced speakers of cliche, code chosen because it gets predictable reactions from people without necessarily meaning much, and certainly not commitment to a course of action or probity of any kind.


Zamfir 12.10.18 at 1:55 pm

@Faustus, I like that point about a certain “kind” of liar. It might be that people understand this brand of people. Or they think they understand, with good reasons. Exactly because have lots of experience with them,in positions of authority.

So it doesn’t quite feel that they are lying, because you can tell that they are lying. Because you know the type. Johnson disses up some story about the EU regulations on condoms, or the Germans planning to start the fourth Reich, or India begging for marvelous trade deals like in the glory days of the Empire. People know that he is lying or exaggerating. They also hear the deeper message, that Europe has inferior foreigners telling Brits what to do, and the superior Brits would do better on their own. They agree on that message, so the lies just become a colourful communication method.

At some point, there was a quote about taking Trump seriously, not literally. And its true! In a way, lies can help to build trust. I know he’s making it up, he knows he’s making it up, so we understand each other. And he’s willing to lie to achieve our common goal, good of him.

Of course, that kind of trust is ready for abuse by con-men. But the lies are not themselves the con.


SamChevre 12.10.18 at 2:44 pm

It seems to me that Tim Burke’s post, shortly after Trump’s election, on perceptions of honesty (point #1 in the linked document) fits in well here. Pull quote below, but go read the whole thing.

A candidate who says what he or she means and is guided by deep-set values that he or she expresses regardless of whether it’s situationally wise to say it, is going to seem like a kind of middle-American Lenny Bruce, ripping up phony bourgeois manners, being the bull in someone else’s china shop. Yes, he’s a liar; yes, he is honest.


bianca steele 12.10.18 at 3:07 pm

“they keep social arrangements in a state of constant chaos where agreeing with the powerful narcissist/bpd person is essential for stability”

It seems to me one definition of “privilege,” or one component of privilege, is that one can formulate a strategy for participation that will lead to stability (both in the group and the individual sense). This is true even in a chaotic situation where the successful strategy will be morally or personally unacceptable to many of those who could nevertheless make use of it.

Most commenters here would presumably find it unacceptable to operate successfully and stably in an environment conditioned by Trump. The surprising thing seems to be how many people feel they could do so.

Bullshit would seem to be, in the best case, a strategy (unacceptable to some)that recognizes circumstances in which truth-telling wouldn’t be successful or stable. Lying and trolling would both seem to be attempts to free-ride on others’ normally successful, stable strategies. (I’d probably count reflective contrarian oneupmanship as a form of trolling.)

ISTM that historically, groups of people who’ve formed a self-image as “truth-tellers” have been people who lacked the social privilege to find a successful, stable strategy, and hoped that some ostensibly objective “the way things are” could substitute for that privilege. (People whose successful, stable strategy is to ignore others’ putative bullshit, but silently, are probably separate from that group.)


bob mcmanus 12.10.18 at 3:22 pm

Checked my reading, and Lee McIntyre’s Post-Truth 2018 is short and worth a read with chapters on Trump, Climate Change Denial, Social Media, emotivist bullying*, and the post-modern “Crisis of Representation” (including Sokal – boring) among others. For me it lost a star or two due to excessive partisanship. I have avoided the Barthes-Foucault-Baudrillard stuff cause too much work to add coherently and because Holbo’s interesting question is really about why we tell the “truth.”

*”Baby It’s Cold Outside” really really triggers and hurts me. How bout you?


politicalfootball 12.10.18 at 4:19 pm

Professor Holbo raises this idea in order to debunk it:

Self-delusion squeezes the space for deliberate deceit. It is tempting, then, to believe that lies – that is, conscious untruths, told with deliberate intent to induce false belief in an audience – are … well, let’s start by saying: rarer than you might think.

And offers this as an illustration:

Obviously a lot of people are liars. Q is a liar, I assume. But Qanon is a broad base of delusion.

I am something of an extremist in the opposite direction — someone who thinks that lies are, in fact, much, much, much less common than is believed. I don’t think it’s necessarily true that Q is a liar. He may well be a bullshitter in the Frankfurtian sense.

The original post underestimates the power of motivated reasoning and the fact that many people place no value whatsoever in the truth — Frankfurt’s insight, essentially. Q may well be a liar, but it may be that Q has never paused to consider the distinction between truth and lies in this context. (I have acknowledged that my view on this is extreme.)

When you look at Trump and see how many lies he tells that are against his own interest* — and indeed, how many truths he tells that are against his own interest** — you come to realize that truth is a matter of complete indifference to him.

I don’t want to overstate my extremist case — Q probably is a liar in the conventional sense. I’m only arguing that it’s not necessarily so, and that Frankfurt’s insight is more powerful than the original post credits.

*Trump’s initial lie about Comey’s firing was that it took place because of Comey’s abusive treatment of Hillary.
**Trump says he wouldn’t rule out pardoning Manafort. “Why would I take it off the table?”


Orange Watch 12.10.18 at 5:45 pm

Not to put too fine a point on it, but your description of “the Americans [you] know” mostly seems to serve as supporting evidence of some of the worst stereotypes about the kind of Americans – particularly men – who aspire to be ex-pats in Japan.


politicalfootball 12.10.18 at 6:17 pm

Further to my prior comment, bob asks the key question:

The better question for the crowd is How does Trump get away with it? If he is so dysfunctional, why is he rich and freaking President? Is this about to catch up with him, what now after 60 years?

Trump has very little agency in any of this. Ask yourself: Why did elephants grow trunks? Why do giraffes have long necks? The creatures themselves didn’t think it would be useful to have these characteristics. They evolved this way because their environment demanded it.

