The Decay of the Art of Lying

Portrait of Mark Twain ca. 1905 owned by the Mark Twain Library in Redding CT, by Terry Ballard

by Professor S. Clements, Chair of Ozology, Agloe, NY

Essay, for discussion, read at a meeting of the Skull and Bones Club of Haarvaard, Boston, Mass., and offered for the three hundred thousand dollar prize, now first published.  [1]

Obviously, lying isn’t dying out. Even the most cursory check by the most careless nincompoop will find that the universal custom of lying is alive and well. As the Sage of Calaveras County reminded us, “…the Lie, as a Virtue, a Principle, is eternal; the Lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man’s best and surest friend, is immortal, and cannot perish from the earth ….” We are eternally indebted to the Sage’s profound insight and professional zeal.

Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi

Since Twain’s times, mankind has been the soul of diligence and industry, developing ever more excellent ways to doublespeak, distort, hype, misinform, mislead, mis-speak, sex-up, spin, overstate, understate, puff, rationalize and economize/stretch/twist the truth, The Sage would marvel at the burgeoning of the humble telegraph: acquiring a voice with the telephone, taking flight as radio waves, fusing Greek with Latin in order to draw in pictures, all to provide more and better ways to inform the general public about winning jackpots, the best car deals, and elixirs still not subject to FDA approval. He would gawp at the industry – which would humble the builders of The Pyramids – which has gifted the common man with the tools for truth adjustment, with its crowning achievement: Facebook.

So, given this sublime pinnacle of endeavor, what have I to complain about? What is so special about our current times? Why is there “a decay in the art of lying?” It is simply this: No educated person, no one well-traveled and familiar with the finer things in life could “contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted.” Our age is now described as one of “post-truth.” Apparently, truth has been optimized and upgraded to lo-cal truthiness. The fiction that most of the time most people, politicians and car salesmen included, tell the truth is finally exposed as a callow fiction. Could this be true? Is this like the Space Race, some moment, some small step which has been set in history never to be repeated?

The Libration of Paris

The Libration of Paris

Now the children are abed, we can all agree: not in the least. The Lie is a Necessity, an Understanding, a Facilitation, a recreation and is Eternal; application does not wither her, nor custom stale. Many examples worthy of superlatives have slipped passed into dusty forgetfulness and as for truthiness, this too shall pass. After all, previous ages have gifted us such great legacies of lying. Who can forget the creativity evinced by Indulgences of the medieval church, the peace accords made with Native Americans, the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, the benefits of the British Empire, or De Gaulle’s liberation of Paris? And what of the good Doctor Goebbels, and his breathtaking achievements?

Has the use of the euphemism, the fig leaf of propriety, fallen from fashion? We have more than enough to cover the embarrassment of members of all parties, persuasions, and proclivities: you may “hike the Appalachian Trail”, “discuss Uganda”, adopt a “wide stance”, have the “utilizzatore finale”, “watch badgers”, “slip your moorings”, and although one may not have “inhaled” nor “had sex” the public feels she certainly swallowed.

Bernie Madoff, By U.S. Department of Justice

Bernie Madoff, By U.S. Department of Justice

The fecund field of finance has always been a profitable venue for lying. In recent years, it has benefited from scientific advances in confabulation, theprinciple being an arcane, redundant vocabulary which includes a lot of numbers and now mathematical inscriptions. This gives any fiduciary pronouncement an aura of science and certainty. Who can forget the masterpieces of Enron, Madoff’s marvels, or the creative opportunities offered by mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations? Nothing says a job well done than a $134.1 million golden parachute.

