Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Friday, April 07, 2006

  Don't trust a liar

For about two years I've thought of writing a diary along these lines, though I've always held back because my point is pretty well summed up by the chosen title. Frankly, my take on the matter is not profound or new. It is, however, methodical.

I'm speaking of this from the perspective of a professional ancient historian. Our graduate training focuses on how to interpret sources that are, at best, barely satisfactory and, at worst, outright liars. Perhaps more than any other branch of history, we emphasize developing a methodical approach to sources. One of the fundamental rules of this science of interpretation is, simply, not to trust proven liars.

The unraveling of GOP support for George Bush has provided a good occasion to state this seemingly obvious point in some detail. The front-page stories in the Washington Post and New York Times today, reporting that George Bush authorized leaks of classified intelligence in order to harm a political opponent's reputation, once again call into question Bush's honesty. Last year, with the publication of the Downing Street memo, it became and has remained one of the central issues of the day.

Consider for example this diary by mcjoan, wherein she highlights comments by John Murtha on Face the Nation a month ago:

"Why would I believe him [General Peter Pace]?" he said. "This administration, including the president, has mischaracterized this war for the last two years ... So why would I believe the chairman of the Joint Chiefs when he says things are going well?"

It's pretty striking when Murtha, a retired Marine, implies that the top-ranking Marine general is a liar. I've denounced General Pace before as a prime facilitator for Rumsfeld and Bush, so I won't spend any time on him here. Murtha was reacting to Pace's absured dissimulation on Meet the Press that same morning.

"I do not believe it has deep roots," Pace said of the insurgency. "I do not believe that they're on the verge of civil war."

At the same time, there was an interesting editorial in the Seattle Times, Heck of a job, Mr. President, which begins

The Bush administration has a substantial credibility problem. Things it says turn out not to be true. Again and again.

Well, yes. But politicians and journalists rarely follow the implication of that fact through to the ultimate conclusion; John Murtha's comments are even more striking because he's nearly alone among prominent public voices in stating that liars lack credibility. Similarly, the Seattle editorial is worth attention because of how far it fell short of its initial promise, petering out as it does with a mere distraction from the central issue:

President Bush is great at sales, but he cannot deliver a product...

This is wrongheaded in so many ways. All salesman are not liars, nor vice versa. Bush's problem is not really that he sells the public on his policies. It involves many interrelated personal failings: ignorance, arrogance, laziness, incompetence, and inferiority prominent among them.

But in any event, why does the Seattle paper lead with the basic and easily verified charge that Bush & Co. have lied again and again, only to avoid stating what should be done about it? A rhetorical question, whose answer should be clear by now:

The logical conclusion from the kind of observation made by the editors in Seattle appears to be so severe--and it is--that many a journalist will whistle right past it. Indeed, until recently very few journalists were willing even to start down that road at all. We all know that the road runs right by the graveyard where political reputations lie buried. One must never give in to curiosity and turn in at the cemetary...otherwise, there might be the tiresome and thankless job of digging the actual grave. Better to take the long, scenic route around, the one with the country-clubs.

As a kid, I enjoyed cemetaries. Actually. Spent a lot of time reading inscriptions, morbid child that I was. So I don't recoil from graveyards, real or metaphorical.

And as an historian, I know better than to recoil from the logical implications of our method for interpreting sources of information. I recognize that one of the main grounds for developing such a method is that it leads us, even compels us, toward logical conclusions we might not always be willing to make. It forces our hand, so to speak, in order to eliminate illegitimate areas of dispute and to concentrate discussion instead on issues where legitimate disagreements may remain.

Methodical approaches to sources are essential in ancient history partly because:

(i) we have so few sources

(ii) they often contradict each other or fall afoul of apparent facts

(iii) they are transmitted to us by obscure paths

(iv) many of them have strong but uncertain biases about the issues they present.

(v) sources competed for attention and recognition against each other.

(vi) thus it paid to express certainty about even the most uncertain subjects, and whenever necessary, to undercut any other accounts that already existed.

There's more I could say about the problems in source-interpretation, but these are some of the most basic problems that historians confront as the price of admission into the arcana of the ancient world. You'll see immediately how closely this relates to the problem of interpreting what the Bush adminsitration tells us.

Let's take the first point: We have few sources for antiquity. That means we are unduly reliant upon every source that offers itself to us upon a given subject. We can be wildly misled by a single, bad source.

We could fall into the trap--as so many journalists do who are desperate to maintain access to sources inside the administration--of making it a policy of believing whatever our sources tell us. It is very, verrrrrry easy to stitch together intriguing narratives about the ancient world on that basis (and many hacks do just that). Inconvenient facts can be shunted aside into the backwaters of the ancient world, or woven so tightly into the master narrative that their incongruity is all but obscured.

If they're any good at all, ancient historians have to learn when to toss a source aside as useless--and then actully do the painful deed. Few things are more embarrassing in this field than to be caught in the act of special pleading for a source that is discredited. You've got to give it a shove, right off a cliff, and not look back.

It is especially critical when that is the only source for a given subject. Yes, if you've determined that a source is unreliable, then you're bound to ignore it (at least on the subjects it's unreliable about) even or especially when you've no other sources to fill in the gap. To do anything else invites endless trouble. Experience has shown over and over, that when you rely upon sources that are known to be dicy in your reconstruction of the ancient world, you typically end up with a big mess. It's far better to do entirely without unreliable sources, than to risk allowing yourself to be confused.

What kinds of sources are known to be unreliable? This is a complex issue that I don't need to discuss in any detail. Some sources can be found to be fairly reliable in some areas but not in others, for example. The spectrum of source problems is very broad, and therefore there are a range of approaches to using those sources.

But at one end of that spectrum are sources that should not be used for anything, unless their evidence is confirmed independently by other sources. And even then, caution is needed. These are the sources that have been shown to be dishonest. In other words, "Do not trust a liar" is a pillar of ancient historical method.

Consider the last of the six points I outlined above. A Greek or Roman author was unlikely to be read much, and thus unlikely to be passed on to subsequent generations, unless he presented something new or remarkable. That encouraged people to make things up (and they lived in a world with poor documentation, where it was relatively easier to get away with making things up). Our ancient sources are rife with false assertions and fake documents, many of them vouched for quite aggressively.

The historian gets nowhere without a willingness to pitch aside sources that prove unreliable. The ancient confabulator gets branded as such, and everybody of sense ignores what he says. To do anything else would preclude any possibility of progress; we'd never get anywhere near the truth about anything if we wasted time discussing the merits of testimony from proven liars.

That is a long way of saying that those who have thought about the issue methodically (and many other disciplines of course adopt similar methods), have come to the same conclusion as your grandmother: You can't trust a liar.

Not about this, not about that, not about anything. Otherwise, you're inviting trouble.

Anybody skilled enough to attain the Presidency ought to know that once the public or Congress decides a President has lost his credibility, his innings are over. He is likely to be ignored, and can have nobody else to blame for that.

My point in this diary is simply that George Bush must not be trusted. That is what the truth requires. It is a prerequisite of making any further progress in this nation.

Even if he continues to reside in the White House for several years, he must never be trusted again. It is a distraction we cannot afford. And we must say this over and over again, until journalists and politicians are willing to admit what grandmothers, and ancient historians hanging out in cemetaries, and, really, nearly everybody of sense already acknowledges.

It is not open to debate, how one treats a liar's statements. That has been determined by a scientific method. Let's insist on applying it.


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