Better to ask: What is it about the modern environment that propels people like Trump to national leadership? Then you get a productive answer — one that involves the peculiarities of the US Constitution, the advantages of wealth, the biases of the Deep State, Trump’s ethnic background, and a media environment that actively promotes bullshit. We know this is true in part because much of Trump’s nonsense is so poorly thought out, so obviously a product of his idiosyncratic nature, rather than the result of a plan.

Had Sarah Palin had a slightly better attention span — and perhaps a bit more desire for the presidency — she could have been the Republican nominee in 2012, and therefore could have had a real shot at the presidency. The media (construed broadly to include Facebook and Twitter) in particular have worked very hard to produce someone like Trump.

Reiterating bob’s question:

Is this about to catch up with him, what now after 60 years?

My best guess is that it is, in fact, about to catch up with him in the sense that one way or another, he will not get a second term. He has entered an environment that is different from the environment of New York real estate, and somewhat different from a campaign environment.

But he’ll stay rich, and probably stay out of jail, not because of some peculiar genius, but because that’s just the way the world works. Take away one variable — the insane media environment, the Trump family’s wealth, Trump’s race, etc. — and the outcome for him would likely be wildly different.


Tohubohu 12.10.18 at 7:05 pm

Bruce @ 42

I hope you’re right that we conserve rather than vitiate our strength by “living in the subjunctive.” I am thinking not just of the complexity of modern life but of the extent to which life mediated by money and lived behind screens, behind glass, on the web, in grocery and department stores, can carry on for years without the emphatic impression, much less the empowering thrill, of deadly necessity.

But the stakes are still high. Hell, in mastering nature we’ve poisoned the planet. It is still possible, still important, to live in the indicative. By which I mean there is still bullshit, and there is still the truth.


bruce wilder 12.10.18 at 8:01 pm

I am not sure why people insist so strongly that truth, per se, is even in play.

Most arguments in politics, like salesmanship generally, is about inducing a trance state and feeding emotional associations only tangentially related, at best, to logic or facts.

Trump is a remarkably good hypnotist. Part of that ability is a certain flexibility in being willing to say almost anything that will get a response from his audience. Hypnotists have to do that, get a response and then train that response, leading the hearer from one “thought” or emotional association to another. What the hypnotist says may not make any more sense than a song lyric and for much the same reason: it is about emotion and a state of self-regard.

That human beings are readily and regularly hypnotized is just a fact of human psychology. It does not make the hypnotist — or salesman more likely, salesmanship and public relations being the most common applications of the arts of propaganda and persuasive communications — a psycho. Failure to persuade probably indicates someone else got there first with a different hypnotic pitch, not that the resistant subject is exceptionally woke.

With Trump, a remarkable feature is his apparent ability to fascinate the Media and enough of their audience so as to suck much of the oxygen out of room reserved for American politics. Watch CNN and you would be hard-pressed to find out anything else about the world than what various talking heads speculate concerning Robert Mueller’s probe and much of the speculation is very nearly mindless, so far is it from the perspective of critical thinking about facts and sound judgment. Is Trump’s ability to fascinate a property of Trump the Man, or of the highly concentrated and homogenized corporate Media ecology? Or, does the explanation lie with the psychology of the masses sucked into this nonsense for hours and hours, day after tedious day?

Trump is remarkably negative in his messaging, complaining and insulting, but he gets a lot of cooperation in monopolizing attention from institutions hostile to him personally and politically. It is a symbiosis to wonder at.


alfredlordbleep 12.10.18 at 9:01 pm

the Devil in Pence
aside & hypothetical

Pence succeeding Felon-1 would mean a disciple of The Father of Lies takes the position of a mere worker of crowds and head of a N. Y. crime family. (As is always said, The Father of Lies would act through a person with the appearance of great piety. But in this case a person ~not trusting himself alone with a woman not his wife—an doubtlessly similar drivel applies)


bekabot 12.10.18 at 9:36 pm

The whole truth is something to which we have no access, and we’d need eternity to tell it if we did, so we’re justified in leaving parts of it out when we argue. (IMO, we’re justified in leaving parts of it out, full stop — chiefly if not exclusively because we can’t help ourselves.) But the person who finds it necessary to tell whoppers consistently, on a day-to-day basis, either just plain likes to tell whoppers, or isn’t skilled enough to avoid them. Telling whoppers is like cursing in public: what it is, is proof that the person who does it isn’t very good at expressing himself or herself; and for that reason it ought to be inadmissible in people who make public self-expression their profession. JMO.


Alex SL 12.10.18 at 10:05 pm

Lots of interesting perspectives here, love reading this thread.

As for lying in politics: A fairly simple take would start with the recognition that there are different models of what politics are for, or about. One is that politics is where different interest groups get together, develop an agreed-on understanding of reality, and then find compromises (give and take) that allow them to continue living with each other. Perhaps even find out, through argument, what is best for the common good, but that might be starting to sound naive; compromise will do. At any rate this requires at least trying to understand how things are and how others see things, because otherwise how can you even have a discussion and have faith in agreements between two parties?

