Traveling with the Speed of Lies

Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect–Swift


While idling around some social media today, I was reminded of an old line about how a lie could get all about town before the truth could even get its–coat?–hat? on.

Didn’t matter much. I was reminded of the line as I read yet another “assault on Christmas” bit. (No, don’t worry. The White House has never renamed the “Christmas Tree” a “Holiday Tree” no matter how many memes claim otherwise.)

So I set about getting the quotation straight. You would think that the internet would be good for this, but usually it isn’t. There are gazillions of quotation sites, but they mostly copy each other’s material, with no effort to fact-check or to cite original sources. Usually, it takes a while before I get to a quotation source that I trust. I got lucky today.

After finding a few of the usual attributions–Twain, Churchill, etc.–and noticing that the truth didn’t seem to have a problem with coats or hats, but instead took a long time to lace up her boots, I stumbled into this lovely little essay on Quote Investigator.

Jonathan Swift

We have no idea how old the idiom and its relatives might be, but we do have a first in print: the Swift line above, from The Examiner in 1710. Bingo! Not surprisingly, the line has changed and grown over the past 300 years. (Perhaps Swift’s truth was limping because it forgot to put on its boots.)

But like all good searches, this simply led to other questions. What was Swift writing about in 1710? This, it turns out, is most interesting.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll notice a couple of things. One is that I’m concerned with the role of truth and evidence in the online world. Second, I think that all the online truth/post-truth issues are really old issues, but that their current form is aided and abetted by the speed and ubiquity of online life. Swift supports this belief.

Swift was the editor of the broadsheet The Examiner from 1710-1714. The quotation that leads this entry is from the September 11, 1710 issue of the paper. With a bit of searching, I found Swift’s essay on political lying online.

Given that Swift’s works are all public domain, I’ve taken the liberty of copying the editorial here. Grab yourself a cup of coffee and enjoy Swift’s take on the interplay of lying and truth. Will truth at last prevail? If so, will it arrive to late to do good?

I AM prevailed on, through the importunity of friends, to interrupt the scheme I had begun in my last paper, by an Essay upon the Art of Political Lying. We are told the devil is the father of lies, and was a liar from the beginning; so that, beyond contradiction, the invention is old: and, which is more, his first Essay of it was purely political, employed in undermining the authority of his prince, and seducing a third part of the subjects from their obedience: for which he was driven down from Heaven, where (as Milton expresses it) he had been viceroy of a great western province; and forced to exercise his talent in inferior regions among other fallen spirits, poor or deluded men, whom he still daily tempts to his own sin, and will ever do so, till he be chained in the bottomless pit.

But although the devil be the father of lies, he seems, like other great inventors, to have lost much of his reputation, by the continual improvements that have been made upon him.

Who first reduced lying into an art, and adapted it to politics, is not so clear from history, although I have made some diligent inquiries. I shall therefore consider it only according to the modern system, as it has been cultivated these twenty years past in the southern part of our own island.

The poets tell us, that after the giants were overthrown by the gods, the earth in revenge produced her last offspring, which was Fame. And the fable is thus interpreted: that when tumults and seditions are quieted, rumours and false reports are plentifully spread through a nation. So that, by this account, lying is the last relief of a routed, earth-born, rebellious party in a state. But here the moderns have made great additions, applying this art to the gaining of power and preserving it, as well as revenging themselves after they have lost it; as the same instruments are made use of by animals to feed themselves when they are hungry, and to bite those that tread upon them.

But the same genealogy cannot always be admitted for political lying; I shall therefore desire to refine upon it, by adding some circumstances of its birth and parents. A political lie is sometimes born out of a discarded statesman’s head, and thence delivered to be nursed and dandled by the rabble. Sometimes it is produced a monster, and licked into shape: at other times it comes into the world completely formed, and is spoiled in the licking. It is often born an infant in the regular way, and requires time to mature it; and often it sees the light in its full growth, but dwindles away by degrees. Sometimes it is of noble birth; and sometimes the spawn of a stock-jobber. Here it screams aloud at the opening of the womb; and there it is delivered with a whisper. I know a lie that now disturbs half the kingdom with its noise, which, although too proud and great at present to own its parents, I can remember its whisperhood. To conclude the nativity of this monster; when it comes into the world without a sting, it is still-born; and whenever it loses its sting, it dies.