Science, the objective search to understand the universe and everything within it, has had its fair share of shady hypotheses: the four humors, the Martian canals, the racial inferiority of anyone not male, white, and educated at a fine university like this. Now science is big governance and big business, there is all the more reason to bend the rules, trim the results, overestimate a success. The title of a paper by John Ioannidis is suggestive: “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”. The central tenant of the scientific method is that “the facts, ma’am,” can be shown to be true by someone other than the proposer. That is reproducibility. Two papers studying reproducibility in psychology show that between a third and two-thirds are – how does one say – unproven, ranging from not wholly true to pure invention. It is worse in pharmaceuticals. Of the 74 antidepressants licensed by the FDA only 37 have positive clinical trials. Most (60%) new drugs licensed by the FDA do not have published clinical trials, at all. This opens the door to a wonderful new variant on the “silent lie” so prized by the Sage. Isn’t a relief to know that a member of the legal profession will be on hand should you be maimed or die as a result?

Tonkin Gulf incident

Tonkin Gulf incident

On the other hand, maybe some small step for mankind in the progress of lying has been achieved. Once, the explosive sinking of a warship and well timed news reportage could justify a war. Then it required two ships. Lately, inflation has set in, so a warship plus an embassy just didn’t do. It required a spectacular demolition to move the people onto a warlike footing, and, even then, it required a little bunk and hokum about yellow cake uranium to get the show on the road. Once this was achieved though, the people were touchingly believing in the President’s insistence that Saddam Hussein was an architect of 9/11. Neither did it seem strange that the incumbent President’s dad and Shafig bin Laden, brother of Osman, were together in New York on 9/10/2001. Do you believe Americans will support President Trump in his war? Would the generals be happy should he walk away from a NATO commitment to defend say Lithuania? I feel that we can no longer feel confident that a crisis containing the nuclear option would put the country on a war footing again, although no doubt our friends in the Kremlin would help if it were to their advantage. There is always the possibly of things going awry or valuable humans being like us being hurt.

Then there is the thrice-accursed Internet. Once, the wide spread dissemination of corrected news was limited to those with means and education. Everybody was entitled to their opinions, and we told them so, knowing that those opinions mattered little without ownership of at least a television station. Then the hippies struck. These wretches with their libertarian ideology created the Internet. The old expedient of looking at the letters to the editor is long gone. Ignoramuses, trolls, luddites and people of sense play as equals on the fracking field of the World Wide Web. It is also full of sink holes and silos from whence who-knows-what may erupt. Anybody can publish confabulated news and swing elections (so they say), and we can only shudder that possibilities which a world stage might be used by iron souled truth mongers.

Lying also seems to be in trouble when it comes to the fiction of politeness. Cowboys, samurai and Scottish highlanders were extremely polite. This is unsurprising when multiple means of ready death were easily available and those who might take insult well practiced in the use of those aforesaid means. Ladies who take tea were also carefully polite because of an iron etiquette and long memories. As Twain himself writes, “Is it justifiable? Most certainly. It is beautiful, it is noble. …they had a thousand pleasant ways of lying, that grew out of gentle impulses, and were a credit to their intelligence and an honor to their hearts. Let the particulars go.” Men, too, were courteous to a point although “Their mere howdy-do was a lie” and more likely meant “I wish you were with the cannibals and it was dinner time.” We are now thrust into a time when no political speech is complete without bleepable cuss words. Stupidity and cupidity are considered badges of virtue, much as, once upon a time, a holy man needs be filthy and wracked with fleas. The possibility looms that a viral video will become more influential than a White House briefing. Or worse, profitable agreements made by our kind of people may have to be shared. I’m aware of the efforts being made to tame this unruly sprawl, but we should ask how an elite can maintain its coherence and authenticity?

We now see the costs of allowing the art of lying to descend to such a level. A cost not measured by the trifles which inspire the common people – loyalty, country, community, and so on – but the only thing that counts, hard cash. Unshackled from truth, lies belong to anyone, and authenticity becomes as illusory as a quiet night out at a musical. But not all is lost and no doubt you are all aware of the challenges of the next four years. Indeed, I feel as the Sage did all those years ago, “like an old maid trying to teach nursery matters to the mothers in Israel.”  I think it only fit to finish as Twain did is his masterpiece “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”, “Joking aside, I think there is much need of wise examination into what sorts of lies are best and wholesomest to be indulged, seeing we must all lie and do all lie, and what sorts it may be best to avoid, and this is a thing which I feel I can confidently put into the hands of this experienced Club,–a ripe body, who may be termed, in this regard, and without undue flattery, Old Masters.”