Another is that politics is where the other side is trying to capture the state power to destroy your side, and so your side has to capture it first and destroy them. Once you believe that this is the correct model of politics, publicly telling the truth may be more of a liability than a requirement.


faustusnotes 12.11.18 at 1:51 am

Orange Watch, I would love to agree with you, but I don’t just meet Americans in Japan (also FYI, most Americans here are not “expats”, they are employed in local business at local salaries). I meet Americans from America when working, sometimes I have to collaborate with them, and I see the same cynicism in them too. Also, your culture is quite widely broadcast through various forms of media, so people outside of America could probably say we get a greater exposure to your culture than others. Just this morning for example I stumbled on a long twitter thread about why Americans wear shoes inside and do other cultures do so? Hilarity, until today I only knew the shoe cultures of Japan and Australia, now I know America’s too (Ftr your shoe culture sounds disgusting). So I think it is a thing. And I think that this culture feeds and is in turn sustained by the ideals of both siderism that infect your political discourse, and manipulated with breathtaking cynicism by republicans. I should also note that a lot of ideas that are now spreading around the world (like the road to hell is paved with good intentions that I mentioned above, or the idea that tipping is a good way to get better service) are obviously pushed strongest and most clearly by Americans. It really is A Thing.

Bianca steele, I think you’re right about the role of privilege in “managing” bpd. In my experience the only people who endure bpd bosses for any length of time are people who have no choice at all, or people who are so independently wealthy and empowered that they can walk away at any time and see their time with the boss as useful. This means that bpd bosses tend to be surrounded by powerless victims and enduring grifters. You see this in the White House – everyone who started working there not understanding what they were in for left quickly, and everyone else either has no choice or is in it for their own grift. This I suspect is going to make the Chief of Staff position very hard to fill when Kelly exits (and I think he was only tolerating it for the racism, which seems to be a project very dear to him). Only a grifter or a hardcore white nationalist will be willing to tolerate the screwed up situation. Remember when Spicer was basically performing trump’s style of narcissistic viciousness on tv to get plaudits – that’s an example of Trump’s bpd infecting the discourse.


Z 12.11.18 at 8:45 am

I tend to think the intense, self-righteous desire to have truth on your side swamps that effect […] But, despite being a utilitarian who thinks you should generally pull the switch, and a Plato scholar, I find the life of the Noble Lie cognitively alien and weird.

I think you’re over-thinking it, or to be more accurate, I think you are approaching a problem with a philosopher’s hat, while most people approach it in a very different way. Truth, in most situations and for most people, does not refer to any variant of philosophical or scientific truth, it is closer in meaning to authenticity, a sense of shared experience. Expressing (perceived) authenticity to a receptive crowd, far from being cognitively exhausting and weird as the Noble Lie must indeed be, is surely a gratifying and comforting experience, both for speakers and listeners.

This is why everybody always seem to have such a great time at Trump’s rally, and also why the fake news catch phrase is so successful (fake news may indeed be true, as most people would eventually recognize if confronted with the truth, but they don’t correspond to the experience of the listener).

Does everyone who works for FOX News think that it’s a Noble Lie Factory?

I think everyone who works for FOX News (and enjoys the experience) think it’s the one network which reflects the authentic experience of real Americans.

Honestly, I couldn’t do it if I tried

Now, now John, that’s a failure of imagination. What Trump, Huckabee Sanders or Fox are doing is push what they believe is an authentic and hence valuable line over an other mode of expression (here, objective truth) that they and their listeners value less in order to promote their political agenda. They are not lying, they are trying to displace the discussion from one mode of argumentation to another. The symmetric behavior for you would be to shift an argumentation by pushing what you believe is a valuable line (say an objective truth) over a less valuable one (according to your evaluation) to advance your political agenda. Hence, it would be something like hearing a recently laid-off blue collar worker asking to “bring jobs back to America” and answering that data indicate that job creation would slow down under protectionism (assuming for the sake of the discussion that this is objectively true). I’m not saying you ever did this, or something like this, but surely that’s not nearly as cognitively alien and weird as the “Noble lie factory” model and I doubt doing it would shot your digestion in a week.


Layman 12.11.18 at 11:07 am

politicalfootball: “Had Sarah Palin had a slightly better attention span — and perhaps a bit more desire for the presidency — she could have been the Republican nominee in 2012, and therefore could have had a real shot at the presidency.”

Had Sarah Palin inherited a fortune from her father — a fortune kept largely whole in the transfer through tax fraud — she would actually be Donald Trump.


nastywoman 12.11.18 at 11:16 am

”Hence, it would be something like hearing a recently laid-off blue collar worker asking to “bring jobs back to America” and answering that data indicate that job creation would slow down under protectionism (assuming for the sake of the discussion that this is objectively true)”.

and this seems to be the perfect example about what we’re actually facing – if ”bring back jobs to America and answering that data indicate that job creation would slow down under protectionism (assuming for the sake of the discussion that this is objectively true)” – is ”a lie” – and only made possible by doing everything to not bring back jobs to America if ”protectionism” is involved.


Trader Joe 12.11.18 at 3:19 pm

From the OP: “Honestly, I couldn’t do it if I tried”

I think this is doubtful. What you are most probably doing is filtering. I’d bet before 9 a.m. each day you have thoughts like “that driver is an idiot” , “that outfit looks shabby on him, he needs to loses some weight,” “can’t anyone else around here turn off a light”

These are all low key rants relative to what a politician might say, but if you spoke every one of them outloud you’d quickly be viewed as a bore to be avoided. Equally, ff every time you said them a circle of pundits swarmed the comment for policy implications (he wants to outlaw drivers, he thinks idiots should lose their rights) you’d quickly find that even things you are quite sure are true no longer seem that way to everyones eye.

