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.


Search Engines and Post-Truth

I had a rather mindless question this morning: In Harry Potter, what is the first name of  the namesake of Hufflepuff house? So I went to Google, and typed simply hufflepuff. Here’s what I got.


“Ah,” I thought, “Helga.” But then I looked at the google page. Stylistically, it looked awkwardly familiar. The layout, the references, the “similar links” appeared to be no different from what Google provides for living souls.

Uncomfortably, I typed “Haile Selassie”. Google quickly responded.


My queasiness has not subsided much. Most people know that Helga Hufflepuff is fictional and that Haile Selassie was an Ethiopian emperor. Well, sadly, far more people know Hufflepuff than Selassie. But that’s another matter.

The point is that truth and fiction have precisely the same online frame. If you come into the frame with knowledge, you are able to understand the picture. But how is someone who does not enter with knowledge make sense of all this?

Honestly, I don’t know.



Back to the 80s #4: Amusing ourselves to Death

No. I’m not done with the 80s yet. Turns out that many of the issues that bedevil us today w71ew4kattblere on the agenda 30 years ago
I recently reread Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. There is an important chapter dealing with education, but I’ll put that aside for today and focus on the introduction to the book, which has become a deep insight into our currently connected world.

Postman famously reflected on two important works of political science fiction from the early part of the 20th Century: Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World (and a tip of the hat to Brave New World Revisited).
Briefly, 1984 describes a totalitarian world in which people are controlled through censorship, surveillance and the systematic destruction of language. Ultimately, a people without the means for self-expression are incapable of creation and are doomed to servitude. Brave New World offers a contrasting picture of the future, in which those with the cognitive capacity for freedom are constantly deflected from its exercise, through drugs, sex, virtual reality and comfort.
Both books agree that freedom is threatened by the destruction of language and the motivation to apply it meaningfully; but each gives a radically different mechanism by which this might be accomplished. Postman’s great insight was precisely this point.

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This is chillingly appropriate for the connected world. We are offered websites, apps, music, video, games and more for the simple price of our privacy. And we are throwing ourselves with zeal into every imaginable distraction. Who hasn’t noted the trend of people walking down the street with their faces buried in their phones? What teacher has not noticed that students are drawn to the siren call of social media: even with the phone out of sight, there is the constant thought of “what am I missing?” Drivers are apparently unwilling to pocket their phones while on the road, preferring the risk of smashing a ton of steel into a stranger to the risk of missing out on snapchat.
But are we being controlled by all this? Postman thought so. (To be clear: he was speaking of television culture in the 1980s, but the phenomenon is similar. In fact, I believe that the phenomenon is the same, but is considerably amplified by the ubiquity of social media.) We’ve heard the talk about post-truth, and the connected world is the main driver behind our increased reliance upon quick decisions. Headlines matter more than articles, because we are not willing to put aside our distractions long enough to read.

post truth graph
Marvelous graph from social media. I don’t know who to credit. If you do, please let me know and I will do so.

I don’t believe that people don’t want to know the truth, or the details, or the arguments. It’s just that the pull of our amusements is stronger than our desire to know.
Postman would likely be pleased to see that his book and its arguments still apply more than 30 years after the book was first published. And he’d likely be horrified too.

Alternative Facts

I post in utter amazement.


What in the world are “alternative facts”? Sometimes the facts are unclear. Sometimes the facts are in principle or in practice unknowable. But alternative facts?

As Chuck Todd noted, “alternative facts are not facts; they are untruths”.

No matter how many times gurus tell us that appearance is reality, it isn’t.

Is this what post-truth looks and sounds like? First claim: he gave facts. Second claim: he gave “alternative facts”. Third claim: nobody really knows the facts.

So far as I can see, all political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome. . . To appreciate the danger of Fascism the Left would have had to admit its own shortcomings, which was too painful; so the whole phenomenon was ignored or misinterpreted, with disastrous results.

The most one can say is that people can be fairly good prophets when their wishes are realizable. But a truly objective approach is almost impossible, because in one form or another almost everyone is a nationalist… The most intelligent people seem capable of holding schizophrenic beliefs, or disregarding plain facts, of evading serious questions with debating-society repartees, or swallowing baseless rumours and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified. All these mental vices spring ultimately from the nationalistic habit of mind, which is itself, I suppose, the product of fear and of the ghastly emptiness of machine civilization….

