Lies, Willful Ignorance, Shortcuts, and the Pseudocracy

The rhetoric surrounding the Affordable Healthcare Act continues to fascinate.

**For instance, it has been labeled Obamacare by the GOP–and then by the media. That tells us something about about the media. Need a shorter headline? Try AHCA or AHA. I grew up reading headlines that included JFK and LBJ. That said, President Obama practiced rhetorical aikido when suggesting that he welcomed the nickname, “Obamacare.” Is there a valid gender-related point to be made about “Hillarycare” and “Obamacare”? Hard to say.

**President Obama famously said that if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it. What he failed to say, or chose not to say, is that you can keep your plan if the insurance company lets you keep it. So he was deemed a liar. He is a politician; therefore, he prevaricates. However, I suspect he was taking a shortcut so as to keep things simple. For we live in a time when sophisticated, complex utterances (as if adding the bit about the insurance companies were complex) won’t fly in politics. The president’s lie, gaff, elision, or shorthand (you choose) was ironic, in part, because the AHCA is in fact not socialistic. You can’t keep your plan if the insurance company won’t let you BECAUSE the insurance company is a private entity, a capitalist corporation, which makes a profit on misery and/or on the prospect of misery. Or perhaps I’m being Dickensian here.

**The AHCA is “big government” and “socialist,” claim some GOPers. When large insurance-corporations became socialist and were taken over by the government, I do not know.

**Then the flap about the health-exchange website. Yes, a classic governmental eff-up, out-dated technology included. A gaff that may have turned President Obama briefly into a Casey Stengel impersonator. When Stengel was managing the hapless Mets, he once (or more than once) yelled, “Can anybody play this game?” However, a reality-check might induce one to mutter instead, “First World problems.” Oh, the Americans are having some software problems with their new health-care initiative. Let us pray! Meanwhile, consider the catastrophic slums in Venezuela and India, for example; or the horrendous problem with the trafficking of girls in Cambodia; or thousands dying of thirst and hunger around the globe.

**The Congressional Budget Office produced a report suggesting that the AHCA might influence workers to work less (fewer hours). The GOP translated that as “the AHCA will cause unemployment.” A CBO spokesperson responded more or less like the unnamed correspondent in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “That is not what we meant at all.” Paul Krugman asked whether Eric Cantor, for example, had spouted off about unemployment before reading the report, or whether he had read the report and decided to lie. Cantorian willful ignorance was operative no matter what, Krugman argued.

**In “News of the Weird,” we learned that the cost of a scanning-procedure in Philadelphia hospitals can range from about $1200 to $200. Welcome to retail! “How much does this treatment cost?” “Give me your debit card, and then I’ll tell you!”

All of it seems like a cry for help. Swedes and Germans, among others, must look at the spectacle, rhetorical and otherwise, and think, “How effing hard can it be?” Meanwhile, politicians and pundits continue to play the came because (pax Stengel) they can play the game, just not the game that matters to people when they become ill and/or infirm.

“When Did We Start Just Making Shit Up?”

When Did We Start Just Making Shit Up?

Origins of U. S. Pseudocracy

William Haltom and Hans A. Ostrom

University of Puget Sound

Prepared for and presented to Panel 10.05

“New Directions: Twitter, Film, Celebrity, and Pseudocracy”

At the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association

in Portland Oregon, 24 March 2012

Preliminary Draft: Please do not cite or quote without explicit permission.


In this paper we offer two main answers to a colleague’s question, “When Did We Start Just Making Shit Up? We answer our colleague that, as individual participants, “we” started making stuff up when “we” learned 1) to proliferate untruths that were arguably not flat-out lies and 2) to lengthen what had been brief, ephemeral, ad hoc con jobs into distended, persisting, general buncombe. We also answer our colleague that, as a polity, “we” started just making stuff up when propagandas based on facts, veracity, accuracy, and precision gave way to the rule of falsehoods in electioneering, marketing, and media, a regime that we call pseudocracy. These two answers do not fix a time at which “we” as participants or as a polity began simply to fabricate falsehoods. Instead, our answers point a way toward further research into burgeoning mendacity and truthiness.

Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honor bred, with one
Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.

William Butler Yeats

What we have learned is not what we were
I watch the snow, feel for the heartbeat that is not there.

Weldon Kees

“In the world of advertising,
there’s no such thing as a lie.
There’s only expedient exaggeration.”

Roger Thornhill in “North by Northwest”

The Question

Early in 2011, a colleague asked, “When did we start just making shit up?” By “we,” she meant Americans but also, more specifically, those involved in politics—directly or as in-terested parties.

We an¬swer her question variously in this paper. But our overarching answer is that poli-ti¬cos started flatly concocting misin¬for¬ma¬tion when our polity of propagandas mutated into a pseudocracy.

We wend our way to that answer as follows. After reviewing an¬swers we deem insuffi¬ci-ent, we provide two sorts of tentative, speculative an¬swers. Our first speculation con-cerns “us” as participants: the stretch¬ing of what counts as an untruth combined with the lengthening of political con jobs plunged “us” into “pseu¬do¬cracy,” a sys¬tem in which falsehoods proliferate, both absolutely and as rela¬tive to de¬finable, defensible truth and hon¬esty. Our second specula¬tion concerns “us” as a polity: be¬fore “we” started just mak-ing shit up, propagandists in general and mass media, mass marketing, and mass elec¬tion-eer¬ing in particular started from and adhered to verifiable or at least plausible ren¬derings of reality as much and as well as they could; however, in the lat¬¬ter parts of the 20th cen-tury and continuing into the present century, de¬vel¬op¬¬ments in old and new media, techni-cal changes in marketing, and innova¬tions in elec¬tion¬eer¬ing yielded many ways in which to purvey untrue, misleading claims, shibboleths, in¬nuendos, and propagandas. Once per¬manent campaigners used mass mar¬keting and mass media to just make shit up, pseu-do¬cracy overwhelmed mere propa¬gandas and liars were usually free to lie with a min¬imal or negligible penalty—or with no penalty, or with reward. This is how we reach our con-clu¬sion that politicos started just making shit up when the risks of just making shit up re-ceded, when the rewards of just making shit up and when our polity became ever more willing to euphemize lies as “spin” and long cons as practices expected in politick¬ing.

Unhelpful Answers

Before we answer our colleague’s question with our speculations about contem¬porary, proximate ori¬gins of making shit up in the United States, we inventory longstanding, distal sources of making shit up. Readers satisfied by these replies will save themselves the reading of the rest of our paper. We urge readers, then, to grasp at any of these an-swers as a labor-saving act.

Unhelpful Answer One—Humans started to make shit up when the species started to make shit. We deem this answer glib and unhelpful even if it is true. Our colleague included “just” in her question, and we preserved that adverb in our title. This inclusion, it seems to us, betokened a sense that the fabrication of falsehoods had worsened. We doubt that this first less-than-helpful reply meets our colleague’s question.

Unhelpful Answer Two—Humans started to make stuff up when they started to create culture. This reply does not suffice for the same reason as above: Our colleague pre¬sumes that humans have always made up culture but perceives that the fabrications have of late become fiendishly mendacious and metastatic. We concede that every soci-ety abounds in narratives, sagas, hagiographies, myths, and dogmas that are not empiri¬cal-ly true, could not by laws of nature or science be empirically true, and seem to out¬lan¬ders bizarre. Classic state¬ments about warfare, diplomacy, and commerce abound with falsehoods and feints. Imagina¬tion, literature, and letters exist to enable humans to make worlds and to make up worlds that make more sense and less sense, to mess up and to clean up, to satirize and to sani¬tize. Moreover, political philosophy from at least The Republic of Plato has teemed with lies by which to dominate people and peoples. On perhaps a less philosophic plane, Machia¬velli counseled the prince on how to count and execute the ways of deceiving for gains in power and pelf. Hobbes described a political world in which implicit contracts and other deals are sealed, not on the basis of truth but on the basis of mutual interests. Locke and Rousseau joined Hobbes in imagining states of nature that were intrinsically and imagina¬tively contrary to human nature and history so that these thinkers might dis¬place a world too much with them and might reconstruct social beings as isolated ra¬tion¬¬al actors. John Rawls conjured ignorant, chary rational ac-tors given to minimax-re¬gret strategizing who contracted with one another from a posi¬tion original with Professor Rawls but otherwise greatly removed from the origins of hu¬man or other primate soci¬eties. We know all that. We all know that. Our colleague knows that.

Unhelpful Answer Three—“We” started to make stuff up from the time “we” start-ed to make the United States of America. Even jingoes must admit the founding and ev¬olution of the United States of America abound(ed) in flimflam and mendacity. “We the People”―shibboleth masquerading as intellectual construct―spoke and wrote of lib-erty while en¬slaving other Americans and wiping out indigenous peoples. We the de-scen¬d¬ants of those people have targeted immigrants, poor, and females, and in¬vented jus-ti¬fications for imperial invasions and toppling other nations’ governments as well as im¬pri-soning Japanese Americans during World War II and imprisoning innocent men at Guan¬¬-tánamo more recently. Contrary to the Inquisition, 21st century Americans suborned the lie that water-boarding was not torture. Nor was the illegitimacy of U. S. politics and government restricted to lying. All of the above conceded, however, recent flim¬flam seems flimsier and aimed at far baser ends than establishing or preserving a polity.

[Maybe] Unhelpful Answer Four—We have not yet begun to just make stuff up! What if the questioner errs in per¬ceiving or imagining that of late falsity or mendacity have been increas¬ing, deepening, expanding, or suffusing the culture? Perhaps greater attention, es¬pe¬ci¬ally in news media or new media, to de¬vi¬a¬¬tions from veracity has mis¬led our colleague to suspect greater false¬hood rul¬ing the nation or globe. The pre¬ponder¬ance of accounts of deceptions seems un¬denia¬ble. When respected obser¬vers and think¬ers― Arendt, Bok, Bailey, Edelman ―claim to detect among leaders of dem¬o¬cratic republics resort to wholesale de¬ceptions and self-deceptions that academics used to as¬so-ciate with leaders of lesser sorts of polities, we are disinclined to reject their per¬cep¬tions as overreactions to a mass-mediated society. When academic as well as pop¬u¬¬lar presses pro¬liferate studies of deceptions in the late 20th cen¬tury or early 21st cen¬tury, a decent respect to the opinions of observers requires that we entertain the proposi¬tion that propa-gan¬dizing, dissembling, deception, and mendacity have increased of late. When a noted historian as well as respected journalists trade in the proposi¬tion that election¬eer¬ing has qualitatively decayed and that as a result America has become more di¬vid¬ed and more polarized in the 21st century, we are informed by their erudi¬tion. Perhaps most mo¬men-tous, when a cable parodist’s coinage of “truthiness” pos¬sesses such des¬crip¬tive reso¬nance that the American Dialect Society names it Word of the Year for 2005, we defer to such linguistic expertise. Perhaps not as momentous but as de¬mor¬al¬izing: when politi¬cal analyses provided by parodists and stand-up comedians are often more incisive and re¬li-able than that provided by columnists, the media’s politi¬cal “con¬sultants,” “hosts” of pol¬¬i-ti¬cal television-shows, and other analysts, we attend more to de¬con¬structions of de¬cep¬-tions by Dave Chappelle than to dissemina¬tion of de¬ceptions by Wolf Blitzer. [In¬deed, which would you choose for more trenchant analysis: “The Best Pol¬i¬tical Team on Tele-vision” from CNN or Mr. Stewart followed by Mr.Colbert on Comedy Cen¬tral? ]
When we advance below our answer to our colleague, then, we acknowledge the replies above. Indeed, we incorporate some of them. We even end this paper with [maybe] un-helpful answer four, which will look more helpful once we have propounded. None¬the-less, we insist that the kinds and amounts of stuff be¬ing made up constitute a quali¬ta-tively greater phoniness and falsehood that has not just afflicted our body politic but that has taken it over. We call this system the pseudocracy, the rule of falsehood(s).