As others have suggested there are only so many truths in world – all the rest is speculation on where a particular observation lies along a spectrum of possibility, some of which will accord with others world views and some not.


bianca steele 12.11.18 at 3:59 pm

fn: You also see quite a bit of turnover in those situations (at least when the job market is good). It’s a system designed to select the one grifter/dupe who can survive the gauntlet and become the Apprentice (or just use them up and spit them out, whichever), which is probably the best way of describing SHS. But those who think the system can work if it’s full of former apprentices and those alone, unfortunately, I doubt their minds are changed when a Kelly or a Sessions leaves. Maybe the word for that is cynicism, I don’t know.

Is the idea that reality TV teaches us something about society a noble lie or the opposite? I don’t know that either. Is Trump an aberration or so typical he illustrates the norm? Who the hell knows?


Kallan Greybe 12.11.18 at 5:38 pm

I’m not so much of a skeptic about Frankfurt’s bullshitter. Igo so far as to think that it may in fact represent a far more important feature of our epistemology than the comparatively trivial “keeps an eye on the truth”. My favourite demarcation theory is therefore that science is “serious” and pseudo-science is bullshit, in precisely Frankfurt’s terms.

So, read from my perspective John, what you’re describing when you call the world of the obvious lie “alien” is just what distinguishes a serious, scientific worldview from a pseudoscientific one. The right (and all the other people who lie for self-serving ends) are indulging in pseudoscience and everyone who knows the real thing can recognise that the fake stuff just doesn’t cut the mustard.


Orange Watch 12.11.18 at 10:58 pm

also FYI, most Americans here are not “expats”, they are employed in local business at local salaries

…that doesn’t mean they’re not expatriates. That’s entirely in line with the definition of expatriate. An expatriate is someone living outside their native country, not an idle permanent tourist or something.

Also, your culture is quite widely broadcast through various forms of media, so people outside of America could probably say we get a greater exposure to your culture than others.

That’s an excellent way to learn about stereotypes of a culture, yes. It’s not a great way to learn about intricate details of a culture, but if you want to confirm sweeping, shallow stereotypes there’s nothing better. Nor is social media great, as that tends to be best at presenting the loudest and most opinionated members of a culture.


Peter T 12.12.18 at 10:52 am

My point about the ordinary unassailable truths that everyone acknowledges is that one of the many jobs of politics is to connect complex domains of knowledge to ordinary understandings – to make comprehensible (or at least internally accepted) the key features of the landscape within which any politics operates. It was one of the keys to British success over two centuries that the combination of a a collegiate cabinet, a parliament connected to the key constituencies and a thoroughly professional civil service kept policy firmly anchored to realities most of the time. Relatively few expeditions to Syracuse, marches on Moscow and white elephant projects. Brexit tells us this formula no longer operates. But the need remains, and reality remains as intransigent as ever.


bruce wilder 12.12.18 at 8:28 pm

tohubohu: I hope you’re right that we conserve rather than vitiate our strength by “living in the subjunctive.”

I did NOT say anything about “strength” which I take to be a metaphor for power. I actually think we (Americans especially, because we are talking about the advanced degeneration of American politics into kakistocracy, rule by the worst people for which Trump is the symbol) are “powerless” in the very real sense that American politics is very, very unresponsive to the views or needs or interests of 80+% of the population. This is true of the politics of policy and it is true, as well, of the theatre of the political discourse, as broadcast thru the Media, old and new.

I do not think we, the intended audience, of the political discourse synthesized and pre-digested for us by corporate, advertising-supported Media, actually learn or know much about the institutions of American policy. The “news” is one surprise after another. There’s no context. No discerning judgment. “Our Democracy” — in the U.S. — is a top-down process of manipulation by mostly unseen hands. The indicative in this context leads to the realization of despair.

The Truth will set you Free. Well, not this “truth”, which is just a self-righteous pose in denial of reality.


J-D 12.13.18 at 7:05 am

Peter T

It was one of the keys to British success over two centuries that the combination of a a collegiate cabinet, a parliament connected to the key constituencies and a thoroughly professional civil service kept policy firmly anchored to realities most of the time. Relatively few expeditions to Syracuse, marches on Moscow and white elephant projects.

Just off the top of my head I can think of the First Anglo-Afghan War, the Crimean War, and Concorde. If I can think of three examples just off the top of my head there must be more. But how many more than three do there have to be before they can no longer be dismissed as ‘relatively few’?


nastywoman 12.13.18 at 12:12 pm

”but if you want to confirm sweeping, shallow stereotypes there’s nothing better”.

There is:
”Living sweeping, shallow stereotypes” –
And what great… ”expression” – and if allowed I will use it now a lot – as each time I’m in California I can help – but living – those ”sweeping, shallow stereotypes” – it’s just too much… am I allowed to say: –

And that’s no… lie – as I sometimes think that living in ”the homeland” in general might be ”sweeping, shallow stereotypes”? -(one hardly ever get’s in Europe) – but the definition of ”expat” is right on – as indeed it is:

”Someone living outside their native country, not an idle permanent tourist or something”.

Which makes it even more… am I allowed to say – ”fun”? –
if one has more than just one ”native country” – and the ability to constantly checking – ”whassup”?

And do you guys know this story of all these famous philosophers (aka: ”surfers”) who once knew a culture and a country (Australia) just from various forms of media -(widely broadcasted) – and then when the met there and lived there for a while – (not as ”tourists”) – every ”sweeping, shallow” – (and even the ”very deep philosophical”) – ”stereotypes” came… true!


bianca steele 12.13.18 at 3:05 pm

On the question of truth and knowing whether you’re indifferent to it, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of people:

1. People who feel ordinary language states, and is meant to state, straightforward truths that are easy for everyone to understand. People in this category who find themselves wanting to state what they believe to be truths, but which they can’t state straightforwardly in ordinary language, use scientific language, poetry and metaphor, narrative examples, logical and mathematical analysis, and extra verbiage to try to convey their meaning to other people. Lies, for them, are using a kind of language (especially ordinary language) to say something untrue.