I believe that it is possible to be more objective than most of us are, but that it involves a moral effort. One cannot get away from one’s own subjective feelings, but at least one can know what they are and make allowance for them.

–George Orwell, London Letter in: Partisan Review (Winter, 1945)


Back to the 80’s # 1: 1984

Back in 1983-1984 everybody and his dog read or reread George Orwell’s 1984 and made a pronouncement of some sort.

cache_27680941No, we didn’t tweet it or post about it on on Facebook. No one could have imagined such inanities back in the 80s. But we were aware of Orwell’s dystopian vision and we were aware that the anointed year had come. So we spoke.

And spoke.

And wrote.

And spoke.

The general consensus was that Orwell had missed the mark. Sure, we said, the Soviet Union and China were awful dictatorships, but we in the lovely west were seeing nothing of the horrors of Orwell’s vision.

That is to say, we missed the point of the book.

our_northrop_frye2Orwell’s central thesis, neatly summarized by Northrop Frye (I intend a Frye “Back to the 80s” soon), “is that there is only one way to create a hell on earth that we and our children can never escape from, and that is to smash language.”[i]

To smash language. To remove the possibility of articulating non-trivial thought.





067466020xAs the philosopher Charles Taylor tirelessly argues, language has both a constitutive as well as a designative function. Language designates insofar as it provides expression to thoughts, and provides a vehicle for interpreting others’ thoughts. But language does much more than this. Language not only allows us to name our world; it also is integral to the creation of much of it as well. By naming the world, we come to understand it on our terms, and we create possibilities of understanding and application that could not be present otherwise.[ii] To live in language is to live in a world of meaningful creation and participation. Without language, we would be much less than we are now.

If, as Orwell feared, language were to be destroyed, then the possibility of meaningful human creation would die with it.

Our world looks nothing like Orwell’s dictatorial dystopia; aren’t we safe?

I don’t think so. Twitter—the medium of choice for the US President-elect—restricts communication to 140 characters. This has had a fascinating effect on communication. First, a number of tweeters have revived the long-dead art of the epigram. It is possible to be insightful and hilarious in 140 characters. George Takei is a master of the art. But neither can you provide a detailed or nuanced argument. Twitter is a way of telling people what they already believe. If you have Twitter talent, it’s a fun and entertaining way of helping people to laugh at their own cleverness. Try tweeting an explanation of what’s at stake in the Trans Pacific Partnership.

But it’s not just tweets. It’s memes on Facebook and Instagram. Wonderfully entertaining, both, but utterly incapable of sustained argument or novel conception.

Perhaps I’m being a bit hasty here. Sure we have social media for exchanging our daily trivialities, but that doesn’t mean that all written communication is or will be trivialized. This is where there is hope.

Education is the place where language has a chance to make a stand.

71ew4kattblIf education fully embraces the “new technologies” and “21st century literacy” then the future is bleak. As Neil Postman (another likely topic for my “Back to the 80s” kick) argued, continuous prose is one of the greatest technologies created by humans for the purpose of making and communicating meaning. Nothing compares to the ability of prose to structure arguments, to demonstrate cause and effect, to offer thought experiments. But prose is not simple. It takes a lifetime to master clear, lucid prose. We have to decide if we, as a society, are up to the task. Do we care to give the gift of prose to future generations?

(As an aside, imaginative prose is one of our great cultural legacies. It is being displaced by video. This is a whole different discussion for another day.)

There is much more to say, and I will return to this topic.

Let me close with my favourite epigram–a pre-Twitter tweet–from an earlier time. In the 18th century, epigrammatic wit was highly valued (as were extended prose and poetical treatment of serious issues). Alexander Pope gave a dog to Frederick, the Prince of Wales in 1736. The dog had a collar, engraved with the following couplet.

I AM his Highness’ dog at Kew; 
Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?

[i] Northrop Frye (1988) “The Authority of Learning.” A talk given to the Empire Club in Toronto on 19 January, 1984.

[ii] Charles Taylor (2016) The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.