Our Individual-Level Answer―We Political Participants Started Just Making Stuff Up When We Started to Overstretch Truths and to Distend Short Cons to Far Longer Cons, Yielding a Reign of False¬hoods that We Coauthors Call Pseudocracy.

At base we mean “pseudocracy” to stand for a system in which falsehoods or deceptions routinely prevail over truths or candor. We intend “pseudo-” in the coinage to range from flat-out lies to strategic and tactical feints to “wedge-issues” and impression-management and all the way to “dog-whistle” appeals to racism or misogyny. We mean “-cracy” to range from sway and suasion to power and force. Let us address each range in turn.

… When We Started to Overstretch Truths―Politicos commonly characterize their op-ponents as purveyors of untruths and their sup¬porters as sources of truths. Such char¬ac-terizations oversimplify when they do not de¬fame, so declaring that “they” lie while “we” tell the truth―or Representative Wilson’s shouting “You lie!” at President Obama in September 2009―may be commonplace in¬stances of “making stuff up.” “Making stuff up” in a more academic manner for this pa¬per, we pre¬sume a multiplicity of ways in which politicos and citizens may avoid telling the truth or may accuse oppo¬nents of dis¬hon¬esty rather than error, of deception rather than misun¬der¬¬standing, etc. We further pre¬sume that resembling or dissembling truth is a matter of degrees. From every absolute truth, then, we might imagine one or more con¬tinua of relative truths, relative falsehoods, and so on, each continuum ex¬tending toward an ab¬solute falsehood and deliberate decep¬tion that will almost never be reached or ad¬mit¬ted. These continua allow proliferations of alternatives to telling the truth that can be differentiated from ab¬solute deceit, although neither absolute truth¬ful¬ness nor absolute mendacity need be out of play.

“Stretching truths,” then, is a gradual but imposing way in which to define deviancy down. All participants in politics uphold truthfulness as an ideal but then distance some spin, euphemisms, doubletalk, and other deceptions from absolute mendacity so that what is not true will appear relatively true or almost true rather than merely not per¬fect¬ly false. When “we” stretch the truth, “we” define dishonesty downward.

The “pseudo-” in “pseudocracy,” on our presumptions, may stand for any number of ex-pres¬sions, acts, or practices that fall short of or rise above standards for lying or for truth-telling. Honest mistakes may be negligibly different from inadvertent truth-telling. Reck-less untruths and thoughtless verities may be placed at some greater remove from dedi¬ca¬t-ed truth-telling. Spin and other interpretive arts by which truths are fabricated or exag-gerated to hide inconvenient truths or perilous untruths are not quite lies for many or most political observers or participants. Harry Frankfurt has distinguished bullshitting from truth-telling and lying, so we suspect that bullshitting would fall between candid honesty and cunning mendacity. Statements that are technically true but inferentially false are crafted to be some¬¬¬thing less blameworthy and less detectable than brazen lies, we suspect. Most poli¬ticos regard distortions of opponents’ remarks and mischaracteriza¬tions of opponents to be standard tactics or at worst sharp practices rather than foul, rep¬re¬¬hen-si¬ble lies. Professor Frank¬furt also asserts that, in our anti-foundational age, sinceri¬ty often re¬places logic and evi¬dence; if you profess sufficient sincerity in your belief, that belief is tantamount to truth. We leave it to readers to retrieve examples of this syndrome from their own experience. Our experience suggests that some readers’ examples will come from academia. That said, we ought also to note that this particular formulation from Professor Frankfurt runs counter to George Orwell’s sense of things in his famous essay, wherein he often blames insincerity for the deliberate imprecision found in our public discourse.

We refer to “continua” between honesty and dishonesty because we conceive of more than one spectrum along which to array descriptions of expressions or acts or character flaws. For example, the scale used in barrooms, in our experience, is very different from the scale used in courtrooms. Tall tales and self-aggrandizing sagas in casual settings may carry the narrator far from truth or truthfulness, whereas deviations from “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” may carry a witness far toward a jail cell.

Need we add that the middle range between honesty and dishonesty varies by the per-spec¬tive of the political observer or participant? If my candi¬date or our par¬ty frightens or threatens a group with tales of what opponents may be up to, the candi¬date or the party are not “just making stuff up” but may be exag¬gerating for im¬pact [and to secure an ad-van¬tage]. However, if their candidate or their par¬ty deploys hy¬per¬bole, I or we will shift such exaggerations toward dis¬honesty or menda¬city. I and they will like¬ly reinforce our position with sincerity [see reference to Professor Frankfurt’s work above]. Pitched bat-tles to la¬bel “them” as habitual liars while defending “us” as occa¬sional¬ly over¬reach¬ing [solely to vindi¬cate some important truth, of course] are thus a pre¬dic¬ta¬ble feature of spectra be¬tween telling the truth as best we can and various forms of error or dishonesty. More¬over, by inducing us to identify with “my” or “their” alleged views, pseudocrats addict us to pseudocracy. Partisanship is a gateway drug to pseudocracy.

For example, when Senator Jon Kyl stated that more than nine-tenths of Planned Parent-hood’s activities or services related to abortion then was confronted with a figure closer to one-thirtieth, he was neither simply lying nor just making statistics up. That is, Sena¬tor Kyl did not abut the mendacity endpoint of any continuum. The Senator was citing a number that had been rattling about and thus may not have known that he was stretching the (un)truth. When the Senator’s staff defended his mis¬state¬ment by saying that Sena-tor Kyl had not intended his remarks to be taken as a state¬ment of facts, “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” and other cable media joined broad¬cast and print in lam-pooning Senator Kyl. Pundits and politicos have some leeways in moving acts and state-ments this way or that along one or another continuum and those leeways lessen as the at-tempted placements approach either precise measurements or convenient flimflam. At the same time, it is also reasona¬ble to claim that Kyl’s staff at once lied and did not lie in defending him. If stating a sta¬tis¬tic were not intended as some approximation of fact, then what was it intended as—a celebration of the concept “nine-tenths” or an illustration of the decline of arithmetic in 21st century America? So the staff cannot be speaking the truth. However, the staff may also have been speaking a truth: Senator Kyl did not in-tend to speak precisely or accurately but rhetorically and effectively. If so, his state-ment ranged between mendacity and veracity on some continuum of verisimilitude.
We place “pseudo-” at the beginning of “pseudocracy” because falsehoods seem of late to have proliferated the means by which politicos as well as others may seem to be what they cannot be. The art is to seem to be truthful while expressing words or sentiments that are more useful than they are true. As pseudocrats stretch their truths further and further from what once they would have defined as honesty and truthfulness, they exag-gerate whatever distance re¬mains between their practices and abject mendacity. Our polity, we speculate, started just making stuff up when more and more politicos defined dishonesty downward.

… When We Started to Distend Short Cons into Longer Cons―Whether the “-cracy” [from ancient Greek for rule or dominion] in pseudocracy over¬states matters depends on the nature of the false¬hoods and contexts in which they are de¬ployed. Short cons may rule or ruin polities less than longer cons. A polity ruled or even riven by “short cons” may soon enough reaffirm its faith in truth and honor and, more important, a common ex-pec¬tation that political dis¬course will tend to be reasonably truthful and ac¬ceptably honor-able. On the other hand, a tran¬si¬ent, temporizing, routine lie may en¬tangle in webs of de-ceit a government’s attempts to control its image. A society ruled or riven by “long cons” may cleave into irreconcilably op¬posed contingents each of which must persist in its core (un)truths rather than risk self-destruc¬tion, but such a society may “merely” de¬ploy one or more “long cons” as myths or sagas. Moreover, as we have shown in discus¬sing the stretching of (un)truths along con¬tinua, short cons and long cons and other cons in between may each and all be located as short of falsehood as they are of truth.

Deliberate deceptions may sway the credulous or baffle opponents or postpone rec¬kon-ings but need not rule many people for very long. Indeed, costly deceits may expedite confessions that may be good for the soul of a nation even when the soul of the confessor lies beyond redemption. Under such circumstances the short con may not lead élites or masses to deviate much or far from workaday honesty, sincerity, and candor. We are not confident that we can identify or estimate the ramifications of short cons, but we suggest some short cons have proved not very harmful. For example, when Representative Gin-grich and Senator Santorum claimed that if not for the 7 January 2012 debate they were in¬¬volved in they would be watching the national championship college football game that would be played two evenings later, they may have been victims of faulty staffing or los-ing track of schedules or simply foggy memories. For another example, the Eisenhower Adminis¬tra¬tion lied about Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 mission in 1960 but was embar-rassed when their lies were easily exposed by Khrushchev. This incident was a short con, under¬standa¬ble in the context of Cold War espi¬o¬nage, and perhaps largely undone months later with the election of President Ken¬nedy, who would lie in a similar manner about plan¬ning of the Bay of Pigs.

When President Clinton used lies and evasions to play for time as the Monica Lewinsky scan¬dal began to break, he committed a short con with greater consequences than slips at a debate or diplomatic misrepresentations. The sheer risibility of “It all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” and Clinton’s impeachment and trial in the Senate may have re-established the superiority of truth-telling [however problematically], even though the Lewinsky matter fit a pattern of deceit by President Clinton and his administration.