2. People who feel ordinary language is all there is, and any other kind of language is automatically a lie. Poetry is an evasion and thus a lie. Scientific language is a lie unless and until it can be conveyed in ordinary terms. Extra verbiage is an evasion and reflects unwillingness to admit the speaker/writer is wrong. But these people also feel truthful ordinary language can contain metaphors, vaguenesses, and statements that might appear at first glance to be lies, and still be (in their opinion) true.

Maybe obviously, I’m in category 1. It’s possible that we might tend to overestimate the straightforward truthfulness (in our sense) of the apparently ordinary language we hear, and reject too much of what we hear or read that falls in category 2. But I don’t believe either science or poetry can exist unless category 1 is taken as assumed. People who prefer category 2 have lots of reasons why people in category 1 have something wrong with them, but it sounds a bit overdetermined to my ears. People who speak in the language of category 2 are, in my opinion, almost always talking bullshit (it would be interesting to know if they feel the same way about the other category).

I don’t know if a person in one category can be educated into being in the other. It does become tiresome when most of what goes on in a debate amounts to veiled accusations of being in the wrong category. Even if it were true, what is to be done about it?


bruce wilder 12.13.18 at 4:10 pm

Brexit tells us this formula no longer operates.

It seems to me that Brexit is the result of that “formula” resisting and rebelling against the changes in political patterns the EU entailed.

I understand that British politics has not been good at the ” connect complex domains of knowledge to ordinary understandings” business with regard to formulating Brexit as a relationship of Britain to Europe and then spinning that out as policy and modified institutions able to frame the routines of commerce. Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, EFTA, Canada, none of these have made sense and Ireland and Gibraltar have been surprises.

It is hard problem though.

The question remains, why did Britain, which had a good deal in the EU, generate so much domestic hostility to the EU that Brexit was even plausible to the political classes and an important part of the answer has to be the resistance of that “formula” you mentioned. That “formula” of interlocked institutions may be generally able to respond adaptively to reality’s demands, but it was in conflict on many levels of functioning with the EU’s structures and principles.

I am not surprised that Britain is not able to cleanly decide that keeping its political “formula” intact is worth ceding 5 to 8% of GDP. And as May tries vainly eat the cake and keep it, it doesn’t surprise me that so few seem to understand how it all hangs together and where the fracture points are. Tory Britain has never conceded the independence of Ireland before, why should they start now?


Peter T 12.14.18 at 1:43 am


When you’re talking major power politics over several centuries, “relative’ covers a lot. Getting through major change without a civil war that kills a significant fraction of the population. Being occupied and looted. Committing so many resources to a fruitless endeavour that your independence is severely constrained (see Scotland and Darien). Stuffing up your environment irrecoverably…

Bruce – the first question is “is this do-able and, if so, at what probable cost?” That’s the question the civil/military services are there to answer. There’s nothing in the Brexit process to suggest the question was even asked. There’s very little in the process since to suggest that the answers have been given any serious attention by a significant fraction of the ruling classes.


J-D 12.14.18 at 9:54 pm

Peter T

Many countries have avoided catastrophes of the kind you describe over long periods without relying on the specific British institutions you mentioned, so I still suspect you’re giving those institutions credit that isn’t clearly justified by evidence. You described those institutions as ‘keys to British success’: if your definition of ‘success’ is ‘not being devastated’, then I think you’re setting the bar low.


Murali 12.15.18 at 9:47 pm

J-D @78

Not being devastated is definitely not too low a bar. Since history is littered with the remains of countries and civilisations being devastated, let us start with not being devastated and then see if we can move on from there once we have achieved that.


J-D 12.16.18 at 5:33 am


… history is littered with the remains of countries and civilisations being devastated …

True. But history is even more extensively littered with examples of countries and civilisations going hundreds of years without being devastated. Peter T pointed to ‘the combination of a a collegiate cabinet, a parliament connected to the key constituencies and a thoroughly professional civil service’ as an explanation for the UK being successful over the last two centuries. As a matter of fact, one part of what was then the UK did experience, within the last two centuries, a famine which I think can fairly be described as devastating, but even setting that aside, by historical standards two centuries without devastation is not so surprisingly long a period that by itself it justifies drawing conclusions about the special merits of the UK’s institutions.


bruce wilder 12.16.18 at 6:23 pm

the first question is “is this do-able and, if so, at what probable cost?” That’s the question the civil/military services are there to answer. There’s nothing in the Brexit process to suggest the question was even asked.

I think the question was asked and answered during the referendum debate and again, in different terms, during the initial negotiations with the EU. Proponents and opponents in the referendum debate and since have accused the Other Side of lying and deception, of course, and all the phenomena that Holbo discussed in the OP above, applies, as far as the confusion of such cacophony. And, what is actually “do-able” depends in very practical terms on what the EU is willing to concede, but EU officials, while circumspect with regard to their intent to use their superior power position to punish the UK, were remarkably clear.

So, I think the premise of your narrative as stated cannot be supported. Whether the ruling classes or political classes — choose your terms carefully, oddly otherwise-powerful interests (industrial business generally or The City) seem to be on the sidelines — were listening to the answer and how they were taking account of it in their rhetoric and policy gambits remains a more open question.