No wonder if an infant so miraculous in its birth should be destined for great adventures; and accordingly we see it hath been the guardian spirit of a prevailing party for almost twenty years. It can conquer kingdoms without fighting, and sometimes with the loss of a battle. It gives and resumes employments; can sink a mountain to a molehill, and raise a mole-hill to a mountain: hath presided for many years at committees of elections; can wash a blackmoor white; make a saint of an atheist, and a patriot of a profligate; can furnish foreign ministers with intelligence, and raise or let fall the credit of the nation. This goddess flies with a huge looking-glass in her hands, to dazzle the crowd, and make them see, according as she turns it, their ruin in their interest, and their interest in their ruin. In this glass you will behold your best friends, clad in coats powdered with fleurs de lis, and triple crowns; their girdles hung round with chains, and beads, and wooden shoes; and your worst enemies adorned with the ensigns of liberty, property, indulgence, moderation, and a cornucopia in their hands. Her large wings, like those of a flying-fish, are of no use but while they are moist; she therefore dips them in mud, and soaring aloft scatters it in the eyes of the multitude, flying with great swiftness; but at every turn is forced to stoop in dirty ways for new supplies.

I have been sometimes thinking, if a man had the art of the second sight for seeing lies, as they have in Scotland for seeing spirits, how admirably he might entertain himself in this town, by observing the different shapes, sizes, and colours of those swarms of lies which buzz about the heads of some people, like flies about a horse’s ears in summer; or those legions hovering every afternoon in Exchange-alley, enough to darken the air; or over a club of discontented grandees, and thence sent down in cargoes to be scattered at elections.

There is one essential point wherein a political liar differs from others of the faculty, that he ought to have but a short memory, which is necessary, according to the various occasions he meets with every hour of differing from himself, and swearing to both sides of a contradiction, as he finds the persons disposed with whom he hath to deal. In describing the virtues and vices of mankind, it is convenient, upon every article, to have some eminent person in our eye, from whom we copy our description. I have strictly observed this rule, and my imagination this minute represents before me a certain great man famous for this talent, to the constant practice of which he owes his twenty years’ reputation of the most skilful head in England, for the management of nice affairs. The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts, the next half hour. He never yet considered whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it; so that if you think fit to refine upon him, by interpreting every thing he says, as we do dreams, by the contrary, you are still to seek, and will find yourself equally deceived whether you believe or not: the only remedy is to suppose, that you have heard some inarticulate sounds, without any meaning at all; and besides, that will take off the horror you might be apt to conceive at the oaths, wherewith he perpetually tags both ends of every proposition; although, at the same time, I think he cannot with any justice be taxed with perjury, when he invokes God and Christ, because he hath often fairly given public notice to the world that he believes in neither.

Some people may think, that such an accomplishment as this can be of no great use to the owner, or his party, after it has been often practised, and is become notorious; but they are widely mistaken. Few lies carry the inventor’s mark, and the most prostitute enemy to truth may spread a thousand, without being known for the author: besides, as the vilest writer hath his readers, so the greatest liar hath his believers: and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, 15 it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.