Contrast such fibs or feints with untruths or half-truths that transmogrify into durable, lasting “truths” accepted by respectable, reported figures who do not subscribe to some fringe. A polity may be so riven with untruths firmly held that no consensus regarding truth or truths may be effected. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander assembles a nar¬rative, with abundant and convincing evidence, about continued systematic op¬pres¬sion of Black Americans. She starts the narrative with the Reagan Administration’s decision to put a Black female face on all federal assistance programs and to create a drug-crisis where there was none. Professor Alexander demonstrates that these de¬ci¬sions were ac-companied, literally, by campaigns similar to election campaigns in which mass media and marketing sold decisions and policies by means of imagery and catch¬phrases. A re¬sult of the war on drugs and the demonization of Black women and men is that the U.S. imprisons more ethnic minorities than Russia and China combined. In the Old Jim Crow system, Blacks were disenfranchised, terrorized by the threat and fact of violence, sys-tematically mis¬treated by the “justice” system, and imprisoned into a form of slavery by another name. In The New Jim Crow system, Blacks are disen¬fran¬chised by be¬ing turned into felons via new federal drug-laws that are selectively and racially en¬forced. They are also taken out of the economy in disproportionate num¬bers, jailed, im¬prisoned, and/or placed on probation. Our point is that if Professor Alexander’s analysis is correct, then the Black face of “welfare,” the war on drugs, the demonization of Black males, and so on constitute a very long con with multiple serious and lasting costs, especially to African Americans (and other ethnic minorities), but also to American society in general.

Between trivial, temporary falsehoods and substantial, enduring falsehoods we might ar-ray various intermediate cons. We do so with utterly no confidence in our own ability to assay ramifications, to approximate the cons’ proximity to or distance from truth or falsity, or to judge the sincerity or cleverness of those who originated or disseminated false¬hoods. Was elective or preemptive warfare in Iraq after 2001 premised on sincere beliefs about weapons of mass destruction more than expedient rationales that flew in the face of seemingly ample evidence? We do not know and, far more to the point, cannot know―by the design and practices of the pseudocracy. Were associations between Sad-dam Hussein and 9/11 pure humbuggery or plausible connections of intelligence dots? We do not know and cannot know―by the design and practices of the pseudocracy. Did Secretary of State Colin Powell lie for some greater good, or did he persuade himself that the information that he dispensed was inferentially true if technically less than true or technically true if inferentially false? We do not know and cannot know―by the design and practices of the pseudocracy.

Hence, pseudocracy stretches (un)truths and stretches out cons.

… Yielding a Reign of Falsehoods that the Coauthors Call Pseudocracy―We mean by “pseudocracy,” we hope that we have established, that discourse in the Uni¬ted States has teemed with misinformation more and more over the last decades and that the misin-for¬mation has obstructed reforms, distorted debates, sidetracked policies, and otherwise im¬paired democracy. We began to just make stuff up when pseudocracy be¬gan to over-match more honest propagandas. When communications, images, and mes¬sages dis-tended ever further from truth but were reckoned spin or bombast or cunning rather than dis¬honest―stretching (un)truth―and when misinformation and disinforma¬tion became more common, more consequential, and more persistent―short cons grew longer―the rule of falsehoods dominated the U. S. polity more and more.

Perhaps the signal instances of pseudocracy since 1993 have concerned “death panels” in health care plans forwarded by the Clinton and Obama Administrations. Death panels in either “Hillarycare” or “Obamacare” were always dubious because Presi¬dents Clinton and Obama faced enough hurdles without sneaking euthanasia into their bills. Yet “death panels” continue to taint discourse as we write this paper. We sub¬mit that the “death panels” canard reveals both the interplay of mass media, mass mar¬ket¬ing, and permanent campaigning during and after the Clinton Presidency and the stretch¬ing of (un)truths and lengthening of con jobs.

Brendan Nyhan and others have suggested how Betsy McCaughey transformed a dubious objection to Hillarycare into office in New York state and recycled the myth of death pan¬els in opposition to Obamacare [and we might note that, like those who engage in the practice of attaching a Black face to “welfare,” opponents of comprehensive health-care reform deployed “Hillarycare” and deploy “Obamacare” to link one personality to com¬plex proposals and policies, thereby blocking—they hope—any attempt at sober, nu¬anced discussion. If “Hillary” or “Obama” {not President Obama—that’s too respect¬ful} are for it, then you ought to be agin’ it. ] We hope we do not shock the reader by arguing that Dr. Nyhan’s suggestions match our contentions in this paper. Moreover, we note that whatever the shortcomings of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or their plans, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama were attempting to solve a grave problem: upwards of 40 million citi¬zens of “the greatest country on Earth” and the wealthiest nation on Earth had no health¬care insurance. How many citizens died prematurely—and in fact—because of this situa¬tion, as opposed to the fantastical, counterfactual world of “death panels?”

Ms. McCaughey and, later, Governor Palin pulled off the remarkable political jujitsu of directing attention to conjured “death panels” to misdirect attention from actual deaths by stretching untruths along continua of verisimilitude and by distending what might have been and should have been short cons into longer cons. Talk of “death panels” was never provable or disprovable given the prolixity of health care plans and bills. Hence, oppo¬nents of death pan¬els could stretch truths and untruths across expanses between demon¬stra¬ble truths and demonstrable falsehoods, per¬haps along multiple spectra of verisimili¬tude. Hence, opponents of univer¬sal health care could distend a canard into a longstand¬ing objection, an objection more plausi¬ble the longer it endured without ever quite being eli¬minated. Hence, foes of Hillarycare and Obamacare risked little and stood to gain no¬to¬riety and attention [and in the case of Ms. McCaughey, high state office!] by stretching (un)truth and distending a short con into a two-decades-long [and counting ] con job.

Dr. Nyhan reviews obstacles to exposure of myths and lies but argues as well that sham-ing works. In other words, amid the pseudocracy we may be able to escape the trap that Yeats articulated in our epigraph. Yeats wrote of “ … one/ Who were it proved he lies/ Were neither shamed in his own/ Nor in his neighbors’ eyes; … .” Dr. Nyhan writes of Betsy McCaughey’s demise on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” as sham¬ing that finally silenced McCaughey. That shaming did not, we regret to point out, stop the myth of death panels, which persists into the current campaign for the presiden¬cy.

What is more, as stretching (un)truths and distending cons decrease the risks or costs of dissem¬bling, distorting, or deceiving, such pseudocratic arts increase the incentives to dis-semble, distort, or deceive. Reasonable observers might disagree about whether ex¬em-plary pseudocrats such as William Jefferson Clinton, Karl Rove, John Yoo, Judith Miller, and Oliver North each practiced to deceive, profited from deception, and paid far less than they might have if they had adhered to truth. We doubt, however, that any reasonably objective observer would pronounce any shaming as all that effective. We do not say, of course, that no one ever pays for lying, obstruction of justice, or other pseudo-cratic endeavors. Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, Juanita Broaddrick paid for the lies of President Clinton; Dan Rather paid for airing a fabricated report; Marianne Gingrich was recently called a liar; and Scooter Libby served as the fall guy for the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson, who paid dearly for the Machiavellian mendacity of powerful politicos and pseudocrats.

Between the more august and powerful who suffer minimally or prosper mightily for dis-sem¬bling and the less celebrated and powerless who suffer much more we might array those who achieve celebrity or power through pseudocratic arts. Blogger Andrew Sulli-van names awards after fellow blogger Michelle Malkin [Ann Coulter is excluded from the competition], Michael Moore, and Hugh Hewitt but such ridicule seems not to drive them from the field or hinder sales or circulation if such the authors enjoyed beforehand.

Besides, when dishonesty is occasionally detected and remarked, the pseudocrat has at his or her disposal many responses. Speaker Gingrich has in the ongoing presidential campaign demonstrated his virtuosity at “attacking the attacker.” Attacks on PolitiFact may diminish the ability or willingness of that service to expose “Pants on Fire” and les¬ser untruths. Attacks have to be neither scientific nor intellectually credible to neutralize or dilute fact checkers’ efforts.

When critics alert reporters to falsehoods, expect pseudocrats to take refuge in false equi-valences that columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has de¬tec¬ted in “The Post-Truth Campaign:” “Oh, Mr. Romney will probably be called on some falsehoods. But, if past experience is any guide, most of the news media will feel as though their reporting must be ‘balanced,’ which means that every time they point out that a Republican lied they have to match it with a comparable accusation against a Dem¬o¬crat — even if what the Democrat said was actually true or, at worst, a minor mis¬state¬ment.”

No pseudocratic reduction of risk or cost is as common, in our judgment, as changing the subject. A citizen confronts Speaker Gingrich regard¬ing his con¬tinual demonization of Blacks. Speaker Gingrich answers that because he worked with Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice, he is aware of African American achievement. Fine, but what about that de¬mon¬iza¬tion we were discussing? Asked about Osama Bin Laden, President Bush answers “I just don’t think about him that much.” Thanks for the glimpse of your mind, but what about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden? Speaker Gingrich in the last presidential debate before the South Carolina primary attacked John King’s opening question about Speaker Gingrich’s second wife by accusing mass media of the very sorts of demonization and other arts of personal de¬struct¬ion for which a retiring Barney Frank blames Representative Gingrich more than any other human.

To Summarize the Foregoing and to Anticipate the Forthcoming―Political partici-pants started just making stuff up 1) when we started to tolerate the overstretching of (un)truths and the distention of short cons to longer cons as “politics as usual;” and 2) when we ac¬com¬modated ourselves in our own political thinking, acting, and advocating to truths that we knew to be untrue but expedient and to longer cons that served our im-me¬di¬ate, per¬son¬al interests far better than sincerity or candor would. “We” started just making stuff up when we each and all adapted to or adopted the reign of false¬¬hoods that we coauthors call pseudocracy. That is the coauthors’ individual, psychological, be¬hav-ioral, or cog¬ni¬tive answer to our titular query. Our answer, of course, presumes or over-looks institutional de¬velopments that conditioned or rein¬forced individual-level habitua-tion to pseudocratic truth¬iness. When and how did the polity start just making stuff up?

Our Institutional Answer―We the American Polity Started Just Making Stuff Up When Pseudocracy Over¬whelmed Mere Propagandizing, which Made Things Up Based on Facts, Using Mass Media to Elaborate Facts, Mass Marketing to Em-broider Facts, and Elec¬tioneering to Spin Selected Facts; Mass Media, Mass Mar¬ket-ing, and Permanent Cam¬paigning, Separately and In Concert, Made Stuff Up for “Current Events Citizens” until Media, Marketing, and Electioneering Made “Cur-rent Events Citizens” Suckers for Falsehoods.

If the coauthors answer our colleague that we just make stuff up as pseudocracy e¬merges from pre¬vi¬¬ous, more honest propagandizing, it behooves us to inform our col¬league and our rea¬ders what we under¬stand about propagandas and especially the relationship of pro-pa¬gandas to respect for truth. Almost everything we comprehend about propagandas we learned from Jacques Ellul. In his magisterial Propagandes Professor Ellul offered a dire dilem¬ma: democratic states could not survive or compete with other states unless they en¬¬gaged in propagandas, but propagandizing populaces crippled democracies. Pro¬pa-gandizing followed from a fierce pragmatism and fixation on effectiveness in shaping the attitudes and actions of polities and populations. The technologies of propagandizing were most effective, Professor Ellul argued, when they suited propagandas to what com-mon men and women regarded as factual or true. When propagandas shifted from ad¬her-ing to facts and re¬hearsing widely held truths to fabricating falsehoods and perpe¬trating cons, we an¬swer our colleague, our polity and our population started just making stuff up.