From a detached distance, what seems “do-able” is, in the common parlance, a Hard Brexit, which would entail a considerable investment in reviving or revising administrative structures and related law, tolerance (and preparation) for a short-term period of commercial chaos, and, finally, the highly uncertain business of moving the U.K. to a different path and regime of economic development. There is no majority in Parliament for a Hard Brexit, nor for what May was able to negotiate, which appears to amount very nearly to no Brexit at all. There has been some major investments in revising law and reviving administrative structures though it would not surprise me if this investment has remained woefully inadequate to the case and there’s apparently some “emergency” preparation for the expected chaos.

I cannot reject the narrative hypothesis that says May, perhaps only semi-consciously, has simply been stage-managing the coming of a crisis, in which a Majority in Parliament, heretofor elusive, can be found either for a Hard Brexit or for backing out entirely.

Moving the U.K. to a post-neoliberal economic regime will remain politically contested. That’s the aspect of the political struggle likely to remain murky. You cannot usefully apply cost-benefit criteria to the evaluation of a regime change. These changes of course happen and can be of enormous importance to national income, development and status, but are seldom recognized for what they are by objective observers until years or decades later, if then. If they are not punctuated by a period of crisis, they may not even be marked out by historians and labeled. Merely asserting that contemporary ruling or political classes are fully self-conscious of what they are doing has a tendency to sound to many ears as rather like a conspiracy theory.

RE: Peter T v. J-D @ 73, 78

As J-D points out Peter T’s interpretative crediting of British political stability and adaptiveness to peculiar institutions would be difficult to prove as stated by reference to indicative facts. Peter T’s thesis is intelligible and plausible enough to my ears; I nodded to myself when I read it. I admit I am a big-time anglophile, a student of the British 17th century civil war and “glorious revolution”. But, I think Peter T’s comment stands as an example of how our understandings of political issues tend to inhabit the subjunctive. We think of this kind of understanding of politics as a “truth” and may argue in its favor. And, we may accuse those who fail to assent to our subjunctive “truth” of denying reality. And, stated in the subjunctive, a counterfactual “truth” can feel more like a true fact than an actual true fact, whose meaning and veracity are necessarily somewhat in doubt.


TM 12.16.18 at 9:37 pm

“But history is even more extensively littered with examples of countries and civilisations going hundreds of years without being devastated.”

What are those examples? And what is your definition of “being devastated”?

I don’t want to get into the “what makes Britain special” question but it seems empirically true that Britain has exhibited an unusual level of political stability over a period of more than three centuries: no civil war, no occupation by foreign powers, no devastating wars on home soil. The only other example I can think of in Europe is Switzerland (which suffered occupation in the Napoleonic era but has remained largely intact since 1648).

There are now I think 42 European countries (not counting ministates like Andorra). Only a handful of them can be said to have been “going hundreds of years”, and hardly without devastation. Just look at a historic map, say from 1815. You’ll recognize on that map: France, Portugal, Spain, Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia. That’s it, nine out of 42.

And you’ll hardly find better examples in Asia or Africa.


Lee A. Arnold 12.16.18 at 9:40 pm

Peter T #77: “nothing in the Brexit process… to suggest that the answers have been given any serious attention by a significant fraction of the ruling classes.”

Sir Ivan Rogers appears to agree with you. A few days ago he gave a remarkable, detailed, damning speech examining Brexit, the lies, and the possible path going forward:


Peter T 12.16.18 at 11:41 pm

Sir Ivan Rogers:

“One cannot seriously simultaneously advance the arguments that the EU has morphed away from the common market we joined, and got into virtually every nook and cranny of U.K. life, eroding sovereignty across whole tracts of the economy, internal and external security, AND that we can extricate ourselves from all that in a trice, recapture our sovereignty and rebuild the capability of the U.K. state to govern and regulate itself in vast areas where it had surrendered sovereignty over the previous 45 years.

The people saying 3 years ago that you could were simply not serious. And they have proven it. They also had not the slightest fag packet plan on what they were going to try and do and in which order.”

When a judgement like this can be made without demur (and he is not alone) then the political class responsible has lost the plot. Cameron held a referendum without asking what the consequences of losing would be. May has spent the time since building a cheese submarine. This is – thankfully – a peaceful version of “let’s march on Moscow”.

Bruce – how to kill neo-liberalism is a different task. Brexit is as likely to entrench it as weaken it.

J-D – great power politics is a ruthless domain. If you can think of another state that has played in it for two centuries without catastrophe, provide some examples. BTW, my comment was not in praise of British policies, just to observe that they were uncommonly successful in what they set out to do.


Faustusnotes 12.16.18 at 11:45 pm

Well then orange watch, perhaps you can explain to me why the American “expats” are so much more cynical than other “expats” I meet and why their cynicism aligns so nearly with what I read in The NY Times, national review, etc?


bob mcmanus 12.17.18 at 12:10 am

Britain has exhibited an unusual level of political stability over a period of more than three centuries

Let me check EP Thompson’s spinners and weavers for the approval of Britain’s stability and peacefulness. Or the Irish. Or the Hindu. The Chinese. Or the Boers. Or the pressganged. The transported and emigrated. Or Peterloo. Oh, where is that famous picture of the young boys of different heights by classes.

