All indications are that President Obama intends to go on the offensive against Mitt Romney in tonight’s debate by getting as close as he thinks prudent to calling him a liar. He has got pretty close already by the devious means of seeming to criticize himself for his performance in the first debate. "I think it’s fair to say I was just too polite," he said, "because, you know, it’s hard to sometimes just keep on saying and what you’re saying isn’t true. It gets repetitive." The syntax is a little tangled there, but I think Governor Romney is the "you" in "what you’re saying isn’t true." Thus the President simultaneously accuses him — indirectly — of lying and congratulates himself for not doing so. In the current issue of The New Criterion, I give quite a lot of attention to the meaning of the word "lie" and come to the conclusion that lexicographers have failed in their duty to preserve a lexical meaning of "lie" — as a knowing falsehood — commensurate with its emotional meaning.
In other words, politicians can now get the emotional and rhetorical advantage of accusing each other of lying without having to cite a particular lie. Anything they think the other guy has done or thought wrong will do, since dictionaries and the common usage they describe no longer insist on the intention to deceive as crucial to the meaning of lie. It may be a legacy, in part at least, from the anti-war movement’s attack on President Bush’s "lies" about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. Otherwise careful writers at the time gave themselves a pass to aver that the President had lied, even though they never produced a shred of evidence that he hadn’t believed in the Iraqi WMD when he cited them as a reason for invading. They set the precedent by which the mere mistakes of one’s political enemies could be condemned as lies. Now, it seems, we are all giving ourselves the same pass.
But if a lie, properly so called, requires the mens rea — the guilty mind — what are we to make of the case of Radovan Karadzic, at whose war crimes trial before the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague something that certainly sounds from The New York Times report like lies are being told.
"Everybody who knows me knows I am not an autocrat, I am not aggressive, I am not intolerant," Mr. Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime leader, told the court. "On the contrary, I am a mild man, a tolerant man with great capacity to understand others." He said he wrote children’s poetry, did not hate Bosnian Muslims — he added that he had a Muslim barber — and did "everything in his power to reduce the war." From the public gallery at the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, there were noisy cries of "He’s lying!" Other angry survivors of the war gathered outside.
The question is, of course, does Karadzic himself believe what he is saying? I’m afraid there is a strong possibility that he does. But does that mean we shouldn’t call it a lie?
Fortunately, we don’t have to decide for the purposes of domestic politics. If we put the peace loving Radovan Karadzic at one end of the scale and President Bush’s non-existent WMD at the other, most of the stretchers told by our politicians will fall comfortably in between. Writing in The Times of London [pay wall] a couple of weeks ago, Daniel Finkelstein attempted to explain the low opinion people have of politicians on the grounds that they overpromise, sometimes absurdly so. Then, when the inevitable happens and they fail to deliver as promised, we are tempted to call them liars. But every indication is that they themselves believed they could and would fulfil their promises when they made them. Mr Finkelstein writes that, "In his book Deceit Robert Trivers explains that a tendency to self-deception is an evolutionary strategy adopted because it helps to make the deception of others more effective. Politicians believe their own rhetoric."
That sounds right to me. For instance, I have no doubt that President Obama really believed it when he said "that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." Governor Romney’s rather elegant answer to this at the Republican National Convention was to say: "President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet…My promise is to help you and your family." Some may think that even that is overpromising these days. But if the Governor can resist the temptation to call the President’s promise a lie, the President ought to be able to show a similar restraint about the Governor’s promise to give everyone a 20 per cent tax cut without adding to the deficit, don’t you think?