… Mere Propagandizing Made Things Up Based on Facts―In his trenchant, pre¬scient articulation of the American way of social, psychological, poli¬tical, and cultural life, Jacques Ellul imagined a polity based on fabrications and fan¬tasies. However, in Pro¬fes-sor Ellul’s propagandizing polity facts and factuality were integral to the paramount goal of effective¬ness. Professor Ellul understood modern democracies to depend on knowl-edge about the truth of matters if they were to shape attitudes and manage popu¬la¬tions effectively. We return to Professor Ellul’s classic study, then, to recall that credibility and verifiability once mattered a great deal more than they do nowadays, which is one reason why nowadays we just make things up.

Professor Ellul theorized that by the end of the 19th century the United States was tasked to as¬similate its population of immigrants drawn from various cultures, economies, and soci¬eties into a distinctively American system. In the 20th century the United States had solved its problem through “psychological standardization” of the population around an Ameri¬can Way of Life. This standardization made economic demand more predicta¬ble and marketing more accurate even as it created mass consumers to fit the mass pro¬duc¬tion at which the United States was becoming ever more adept and mass audiences fit¬ting the mass media with which the United States was becoming ever more suffused. This American Way of Life also unified masses and individuals within masses around a cul-tural, social, and political standard, which in turn created the dialectical opposite “un-American.” This “consensus” formed and continues to form a diffuse and variable but broad and unfailing foundation for more direct, partisan, ideological, and organized shap-ing of attitudes and opinions through propagandas. Professor Ellul presumed that his rea-ders would be familiar with propagandas that agitated individuals, mobilized them to act, and encouraged them to conform their attitudes and opinions to propagandists’ de¬signs; Professor Ellul presumed it might not have occurred to his readers that propagan¬das also integrated individuals, orchestrated their agreements and beliefs, and thereby made management of a consumerist, mass-mediated, plebiscitary polity more manage¬able.

To be sure, Professor Ellul’s founding narrative for the American Way of Life ex¬plains “mak¬ing stuff up” as an ongoing, fundamental process of agitating and ac¬qui¬escing, of di-vid¬ing and integrating, of matching centripedal to centrifugal forces, and of cleaving “Amer¬i¬can” from “un-American” so that “true Americans” may cleave to the American Way of Life. In Professor Ellul’s version of genesis, Mass Production begat Mass Con-sump¬tion, which begat Mass Standardiza¬tion of Consumers, which begat more predicta-ble, effec¬tive, and convenient Marketing and other manipula¬tions of Public Opinion.

Among Professor Ellul’s seminal contributions to understanding of modern marshaling of pub¬lic opinion was that the process of concocting widely shared ideas―the politer form of “making stuff up”―consisted less in Big Lies and tall tales than in diffuse promotion of ideas, attitudes, stereotypes, and prejudices. Modern propagandas might promote or-tho¬¬doxies, rationalized doctrines, programmes, and calls to action, but centripetal, unify-ing, conformity-inducing calls to solidarity and orthopraxy have integrated what cen¬¬tri-fugal, divisive, heteronomy-creating mobilizations have threatened to disintegrate. Pro-fessor Murray Edelman would elaborate this reciprocating sequence in Politics as Sym-bolic Action: agitation propagandas aroused, inspired, and mobilized to actions as well as beliefs, while complementary propagandas assuaged, reassured, and demobilized.

Professor Ellul provided an interesting, fertile account of the founding of the American Way of Life, but Professor Ellul’s decisive contribution to understanding our descent into pseudocracy (and our answer to our colleague) lies in Professor Ellul’s insistence that the most (in)famous propagan¬dists―Nazis, Fascists, Communists, and Madison Ave¬nue― strived to make propaganda as factual as they could manage. At least they strived not to stray too far toward the provably false. Goebbels and other dark lords of propaganda stressed factuality, pre¬ci¬sion, and accuracy as prerequisites to believability and, therefore, to effectiveness. Ber¬nays exemplified “expedient exaggeration,” an art of playing up help¬ful appearances that were not demonstrably untrue and playing down actualities true but un¬help¬ful to advertisers or other molders of opinion. Professor Ellul showed how and why the propagandas that suffused 20th century societies, economies, and polities to such a degree that modern politicos, marketers, and leaders must propa¬gan¬dize or fail, but he also arti¬culated why modern, effective propagandas demanded ad¬herence to known facts and therefore a willingness to discover what those facts are or might be. In sum, we take from Professor Ellul the insight that propagandists once relied on facts rather than con-veni¬ent false¬hood because factuality could be more effective longer than could false-hoods that would be found out too soon for any “long con” to work.

How could effective propagandas build on or at least not contradict facts? Professor Ellul taught us propagandists trafficked in matters that were not easily verified or verifiable. State¬¬ments that have no obvious truth-value―in the study of logic, capacity to be design¬nated either “true” or “false”―afforded propagandists opportunities to assign motives, to interpret, or to associate freely.
Moreover, Professor Ellul instructed us, propagandas sensitized propagandees to propa-gan¬dists’ preferred themes and de-sensitized propagandees to competing themes [such as those of other propagandists]. Professor Ellul rendered the process of sensitization stark¬ly: an individual passionate to act in pursuit of some good or to fend off some evil takes from propagandas instruction and, through concomitant actions, becomes ever more committed to the themes, values, and myths that the propagandas promulgate. As mass me¬¬dia drown their targets in information and mass marketing inundates con¬su¬mers in ap-peals, propagandas simplify information into responses as appropriate to the pro¬pagandee as to the propagandist. De-sensitization is the opposite process: Propa¬gan¬das make pro¬pa¬gan¬dees progressively impervious to objective, reasonable, or factual in¬formation that might contradict or undermine propagandas. The one-two punch of sensi¬tization and de-sensitization renders propagandees ever less capable of escaping propagandas.
Professor Ellul explicitly invoked the techniques of mass media and mass marketing as means by which propagandists totally encircled individuals isolated within masses. To understand Professor Ellul’s vision better, let us now examine in turn mass media, mass marketing, and the perpetual campaigning and electioneering that media and marketing spawned. We shall see how, despite technological and cultural innovations, each relied on factuality to marshal credibility.

… Mass Media Once Made Things Up by Elaborating Facts ―Mass media are essential to Professor Ellul’s vision of modern propagandas, which subordinated dogmas, doctrines, and ideologies to the service of propagandas that shaped attitudes and elicited actions. Professor Ellul emphasized that the dominion of propagandas demanded that propagandas so suffuse a society as to surround individuals within masses. To reach and to surround individuals in masses in turn demanded orchestration of modern mass media. Size―communication broad and deep―matters.

For media-generated and media-disseminated appearances to supplant actualities required careful husbanding of credibility and authority, as classic and contemporary studies of mass media have demonstrated. To be sure, some fictionalization or journalistic li¬cense was involved, but flat-out falsification was to be avoided so that reporters and editors could be said to report the news more than to make the news. The gist of Edward Jay Epstein’s News From Nowhere, for example, was that ABC concocted its narratives from no one’s point of view rather than faked the news to generate pseudo-facts. Mark Fishman’s Manufacturing the News, to cite a second example, delved into how beats and other journalistic routines crafted news from files and other authorized sources of facts or truths. News values issued ersatz realities to be sure, but not deli¬berately false or falsified realities. Indeed, flat-out fabrication and reckless disregard for truth defined libel and differentiated serious journalism from tabloid journalism.

… Mass Marketing Once Made Things Up by Embroidering Facts―At about the same time that Professor Ellul was penning Propagandes, Dr. Daniel Boorstin was pen-ning The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. This landmark account of U. S. culture documented how modern mass marketing had made systematic and disciplined the management of expectations and, to recall one of Boorstin’s central contentions, the fanning and then seeming fulfillment of extravagant expectations. Boor¬stin’s central coinage, prominent in his subtitle, was the “pseudo-event,” an artificial hap¬pening created to be reported. Both “pseudo-event” and “Pseudocracy” begin with the same Greek root; however, the difference between the two could not be starker. The Pseu¬do¬cracy is all about falsehoods and deceit; pseudo-events are all about creating ac¬tual experiences with far more attention to audiences not immediately present than to those “actually experien-cing” the event. In sum, whatever the flaws of pseudo-events and pandering to extra¬va-gant expectations, pseudo-events are not lies. Rather, accord¬ing to Professor Boorstin, pseudo-events related to reality but in ambiguous ways that per¬mitted those who created pseudo-events to control messaging. Publicists and planners exploited ambiguities that they build into pseudo-events to be certain, but the necessity of maintaining the ambigu-ity―the notion that reality and facticity were represented if not present―disciplined image-makers and kept them from simply making things up. In sum, events created to be reported had to be plausibly newsworthy or they would not be reported. Planners and publicists had to understand and supply “news-worth,” which in turn demanded some minimum relation to something verifiable.

Mass marketing encourages flackery but eschews flat-out falsification as surely as the mass media to which marketing is inseparably joined. The further from truth and the closer to deliberate deceit, the more morally blameworthy and commercially deadly the deception. It is therefore convenient that “branding” and “rebranding,” to select but two examples of flackery, can seldom be properly called false.

… Permanent Campaigning Once Made Things Up by Spinning Selected Facts― Modern propagandas, mass media, and mass marketing shaped campaigning and elec-tioneering, in which deliberate deception and flat-out lying were to be avoided or mini-mized or hidden. Modern campaigns strived to control candidates’ images but treasured credibility, simulated sincerity, and avoided provable mendacity. Campaign operatives created “photo oppor¬tunities” and otherwise catered to the deadlines and proclivities of mass media reporters. Image-makers applied up-to-the-minute marketing technologies to carry messages they have carefully honed and tested with focus groups. Joe McGinniss’s account of Nixon’s media and marketing, for example, showed how elaborately Nixon’s marketing team constructed his pseudo-events to dramatize themes and to make their broadcasts if not “real” then realistic. From Spencer-Roberts in his first gubernatorial suc¬cess through Michael Deaver’s choreography of his first election as President, Ronald Reagan perfected his part in surely fictionalized but nonetheless real-appearing pseudo-events. Campaigns and conventions continued to feature the bun¬combe but little flat-out prevarication. Naïve citizens who read about “the making of the president” learned of cunning, clever subterfuges, and sophistry but discovered presidential campaigners to be propagandists more than liars.

Even as campaigns and electioneering ever more dominated governing in “permanent campaigns” by and for Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton, the decline of political parties in the management of electioneering, dealignment, and highly per¬sonal-ized presidential campaigns had/have made Caddell’s “permanent campaign” memoran-dum from December 1976 prescient or self-fulfilling. Still, lying was risky, there¬fore rarer. Moreover, presidential image-makers prospered by understanding journalists’ jobs better than journalists understood the president’s men and women.

