Politics in a Fallen World: Lying, Fact-Checkers, and the Future of Civilization

Image courtesy flickr user Luis Penados via Creative Commons

It seems safe to say that everyone who watches the final debate tonight will be convinced that (at least) one of the candidates for president is a bald-faced liar.

To many voters, Clinton seems uniquely dishonest. To many others, it’s apparent that Trump is living in an alternate reality, willing to make statements that directly contradict video and Twitter evidence.

Why this disconnect? If anything, the 2016 election has highlighted the enormous diversity of ways that Americans perceive honesty. But the territory of lying has always been contested. Even when the truth is clear-cut, certain questions remain slippery: what exactly does it mean to lie? When is it okay to lie? And what are the social, moral, and spiritual consequences of deception?

To understand these issues better, I called up a historian of lying. Dallas Denery II is the author of The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment, a study of how premodern theologians, courtiers, and philosophers grappled with the question of when, if ever, it was acceptable to lie.

We had an honest conversation about God, Donald Trump, fact-checkers, and whether dishonesty is essential to civilization.


Michael Schulson: Lying bring ups theological questions, right?

Dallas Denery: Especially in the Christian tradition, lying pretty much defines the world and the human condition.

Because of the Garden of Eden?

Yes. Because of the lie in the Garden of Eden—that’s why there’s sin, that’s why there’s death—lying become the very emblem of what it means to sin and turn from God. That defines the entire discussion of lying, all the way up until Rousseau. It’s only with Rousseau that you get an explanation for lying and the fall of mankind that has nothing to do with a religious story.

Even then, the question’s urgency still seems to have theological roots.

Clearly [Rousseau] thinks that the story he has to tell is how lying somehow deformed humanity. Even someone like Kant says we should never lie, and every lie is like a refutation of human nature. That kind of strong stance seems to be motivated in large part by the lingering influence of that religious tradition.

Words are so powerful in the Eden story—they create the world, and then they unravel paradise.

God creates the world. It takes six days, and it’s just talking. The devil undoes it all in two sentences. It really is all about language, and the proper way to use language.

This is part of why for theologians and a lot of ethical thinkers, even to the present, the question is do lies undermine or keep society going? Right through the Reformation, aside from the court tradition, everybody was convinced that if lying was okay, everything would go to hell in a handbasket. You couldn’t trust contracts or witnesses. You couldn’t trust the Bible.

Augustine went so far as to argue that you should never lie, even when there are obvious and dramatic benefits to doing so. Doesn’t that seem like a legalistic or textual way to think about life? 

It does. Augustine comes to this conclusion through reflections on the opening of the Gospel of John, where truthful speech is the organization of the whole world. So untruthful speech would then be undoing the image of God.

What’s interesting about Augustine, though, is theologically he takes that position, but when you read his books about lying, he’s constantly having to make exceptions. You know, you can conceal, you can intend differently

Well, it can be hard to know what exactly makes something a lie.

These debates about lying appear in all sorts of places where you wouldn’t think they would show up. You know, the Bible is full of all these problematic cases where it looks like God is lying; or people who lied are rewarded; or, even worse, where the entire incarnation of Christ could appear to be a very serious case of deception.

Deceiving the devil, you mean, by concealing God in human flesh?

Right. But if you read Augustine’s account of lying, it doesn’t matter who you’re deceiving. If you lie, you lie. It doesn’t matter if it’s the devil.

How does the approach to lying differ in royal courts and other political spaces? How strong are the parallels between the court and, say, Washington, D.C.?

[laughs] There’s part of me that is ahistorical about this: I suspect the standard operating procedure in politics, from the beginning until the present, is essentially the kinds of things courtiers were writing about already in the Middle Ages: you have to begin with the assumption that everybody’s trying to deceive you. Your job is for the sake of the state. This culture of the well-intentioned lie or the acceptable lie is there all along.

You read romances like the story of Tristan and Isolde—what makes Tristan so great is how well he conceals, how well he misdirects, how well he deceives. That’s the mark of his courtly excellence.

So the presidential candidates would all flourish in a medieval court?

This is an interesting question, because there’s also a disconnect between what kings did and what the guidebooks that were written for kings told them to do.

In what sense?

These were called “mirrors for princes”—books that attempted to teach the ruler how to behave as a good Christian ruler. They almost all argued that the good king should be God-fearing and truthful and not lie.

But as a matter of practical course, rulers lie. That’s what they do.

This makes me think of fact-checkers today. They’re holding up this ideal for truthful discourse. But even politicians who, I think, would be considered fairly honest are still going to fall short of a perfect PolitiFact score. Everyone is fudging.  

There’s a divide between our sense of how leaders should behave, and what we all know they actually do.

We just assume now that all politicians are essentially lying every time they open their mouth. I mean, I was a Bernie supporter, and I didn’t really think he meant we were going to get universal health care. I figured what he probably meant was that we could get the Medicare age down a bit.