[1] Took this pin money.


The Featured Image: Portrait of Mark Twain ca. 1905 owned by the Mark Twain Library in Redding CT, by Terry Ballard.

Silvio_Berlusconi_(2010), By Silvio_Berlusconi_(2010).jpg: derivative work: Off2riorob (Silvio_Berlusconi_(2010).jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The_Liberation_of_Paris%2C_25_-_26_August_1944_HU66477.jpg, See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

BernardMadoff.jpg, By U.S. Department of Justice [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tonkin_Gulf_incident_track_chart_of_alleged_attacks_on_4_August_1964, By U.S. Navy. Post-work Cobatfor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Albatross: Refuge from the Craziness

Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) by David Cook

My, we have had a crazy week, yet the world is not quite as mad as it was one hundred years ago. Here are a wonderful song and a wonderful poem both entitled Albatross to empower your copin’ and enhance your chillin’. Love, Robert.



The Featured Image is called Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) by David Cook in West Point Island, Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). You can find it on Flickr.


Belgium is boring?

Brugge - Bruges – Brujas by Javier Díaz Barrera
cone full o' fries with mayo, Amsterdam style

cone full o’ fries with mayo, Amsterdam style

Belgium is boring. Lots of people say so. True, it has big neighbors. To the south is France, home to Paris fashions and the Cannes film festival. To the east is Germany where they make some of the world’s best cars. But Belgium boring, I don’t think so, not for a minute. Why’s that you might say. Let me tell you then.

To my mind the most important reason is food. It was in Belgium that the humble potato became the ポテトフライ, the French fry or in English English, the chip. There it was perfected. May I recommend a trip to Antoine’s, the best chip shop in the world and choose a cone of frites topped with the traditional Belgian sauce, mayonnaise.

Then there’s chocolate. Belgium is famous for chocolate. There are over 30 chocolate makers is Belgium including Godiva, Neuhaus, Leonidas, My favorites are Wittamer and Marco Piccolini. Both of them have shops and cafés on Sablon square. And I used to drive through that square everyday!

Good belgian chocolates or pralines by Boris & Co

Good belgian chocolates or pralines by Boris & Co

There is a reason Belgian chocolate is so good. It’s because chocolate is fermented like beer. And it so happens that Belgians are brilliant beer brewers. They make light beers, dark syrupy beers, beers like lemonade, beers made from cherries, made from raspberries and even from bananas.

So, whenever I went to Brussels, which you know is the capital of Belgium, I would pop into the best bar in the world. It is called Le Greenwich and it’s very special. It’s a chess pub. There is always someone there who will give you a game. Sometimes people will crowd around a particularly good one. There are even Russian grand masters who play there.

No art then? There’s oodles of art. The Surrealist painter Magritte lived and worked in the working-class district of Anderlech in north of Brussels. It amuses me to think of this famous painter and his wife chatting with his neighbors. Anderlech, like many working-class areas, has a famous football team. It is also home to a strange sculpture called Atomium. Brussels also has a cartoon/manga museum, home to the Belgian hero Tin-tin and his rocket. It has an enormous book shop full of cartoon books from many different countries.

Magritte-Museum_Brussels_20080531_1 by I say, have a cup of tea

Magritte-Museum_Brussels by I say, have a cup of tea

But the real gems of Belgium are the beautiful Art Nouveau houses. My favorites surround the fountains of Place Ambiorix. This most elegant of styles is based on designs taken from living things. The best examples were designed by Victor Horta. This style was copied in buildings in lots of other countries, for example the Chrysler skyscraper in New York or the Paris Metro.