Indeed, campaigning became so permanent that activists extended campaign techniques to such confirmation fights. This yielded unseemly bouts of “Borking.” While Judge Bork and his allies decried the smearing of Judge Bork to keep him from becoming Jus-tice Bork, they never succeeded in demonstrating that charges against Bork were unmoored from reality. Attacks on Judge Bork were at least as close to true as to false.

Even perpetual campaigning based in verisimilitude will stretch (un)truths and lengthen cons, thereby risking ever greater pseudocracy in the polity. Drs. Howard and Gilens argue that stretching of (un)truths and lengthening of con jobs so disinformed Amer¬i¬cans that they came to know much about their system of social welfare that was not true.

At a less systemic, workaday-politics level, antagonists must stretch truth or face their opponents or enemies with only honesty to fend off less than honest attacks. If a tar¬get sticks mostly to the truth or to short cons, that tar¬get may invite more attacks as mass media amplify untrue or unfair charges into longer cons.

… Mass Media, Mass Marketing, and Permanent Campaigning, Separately and In Concert, Once Made Stuff Up for “Current Events Citizens” Before Media, Market-ing, and Electioneering Started to Make “Current Events Citizens” Suckers for Falsehoods.

To be effective, propagandas, mass media, mass marketing, and perpetual electioneering must shape news even as news appears to shape actions and actors. Critical thought or re-flec¬tion impair the effectiveness of even propagandas based securely in facts. Hence, news media, advertising, campaigning and other arts of 20th century propagandas aimed to surround and to deluge citizens attentive to day-to-day reports. This was why, Pro¬fes-sor Ellul ar¬gued, “There is never any awareness — of him¬self, of his condition, of his soc¬i-ety — for the man who lives by current events.” This “current events citizen,” then, is particularly vulnerable when the polity shifts from propagandas based securely in the de-mon¬strable or verifiable to reports and appeals based on distortions or deceptions. Academics and intellectuals, Professor Ellul noted, are especially susceptible to propagandas and to appearing to be up to date.

“Current events citizen” seldom has the time, training, or inclination to investigate reports or rumors or to connect news items himself or herself. Instead, “current events citizen” lives in a mediated milieu in which propagandists are only too happy to connect dots or to “get to the bottom” of disputes. “Current events citizen” adapts to a mass-mediated polity by becoming immersed in today’s news and vulnerable to propagandists, jour-nalists, publicists, and politicos. Propagandist, journalists, publicists, and politicos alike relate superficial, spectacular happenings that may be actual, verifiable, objective facts but may be apparent, putative, subjective impressions. Propagandas, reports, adver¬tise¬ments, and campaign spots become “current events” by means of dissemination rather than verification or verifiability.

If those who follow news assiduously and thereby feel events acutely and accept posi-tions on issues routinely―the readers of this paper and their students in classes relating to cur¬rent events or policies are probably examples―live at the mercy of propagandists, media, marketers, and campaigners when factuality and verifiability are essential to ef¬fec-tive¬ness, imagine the plight of “current events citizens” when pseudocrats begin to stretch (un)truths and lengthen con jobs.

When Permanent Campaigners, Marketers, and News Media and New Media Started to Just Make Stuff Up, the Pseudocracy Overwhelmed Mere Propaganda.

As much as one may lament public relations, marketing, and other expedient exaggera-tions that shape or condition opinions and attitudes, each and all demanded attention to and knowledge of what was true, or relatively true, or probably true. Expedient exag¬ger-a¬tions and consumerist flackery yielded extravagant expecta¬tions, which in turn elicited imagery, dramaturgy, and symbols and rituals to furnish what politics and government could never in fact produce. Politicos and officials, to succeed in the short run [without which short-run success there is no long run in the view of many politicos and officials], deployed short cons: symbols, catch-phrases, image politics, and the like to arouse citi-zens and to mobilize support as well as to manage opinion and to induce acquiescence. Management of extravagant expectations and exploitation of imagery, rhetoric, and so on stretched truth along continua of verisimilitude. Alternatives to truth proved so advanta-geous in marketing, impression management, and electioneering because public relations delivers to consumers, audiences, and voters imagery and words that selling or governing by means of truth cannot. Orwell’s denunciations of political humbug, euphemism, and even lying were to a great extent hyperbolic in ways his caricature of advertising need not have been before mendacity truly came to rule.

Neither the etiology of propagandas to agitate and to quiet the masses by turns nor the evolution of mass media, mass marketing, and the permanent campaign necessitated stretching the truth, by which we mean moving ever further from the verifiable toward that which is not demonstrably false or dishonest. However, we contend that the absolute and relative predominance of “just making stuff up” has increased. If making stuff up absolutely has increased and if the ratio of deliberate deceptions relative to the stretching of truth along continua of verisimilitude has grown, then “we” have begun “making stuff up” as never before. If you render truthfulness quaint, you usually don’t have to lie unless you derive pleasure from lying.

The amplitude of mendacity seems to us to have grown in the latter half of the 20th cen-tury. Let us stick with “succeeding” presidencies. Presidential lying did not start with Watergate, but for some time dissembling and dishonesty seemed to be deviations from reasonable approximations of nearly honest and almost honorable conduct. When presi-dents strayed, presidents [and often their constituents] paid. We mentioned President Eisenhower and the U-2 incident supra. His successor, President Kennedy, lied to pro-tect the Bay of Pigs operation before it went fiasco. President Johnson’s credi¬bility gaps may have been minor relative to the lies by which the Nixon Admini¬stra¬tion attempted to cover up their nefarious activities and to hold on to office, yet Presidents Johnson and Nixon were each driven from the Oval Office in part for their lying ways. By contrast, President Reagan’s administration, including President George Herbert Walker Bush, paid far less for lying about the Iran-Contra Affair. If President Reagan demonstrated the utility of lies to temporize over Iran-Contra, Presi¬dent Clinton confirmed that demon-stration when Monica Lewinsky loomed over his second term after hovering over the First Phallus. The Clinton Administration often explored almost every alternative to truth¬fulness before performing modified, limited hang outs. [That the two presidents excepted from this list of trimmers, trucklers, and temporizers were one-term presidents reputed to be quite honest does credit to President Ford and Carter if dis¬credit to the growing pseudocracy of presidents in the latter part of the 20th century.]

All presidents and presidencies from Lyndon Baines Johnson to William Jefferson Clinton, however, did not prepare us for the presidency of George W. Bush. The sheer quantity of works on duplicity, deceit, dishonesty, and other stretching of the truth and lengthy con jobs by and amid the administration of George Walker Bush might be laid to Bush Derangement Syndrome, but the length of any list of book titles alone beg¬gars the imagination. Other nations whose judgments and opinions the U.S. customarily respects regard one or more members of the Bush Administration as war criminal(s), not just poli¬ti-cal bullshitter(s).

That the Washington Monthly drolly offered “The Mendacity Index” while President George W. Bush was in office suggests a quantitative if not qualitative increase in mis-lead¬ing and mis¬stating during or before the turn of the 21st century. “The Mendacity In-dex” relied on a panel of experts to assign numbers to the second President Bush and his three immediate predecessors to “measure” their deviations from truthfulness. Beyond its vaudevillian scor¬ing, however, “The Mendacity Index” showed how truly problematic it has been for pres¬i¬¬¬¬dents since 1981 to approach either endpoint of any continuum of veri-similitude: Pres¬i¬dents Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43 have avoided absolute can¬dor and flat-out lies alike. One result of these presidents’ artful dodging is that the question, “What did he know and when did he know it?” is obsolete, belonging to the tender, naïve Age of Watergate.

The creation of fact-checking websites in the 21st century confirms a perception that dis-information and dishonesty were common or rampant throughout the polity. The ten-den¬cy of one or more of those sites to bend to pressure and to purvey misinformation in the name of balance exemplifies the metastasis of pseudocracy of late.

These and other instances of dishonesty that we might cite show that, at the least, our soci¬ety and polity have moved away from “honesty is the best policy” and toward ever more stretching of the less-than-truth. Along various continua, we are dramatizing Zeno’s Paradox: we more and more approximate abject, deliberate lying but find excuses for our lying and memorialize those excuses with relatively euphemistic labels. Pub¬licists, spinmeisters, and other professional prevaricators craft those labels, of course, to overstate the distance and the difference between a lie and the label.

… As Marketers Started to Just Make Things Up―To understand how image-making has transformed propagandas into pseudocracy, one may need only to juxtapose two re-nowned incidents. The first incident, repeated in studies of mass media for more than 20 years, concerns the late Richard Darman’s response to Leslie Stahl’s exposé on Presi-dent Reagan’s propagandists and their image making. Ms. Stahl had crafted an extensive report on contradictions between imagery and reality in President Reagan’s first term. She felt that her piece was devastating but factual. After her report took nearly six min-utes [roughly a quarter] of the “CBS Evening News” Mr. Darman, an assistant to Presi-dent Reagan, called Ms. Stahl. Instead of the ferocious response she feared, Mr. Darman thanked her for broadcasting the expertly-crafted images. When Ms. Stahl reminded him that her piece had contrasted President Reagan’s posing and posturing with his adminis-tra¬tion’s practices, Mr. Darman dismissed the words as lost on the audience. Stahl’s au¬di¬-ence, Darman maintained, would remember the Reaganauts’ images and forget Stahl’s words. What was more, he marveled that television journalists could not seem to master that fact of political life.

Contrast Mr. Darman’s calm sophistication regarding imagery’s propensity to overwhelm facts with Karl Rove’s much-remarked brio in reporter Ron Suskind’s 2004 study of the Bush Administration:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Many analysts have focused on Mr. Rove’s hubristic notion of the United States as an em¬pire that remakes reality as it acts. For present purposes a more interesting aspect of this “sound bite” lies in Mr. Rove’s conception of political prob¬lem-solving. For Mr. Rove problem-solving involves the dramaturgy and stage-domina¬tion of permanent cam-paign¬ing and eternal public relations rather than experiences of ac¬tual citi¬zens. Out of President Bush’s acts and Mr. Rove’s propagandizing on behalf of those acts, a trans¬cen-dent reality emerges. The empirical exertions or explanations of intellectu¬als, jour¬nal¬ists, or pundits keep the chattering classes busy and current-events junkies dis¬¬tracted, we read Mr. Rove nearly to boast, but Mr. Rove and modern tech¬nolo¬gies are creating the shared reality that will matter far more for politicking, governing, and policy.