I suspect that’s been kind of a constant. It’s just people didn’t know, because who knew what kings were saying in the past? You didn’t have the media.

Something we’ve been discussing here at RD is whether Trump is so jarring because he lies more than everyone else, or because he violates the proper, traditional, and accepted ways that politicians lie.

I don’t even know if what Trump does qualifies as lying.

What is it, then?

I think he just says stuff. I’m reading into him, and that’s a hard thing to do, but what seems to differentiate Trump from a courtly liar, let’s say, and maybe even from his contemporary peers, is that issues of truth and falsity just don’t seem to matter to him whatsoever. It’s just the talking.

So how is that different from a lie, or from these traditional ways of thinking about lying?

If you go to [14th and 15th century court writer] Christine de Pizan, she never said “You just lie nonstop.” You lied for very specific things. It was acceptable for the princess to lie for the sake of the common good. There was this sort of harmony that it was really her job, as Christine envisioned it, to maintain.

When we get to contemporary politics, and when we’re thinking about Trump in particular, it’s just not clear to me that he thinks particularly carefully about higher or lesser moral standards, and which one trumps which in any given circumstance. He just has his spiel.

I’d argue that he does seem to be working within a kind of authenticity standard—a moralized idea of what it means to be a true self.

So you would be arguing that Trump’s ethical self-presentation comes out of a Rousseauian tradition?

Yes. Or Emerson.

Whereas what I focus on in the book is really that more Ciceronian rhetorical tradition of ethics. I do think the entire discussion of lying just changes drastically once that rhetorical tradition phases out.

Thinking about transitions in lying: something about this concept of fact-checking feels native to the internet age. It’s hard to imagine something like it existing even thirty years ago.

There certainly were no fact-checkers during the period of the things that I was working on. Aside from the Garden of Eden, [The Devil Wins] is not about any particular lie. The issue of determining if what someone said is a lie doesn’t really come up as an issue in ethical discussions, for the most part, in that whole tradition. It’s really about the moral problem with lying. And the moral problem was this deep religious one, connected to everything awful in society.

The theological tradition says if we ever said lies were okay, civil society simply couldn’t function, because you would not know when anyone was telling the truth or not. But in the courtly tradition it becomes increasingly clear to the people participating that if we didn’t lie, civil society would fall apart.

When you get to the 17th century and the 18th century, people are becoming very clear that lying actually doesn’t undermine society. It might be the very thing that makes society flourish. You see that in Bernard Mandeville, who essentially argues we all lie—we lie constantly, we deceive constantly, and that is why things succeed.

Which ties into the idea that society is this artificial construct, right?

Yes. It’s in keeping with all these changes in the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries about the operation of the invisible hand. Adam Smith, for example, will be talking about how self-interested behavior actually helps society. You see this in a lot of places, but it seems to really develop in this discussion of lying in the court. It seems to be one of the first places where it comes to the fore.

By living in a society of greed and lies, we all become happier.


So the devil wins!


What’s the place for moral high ground in that kind of culture?

Which culture? The culture that needs lying?

In a culture that thinks of itself as premised on deception and greed.

What Mandeville seems to want people to know is that the moral high ground is to understand that you don’t really have any moral high ground. You realize that you’re a selfish, awful person, but still pretend you’re not, and then at least you have true self-knowledge, but you will still do the things necessary for civil society to flourish.

In the current political moment, though, our anxiety seems different. There’s a lingering sense that we’re on the verge of civilizational collapse because of all this greed and lying.

I’m not doing lying anymore. I’m working on [a book] about people who decide everything they’ve been taught is wrong and then come up with their own, sort of insane counter-explanations. We have people who are climate deniers, and anti-vaxxers, young earth creationists. There so much disinformation out there that it probably doesn’t seem to most people that lying can actually prop a society up anymore.

I think it’s impossible to be Mandeville now, because of that sort of radical skepticism that runs through so much of contemporary culture. It may be impossible for people to think lying could be useful.

So: is the devil going to win?

The devil did win.

We live in a fallen world.

We live in a fallen world, but as the centuries progress, no, actually, the system of the world as it is constituted—lying is in fact what allows the world to flourish.

So if you read Pierre Nicole, who’s a Jansenist theologian in the 17th century, he is a Biblical hardliner and would think that every lie is a sin. But he says, you actually could not tell the difference between a holy and a not holy society. He’s the first person to really make the point that people acting for entirely selfish reasons, and lying, could create a society that would look exactly like he hoped a society would look [that was] inhabited by truly virtuous people. They’re indistinguishable.

That’s what I mean when I say that the devil wins. The devil, by introducing lying, creates the system that allows civil society to thrive.

But now it feels as if this productive awfulness has been distilled into one human being. It feels like we have met the incarnation of our greed, deception, and capitalist success…and he’s running for president.

For historians, the picture you are painting is determined by where you put the frame. Since I put the frame at 1800, I’m okay. But if I put it at 2016, I might be hanging myself.

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