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Liars, Damn Liars, and Scoundrels

In his 1906 autobiography, Mark Twain immortalized the line “lies, damn lies, and statistics” elegantly citing a burgeoning problem with troublesome numbers. Twain said little about any liars or damn liars responsible for such mathematical worries, although he did add to his famous trilemma by fingering the worst type of lie: “there are 869 different forms of lying, but only one of them has been squarely forbidden. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Enter the scoundrel and his inchoate finger-pointing in the name of patriotism, where one wonders if a permanent state of lying is now a new norm.

Hardly a day passes without public scoundrel numero uno uttering some extemporaneous rambling, half-baked punditry, or amateur political tweeting that would embarrass Pinocchio, though perhaps he is only following in a long line of high-office liars, all well-versed in their own version of the facts:

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman” (Bill Clinton, January 26, 1998) is as tall tale as you’ll hear from behind any presidential seal, while the lie told round the world to the UN Security Council – “We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more” (Colin Powell, February 5, 2003) – can be taken as the first domino in today’s fine mess, helped out by imaginary Niger uranium and Tony Blair’s chirped 45-minute delivery time. Predicated on lies, we went to war against Iraq, turning the Middle East into an endless soul-destroying wasteland.

Of course, political liars have been around forever, ignoring Oliver Wendell Holmes’s maxim that lying “is against the peace and dignity of the universe.” Benjamin Disraeli wrongly accused Daniel O’Connell of being a traitor and feigned any knowledge of brown-nosing his way to office, Hitler told the world he would not invade Poland, and Nixon claimed “I’m not a crook.”

How do they stack up to some of Trump’s doozies? About the Iraq War: “I’m the only one that said, ‘Don’t do it’” (February 17, 2016). Really? What about the 3 million people who marched through the streets of London, New York, Dublin, and hundreds of other cities around the world on February 15, 2003? I was there, and I didn’t see you. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook resigned from the cabinet rather than support his government’s decision to go to war, though sadly without sufficient gusto to counter the clamouring war-beat. I guess you could call that Iraq War lie number 906.

“Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest” (Twitter, May 8, 2013). One wonders if that was an official IQ test or one of those Scientology street tests that mark everyone as a potential effective liver and auditor if you take their $99.99 courses to “rise rapidly” with “training and auditing?” Was it a fair IQ test or culturally biased towards New York real-estate scions? I bet if you did sociologist Adrian Dove’s Chitling Test with questions on African American culture, you might have found your brainpower rather average for a white man.

At one Pennsylvania campaign rally, “I love solar. But the payback is what, 18 years?” (August 1, 2016). Actually, solar payback can be as little as 4 years in Massachusetts (8 years in New York, 9 years in California), a wildly under-reported reality anathema to private utility companies wanting to maintain control of centrally distributed electricity. It’s time to stop watching whatever broken channel you’re hooked to. And let’s not talk about the payback time for nuclear power or include cleanup expenses from oil spills, contamination, or coal-mining runoff in the real cost of fossil-fuel energy.

At the same rally, he puffed out more nonsense about wind power: “The wind kills all your birds. All your birds, killed. You know, the environmentalists never talk about that.” Well, actually, an estimated 330,000 birds are killed each year by American wind farms, less than .01% of the 5 billion estimated annual bird deaths, while almost 4 billion are killed by cats, 1 billion from crashing into buildings, 174 million from power lines, 6.8 million from flying into communications towers, and up to 1 million from oil and gas fluid waste pits. I know, many of us repeat what we’ve been told to sound smart, but why repeat such obvious malarkey? Pity no one told him that twice as many birds are killed by oil and gas fluid waste pits than by wind turbines. Imagine that tweeted truth.

“I am the least racist person” (September, 2016, Impact interview). Even Burger King doesn’t serve whoppers that big, so bad you have to turn the scale to 11. The stream-of-conscience drivel is almost dreamlike, an air-guitar president riffing in the wind for meaning. Presumably no one believes the obvious hyperbole, but what about his strange mumblings on vaccines, Civil War history, and presidential birthplaces. If a lie is told enough times will we all believe it one day? Can we at least have a sarcasm font or nose-holding emoji?

Forget the birther movement, Ted Cruz’s father and wife, the tax audit that never ends, taking credit for the work of others, even the direction of an aircraft carrier. Where do they stack up against the Gulf of Tonkin, incubator babies, and sarin gas – all shamelessly trotted out as lies for war? Or the hypocrisy of calling for NATO members to spend 2% of GNP while the US wants to cut payments by 40% to the UN peacekeeping budget. Have we become as desensitized to lies as we have to war?

Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale has been counting the lies for more than a year, from the everyday fibs to the bullying bravado. Cutting his teeth on the exploits of Toronto’s mayor Rob Ford – another populist who couldn’t catch up to his mouth – Dale has done yeoman work. His count since the inauguration is 281 (as of June 5). Hall of Fame calibre lying. As noted by Dale, “one big speech was a doozy of dishonesty. Trump made 19 false claims during his White House address on his decision to pull out from the Paris climate accord.”

Of course, we can also call omission a lie. To wit, “yes we can” really meant “yes I can,” as if the higher calling to government service is to make millions so one can hob-knob on equal footing with one’s newly minted global-trotting richer-than-rich friends. Where is the empathy from Obama’s feel-good autobiography when he wrote, “Not so far beneath the surface, I think, we are becoming more not less alike?” Apparently, he hasn’t read the latest inequality numbers. Too bad the impoverished believers can’t claim buyer’s remorse.

Too bad we can’t get a refund for that failed dream and hollow tome. And now, $65 million for the next book deal atop $400,000 for a speech. Is the truth so garbled in the minds of our governmental betters that fact and fiction are as disparate as in the unmixable urban-rural divide as seen on a red-blue map of the world?

One of Trump’s testier lies came the day his much-heralded alliterative “repeal and replace” health care bill was pulled, initially blaming the Dems when it was the left and right of his own party that couldn’t be massaged by his large deal-making hands (if there can be a left to the Republican party). “Certainly for me it was a very interesting experience,” he uttered amid much hyperbolic slabbering about leaving everything on the field, brazenly claiming success from failure. Every day, the lies feed more lies, led by the adoring choirmaster Paul Ryan: “Doing big things is hard.” So it seems is counting ultra-conservatives, about whom one GOP politician said, “they would vote ‘no’ against the Ten Commandments if they came up for a vote.”

After a few lies the mind wearies, after a few hundred one becomes exhausted, but as one lives the nonsense day in and day out and the lies never cease and are never countered by those who know better, lies become like breathing air and the liar is emboldened.

Indeed, we all have trouble with numbers and estimating relative size, admittedly a formal-operative concept. The 3 million supposed illegal voters (no evidence by anyone anywhere), the size of the inauguration crowds (not greater than Obama’s), electoral college votes (not the largest since Reagan). If you can’t make any money in the casino business (where the house gets at least 7%), I suppose one can’t be expected to count. But who loses money in the casino biz?

To be sure, surveys can be misleading if they reflect intentions and not reality. As Darrell Huff noted in How to Lie with Statistics, a survey of the incomes of Yale graduates counts what Yale graduates said they earned, excluding those who haven’t done so well and didn’t want to be counted, such as “clerks, mechanics, tramps, unemployed alcoholics, barely surviving writers and artists.” Yes, what people say in a survey, a poll, and in the Starbucks line can be very different from what they do on election day. The home fix-it man Tim Allen seemed to gauge that reality, saying how hard it is to be a Republican in Hollywood (though perhaps not as hard as living in Nazi Germany as he also added).

Of course, the biggest lie was to promise an end to military adventurism. Indeed, the challenge of any leader is to win the peace not the war, but that ideal was not yet national security battle tested. Repeated Einsteinian insanity. The boy who cried wolf. My mother’s army boots are bigger than yours. Is that a tape recorder in your pocket or are you just glad to see me? A he said she said cop and anthem spat.

Instead we get “We have to start winning wars again,” spoken with the ease of chewing gum in the sanctuary of a joystick war room. No, we used to avoid wars at all cost, a last resort when all other options failed, when we had to grimace as Cecil Day-Lewis did: “that we who lived by honest dreams. Defend the bad against the worse.” If the plan was to make the world safer, it isn’t working.

As for the statistical part to Twain’s trilemma, the world according to Trump has devolved into two kinds of people: terrorists (bad) and non-terrorists (good), for which the standard two types of statistical error apply. Indeed terrorism is bad, but is it better to assume a non-terrorist is bad and be wrong or assume a terrorist is good and be wrong. Do we err on the side of checking everyone and being safer or checking no one and being freer? Not an easy distinction, but wrongly calling us all bad makes us all less safe, pitting everyone against each other.

Empty platitudes delivered as superlatives (Middle Eastern peace, the end to terrorism, jobs for all) sound like the shrieks of the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, pronouncing “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Or as Dylan called Achilles, “a king in the land of the dead.” It is high time we called out the nonsense of a scoundrel.

A presumed patriotic mistrust of others is the work of a scoundrel, who cannot see the danger of loose talk. We are at the start of an American Inquisition, lead by Torquemada Trump. Do not let such scoundrels be a mouthpiece for our world. It is time to stop countenancing the madness by counting and countering every last lie.

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John K. White, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.

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