Mr. Darman’s confidence that audiences disregard facts and words if the images and dramas are staged well and Mr. Rove’s cockiness that bold actions matched to expert stag¬ing create reality irrespective of facts and reason show us how two very different image-makers stretched truth and lengthened cons. Mr. Darman and the Reagan image-makers “made stuff up” by constructing pseudo-events and photo opportunities to arrest the eye and occupy the mind. They largely circumvented the truth with glitter, a long-stand¬ing device of public relations. Ms. Stahl did show that actual conditions contra-dicted the upbeat images, but she did not claim that President Reagan or his staff were stretching the truth beyond emphasizing the best and camouflaging the rest. Mr. Rove, by contrast, “made stuff up” with such alacrity that he derided those concerned with reali¬ty and facts. Mr. Rove did not confine his contempt to the marks who believed his bunk; Mr. Rove extended his derision to more sophisticated suckers who thought that facts or ac¬tualities mattered in politics or government.

Mr. Rove’s stretching of truth and lengthening of cons seem to us to have prevailed and thus to mark a qualitative shift from the propagandizing of Patrick Caddell, James Car-ville and George Stephanopoulos, or Lee Atwater. 21st century public relations has in-vented ever more ways of displacing and denying facts and factuality, truth and truthful-ness. Whether in Dr. Frank Luntz’s phrasings or in Dr. George Lakoff’s framings or in Dr. Drew Westen’s appeals to the limbic, the confidence games favored in this century aim to avoid reality, intellect, and rationality. In these formulations truth and facts are inconveniences to be destroyed or dispensed with. This seems to the coauthors to re¬sem-ble “just making stuff up” a great deal more than the factually more fastidious marketing of Richard Nixon or Rice Krispies.

Dr. Luntz has invented too many stylings that stretched truth and sustained bunkum for us to recount and deconstruct them here, but we draw attention to his book’s title and to his infamous interview on NPR. Dr. Luntz’s title indicts itself and Dr. Luntz in our view: Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. Unless Drew Westen or George Lakoff serves on the jury, Dr. Luntz must be found guilty of pseudocracy in the first degree. Beyond that, both in the book and on his book tour, Dr. Luntz re¬imag¬ined “Orwell¬ian” as a compliment. On NPR’s “Fresh Air” Dr. Luntz informed Terri Gross that Dr. Luntz’s work met standards that George Orwell advocated in “Politics and the English Language” and thus was virtuous: “To be ‘Orwellian’ is to speak with abso¬lute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers some¬thing happening … and to do so without any pejorative whatsoever.” To listen to or to read Dr. Luntz or Dr. Westen or Dr. Lakoff or other pseudocrats is to experience what Professor Ellul meant when he said that the propagandist’s purpose was to make the tar¬get feel rather than to think. That is the explicit end of pseudocratic public relations. Nonetheless, for all the coauthors know, some viewers may perceive Dr. Luntz as a reliable journalist as they watch him conducting focus-group sessions or moderating discussions between, say, Herman Cain and former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Some of these marketing geniuses work short cons. Other marketing marvels work long¬er cons and stretch (un)truths even further. Big Tobacco pioneered some such public re¬la-tions work in the 20th century by interesting reporters in the Tobacco Institute and other pseudo-scientific dissemblers underwritten by tobacco companies. In the 21st century corporations have used longer cons to play mass media and to preserve profits.

… When News Media and New Media Started to Just Make Things Up―If 21st cen-tury mass media have amplified pseudocratic public relations by featuring the likes of Mr. Rove, Dr. Luntz, Dr. Westen, Dr. Lakoff, and other spinners on broadcasts and in print, they have built on longstanding practices of 20th century news media. 20th and 21st century news media alike have covered pseudo-events and actual events in ways divorced from, even contemptu¬ous of, facts or verifiability. The multiplicity of ven¬ues in which Mr. Rove, Dr. Luntz, and other operatives may work their cons is a fea¬ture of the pseudo-cracy, too, we suggest. One may run a campaign, work in the White House, ap¬pear on many media, be hired by other media, and create the “information” one is later hired to analyze without the slightest mention of bias or conflicts of interest. Having watched “an¬a¬lysts” Karl Rove on Fox News, James Carville and Ari Fleischer on CNN, and Michael Steele on MSNBC and host and anchor George Stephanopoulos on ABC, the coauthors wonder who would be unqualified by connections or background to serve as a political analyst, “strategist,” or “contributor” or to pose as a “journalist?”

Not merely the talking heads but the talk those heads supply betray a proclivity to make things up rather than to source them. Matthew L. Schafer and Regina Lawrence have shown how reports and commentaries have used “He Says, She Says” formats to keep death panels alive, for example. The “Some Say” or “Some Would Say” formu¬lations permit commenta¬¬tors to insinuate claims that they could not support with more credible sourcing if any credible sourcing were demanded. False equivalences have long abounded in news media committed to seeming fair and bal¬anced, especially when the subjects and objects of coverage are neither fair nor balanced.

Before any obvious advent of pseudocracy, news media remained solvent by covering the sensational whether it was news or not and by pursuing other proclivities that communi¬ca-tion scholars have amply documented. In the 20th century Professor Boorstin had pre¬-sumed that pseudo-events played off and played on events’ and persons’ ambiguous rela-tions to reality. In the 21st century repor¬ting of and about Truthers, Swift Boat Veter¬ans for Truth, Rathergate, and Birthers have demonstrated that news media easily stretch tenuous relations to reality far beyond Boor¬stin’s pseudo-events and extend confidence games at least through the next Election Day.

However, the performance of news media has of late become desultory in ways that Bennett, Lawrence, and Livingston formulate as an irony:

The great irony of the U. S. press system is that it generally performs well―presenting competing views and vigorous debate―when govern-ment is already weighing competing initiatives in its various legal, legis-lative, or executive settings. Unfortunately, quite a different press often shows up when policy decisions of dubious wisdom go unchallenged in government arenas.

This irony not only means that the mainstream press are least useful when most needed but also means that the mainstream press will often most vigorously vet hackneyed claims and familiar position-taking in a ritual of apparent vigilance, which may lull rea¬ders and viewers into the supposition that if the press does not arouse de¬bate that not very much is amiss or at stake. Bennett, Lawrence, and Liv¬ing¬ston show that the political press often inadvertently highlight a pub¬lic face of democratic-republican debate and pluralism and inadvertently un¬der¬play the less democratic, less republican, less pluralistic, and less public faces of power.

Alongside these proclivities of old-style media just to make stuff up, “new media” ex-pand the domain of pseudocracy. Mark Hertsgaard’s exposé of the Reaganauts’ control of media and Howard Kurtz’s analyses of the Clintonistas’ manipulations and collabora-tions with news media nowadays appear archaic relative to the ways in which new media make things up. The advent of CNN, CNBC, and other cable news channels has exacer-bated bias and spin without doubt in part owing to the expectation of filling 24 hours six or seven days per week. Talk radio amplified the fabrication of falsehoods as well as the trashing of news reports that met established canons of journalism. To provide “fair and balanced” coverage from ideological, partisan points of view, Rupert Murdoch and Fox News pioneered just making stuff up. New media, combined with older media that disseminate reports on new media, have created an “echo chamber” in which con-coctions reverberate and persist.

Old-style and new-style media have in the last decades fomented polarization; polariza-tion exacerbates the com¬ple¬men¬tary sensitizing and desensitizing that Professor Ellul an¬a-lyzed as psychological effects of propagandas, but with a twist as 21st century propa¬gan-das stray further and further from verifiable or even knowable foundations. “Liber¬at-ed” to a large extent from canons of veracity, factuality, or credibility, polarized and po-lar¬izing pseudocrat-“journalists” may indulge dramaturgical convenience and extend short cons via expedience or expedients. The recent death of Andrew Breitbart provides a recent illustration of differential desensitization and sensitization that po¬lar¬i¬¬za¬tion has worked. Mr. Breitbart blogged hard and died young, which compelled com¬men¬ters to trace a razor’s edge between speaking truth and speaking ill of the dead.

Moreover, in cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream . . . forever. Images of your screaming may go viral. Your most baseless fabrications not only go around the world at nearly the speed of light, but opinions you would take back if only you could ripple into the blogosphere and collective cyber-memory beyond your power to call them back or off. The Internet and the WWW magnify the mendacity and misinformation to which we are subjected even as new media and cyber¬space magnify exposure of menda¬ci¬ty.

New media have shortened some cons but not extinguished them. Who knows how long Betsy McCaughey might have cited page numbers on which “death panels” were author-ized or mandated in one or more health care bills if Jon Stewart had not made her look up the passage on air? But did that stop Rick Santorum from invoking death panels in early 2012? Who knows how many long cons have been truncated by “Crooks and Liars” or only to pop up anew? Through new media as well as old media parti-san propa¬gan¬dists may revive con jobs that have lain latent since being exposed as tricks and lies. Indeed, whatever utility folderol possessed before it was debunked folderol re-tains once a “docent [sic] interval” has passed. Cyberspace fur¬nishes daily audiences un-aware that bunk has been debunked repeatedly and decisively. Even those vaguely aware that a claim was “problematized” may not recall what the prob¬lem was, and it would be so convenient if the claim were once again available.

Behold yet another way in which Professor Ellul’s “current events man,” that atomized individual vulnerable in his isolation yet lost in the masses, may be induced to feel rather than to think. Cass Sunstein has published multiple editions of his fears of infor¬ma¬tion co¬cooning, echo chambers in cyberspace, and other mass atomizations. Professor Ellul posited the psychological effects of propagandas in sensitizing and de-sensitizing propa-gandees; Sunstein’s nightmare of cyber-targets isolated amid masses represents a con-siderable upgrade and degradation of propagandees amid the pseudocracy.

Even worse, much of cyberspace’s “force multiplier” is largely or completely anon¬y¬mous. Isolating information cocoons and selectively de-sensitizing and sensitizing echo chambers shield serial prevaricators from many or most consequences of lying even as the stretching of the continuum permits those who profit from the lies to call lies spin or ex-aggeration to make a point. “We” use talk radio or email or social media to expound claims we read on this blog or heard on cable news or picked up in a chain email or ap¬peal for donations. We often can do so under an assumed name or a clever handle that protects us from responsibility for the “facts,” “truths,” and “informa¬tion” that we dump into cyberspace.
New media and the blogosphere, of course, operate on and alongside established media, and the rule of falsehoods depends on mutually reinforcing agitating and integrating pro-pa¬gandas. The 21st century “political conversation” becomes each year more a euphe¬mism for speakers that dominate the foreground with manipulative and mendacious themes while political subwoofers broadcast political cacophony and noise that, among some, passes for a lively exchange of ideas.

In sum, once media old and new began to just make stuff up and “current events men and women” acquired means by which to swell the chorus of misinformation, the pseudo¬cracy began to supplant propagandas based on facts and veracity.

… And When Permanent Campaigners Started to Just Make Things Up

In an age of 24/7 cable news and cyberspace technologies that often seem to swell be-yond 24/7, politicians and other politicos exploit marketing techniques and media pro-clivities to engage in 21st century perpetual electioneering to transform those paying attention into dupes and compulsive watchers. Let us briefly reviews two examples: Terri Schiavo and global warming.