Britain is/was very very good at cruelty and oppression. And provided an example of efficient and bureaucratized sadism to America, Canada, Australia. Britain is the heart and soul of settler colonialism. I despise that country. At least France had the possibility of Revolution.


faustusnotes 12.17.18 at 1:43 am

I’ll comment again to add that this cynicism has very real consequences for how politics is discussed in the USA. When I speak with my US friends about politics I run into this wall of contempt – for politicians, for the political process, for any notion of meaningful change. This is disabling, it wrecks their judgment and their understanding of what needs to change and how. On this blog during the 2016 election we saw a very obvious manifestation of this: the rather simple and obvious point that Trump is lying about his care for workers and has a long history of being a liar and a con-artist was dismissed because all politicians lie, Clinton is a bigger liar, and probably because he’s not a politician he is more honest. We have all seen how that ended up! At that time Obama’s legacy was assessed not in terms of the very real constraints on political action that arise from your messed up political system, but in terms of the inherent dishonesty of all politicians. He dropped a single payer system not because it was politically impossible but because he lied about it. None of Clinton’s campaign promises or policy ideas mattered because she was a liar.

You don’t see this kind of thing in Australian politics. Nobody believes for a moment that the Labor party is dishonest about its support for workers and is just lying to keep the unions in line; nobody for a moment believes that the Liberals are lying about their tax and regulation agenda. When politicians do lie on major issues they are punished viciously at elections, because we assume that politicians are honest about their purpose and deal honestly with the electorate; we accept small lies and compromises on the assumption that they are fundamentally being honest with us. Sure, the far left has a belief that the labor party is lying, and the far right has a belief that the liberals are lying, but this is a consequence of a specific belief about the flaws in their political model, not a general belief about politics and politicians, and it’s not a widespread cultural phenomenon in any case.

This cynicism also makes the US electorate vulnerable to this outsider savior complex, because surely Ralph Nader or Bernie Sanders or Trump are more honest than politicians and we should vote for them, even if in reality their goals are murky and their political prospects poor. Even today on Twitter I was reading some left wing rube who believes Trump is to the left of Clinton on healthcare. The only way you can believe that in 2018 is if you think everything politicians say is a lie, so even the thoroughgoing cruelty of Trump’s actual policies is easily dismissed because you know Clinton is lying. I can tell you with 100% certainty that in Australia after workchoices was introduced there was not a single person in the country who believed that the liberals were to the left of labor on industrial relations. That’s because we aren’t rendered comatose by cynicism.

Another consequence of this cynicism is “both sides do it”, which renders all political analysis and judgment moot. This is why, despite the existence of the Federalist Society and the obvious evidence of its actions over the past 30 years, Sebastian_H can come on here and still, repeatedly, claim that the left is too focused on using the supreme court to overturn legislation. I see this all the time from ordinary Americans too – it doesn’t matter that the GOP does this or that evil thing, because Dems do too. Even this week we have Vox claiming that the Dems are engaged in partisan gerrymandering when in fact they’re putting in place a system to prevent it. Because both sides do it! And everyone lies! So that policy must be cynical!

This also leads to this uniquely American pathology of thinking your system is perfect but it’s being undermined by cynical politicians. In fact your system is a joke, and it grinds down even perfect politicians, which is why you’re in the state you’re in. But because you think everything is the fault of cynical people doing bad things, you don’t see any point in trying to fix the system – it would be fine if people just acted with the high ideals the founders intended!

I pointed out repeatedly here in 2016 that if you believe politicians lie, and you refuse to accept that they mean what they say, you will be a victim of the worst kinds of frauds and con artists. At the time I thought Sanders was an honest and well-meaning loser, but now I am increasingly thinking that he was a self-aggrandizing princess who helped sink the election to feather his own ego. But so many people here believed he was the true coming of christ, that Trump was an honest interloper, and that Clinton was a lying evil hag. When you believe this kind of cynical stuff, you make the perfect the enemy of the good, you misunderstand people’s motivations, and you end up being ruled by a lying fraudster who will see you all in hell before he gives you even an iota of what you really want.


phenomenal cat 12.17.18 at 2:52 am

When is somebody (John) going to post on the manifold ways Macron has been winning the hearts and minds of the Republic?


J-D 12.17.18 at 3:26 am


“But history is even more extensively littered with examples of countries and civilisations going hundreds of years without being devastated.”

What are those examples?

I have not compiled a comprehensive list, but if I made the attempt I would begin with the Old Kingdom of Egypt. Do you think there would be a shortage of examples between then and now?

I don’t want to get into the “what makes Britain special” question

Fair enough; but that is one of the points at issue in this discussion.

Britain has exhibited an unusual level of political stability over a period of more than three centuries

It’s not clear to me that Peter T’s ‘combination of a a collegiate cabinet, a parliament connected to the key constituencies and a thoroughly professional civil service’ can fairly be said to extend back that far.

There are now I think 42 European countries (not counting ministates like Andorra). Only a handful of them can be said to have been “going hundreds of years”, and hardly without devastation. … And you’ll hardly find better examples in Asia or Africa.

I was not taking the discussion to be restricted to only the most recent few hundreds of years. If the question was about which currently existing political system has the longest record of stable existence, the UK political system is the one I would nominate, but I think that’s a different question: after all, at any given point in history it would always be possible to nominate one of the existing political systems as having the longest record of stable existence, but it’s not clear that it would be reasonable to draw a conclusion in each case about the special merits of that system. I recall reading that some in classical Greece wanted to draw conclusions about the special merits of the Spartan system on the basis of its record for endurance: would they have been right?


Collin Street 12.17.18 at 11:06 am

Britain has exhibited an unusual level of political stability over a period of more than three centuries: no civil war

There was a civil war in 1920. Perhaps you might want to reconsider your conclusions in light of this new evidence.


Cranky Observer 12.17.18 at 11:23 am

IMHO bianca’s 3:05 pm (#75 as of this writing) deserves a front page discussion.


nastywoman 12.17.18 at 1:24 pm

How did this… e-volve from ”Hack Gaps and Noble Lies” to ”Brexit” and ”the first question is “is this do-able and, if so, at what probable cost?”

