Part 2—Corn semi-redefines: Back in 1997, we started calling David Corn "the most polite person in Washington."
Our jest was tied to Corn's reaction to an award-winning piece about "educational standards" in the Baltimore Sunday Sun. In our experience, David Corn is a very good guy, just as he appears to be on your TV machine.
A few years later, in 2004, Corn made a decision we would regard as unwise. He decided to semi-reinvent a well-known term, perhaps in service to political warfare.
The well-known term in question was the well-known and famous term "lie." Corn described his semi-reinvention in the opening pages of his book, The Lies of George W. Bush.
At the time, the notion that Bush was a very big liar had gained wide currency within our liberal tribe. In the year before Corn's book appeared, Joe Conason had published a book called Big Lies. In a slightly more tongue-in-cheek vein, Al Franken—not yet Senator Franken—had published Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them in that very same year.
In retrospect, Bush seems like a cross between Mr. Rogers and the young George Washington when compared to the current president, Donald J. Trump. Just since becoming president, Donald J. Trump has issued a blizzard of wild and unsupported claims, including some which seem transparently false.
At least in terms of volume, this blizzard of peculiar statements dwarfs the lying, or alleged lying, with which we were concerned in the age of George W. Bush.
How many "lies" did that earlier president tell? We can't exactly tell you. But in the early pages of his book, Corn outlined a decision we would regard as unwise:
He said he was taking a new approach to the very concept of "lying" and "lies."
Corn's recasting of these familiar old terms went on for several pages. First, he offered a list of "lies" told by other modern presidents. He even quoted Professor Bok as she defined the term "lie:"
CORN (page 5): [T]here are many varieties of presidential lies...But what can be considered a lie? Sissela Bok, the author of Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life, defines it simply as "an intentionally misleading message in the form of a statement." Intentionally? That may get Reagan off the hook—or any other president who truly believes his own spin.It's hard to believe that we had to turn to Professor Bok to access such a mundane definition of such a well-known term. Truth to tell, professors don't know more about such everyday matters than the average shlub on the street.
That said, yes! As every school child is likely to know, a person "who truly believes" a statement he makes won't normally be accused of telling a "lie" if the statement turns out to be false. As a general matter, you have to know your statement is false to be accused of a "lie."
(For the record: In saying that Reagan may have truly believed his own "spin," it can be imagined that Corn indulged in some spin of his own.)
In that passage, Corn turned to "a Swedish-born American philosopher and ethicist, the daughter of two Nobel Prize winners," to tell us something everyone knows about the traditional meaning of the famous term, "lie." You can't blame Bok for Corn's behavior. But when writers do such things, we advise you to check your wallets, even when they're good guys.
Corn told us something we already knew. He then proceeded to offer something resembling a redefinition:
CORN (continuing directly): Intentionally? That may get Reagan off the hook—or any other president who truly believes his own spin. But because presidential lies matter more than most—they can lead to wars, decide elections, break or make vital policy decisions—I would propose a slightly different standard for White House occupants.Uh-oh! Corn was proposing a "slight" change in the way we apply a well-known term to acertain class of people. In this passage, he continued his conceptual coup d'etat:
CORN (continuing directly): I would propose a slightly different standard for White House occupants. If a president issues a statement, he or she has an obligation to ensure the remark is truthful. The same applies to a presidential candidate who, after all, is seeking an office that comes with the ultimate power. It is not enough for a president or White House contender to believe what he is saying is true; he should know it to be true—within reasonable standards...Few people would disagree with the bulk of Corn's statements. To wit:
Commanders-in-chief and presidential candidates do commit mistakes and misspeak. Given the amount of information they are expected to possess, this is only natural. Not every error or verbal miscue is a lie. But a president has a duty to acknowledge and correct any significant misstatement he or she utters—especially if that slip has somehow worked to his advantage. An untruth that might have been spoken accidentally becomes a lit if a president and his aides permit it to stand.
"Within reasonable standards," presidents should make a serious effort to ensure that their statements are accurate.
"Within reasonable standards," a president should correct significant misstatements once he or she has learned that his or her statement was false.
Few people would disagree with those high-minded judgments. But uh-oh! Corn was offering these obvious thoughts as justification for something resembling a change in the English language, a well-known institution and means of exchange accepted all over the world.
From this point forward, Corn would employ "a slightly different standard" for saying that Bush had "lied." This is a great way to fire the base. It may also be a great way to lose future arguments.
You can read the rest of Corn's presentation to consider his full reinvention. But is it a good idea to change the "standard" according to which we will say that someone has lied?
A cynic would tell you that such an approach might help an author sell books. We can imagine the difference in sales between two identical books which have these different titles.
Actual title in bold:
The Significant Misstatements of George W. Bush
The Lies of George W. Bush
How about comparative sales of these identical books?
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them
Significant Misstatements and the Significant Misstaters Who Make Them
A cynic would say that Corn's approach is a good way to sell books. Manifestly, it's also a good way to stir up the liberal base.
Unfortunately, that cynic might also say this—Corn's redefined "standard" for dropping L-bombs may be a good way to lose arguments. But we'll leave that claim for another day. For today, let's consider the source of the traditional uses of our best-known words.
Our language gives us many ways to talk about bogus statements. We can talk about falsehoods, misstatements and lies. We can talk about statements which are false, and about statements which are misleading.
We can talk about facts which are accurate but "selective." We can talk about claims which are false, but also about claims which are unsupported or unfounded.
Is "dissembling" the same thing as lying? How about embellishing, embroidering or exaggerating? Is suggesting the same thing as saying? Our language has a wide array of terms which are used to discuss inaccurate statements. So does every other developed language across the vast span of the globe.
Why does our language have so many words? Because millions of people, down through the millennia, have found it useful to observe the distinctions which were captured in the development of all those words!
Millions of people, over thousands of years, decided that there is a difference between a statement which is misleading and a statement which is false. The traditional use of these terms is a product of the ages.
In the past few weeks, we the liberals have been eager to drop powerful bombs on Donald J. Trump. We slept in the woods for twenty-five years. Now we're extremely upset.
We're eager to drop powerful bombs on the head of Donald J. Trump. Because our eagerness outpaces our discipline and our intelligence, we've taken a wide array of bogus claims and dismissed them all as "lies."
When we do this, we make ourselves feel good. If we do this in the title of a book, we may well sell extra copies.
We also set up conversations in which our thrilling claims are easily dismissed or defeated. Because we aren't very smart and we aren't very disciplined, we've been happily losing debates this way over the past many years.
Except in our own weak minds, where we win these debates very time!
Tomorrow: McEnany rolls