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?


Are identity politics progressive?

From First World War: Still No End in Sight (2014) by Frank Furedi:

Although expressed through a radical rhetoric of liberation and empowerment, the shift towards identity politics tended to reflect a conservative sensibility that celebrated the particular and regarded the aspiration for universal values with suspicion. The politics of identity focused on the consciousness of the self and on how the self was perceived. It was and continues to be the politics of “it’s all about me.” Even when self-identity was expressed through a group form, the imperative of recognition by others remains its axial principle. As the historian Tony Judt stated, the doctrines that were developed to express the politics of identity were directed towards psychology and were often indifferent to the “traditional projects of social revolution.” Indeed “they sought to undermine the very concept of the human subject that had once underlain them,” argues Judt. People whose identity is defined by their biology, emotional disposition, history and culture have as their focus what they are rather than what they could be. As we shall see, such low expectation towards the exercise of human subjectivity interlocked with a tendency to devalue the ideas of progress and development.

Unaccountable, Part two

From The Bling Ring (2013) by Nancy Jo Sales:

By the 1980s, kids were looking around at a country where lawbreaking and lawlessness were no longer conditions of poverty and life in the inner city alone. Now these were omnipresent aspects of American business, politics, and the media at the highest levels. “There were no rules governing the pursuit of profit and glory,” Michael Lewis wrote of the culture of Salomon Brothers in the 1980s. “The places was governed by the simple understanding that the unbridled pursuit of perceived self-interest was healthy. Eat or be eaten.”

“Today,” writes Glen Greenwald in With Liberty and Justice for Some (2011), “in a radical and momentous shift, the American political class and its media increasingly repudiate the principle that the law must be equally applied to all.” It gives one pause to consider what the Founding Fathers would have thought of the pardoning of Nixon after the Watergate scandal; the overturning of the convictions of Lieutenand Colonel Oliver North and former National Security Advisor John Poindexter after the Iran-Contra scandal; or the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping, politicized prosecutions, torture, and “black sites” — for which no one was ever prosecuted. Every step along the way has been an even bigger departure from the insistence of the framers of the Constitution that in a democracy everyone must be equal before the law. Meanwhile, Greenwald laments, “the media [directs] its hostility toward those who investigated or attempted to hold accountable the most powerful members of our political system.”

And then there was the financial meltdown of 2008 that brought the world economy to its knees. While its causes have barely been investigated or made transparent, it has become sufficiently clear that the crisis was largely the outcome of widespread fraud and lawbreaking. Yet there has been virtually no prosecution of those responsible. “There is no fear of individual punishment,” Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi said in an interview in 2012. “That’s the problem.”

So why did Rachel Lee think she could get away with stealing celebrities’ clothes? Maybe Vince was right, after all: ‘Cause she hadn’t been caught. Yet.

See here for Unaccountable.

Miles to go

I think most of us still know the words to some poem, favourite or not, that we learned years ago in school. I have a few, and one of them is Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” But just like we all “know” the words to a pop song whose lyrics we’ve never actually looked up but that we’ve sung along to countless times, we might not always have the words right. In the case of songs the results can be hilarious. I remember hearing of one fellow who turned U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” into the far more threatening “Someday buddy, someday.” And it worked for him.

I was reminded of this recently when thinking of Frost’s poem. I found myself reading it and was surprised to find I didn’t have some of the words right. Surprised because it’s really a very simple poem.

For starters, I’d remembered the third line — “He will not see me stopping here” — as “He will not mind me stopping here.” I guess that’s pretty bad, but the thing is, I kind of like my version better. Why would the person who owns these particular woods see the traveler? Presumably he and his horse are some ways out from the homestead, and it’s night out in the country, where there are no streetlamps. Also I think the point of the line is that the property owner wouldn’t be bothered by some minor trespass. What difference would it make even if he did see the man and his horse? Would he be upset? Why? Are they up to something they shouldn’t be?

Then, at the end of the second stanza, I’d always read “The darkest evening of the year” as “The coldest evening of the year.” And again I prefer my replacement word. What does the darkest evening of the year even mean? Any night with a new moon? But on a snowy winter night it’s always a bit lighter than at any other time of the year because the snow reflects whatever light there is. And there has to be some light because the man is watching the woods fill up with snow. Or does he mean it’s the darkest evening of the year because it’s the shortest day of the year? That may be, but it’s not what he says. Meanwhile, since it’s winter and the man doesn’t want to dawdle, having it be the coldest night of the year makes some sense.

Unlike a song whose lyrics I may have misheard, I don’t know where these revisions to Frost’s poem came from. I guess my brain replaced these words at some point many years ago, and because I liked them better they stuck. It makes you wonder how much of this goes on in any oral culture, and whether such indeterminacy is always a bad thing.

Books of the Year 2018

Whenever I see an end-of-year list of best books (or movies, or songs, or whatever) I always think about how small a sample size any individual list-maker can hope to draw on. I read a fair number of new releases every year, but even so my own list of the best has to be drawn from a pretty narrow number of choices. That said, here are my favourite books of 2018 in three categories.

Best fiction: This is where I really fell down this year. I didn’t read that many new novels and short story collections in 2018. But of those I read I liked Iain Reid’s Foe the best. It’s a page-turner that forces you to reflect on what makes us what we are.






Best non-fiction: Looking over all of the non-fiction books I read this past year it’s amazing how dominated the list was by Trump. So just to be different, I’ll say Adam Zamoyski’s Napoleon. It’s a good read and does an admirable job of summing up a complex man’s incredible life in a single volume.





Best SF: There were a lot of choices here – even leaving out Foe, which was an SF novel too. On my short list I’d have The Body Library by Jeff Noon (not really SF, but weird), 84K by Claire North, and The Razor by J. Barton Mitchell. But I think I’ll vote for The Robots of Gotham by Todd McAulty. It’s an epic SF robot opera set in a remarkable new world where humans and independent machines are fighting to get along. Great stuff.

Thinning out the stacks

I was recently asked to write an essay that would look at some current trends in literary criticism. In order to provide some background I wanted to talk a bit about earlier books like Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading and Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn. I have copies of both but since they’re buried away in boxes in my basement (I’m a slow mover), I thought I’d just walk over to the university library and check them out.

No luck. Neither book was available in the holdings of the university library, or any of the other university libraries that are part of the same library system. ABC of Reading was listed as being there but it wasn’t, while The Well Wrought Urn (available only in a single copy) was reported as missing.

What gives? These are two very well known, seminal books of literary criticism: the first a keynote of modernism and the other the signature work of the New Criticism. I was so sure the catalogue listings were wrong that I even went into the stacks to double check, but neither was there. Nor were they available in the city library system.

This would be weird enough, but just a month ago I’d had a similiar experience when looking for a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Again, this is a landmark work and very well known. It was just recently republished as part of the Library of America series. And yet trying to find a copy in the university and city library systems I came up empty. They didn’t have a single copy available. And again the stacks were bare.

I don’t offer this experience as evidence that it’s the end of the world as we know it, but I do think it suggests how much is changing. Obviously libraries are being transformed into something more than just warehouses for books, but they do still have stacks and holdings. With gaps this wide starting to show up though I’m not sure how valuable a resource they’re going to be for much longer.