Mars attacks!

Rumsfeld eats his words

Quite apropos of my Times article I blogged about above — which suggests that our machine age is making it harder for people to get away with lies — there’s a funny video of Donald Rumsfeld circulating the Internet. It’s a recent appearance on Face the Nation, in which he claims neither he nor the president ever used the phrase “immediate threat” to describe Saddam Hussein. (The context, I believe, is his increasing attempts to get away from the WMD justification for war.)

The Face the Nation guys immediately confront Rumsfeld with his own direct quotes from last year, in which he used the precise phrase “immediate threat”. One of them is:

“No terror state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world than the regime of Saddam Hussein.”

I don’t know how the heck they pulled up that quote so quickly, but I suspect the show’s producers sit there with the Nexis newspaper database open, allowing them to instantly fact-check anything that comes out a guest’s mouth — and then instantly display evidence if the person is lying. Either way, the point remains the same: In a world where more and more text, audio and video is being constantly and permanently archived, mere lying doesn’t work as well any more.

By “mere” lying, I mean “saying one thing and then later claiming you said no such thing.” That level of deception simply isn’t as possible now. But another style — what you could call “hegemonic lying” — is alive and well: Lying in which you do not explicitly deny what you’ve previously said, but merely claim that nothing in the past matters at all, because you are ultimately a trustworthy person. You simply proclaim your honorability and decency over and over and over again, making it your sole message, and refusing to engage or debate any particular facts that might dispute this. That is the Bush administration’s main strategy in this campaign, and it works quite well, since it plays to the ahistoricism of the American mind. Actually, these days, it’s getting worse and worse: Politicians and right-wing media are increasingly good at denying not merely the lessons (and existence) of history in general, but the mere factual existence of anything that happened, like, one week ago. It’s less ahistoricism than “achronologicality” — a refusal to admit that anything other than the immediate here-and-now could possibly matter.

This attitude to history is the nasty B-side to the solid-gold A-side of America’s greatest global hit — its fantastic, sunny optimism. Their wonderful, upbeat sense that things will progress and get better is precisely what makes Americans so damn cool, so hard working, and so much more fun to live amongst than people in, say, Europe. But optimism always requires a leap of faith, a wilful ignorance of what’s gone before.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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