Considering that natural disposition in many men to lie, and in multitudes to believe, I have been perplexed what to do with that maxim so frequent in every body’s mouth, that truth will at last prevail. Here hath this island of ours, for the greatest part of twenty years, lain under the influence of such counsels and persons, whose principle and interest it was to corrupt our manners, blind our understanding, drain our wealth, and in time destroy our constitution both in church and state, and we at last were brought to the very brink of ruin; yet, by the means of perpetual misrepresentations, have never been able to distinguish between our enemies and friends. We have seen a great part of the nation’s money got into the hands of those, who, by their birth, education, and merit, could pretend no higher than to wear our liveries; while others, who, by their credit, quality, and fortune, were only able to give reputation and success to the Revolution, were not only laid aside as dangerous and useless, but loaden with the scandal of Jacobites, men of arbitrary principles, and pensioners to France; while truth, who is said to lie in a well, seemed now to be buried there under a heap of stones. But I remember it was a usual complaint among the Whigs, that the bulk of the landed men was not in their interests, which some of the wisest looked on as an ill omen; and we saw it was with the utmost difficulty that they could preserve a majority, while the court and ministry were on their side, till they had learned those admirable expedients for deciding elections, and influencing distant boroughs, by powerful motives from the city. But all this was mere force and constraint, however upheld by most dexterous artifice and management, until the people began to apprehend their properties, their religion, and the monarchy itself in danger; when we saw them greedily laying hold on the first occasion to interpose. But of this mighty change in the dispositions of the people, I shall discourse more at large in some following paper; wherein I shall endeavour to undeceive or discover those deluded or deluding persons, who hope, or pretend it is only a short madness in the vulgar, from which they may soon recover; whereas, I believe, it will appear to be very different in its causes, its symptoms, and its consequences; and prove a great example to illustrate the maxim I lately mentioned, that truth (however sometimes late) will at last prevail.


Gilded Monuments and History

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, controversy over the proposed removal of a statue of Edward Cornwallis has been quietly brewing for nearly four decades.

300px-CornwallisStatueHalifaxNovaScotia[1]Cornwallis was a British military man, who was given the task of establishing the city of Halifax, and  was Governor of Nova Scotia from 1749-1752, after which, he retired back in England. At the very least, the statue is a tribute to colonialism, to the “conquering” of the new world and its first inhabitants. In short, the statue symbolizes the beginning of the modern Canadian nation-state, as well as the beginning of the decimation–some would say genocide–of indigenous Canadians.

We are hearing similar debates in the USA this year, with discussions about public commemorations of Civil War leaders. As in Canada, one side wants the statues to celebrate “glorious history” and the other wants to put an end to the public display of the vile politics of an earlier era.

There really isn’t much to say about the issue in general, apart from the observation that every public monument is different. Staying within Canada, consider Mt. Stalin. After the end of the second World War, the Canadian government honoured our great allies by renaming three peaks in the Rockies after Churchill, Eisenhower and Stalin. Since the war, we haven’t learned much to make us regret the first two, but as the realities of Stalin’s rule of terror became known, Mt. Stalin became a public embarrassment. But it took a fair bit of debate before the mountain was renamed Mt. Peck  in 1987. The fact is that Stalin was a major contributor to victory in the War. Yet, this wasn’t enough to outweigh his atrocities. Canada chose to stop honouring Josef Stalin. And rightly so.

Cornwallis will be a more difficult case. He was, undoubtedly, a man of his time, and we can’t hold that against him. On the other hand, we are acutely aware of the pains of colonialism and its legacy. The people of Halifax will have to weigh three things:

  1. Cornwallis was founder of the city.
  2. The statue celebrates the colonial imbalance of power that was instrumental in the decimation of First Nations.
  3. The statue itself has been a part of the civic culture for almost a century.

I have no pony in this race, and I leave it to the good people of Halifax to figure this out.


But what about history? What are we to make of the claim that the removal of statues is the destruction or denial of history.

It’s nonsense.

These statues are not history. They are public markers of admiration. When they were installed, the admiration was undoubtedly real. But it’s our world now, and we have both the right and the duty to carefully consider and reconsider who we choose to display publicly. Do the people of Halifax value the British presence and dominance in Nova Scotia more than they decry the destruction of indigenous peoples? Does the civic pride in looking at a depiction of a dead general outweigh the personal anguish of the victims of colonialism and their descendants?

