On Lying

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, when Satan goes off to the new world of earth to sabotage Adam and Eve, a guarding angel lets him in because Satan feigns angelic demeanor so well. The narrative voice notes that only God can pierce hypocrisy; angels can’t. It’s a more refined version of the Hollywood line that the hardest thing to fake is sincerity.

When Colin Powell affirmed in his January 8th 2004 press conference that he was still confident in the intelligence that led him to beat the drums for war in Iraq he presented a persona hard to read. Is he like Satan the stealthy hypocrite bent on his own war, finally the general who will advance on Saddam and redeem his Gulf War I restraint? Or is he a victim of his own spinning stories, believing desperately so as not to be a war criminal or a fool? As a reluctant warrior, he always seemed a serious and decent man. Human beings honor belief. If you convince a jury you believed the shadow you shot in your doorway was an intruder, not your spouse, you’re held harmless though someone is dead. In court you get to tell your tale.

God is the imagination of real objectivity. Of piercing human hypocrisy and delusion. This is how it was. You fool yourself. You are proud and corrupt and self-serving, not perfect, sincere, and selfless. Virtue and vice are dialogues where there is an outside measure of your story. My favorite figure of this is over 4000 years old-the Egyptian weighing of the soul. The heart of the dead is balanced on a scale against the Feather of Maat, the goddess of justice. She incarnates righteousness; her hieroglyph is an ostrich feather. If you weigh evenly with her, you are righteous and proceed to the kingdom of Osiris; if you don’t, you get gobbled by Ahmet the crocodile-headed monster waiting below the scale to eat the unjust. You tell a story before the weighing, a negative confession-saying that you haven’t killed or stolen or misbehaved. But the judgment isn’t that story, it’s matching the feather-you were or weren’t just. The measure is not your story but your acts.

In Erroll Morris’ recent film about Robert McNamara’s role in the Vietnam War, McNamara defends his life, not unlike Colin Powell. It all makes sense given the overarching cold war, the good or bad intelligence, the basic well-meaning decency of our will. McNamara speaks also of World War II and his own role in the firebombing of Tokyo. He seems haunted by the 100,000 people destroyed in the raid he helped plan. If we had lost the war, he says, we would have been indicted as war criminals for killing civilians. Why, he says, would it be a war crime if we lost, and not if we won? He asks a hard question which the fog of war always conveniently clouds.

We the US avoid world courts because we play god and refuse to submit to human judgment. Our story rules and measures all. It’s nationalism which much of the world sees as arrogance and imperial violence. In my view it’s lying and delusion. It’s not quite hypocrisy because unlike Milton’s Satan, we deny our evil and assert it’s good. We’re in the spell of our spinning lying story.

Nor will we let it go, as Powell somberly persists “I am confident of what I presented last year; the intelligence community is confident of the material they gave me. And this game is still unfolding.”

There is no game; the tale unravels; the judgment weighs us down. Maat is more than an ostrich feather.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu


DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu