The lie has a long and continuing history in politics. Lincoln waffled about his reasons for ending slavery, Lyndon Johnson misrepresented what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, and Richard Nixon lied about his lies. More recently, South Carolina’s governor took some time to come clean about those out-of-state trips. The history of the concept and practice of lying in politics is the focus of a decade-long study by intellectual historian Martin Jay of the University of California at Berkeley, who says his research has made him a warmer supporter than he expected of the political lie.
Jay began investigating political lies in 1998, after the London Review of Books asked him to review two books on President Clinton. “I was fascinated by the perennial quality of the charge that mendacity in politics is a problem,” he says. “But there have also been defenses of these practices. So I decided to trace the discourse that surrounds lying in politics.”
“Some people say that we live in a society entirely of simulation,” Jay says. “I’m not convinced. We still have a distinction between truth and lying; we still know the difference between surface and depth. One difference is that we know more now about likelihood. It’s not either absolute truth or anything goes. It’s more like warranted assertability. We’re able to live with greater uncertainty, even greater risk.”
“The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics,” is to be published in May. “I like the challenge of writing books where I have to learn—to struggle to make sense, find patterns, find larger themes,” Jay says. “When you do the research, you have a strong sense of where it’s going. But only when you begin writing does the full articulation of your argument start to emerge. I encourage my students to reach that stage as soon as they can.”
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