Ghastly exploitation of com¬a¬tose Terri Schiavo for partisan and ideological ends built on no or almost no dis¬cernable or verifiable facts, for example, but kept controversy alive af-ter Ms. Schiavo’s death and autopsy. For the purposes of this paper we need not re-hearse such matters as the Florida legislature’s authorizing Governor Bush’s interven¬tion with the decisions of the attending physicians or Senate Majority Leader Frist’s ap¬pearing to diagnose Ms. Schiavo from a redacted video tape or other sensational develop¬ments. In¬stead we direct attention to the vehemence and persistence of fierce, dogmatic conten-tions echoing about the blogosphere and cyberspace. Rather we direct attention to how much of the con¬flict was conjured out of very little verifiable information or, more im¬por-tant, concern for verifiable information. As in modern electioneering, adver¬saries loosed speculations, in¬nu¬endo, and spin and old and new media alike amplified the blather. Truths and un¬truths were stretched; short con jobs distended; misstate¬ments and disinformation unpunished, and perpetrators largely unshamed, as far as we can de¬ter-mine. Just as cam¬paigners aim for the Election-Day finish line with little concern for veracity or credi¬bil¬ity thereafter, politicos utilize media and marketing to per¬pe¬trate and to perpetuate false¬hoods. The politicos deluge media with information of at best questionable veracity without serious risk or cost.

Climate change shows us that, as with Ms. Schiavo, mastery of marketing and of media means never having to say either that you’re sorry or that you were wrong. Instead of depending upon our political leaders and policy makers to hash out the findings and re-com¬mendations that spring from the science of global warming, American dupes are per-manently detained in a Twilight Zone that allows one major party to deny humans’ con¬tri-bution to global warming without serious risk or serious cost—to them.

The death panel imbroglio and “The Mendacity Index” exemplify how pseudocracy has almost eliminated possibility of lies or lying to which liars or their allies must admit and disincentives to lie. We are confident that other controversies about honesty and dis¬hon-es¬ty would likewise conform to the stretching of the not-quite-true-but-not-flatly-false ex¬panse between truthfulness and mendacity. Beyond mentioning a few above, we leave that demonstration to a later paper.

Our Inventory of Answers to Our Colleague’s Question

We have argued above that “we” just started making stuff up when propagandists and pol¬i¬ticos learned how to use technologies of electioneering, marketing, and mass media to stretch (un)truths and to distend ephemeral short cons into enduring long cons with plau-si¬ble deniability that reduced penalties for or notice of the few lies that needed to be ad-mitted or widely acknowledged.

Our answer, of course, is not very precise. We have argued that sometime between the assassination of President Kennedy and the re-election of George W. Bush electioneer¬ing, media, and marketing so stretched (un)truths and so distended short cons into much longer cons that the polity shifted from merely propagandistic to fiercely pseudocratic. At some point in the last half-century, we coauthors answer, we Americans started just making shit up.
To assist readers and our colleague in assessing whether we coathuors have said anything at all [at great length] above, we furnish our inventory of answers. We began to just make stuff up when …

1. … governments from fascist to democratic-capitalist felt compelled to surround masses of atomized individuals with images, fictions, slogans, and other con-ditioning to secure orthodoxy and, more important, orthopraxy; and/or

2. … late 20th century mass-marketing and consumerism in national and inter¬na¬tion¬al advertising took ever more liberties with facts and veracity; and/or

3. … perpetual electioneering effaced boundaries between governing and campaign-ing to such an extent that missions could be accomplished via sound bites, shib-boleths, and spin without any reasonable prospect of demystification; and/or

4. … “current-events” citizens, information addicts moved the polity from the sunny “a good citizen is an informed citizen” to the sardonic “an informed citizen is an easier mark;” and/or

5. … journalism became so much more a matter of stenography concerning official pronouncements that it became ever less insulting that bloggers, pundits, and others who traffic in screeds are often called “journalists;” and/or

6. … boundaries among professional roles such as political operative, governmental employee, journalist, creator of news, disseminator of news, contributor, and professional analyst of new melted (think Stephanopoulos and Rove); and/or

7. … “agreed upon facts” became ever less possible or plausible.

The above is the coauthors’ inventory. Less sympathetic assessors might proliferate our answers to our colleague, let alone other answers. The inventory, then, might reach double figures.

The coauthors intend to aim for a bit more precision in “ascertaining” when the U. S. pol¬i¬-ty started just making shit up. The Western Political Science Association should watch for our future efforts. The coauthors believe that disbanding the Western Political Sci-ence Association on that account alone would be precipitous. However, the coauthors would not see banning the coauthors from future meetings of the Western Political Sci-ence Association as unjust.

Just as the coauthors’ worse may be yet to come, the polity’s pseudocratic worse may be yet to come. We coauthors see no reason to presume that the pseudocracy has stopped (d)evolving.

So what, in the interim, do the coauthors propose to do about people “just making stuff up?” We answer first [and curtly] that we set out in this paper to explain the timing of systemic develop¬ments in U. S. politicking and governing, not how to reverse decades of descent into truthiness.

Moreover, if we are at all correct, “What is to be done?” misunderestimates the pseu¬do-cracy even as it greatly overestimates the two of us, not to mention misover-estimating [sic] the agency of academics and the rest of the impotent citizenry. Re¬garding the last point, we ask readers a question that we do not regard as rhetorical: How many aca¬dem-ics do you know who willingly perpetuate political shit, for one reason or another? The dif¬ficulties, indeed disabilities, to which we attribute the pseudocracy will continue to shield the pseudo¬cra¬cy from ready reform(s). Continua of verisimilitude make charges of lying ever easier to evade because undeniable, unavoidable proof of deliberate, material deception tantalizes us: this distortion, that spin, a cunning ruse, some play on words, mis¬use of words, sound bites, sloganeering, statements not intended to be factual, double¬talk without meaning or truth-value, doublethink without awareness, and a host of other political devices forestall or foredoom attempts to characterize expressions as truly true or truly false. And, in the less and less likely event that charges of lying stick, penal¬ties for lying are minimal. While the forces that we have analyzed in this paper seem to us to shield the pseudocracy from ready reforms, some responses may be more sensible than others.

Our first advice is to ration your exposure to news media and new media. We think Pro-fes¬sor Ellul was correct to argue that close attention to mass media and popular cul¬ture ex¬poses individuals and collectivities to “isolation within the masses.” As individuals we are too easily seduced or silenced by themes that suffuse public spaces. We tend to suc-cumb to what everybody knows; in an age of propagandizing, mass media, mass market-ing, and the permanent campaign, we succumb to many talking points that we should de-ny if we thought about them [and if the stunting of thought were not the aim of many talk¬¬ing points]. Do not make yourself a news or current events junkie. We think as well that Professor Sunstein was and is correct to argue that new media, especially new media that isolate users/consumers, exacerbate the tendencies to both desensitization and sensi-tiza¬tion that we mentioned above. What William Shatner said to Trekkies in a skit on “Saturday Night Live” we say to our readers [if we have any by this point]: “Get a life!” Push back from the desktop computer and put away the iPhone.

Our second advice qualifies our first. In cyberspace or conventional channels, attend more to debunking and deconstructing of news, mass media, marketing, campaigning, and propagandas than to news, mass media, marketing, campaigning, and propagandas. If your job, lifestyle, or interest demands that you “follow” news, you will pick up enough from arguments about news events and recycled rhetoric to keep up around the water cooler. “NewsBusters” and its patron the Media Research Center strive to expose liberal or left-leaning bias in mass media. Whatever your inclinations regarding “the lib-eral media” or “the lamestream media,” you certainly may use NewsBusters to monitor the most persuasive cases to be made for one sort of propagandas, truthiness, or misin¬for-ma¬tion. A small set of fact-checkers and truth-tellers should alert you to some con¬tro¬ver-sies and thereby induce you to suspend judgments. We have already endorsed “The Daily Show” and other satiric sources above. Whatever choices you make, you should respond more skeptically toward arguments and opinions that spring from sources you temperamentally or politically favor than toward those that spring from sources you al-ready lean toward questioning.

Our third advice follows from our first two palliatives: use new media to alleviate some pseudocracy. Since the Internet and other new media exacerbate your isolation amid var-i¬ous masses and subject you to reciprocating sensitization and desensitization, let sel¬ected cyber-media ameliorate the false and the fallacious. For example, when elec¬tronic media permit audience members to comment or respond to pundits or other opin¬ion lea¬ders, the dialectics often edify. Ignore the polls on CNN or “Morning Joe” in favor of com-ments at websites affiliated with newspapers, broadcasts, or new media. Read Nate Silver or “The Monkey Cage” or other sources of information that has been vetted for ve-ra¬city. Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, and other bloggers have reputations at stake when they blog and so are worth your time more than hacks selected for their shame¬less ways.

The three bits of advice above are the best that we can manage in a world in which “we” all just make shit up from time to time. With those bits of advice we the coauthors now stop making shit up for now.

Main Points, Revisited, of Orwell’s Famous Essay

In a variety of venues, my co-blogger Wild Bill and I have been pointing out the degree to which George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” has some problems and is often remembered (we argue) for the wrong reasons—namely, some points about such things as using foreign words and using the passive voice. We think it deserves to be remembered more for its major point, or premise, which is that political language, broadly defined, and other kinds of official language can harm people’s thinking, people’s capacity to analyze, and that this harm, in turn, can further make language more slippery.

We don’t imagine our critique of the weak parts of the essay will or could damage its stature, nor is that our aim. We do imagine that it is possible to line up the stature with what we think is really good and often missed about the essay.
That said, my purpose in this post is to summarize Orwell’s major points and put the minor ones in proper proportion, and I realize “major,” “minor,” and “proper proportion” are arguable.

Anyway, here goes:

Orwell’s main points, with some interpretation:

1. English is “in a bad way” because it’s been abused—sorry about the passive voice, George—by writers and speakers engaged in or affected by politics, which is by nature deceptive. (Orwell concentrates on writers, not speakers.)

2. I think what Orwell means by “the English language” is really public discourse in the form of political speeches, comments by punditry, political ads, and so on. That is, I’m not sure politics or anything but extinction can put “the English language” in its totality in a bad way. English exists and evolves, a protean phenomenon. People use it well or badly or just all right. It’s language in the public arena that’s in trouble—according to Orwell.

3. The misuses of English affect how people analyze writing and speech, how they interpret information, and how they make decision. That is, bad use of the language can lead to bad concrete effects such as terrible decisions and severely misinformed, badly duped citizens. The situation may become a spiral.