Brussels is home to several international organizations, the European Union and NATO. This is a little odd as the country is deeply divided between the northern part where they speak a kind of Dutch and the southern part where they speak French.

Tassel House stairway By Henry Townsend, Wikimedia Commons

Tassel House stairway By Henry Townsend, Wikimedia Commons

In the northern part are the beautiful old towns of Ghent and Bruges and Antwerp. Antwerp was the home of the famous painter Rubens. It is also the diamond capital of the world. Ninety eight percent of all the diamonds in the world are traded in Antwerp. It was also where the biggest bank robbery ever happened. The thieves, who had nicknames like the Monster and the King of Keys, stole a hundred billion euros worth of diamonds. Perhaps, the mastermind who is now in jail says it was an insurance scam.

I particularly love the southern part though. I’ve spent wonderful summer holidays there. My many friends and I lived in a wooden house in Walsort sur la Meuse for a few weeks. It is sweet and slightly sad memory.

Thank you for listening to me.

Featured Image: Brugge – Bruges – Brujas by  Javier Díaz Barrera

Welcome from America

High Five Interchange. Dallas, TX

Howdie, Y’all

I’ve finally made it to Texas and just before the 4th of July, too. The day was commemorated in a traditional manner: cold beer drunk while standing neck-deep in the pool; barbecue, steaks, potato salad, and more beer; fireworks put on by the city, downtown. The town in question is the capital of Texas, the state of six flags, home to Dell, live music Mecca, and host to SXSW, and is known to the world by the name of Austin.

Now, Texas is defined in the English mind by TV shows (Bonanza, Dallas), a green knoll overlooked by a book depository, and Presidents by the name of Johnson – the show off – and two by the name Bush – George and George Walker, but that is Texas not Austin. It might be fair to say that the Texas proper and Austin are barely on speaking terms. The Big Oil of Dallas and Houston might disparage Austin as a homespun hippydom , replete with Mexican supermarkets, numerous bookstores and a cool public swimming pool. Austin, however is growing like Topsy, which along with the right and/or requirement for every man and most women to own a seven liter truck whose name needs a deep gravelly voice to say right, means roads.

Roads in Austin have aliases: Loop 1 or Mopac Expressway, Ben White is also 71, Research Boulevard AKA 183, Ed Bluestein Boulevard and Anderson Lane. Out in the Hill Country there are still the dirt tracks of yore but hereabouts the main thoroughfares are full value 3rd generation concrete cadenzas, along one of which I am bowling to work, today. There are no roundabouts, so 1st generation. Turn left at the lights and on the freeway; immediately, the inside lane morphs into an exit only lane and a new lane segues in from the right. I mirror, signal and wait patiently to sidle over and zipper, aiming my little car with the side mirrors to miss the Ram trucks –its torque best in class, the 18 wheeler Mac trucks and all the other Jurassic vehicles.

Do this once more, and the morphed-into-exit-lane karooms up and over another aerial slipway, slaloms into another and dives into a six lane parking lot. Yup, I like Texas. Although there is a lot of lively folk here, just up the road there are just a few and the city lights give way to the wonder of the night sky.

Then “A Horse with No Name” by America starts playing over the radio. Another place, another time comes and says howdy. Listen to the video. No trickery or electronic gizmos, just guitar and voice, and just sublime.


The Dragonfly

blue-eyed darner hovering over lily pads

     Close to Lyra’s seat
a sandy cinder path leads through
an early autumnal cool
of blown beeches laced
with the scent of corruption.
The split shot of mica blue darts,
its helicopter body zigzagging
like a deranged pinball,
held aloft by pulses of air,
the gossamer flight gels
into a fine grey Möbius strip.

(Lyra is the heroine in Philip Pullman’s wonderful
trilogy Dark Materials.
The featured image is “blue-eyed darner hovering over lily pads” by
Andrew Reding)