There is no more joy than watching ourselves trying to do things which are NOT do-able for any costs.

Like WE might be able to vote a Von Clownstick into US Presidency – but WE can’t make Great Britain NOT loving ”Fry Ups” – and there is this (cul-tur-inary) theory that the Brexit was/is just an emotional reaction to ”Continental EU-breakfast” – like some backlash of somebody like ”Duchess Difficult” -(and she is not even ”European”) – forbidding her hubby to do what is some kind of ”British Tradition” – and that’s the real thing guys – it’s very, very difficult to make some people who love to live on an island – NOT trying to do everything to do the not do-able – at any costs?”

As WE have this very good British friend who since years (unsuccessfully) tries to ”exit” from Spain back to ”England” -(as he ”never got a decent Fry Up in Malaga) – and now his homeland might finally help him to do – the ”un-doable”?


MisterMr 12.17.18 at 3:43 pm

I recently re-read Bob Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians”, a book that was cited more than a few times here on CT, because I came to think that this book explains a lot about today’s politics, in the USA and elsewhere.
I’m a bit surprised that nobody spoke about it in this discussion, since Altemeyer has a lot to say about the relationship between authoritarians and lies.

I’ll premise that in general I’m very suspicious of psychological explanations of political movements.
However I came to think that the “authoritarian” mode of thinking became relevant for modern day politics for this reason:
Currently we are leaving in a period of slow growth in most of the rich world, and as the pie grows more slowly, there is more conflict about how to split it.
In particular right leaning theories of the free markets don’t sound convincing today, so the political right switched from economical liberism to the idea (that was already present but not as strongly as it is today) that various redistributive policies take away money from YOU, my dear potential voter, and give it to some UNDESERVING guy, either the undeserving poor or some embezzling politician (“corruption” is generally interpreted by right leaners as “embezzlement”, not as getting kickbacks), possibly both.
So this kind of worldview tends naturally to lead towards pandering to authoritarian voters, or more likely to the authoritarian side of each voter.

With regard to wether Trump believes what he says or not, it’s irrelevant as this is mostly a shibboleth, a symbol of being part of a group and sharing this group’s values.

Here is Altemeyer on his website about Trump’s supporters (from the same website it is possible to download a free version of Altemeyer’s study).
Susceptibility to Liars

One consequence of the followers’ strong need for consensual validation, experiments have found, is that they will trust someone who says things they believe, even if there is a lot of evidence that the person does not really believe what he says. They’re just so glad to hear their views coming back to them, they ignore solid reasons why the person might be insincere or outright lying. Relatively UNauthoritarian people, on the other hand, are downright suspicious of someone who might have ulterior motives for reinforcing their beliefs.

It is therefore much easier to “con” authoritarian followers, as many a TV evangelist, radio shock-jockey and flag-waving politician knows. It’s no accident that Donald Trump, who had only loosely organized and not particularly right-wing political beliefs, became a Republican politician when he decided to declare war on both the Democrats and Republicans. That’s where the “suckers” are most concentrated, the people you can fool all of the time. (It’s another story, but the GOP largely brought this on itself by deliberately courting these folks.)

There’s a hidden danger to authoritarian leaders in all this. When they discover their followers will believe anything they say, even things that contradict something they said earlier, they get sloppy with their lies. Maybe Donald Trump always was careless with the truth. But it seems that over the past two years he has become downright reckless. His base will swallow anything, he has learned, so he just says the first thing that comes to mind.

The trouble is, for him and the future of his presidency, Truth happens. Constantly. It may be seen differently by various folks, but things did happen as they happened, not something else. You can only ignore the truth so long, and then reality will inevitably catch up with you. It will destroy you if you have been massively denying it.


On the more philosophical matter of thruth, IMO:

1) there is reality;
2) there are representations of reality, including mind representations, that by definiton are something different from the reality they represent;
3) “truth” is the relation of conformity between one representation and the reality it is supposed to represent, through some aspects (because the representation is not reality, so at least in some aspect it will differ from the reality it represents).

It follows that there can be no absolute, complete truth, since the only thing that conforms completely and absolutely with reality is reality itself and not a representation on it.

So how do we choose between different representations of reality?
Mostly on practical grounds: if I have to calculate the trajectory of a ball thrown in the air, if I’m just playing volleyball I will use some intuitive understanding of reality, if I’m projecting a cannonball I will use more complex pallistic theories etc.; I will use Lorentz transformations only if the ball is supposed to travel really fast. All these three models are “true” in their practical range of application.

But there is a difference in how we conceive the “practical” test.

If by “practical” I mean – useful to reach a certain result that we all agree on – then I’m speaking thruthfully;
If by “practical” I mean – people will react to my statement in the way I want – then I’m manipulative, and I might be lying if I ignore the efficacy of my “truth” relative to the objective these people think are sharing with me;
If by “practical” I mean – people will tell me they agree with me and they love me – then I’m just bullshitting (not liing in the strict sense), however this is a very natural behaviour, children do this all the time with their parents and teachers for example, and adults in a whole set of situations.

But the difference between truth, lie and bullshit here is not the same as the difference between truth and falsehood: the difference between truth and falsehood relies on the conformity between representation and reality, whereas the distinction between truth, lie and bullshit relies on the more or less manipulative approach of the speaker to the listeners, so it’s perfectly possible to lie (2nd sense) by telling some truth (1st sense).

Comments on this entry are closed.