About those who use the language badly, often on purpose but sometimes just through bad habits, not malevolence:

1. Insincere people use it to deceive other people, to make bad things sound okay, and to delay doing the right thing. Orwell pins responsibility on insincerity. His version of “make bad things sound okay” is to make murder seem respectable (my paraphrase). A more current example is the description of torture as “enhanced techniques of interrogation.”
2. One main deception is to hide responsibility, according to Orwell. “Mistakes were made” is a classic example, one in which the passive voice does indeed hide “the agent,” the one who made the mistake.
3. Sometimes the misuse springs more from laziness and carelessness than it does from insincerity. You know the degree to which we all, including journalists, pundits, those who work in governmental and corporate communication, politicians, academics, and “public intellectuals” (like academics who go on TV) get careless or lazy.
What does Orwell mean by this alleged misuse/abuse of English?

Specifically, he mentions things like clichés, dead metaphors (metaphors we’ve heard and seen a million times, such as “you can’t teach a dog new tricks), ready-made phrases (like the tired, hyperbolic phrase I just used, “a million times”).

As noted, he doesn’t like the passive voice, although he uses it quite a bit in the essay.

He doesn’t like foreign words/phrases because he thinks people use them to sound important or smart, to puff themselves up by puffing up their rhetoric.

He doesn’t like euphemisms (“enhanced techniques of interrogation”).

He doesn’t like specialized words—jargon.

This last part—specific alleged abuses that Orwell doesn’t like—is where Wild Bill and I think Orwell’s case is weak. For example, writers and speakers can use the passive voice and still be clear and have sincere motives, and they can use it and still pinpoint responsibility. Also, sometimes specialized words are fine, as are foreign words. Sometimes you need a specialized word or term, such as voi dire, to be precise. Same goes for foreign words/terms, like schadenfreude. We get his larger point about puffing up rhetoric, but we think he makes too much of some examples. Sometimes even metaphors that have been around a long time work fine, such as trying to teach an old dog new tricks.

We have two more objections that are related to the point above and that we think amount to a more significant critique. Let’s put the first in the form of a rhetorical question. George, is it really the passive voice and foreign words that have made the language of politics, political advertising, political journalism, and political punditry & partisanship so awful?

A second objection: is lack of clarity or directness always the main problem? For instance, when a candidate says, “I want to create jobs,” he or she is being clear and pithy. The problem is that the statement is empty. Another problem is that when, for instance, Newt Gingrich, echoing Romney’s economic “plan,” says (I paraphrase), “Yeah, some teachers and fire-fighters are going to lose their jobs—tough break”– and roughly 50% of the citizenry metaphorically nods in agreement. Too many teaching and fire-fighting jobs—that really the big economic problem? Cuts there are really the solution?

But let’s not get hung up on the policy-stuff or on GOPers v. Dems.

The point is that Romney, Gingrich, Obama, and politicians from across the spectrum often speak/write directly and clearly and still deceive. Now, it may be that fuzzy, slippery language helped to soften up some of the citizens so that they’re less likely to say, “Hey, wait a minute—that doesn’t make sense.” We grant that Orwell may be right about that. But in the specific instance, an absence of clarity isn’t the problem.

What to do, as a writer, not to get on Orwell’s enemies-list:

Make yourself write clearly, but of course keep the rhetorical situation in mind: the purposes and audience of what you’re writing. For instance, Wild Bill may write something in a political science article that seems unclear to me but only because I’m not part of his intended audience. People in his line of work will read what I read and in no way think it’s unclear.

Work on eliminating bad habits. Be less lazy and careless as you write and especially as you revise. When you revise, be kind of tough on yourself–but not pathologically so. It’s possible to get so compulsive you can’t get your work done.

Keep in check any lurking desires to “sound” smarter or more important than you really are. If you’re using writing or speaking to deceive and you know the deception to be wrong (sometimes deception is not wrong), check yourself. Say, “All right, I’m being a bull-shitter here, it’s not right, and I’d better go back and get rid of the bullshit”

Sure, clichés, jargon, stock phrases, and euphemisms may come up in your writing and make it less clear, precise, and honest. If so, edit them out. But other types of words and phrases may cause more problems than these, so don’t treat Orwell’s examples as gospel, or a s formula. Think for yourself.

C.S. Lewis on Writing

Below appear some tips on writing that C.S. Lewis offered to a young aspiring writer–in a letter, which is in C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Children.

“Always” and “Never” will bother many writers and readers, just because most of us have encountered appropriate exceptions. Otherwise, this list might well be viewed as a kinder, gentler, crisper version of Orwell’s advice; but see what you think:

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
2.Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
3.Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
4.In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.”
5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Coda: A friend of the blog, Newt Gingrich, could stand to ponder #5, what with his compulsive use of “frankly,” “astonishingly,” “radically,” “extra-ordinarily,” and so on.

Rickles and Miller

Dennis Miller has developed an interesting persona–the hip reactionary. It seems to have worked for him, as his resume is varied and undoubtedly remunerative. Sometimes I do wonder if he wonders whether working with/for Bill O’Reilly (for example) is, at some level, embarrassing.

His act, which I guess now is not an act, seems to depend on his being the smartest, glibbest person in the room, the guy who unloads a barge of allusions, is never caught off balance but keeps other people off balance.

It was interesting, then, to run across this video of Dennis Miller’s hosting of Don Rickles, who seems to intimidate Miller, throw him off balance, and expose some insecurities–all by subtly implying “who do you think you are”? Beneath the banter, a lot of rhetorical jousting seems to be occurring:


Salazar’s Answer to Sanders Gushes

In a recent senatorial hearing, Senator Bernie Sanders asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar whether a savings of 3 cents per gallon of gas in 2030 [the estimated effect of oil produced from offshore drilling on market-costs] is worth the risks of off-shore drilling and whether the Obama administration will now re-institute a moratorium on offshore drilling. The answers were yes and no–I think–but they showed up only after a rhetoric pipeline gushed verbiage for 5 minutes of the 6-minute video. Also, raising MPG standards to 35 MPG would, according to Sanders, save a buck a gallon by 2030. Anyway, listen to the bureau-rhetorical leak if you dare:


Incidentally, what Bush II policies hasn’t President Obama supported? –Not a rhetorical question, just one to which I don’t have a ready answer.

Political Scandal

The word “scandal” has a more complicated etymology than one might expect. Briefly, it was even used as a verb–in the way we use “scandalize”–around the 13th century.

From the OED online, here is a definition with which we’re familiar:

3. a. A grossly discreditable circumstance, event, or condition of things.

But it can also refer to false imputation–“mere rumor.” In legal language, it appears to refer to kinds of slander and libel.

Political “controversy” seems to mutate into political “scandal” when someone or some force, like the press, establishes a lie: Watergate; Clinton vis a vis Lewinsky; Larry Craig; Mark Sanford.

When does a scandal, however, mutate into a career-ending precipitating event? Amid all the potential correlatives, one simple factor may obtain: the votes, literally and figuratively. Nixon was going to lose the vote in impeachment, and he’d lost the figurative vote among his supporters, such as Attorneys General and Republican Senators. Clinton was not going to lose the vote in impeachment. The Senate was not going to push out Craig, and apparently not enough voters were so disgusted by Sanford’s behavior to recall him (assuming recall is possible in the state).

If we the people have become inured to political scandal, perhaps we can be understood if not forgiven: politicians are shameless, and media thrive on attempting to shame them: a beautiful friendship. Thus politicians will almost always try to survive the scandal through crisis-management and/or denial, and media will be tempted to generate a scandal even when one may not be there. Weary, we watch the spectacle but are not scandalized.

Much that occurred on Bush’s and Cheney’s watch might qualify as scandalous: Cheney’s meeting with cronies from the energy industry; torture; revealing the identity of a spy; lying about WMD and Al Qaeda/Iraq connections. But Bush and Cheney never paid a cost for any, all, and other scandals. Arguably, the GOP paid a price later, but (for example) if McCain had been a better candidate with a better campaign, he might well have defeated Obama in spite of Bush-baggage.

The same goes for Clinton’s “sex scandal”; he didn’t pay the ultimate professional cost.

That for each of these scandals, a mountain of counter-rhetoric quickly grew, may help to account for the lessened impact and consequences of each. Thus many think Cheney was right to claim executive privilege and not release notes; “waterboarding isn’t really torture”–it’s an “enhanced interrogation technique” [calling George Orwell!]; Joe Wilson was really at fault, and Rove slips through the prosecutor’s fingers; “the best intelligence” suggested there were WMD; Clinton was lying just about sex, and the Republicans persistently hunted him, so let him stay in office; and so on. For Republicans, FOX News often serves as a counter-rhetoric generator, and Clinton had plenty of defenders (including Geraldo Rivera regarding the alleged Arkansas land-scandal).

After Watergate, the politicians seem to have gotten a lot better at playing the scandal-game; indeed, they turned it into a game, one we watch.

Bad Writing Contest

The journal Philosophy and Literature (Johns Hopkins) ran a bad writing “contest” for a few years in the 1990s.   Of course, there weren’t entrants, per se, so it wasn’t like the Bulwer-Lytton parody contest or the Hemingway contest.

I assume people just sent in “nominations.”  (Here is a link to the site.)  And as you might assume, the contest was for allegedly bad academic writing.  One of the “winners” was noted literary and cultural theorist Judith Butler:

“Professor Butler’s first-prize sentence appears in “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics (1997)”:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Indeed, anyone unfamiliar with this kind of humanistic theoretical writing would be correct to respond, “Huh?”   So let’s grant that Butler is writing for a specialized audience. I imagine a piece of writing from a journal outside my discipline might flummox me but seem transparent to those in the field.

At the same time, there are problems, I’d argue, with Butler’s prose here that can’t be accounted for in terms of specialization or “necessary difficulty.”

One problem is the length of the sentence.  Butler could easily have revised it into three sentences; pacing itself often assists the reader.  For example, would “According to structuralist theory, capital structures social relations” be less accurate (but more easily understood) than what she wrote?

Also, “homologous” means “corresponding in structure,” so we have structuralism claiming capital structures relations in structurally corresponding ways.  That’s probably too dizzyingly redundant.

Another problem: the gap between “the move” (a vague term) and its verb, “brought” is just to great.  Break up that sentence and you solve the problem without  sacrificing anything.  Make the gap narrower.

And to bring “the question of temporality into the thinking of structure” confuses–even when the sentence is in context.  “The question of temporality” could mean anything–even in context.  And “the thinking of structure” sounds as if structure is thinking, when in fact I think Butler is discussing thoughts about structure.

“A form of Althusserian theory”: I guess that’s okay, for specialists.

It seems to me that Butler contrasts a fixed idea of power-structures with a changing idea of power-structures, and that the latter (power structures) change because things (such as place, time, and strategy) change.

However, Butler enthusiasts and theorists like her might well and legitimately accuse me of oversimplifying what she wrote.  I cheerfully acknowledge that I may have done that.  At the same time, it’s probably true that writing like this is often unnecessarily difficult, even as we acknowledge the difficulty of the subject and the specialization of the audience.

Anyway, academic writing’s easy to mock; even academics think so.

And if George Orwell thought Harold Laski’s writing was bad, imagine what he’d think of Butler’s. Yikes.

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