The Truth, Sort of, About Lies



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For his recent book, The Ethics of the Lie, English professor Jean-Michel Rabaté asked his friends to tell him about a lie they had told at some point in their lives.

“As my notebook had started to fill up at a respectable rate,” he wrote in the resulting volume, “one of my friends brutally cut me off: ‘A lie? Only one? Impossible. I’d have to tell you the story of my life,’ he shot at me. I felt that he touched the heart of the matter.”

Using the mendacities of presidents Bill Clinton (who denied having had sex with Monica Lewinsky) and George W. Bush (accused of having invaded Iraq under false pretenses) as his point of departure, Rabaté painstakingly teases out the tangled skein of lies, white lies, untruths, falsehoods, distortions, evasions, and their ilk in politics, philosophy, literature, film, and life. He examines the work of Plato, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, and Stephen Glass C’94—not to mention politicians and real criminals.

“I wanted to address the link between private lies and public lies,” Rabaté explained a couple of weeks after the U.S. presidential election. “It begins in a very user-friendly way, with stories about Clinton, Bush, and so on, and then it gets complicated as one moves along.”

That’s no lie: The Ethics of the Lie is nothing if not complicated. Rabaté devotes an entire chapter to the Liar’s Paradox, first attributed to Epimenides the Cretan. (“Epimenides declares that all Cretans are liars. But he is Cretan himself. If he is speaking the truth, he is lying. If he is lying, he is telling the truth.”) He also examines the evolution of lies in the service of art and the state. And Rabaté does so from a unique perch.

“To write about lies was for me to write about the United States,” the French native declares in his introduction. “It is not that lying is more frequent in the United States than elsewhere, but, since the end of the Cold War, American culture has been polarized by this topic, finding in it an unlimited source of fascination, amusement, and horror.”

Though he is well aware of the old paradigm depicting the cynical French vs. the naïve American, he doesn’t entirely buy it, and he spends a number of pages debunking the “paranoid-critical” interpretation of the September 11 attacks offered by French journalist and political activist Thierry Meyssan in 9/11: The Big Lie.

“I don’t think that the French cynicism is better than American naïveté,” Rabaté said in an interview. “Indeed I would say there is more respect for truth in America ... Everybody knows everybody else is lying, but if you can catch someone, then he suffers or she suffers. So each time you have this enormous constitution of hype about, ‘Oh he’s a liar, he lied,’ and so on.

“I think it’s an American obsession, that normally people should not lie,” he adds. “Whereas the French idea is that we’re all lying, because we live in society, but let’s be aware that some lies can be really dangerous.”

The lies of Clinton and Bush have been examined in so much detail by others that it would be overkill to revisit them at length.

But taking a page from old Jesuit texts, Rabaté broaches the notion that Clinton’s half-truths were truth enough.

For members of that order, Rabaté says, “Clinton’s lie about Monica Lewinsky could be seen as not a lie. If the extent of what happened was a blow-job, and if a blow-job is not having sex, he didn’t have sex. This is the kind of argument that the Jesuits of the 17th and 18th centuries would absolutely accept.”

While some Americans instinctively distrusted Clinton because of his highly articulate, nuanced views, they often overlooked Bush’s lies—at least in the early years of his administration—because of the folksy, less-than-eloquent manner of their delivery, in Rabaté’s view.

“In a sense, the lie is always more simple, and thus always more seductive,” he writes. “When simplism is erected into a state ideology, it is the state lie that dictates politics … The lie creates its own world …”

Rabaté goes on to ask: “Which is better, a liar who knows he lies and finds in this consciousness a limit to his power, or a visionary who believes he possesses the truth?” That brings him to the case of President Woodrow Wilson, whose leadership was scrutinized in a psychoanalytical biography written by Sigmund Freud and William C. Bullitt, the American diplomat and writer who worked for Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

Bullitt later condemned the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed severe sanctions against Germany for its part in World War I and arguably laid the groundwork for the rise of German nationalism and World War II. Freud and Bullitt (among others) concluded that Wilson had identified with Jesus at an early age. (Clemenceau, in Rabaté’s telling, “mocked Wilson and described him as Christ come to Earth to reform men.”) As an indirect consequence, Rabaté contends, Wilson was led to “identify his adversaries with Satan”—an unfortunate development given that his “ignorance concerning the groups, ethnicities, and nationalities in central Europe was so immense that he was never sure of what he was advancing.”

Wilson “allowed himself to be manipulated by Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and all those who wanted to humiliate Germany and Austria,” Rabaté argues. “So he wants to play the part of the Redeemer, which in itself is not so bad. [But] Sigmund Freud would have said to him, ‘If you want to be Jesus, be careful. You have to consider many other things; you cannot just be Christ and dominate the map of Europe in 1919 just like that.’ So that to me was a good case of the ‘lie by mistake’ that can move from the psychopathology or psychology of one individual to the psychology of the whole setup.”

Drawing on Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lie, Rabaté also describes how Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “because he didn’t really tell the truth about all the secret agreements he had made with Stalin,” to some extent “created the Cold War.” While Stalin was a “criminal” who slaughtered millions of people, Rabaté notes, “strangely enough he had the curious respect of his word in international politics, especially facing the Americans. And he never lied—whereas the Americans, who had the best of intentions and wanted to promote democracy in the New World, were lying all the time. This is the bizarre situation, and you know, so many good people we know lie with the best of intentions.”

“I’m still groping for a formula,” he says. “It’s led me to this idea that lies should be seen like colors. Some colors are dangerous; some are not. We know we see the world in colors, and we color the world as well. Some people see green, some people see blue, and so on. Some people see pink where others see purple. Because if you say colors, it takes away the naïveté of believing that we could never lie. Which is not possible. We always lie a little.” —S.H.



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Last modified 3/03/09