Weigh carefully, my friends.

Finally, let’s think about historical precedents. Often after revolutions or even after minor insurrections, zealous crowds have toppled statues. I’m talking about something different. Let people use the wisdom of public assembly to guide decisions of public policy.

In the end, though, time will be the judge. All these dead guys displayed in bronze remain in the historical record. And the judgment of historians–and history students, will continue to evolve as do our collective beliefs of justice and goodness change. Time gets the final word.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818


Condescending Attempts to Regulate Female Sexuality

Every spring, in every high school in which I taught, the question of dress codes came up. Invariably, there would be a few minor rules for boys, and a ton of restrictions for girls. The discussion was always draped in the vagueness of appeals to “appropriateness”. “Appropriate for what?” I would always ask. And then I would be treated as if I were too stupid to understand the issue. Perhaps the most discouraging comment I would get would be “Would you want your daughter dressed like that at school?” To which I would reply, I do not want other people deciding how I should raise my children. My wife and I will be the judges of what we deem appropriate for our children. This was rarely heard or understood. And so, year after year, the schools would put out stupid, unenforceable, female-unfriendly dress codes. Apparently it was believed that girls have some sort of responsibility to ensure that boys aren’t distracted. Aside: The discussions were invariably about heterosexual attraction. Curious.

Lauren Wiggins in the dress that she couldn’t wear to school

All of this brings me to Ms. Lauren Wiggins at Harrison Trimble High School in Moncton, New Brunswick. Ms. Wiggins, only a few days shy of her 18th birthday, was given a detention for breaking the school dress code, and then was given a one-day suspension after writing a letter of complaint to the vice-principal. (Which, if the fact are as reported, is a completely separate outrage.) While not the central issue, I cannot for the life of me fathom what is wrong with the dress in the picture. What kind of bizarre dress code could this be? Are the thin pink straps beyond the pale? Good grief! But I digress. Let’s give Lauren the podium for a moment. From her Facebook page.

Today I received a detention because the outfit I am wearing is considered inappropriate and a sexual distraction to the young men in my school. Enough is enough. I’m tired of the unjust standards that we as women are held up to. I’m tired of the discrimination against our bodies, and I’m absolutely fed up with comments that make us feel like we can’t be comfortable without being provocative. It’s time to change the world’s mindset. Now.

Lauren Wiggins’s letter to her school’s assistant principal. This letter, she claims, led to a one-day suspension from school.

What really blows my mind is that some people can’t see how absolutely right Lauren Wiggins is. School is not church. School is not a jobsite. School is not your or my home. School is a place where people go to learn. In fact, for most of their school lives, they are obliged to go there to learn. What they wear should be consistent with learning. Period. So what does this mean? Clothing needs to be safe. If you are in physical education, or a foods lab, or chemistry, or automotive class, then your clothing (and hair and gloves, etc.) has to be appropriate to the tasks at hand. You cannot legitimately endanger yourself or others. Your clothing has to be consistent with the well-being and dignity of others. Schools can legitimately restrict words and symbols on clothing that are hateful or harmful to others. This is usually not clear-cut and wisdom and patience will be required. But bare shoulders or legs or what-have-you do not fall into this category. Person A may believe that no one should have bare shoulders in public, but this is not binding on Person B. Sometimes we have to tolerate what others do, even if we don’t like it. But the big story is the school’s regulation of female sexuality. It is condescending and patriarchal to declare female arms and legs unfit for the public, while ignoring the same in males. As Lauren Wiggins wrote to the school’s assistant principal, Mr. Sturgeon:

If you are truly so concerned that a boy in this school will get distracted by my upper back and shoulders then he needs to be sent home [to] practice self-control.

I couldn’t agree more, Ms. Wiggins.

