Lies, Damned Lies, and Press Releases


Hokusai’s view of Japan (Image via Wikimedia Commons). Wilde: No such country.

If you aren’t nauseated yet by the outpouring of lies from our elected officials and those that serve them, you’ve got a stronger stomach than I do or you’re not paying attention.

But what is a lie, after all?

Mark Twain gave currency to the bon mot that lies come in three flavors:  lies, damned lies, and statistics. Social scientists have been dining out on that one for a century now.

In his little dialogue “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde, that ultimate self-artificer, proposes that the purpose of art is to tell untruths about the world. Wilde offers what once seemed a wickedly entertaining example: Compare the figures in a Hokusai print to the people you might pass on the street in Tokyo.  (You can see where this is going.)

“The actual people who live in Japan,” he writes, “are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.”

Note that Wilde’s forte was not international relations.


Gulliver with the Houyhnhnms

In his evergreen satire Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift conjures up the Houyhnhnms, a race of sentient horses that are preferable in so many ways to mankind. The Houyhnhnms can neither tell a lie nor name one — what humans call a lie the Houyhnhnms call “the thing which is not.”

You can’t not love those horses.

Wilde, Swift, Twain — two Irishmen and a cantankerous  Missourian — gave us ways to think about the lie: an absence, an imaginative world counter to reality, an immiserating use of numbers.

Today, as spokesmen and  spokeswomen warn against nonexistent massacres and invented European disasters, as officials redefine historical trauma (last time I looked slavery wasn’t just immigration at a discount pay scale), we are bombarded with the thing which is not.

W.H. Auden famously characterized one abyss of the 20th century as a “low dishonest decade.” There have been others. We appear to be entering one now.

Let me draw a connection to teaching and the violation of principles.

Those of us who teach must, alas, deal with forms of intellectual dishonesty.

Plagiarism is one. “It was me who said this, my words, my idea.” No, not really. These words are someone else’s, as you well know. Your statement about those words maps a different and fraudulent reality, and you’ve been caught.

Plagiarism is, as we tell our classes, a form of theft.

Lying isn’t plagiarism, but it’s its near neighbor, a pilfering of a higher order; lying is a raid on the storehouse of reality.

From perjury to the deceptive withholding of crucial information, from grossly inflated claims to simply false statistics, from denials of the past to wholesale invention: we are being asked, more frequently than at any point I can remember, to watch, and listen to, people who lie to us.

A lie is a theft of the truth.

The authorial stand-in in Oscar Wilde’s pedagogical fable looks at a Hokusai and says, “There is no such country. There are no such people.”

I pick up the newspaper and read, daily now, with disbelief. Not merely the lies in which our leaders have been caught out, but the astonishing possibility that so many — officials, members of the government, ordinary citizens — are given lies and think that’s just fine.

What do we tell our students?

Surely there is no such country. Surely there are no such people.


Follow me on Twitter @WmGermano




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