Lies, Damned Lies and Mistakes

The truth has become passé. 

There seems little doubt about that.  Those who practice it, who are dedicated to it, are an aberration[1].  That is especially true in public life and especially in the profession once known as journalism.  Lawyers, politicians and journalists have eclipsed used car salesmen (and women) in the mind of most people as the most dishonest and untrustworthy professions[2].  That is regrettable given that those three professions are the most important in establishing and maintaining “government of the People, for the People and by the People”, although for those who really study history, the author of that quote would probably be comfortable living and working with today’s lawyers, politicians and journalists.

That something is not true does not mean that, when stated, it was a lie.  There are lies that can help us understand deeper truths, metaphors and, to an extent, similes, but we understand that they are figurative tools to make a point through comparison (although depending on how they are used, they can either illustrate or obfuscate).  There are errors that may seem like lies but are not.  A lie involves a deliberate intent to deceive and if the intent does not exist, then a person stating something that is not accurate is merely wrong in what he or she believes.  Being a somewhat naïve optimist, I tend to believe that a great many statements that are not true are not lies, just wrong.  Unfortunately, it has become more and more difficult to correct misimpressions.[3]

Indeed, even when statements involve lies, they can be classified into two principle categories: “hot lies”, momentary, unplanned reactions, and “cold lies”, preplanned and full of loopholes to provide cover and “plausible deniability.  The latter, of course, are the worst, the most dangerous; the most despicable.  Cold lies are complex, preplanned constructs that operate in a boundary between art and science.  Their artists are experts at parsing and splitting hairs and distorting what opponents say in order to make it seem that they are the ones lying.  Their scientists tend to be experts at behaviorist psychology, at finding the exact words, said in an exact, preplanned context and in a specific manner so as to make them function as desired, whether the person to whom they are uttered believes them or not.  “Cold lie” masterpieces are lies “told often enough [to] become… the truth”, a quote attributable to Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, and lies “so ‘colossal’ that no one would believe that someone ‘could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously’” from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  But masterpieces are rare and lies such as those described have become all too common, their rarity diluted, so that we need to find another term to qualify them.

“Hot lies” are common but fairly obvious thus their impact is much less dangerous than are “cold lies.  President Trump is infamous for “hot lies” and mistakes, but “cold lies” are not his forte.  His opponents in the Democratic Party include some of the foremost experts at “cold lies”[4], as does the profession once known as journalism and the conglomeration of planted bureaucrats that some of us have taken to calling the “Deep State”.  Current Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph Biden, is like his opponent, he is also infamous for “hot lies”, mistakes and plagiarism, but his current supporting cast, through its expertise in “cold lying”, is expert at obfuscating his blunders and is diligently working to make him a bit more proficient at “cold lying”.  Unlike the case with Mr. Biden, there is no hope for Mr. Trump.  No one, for good or ill, can control him.  But plenty of traditionalist Republicans can give Democrat “cold lie” pundits a run for their money.

One of the political “cold lies” that annoys me most is the one that claims that the leadership of the Democratic Party is leftist, or liberal, or progressive, or socialist.  That is a bipartisan “cold lie”.  Republicans use it to disparage Democrats and Democrats use it to falsely describe themselves in a manner that will appeal to leftists, encouraging them not to strike out on their own.  Indeed, almost anything that qualifies as bipartisan usually is mired in “cold lies”.  There are leftists and liberals and progressives and socialists in the Democratic Party, but they are trapped there, rendered useless, as though running a race in quicksand.  And there are racists and misogynists and xenophobes in both major political parties, although the corporate media would have us think that their membership is limited to the GOP (the Grand Old Party that, at the time it adopted the moniker, was not very old but perhaps, given that it had just “technically” freed the slaves, perhaps the “grand” was justified, at least back then). 

What there is not in either major political party is honest and ethical leadership, the kind of leadership for which leftists and liberals and progressives and socialists clamor.  The kind of leadership that would abandon foreign intervention and the related armaments industry and focus on the “Public Welfare” the American Constitution of 1787-89 promised.  The kind of leadership that would provide not only free education at all levels and free healthcare, but also free insurance and a guaranteed minimum income sufficient for the poorest among us to have a place to live, food to eat and clothes to wear.  What there is not enough of is the kind of leadership that would allow us to really govern ourselves and to enjoy equality and equity; liberty and justice; and at least reasonable personal security and freedom from fear.

There is way too much lying but also too much of “being wrong”.  Too much of politicians claiming that they are not corrupt, rather merely inept.  I wish I could honestly say that, collectively at least, we deserved better.  But the truth is that it is our own fault.  Having lived through many important events and experiences ourselves we fail to trust our own memories and permit ourselves to be manipulated through objectivist appeals to emotion, especially fear, and we permit ourselves to be herded into mentalities of us against them, even if the “them” involved were until recently our friends or even our families.  We take to belittling other’s opinions and creating “straw men and woman” to whom we attribute opinions and actions that are not theirs.  Calumny becomes a habit and hate quickly follows.  We permit ourselves to be split into antagonistic, predesigned groupings based on class, race, sex, religion, nationality and values so that we end up totally polarized.  We permit all of that when our better natures scream at us to wake up.  We permit it because we permit ourselves to be cast as opponents, always voting against something rather than in favor of what we believe, always in favor of purportedly “lesser evils” that usually wind up being at least as bad as the purportedly greater evil we were called upon to defeat.  Every election is existential and thus can never deal with our quotidian needs, to political leaders, they are just not important enough.  Those are always reserved for a more practical someday, a someday that will not arrive until at best, “early next doomsday morning”.

All of this is accomplished through “cold lies”, artfully woven and flavored and disguised, “cold lies” which after so many episodes of the “boy who cried wolf” we ought to be able to recognize, against which our common sense should be able to inoculate us, and if not now, it will soon be too late.

Something to ponder as we await another fateful November.

© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2020; all rights reserved.  Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.

Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia (although he has primarily lived in the United States of America of which he is also a citizen).  Until 2017 he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales.  He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation and linguistic studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies).  He can be contacted at and much of his writing is available through his blog at

[1] Some of us were educated under an honor code where we were sworn to “never lie, cheat or steal, or to tolerate those who do” (honor code of the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina), a beautiful code but one that places us at a distinct disadvantage in the “real world” when opposed by those who spent their formative years learning how to lie proficiently.  The following letter from the late renowned author, Pat Conroy, written to the Charleston Post & Courier almost 12 years ago makes the point all too clearly, “Don’t destroy the state’s best college”, Sunday, January 10, 1999.

[2] My apologies to the used car industry which has all too often been unfairly singled out for disdain.

[3] A study reported in the New York Times over a decade ago claimed that proof someone is wrong tends to strengthen rather than correct the misimpression.

[4] See, for example, the reference to Bill Clinton (famous for questioning “what ‘is’ is”) in the letter to the Charleston Post & Courier by Pat Conway referenced above.

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