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A Phrase for All Reasons

The Art of Lying

by NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN
If you want to know how things could have gone so horribly wrong in Afghanistan last weekend, you must read Thomas Harrington’s brilliant piece in Common Dreams.

The article contains no reference to the soldier reported to have walked out of a US base in Kandahar and killed a whole bunch of people. I don’t think it even mentions the word Afghanistan. And yet, what Harrington has written is essential to understanding our current plight; not only the Afghan quagmire but the many others in which we seem stuck, geopolitical and political, economic and societal.

The article is titled, ‘Mistakes were Made’, words uttered by the president’s press secretary that caused a furor in the press and around the country.  If you’re wondering, “Hmm, how did I miss that on Twitter?”, quit beating up on yourself, on this count at least.  The press secretary Harrington refers to is Ron Ziegler of the Nixon administration.  ‘Mistakes were made’ came during a press briefing about Watergate.

Looking back, Ziegler should be considered a kind of public relations prophet.  Considering how much and how widely his technique has found favor — with politicians, business leaders, and PR flacks — even abroad — Ziegler really ought to have patented his phrase.  He could have gone on to fame and fortune instead of dying unsung, if not in vague ignominy.

In this increasingly polarized landscape, we often hear it lamented, you can’t make everybody happy.  Ziegler gave lie to all such naysaying, not to put too fine a point on it. The beauty of his invention lay in its capacity to leave all sides mildly satisfied (and the perpetrators ecstatic).   As Harrington writes, “Politicians have always lied. What Ziegler did was introduce the art of lying about lying.” He had, indeed, discovered the philosopher’s stone of dissembling, an Orwellian technique to nebulize concrete wrongdoings into a diffuse wisp of falsity where there were no culprits, and evidently, bad form to even seek any.

Many years ago an uncle in New Delhi, a businessman, was telling me an ‘only in India’ story.  A chemical factory in Gujarat had some  effluents that needed to be properly disposed of.  The waste treatment process was involved and costly, and could cut considerably into the profit column.  After considerable looking around, they decided upon a certain contract company in a nearby town, which was then engaged to handle the disposal.  At the appointed time, a tanker arrived at the factory premises, where it was duly filled with the effluent waste and dispatched to the disposal contractor… When the tanker reached its destination some hours later, the contractor discovered that it was nearly empty! The tanker may have had a small leak, but that was neither here nor there. The point was, all parties concerned had discharged (no pun intended) their corporate responsibilities with due diligence. The factory could truthfully swear it had sent away its dangerous effluents for treatment, per regulation.  The treatment contractor would similarly aver that all effluents received were properly treated and disposed of.

A perfectly ‘engineered’ solution.

Rare indeed. But American ingenuity has over the years built an entire world upon Ziegler’s innovation, and multiplied such rarities into the routine.  Years of thrill-a-minute TV news followed by the thrill-a-second sensation age of Internet and SMS have provided an unexpected concomitant. The old movie cop’s line, “Move along, move along, there’s nothing to see here”, could as well serve as the national slogan as we keep moving on to the trending new topic.  Whatever the outrage, “We’ll have to leave it there”, as the TV show declares, no matter how egregious the blow to national weal or to Constitution. In an irony befitting our hurry, even an organization with pretensions to being a public watchdog calls itself Move On.

Meanwhile, Watergate was probably the last time anyone high-up was held accountable in the USA.  After that we’ve had Arms for Hostages, a stolen election, 9/11, unprovoked war, warrantless wiretapping, a financial meltdown, trial-less official executions…Not one person of consequence has been punished; in many instances the culprits are not even identified. If anything the obverse seems truer: there are no heights to which one may not aspire if one’s screw-ups – or crimes - are big enough. If caught, “Mistakes were made” has proved the ultimate universal remote, compatible with any scandal, with a magic Mute button guaranteed to quell all inquiry. Call it (More or less) A Phrase for All Reasons.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a columnist and writer living on the West Coast. He is the author of Bantaism: the Philosophy of Sardar Jokes. His forthcoming book, ‘On the Other Hand’, is a collection of essays on Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas in the context of current-day issues. He can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.