Censorship in School

Schools—and I’ll restrict my comments to publicly funded and accessible schools from Kindergarten to High School—are places where children are sent, often under the force of law, to learn the content of an approved curriculum. This is the main business of school. Teachers are given responsibility for student learning. Of course, other things happen and other things are learned in school, but the main responsibility is for the approved curriculum.

Partially intentionally, and partially through experience to structure and random events, students also learn lessons about the ways of the world. The vagaries of democracy, the values of timeliness and neatness, the consequences of standing for what you believe, fairness, unfairness, cooperation, justice and injustice, they’re all experienced and internalized by students whether it’s part of the approved curriculum or not. One of the frequent rubs in schools is in free speech and expression, popular and authoritarian reactions to them, and the real-life consequences of conflict over free expression.

Last week, a school in the town of Onoway, Alberta (population of about 1000) became a Canadian talking point over the public display of a work of student art.

The story, as I understand it, goes something like this. Kaela Wilton, a 16-year-old student at Onoway Junior and Senior High, sought and received permission to paint a mural on one of the interior cinder-brick walls of the school. The mural, which depicts two young men kissing, was approved in advance by both the principal and the student’s art teacher. The school began receiving complaints. It is not clear from the news articles whether the complaints were from students, parents, community or all three. Curiously some of the complainants noted that students were not allowed to kiss in the hallway, so it was inappropriate for this depiction. We don’t know the exact content of the complaints, but it’s safe to assume that the fact that the kissers are both male figured in some of them. At this point, the principal took the action of temporarily covering the mural with a bulletin board. Some students protested by tearing the board down. As I write this, it’s the weekend, and the principal has not publicly stated what will happen next.

Kaela Wilton, Onoway Jr./Sr. High School

Not surprisingly, some of the public have jumped on one bandwagon or the other. Most of what I read criticizes the principal for not standing for the student’s freedom of expression, of giving in to rednecks and homophobes, and of not supporting the rights of sexual minority students to be themselves in public. A minority is backing the principal for covering the art, and is asserting that the picture should never have been displayed in the first place.

Based on the details I have seen, I think the principal has made solid, defensible decisions throughout the incident to date.

First, Kaela should be commended on her artistic and social vision. She had a statement she wanted to make with her art, and she found a way to make it. Kaela recognized that the school is a public place and the principal and art teacher have legitimate authority over what is displayed in that space, so she sought permission. Kaela’s part in the drama is beyond reproach, given today’s publicly available information. The principal and art teacher obviously had to think about the consequences of displaying this work. Keep in mind that the purpose of a publicly funded school is for students to learn the approved curriculum. That’s it. Yes this implies many other subsidiary duties, but the purpose of the school is for students to learn. The principal and art teacher, it is safe to assume, were aware that the picture could cause controversy, but believed that it would not be sufficient to disturb or distract the fundamental purpose of the school. (It is worth noting that this drama took place during final examinations for the first semester of the school year.)

Now, this next part is hard to judge, given the sparse information available, so I will be sympathetic to the principal, James Trodden. Mr. Trodden decided that the situation had become unclear, and that the presence of the mural might actually be an unwarranted distraction for his students. In the eyes of his detractors, he wavered in his protection of free speech. From where I sit, he took a prudent action to buy some time. The complainants have a right to be heard. So do those in favour of keeping the mural in place. So does the artist. Mr. Trodden undoubtedly has personal beliefs about whether he’d like the mural up, but those aren’t the issue here. As I’ve noted before, students of this age (12-18) are conscripts, not volunteers. When you put something in their hallways, they have to deal with it. And their voices—as well as their parents’ voices—have to be given consideration.

We’ll know next week whether the mural stays or goes. I know what I hope will happen. But I don’t have a say in this matter. James Trodden will have to make a decision that will make some people unhappy and/or uncomfortable. That’s his duty as principal. But along the way, I fully support him for doing his utmost to balance the differing views, interests and anxieties of the children under his charge, as well as their parents and guardians.

The interesting ethical questions always leave some people displeased.

Aerial view of Onoway