The decay of lying

I’ve recently been re-reading Seymour Hersh’s series of investigations into some of the lies told by the Obama administration, first published in the London Review of Books and then collected in The Killing of Osama bin Laden. It’s a measure of the impact Trump has had that it all seems so quaint now. And I’m not just referring to the arrival of truth-tellin’ Michael Flynn in the final pages of Hersh’s book to tell us that Russia is our friend.

Obama’s lies were variously motivated, but mainly had to do with reasons of state and the always-in-operation cover-your-ass principle. The cover story or “narrative” (a word that has now become synonymous with fiction) about the assassination of Osama bin Laden was primarily concocted in order to conceal the cooperation of Pakistan’s military intelligence. As far as cover stories (or lies) go, this struck me as fairly innocuous, even though it gave rise to Zero Dark Thirty and the hard-to-kill myth of torture’s efficacy.

I felt the same way about the misinformation given out regarding what the administration knew of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This again seems to have been politically motivated, and stemmed largely from a chaotic situation on the ground and no clear directing policy framework for dealing with it. I’m not even sure how much it matters, at the end of the day, who was gassing whom, much less who the U.S. said was responsible.

But that was then. These lies were purposeful, political, and at least to some extent persuasive. Zero Dark Thirty even won an Oscar by taking the lies about the hunt for bin Laden and running with them. The lies of Trump, in comparison, are random, personal, and easily exposed. Are they, however, less consequential? As many commentators have pointed out, his indiscriminate carpet-bombing of lies isn’t meant to mislead about any particular point as to make the whole concept of truth seem irrelevant.

The post-truth world is the endgame in sight, a political environment like Putin’s Russia as described by Peter Pomerantsev in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. Pomerantsev’s book is held up by Timothy Snyder as a warning of where the West is heading, and it’s hard to disagree with his general assessment of the course we’re on.

I was thinking of matters like these this past week when following some media scandals. First there was the testimony of Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was commended, even by some Liberal party members, for telling “her truth.” I’ve been vaguely aware of this expression for a while but I’m not sure where it got started. As near as I can tell, when someone says they appreciate you telling your truth what they’re saying is that they don’t believe what you are saying is true, but they accept that you believe it to be true. It’s very much a backhanded way of saying nothing much. It’s also a perfect political soundbite. In response to the recent accusation of inappropriate behaviour on the part of possible presidential candidate Joe Biden, other Democratic candidates again rushed to acknowledge the complainant coming forward with “her truth.” I guess this covers the bases pretty nicely, without committing anyone to saying what the truth in any particular situation is.

But isn’t this a problem? By just saying that someone has told their truth aren’t we making the claim that no objective truth can be arrived at or is recoverable? That everything is relative to one’s own subjective experience? How is this different from a world where nothing is true and everything is possible?

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