Paul Alper points me to this quote from George Orwell’s 1943 essay, Looking Back on the Spanish War:
I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past, people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously colored what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that “the facts” existed and were more or less discoverable. And in practice there was always a considerable body of fact which would have been agreed to by almost anyone. If you look up the history of the last war in, for instance, the Encyclopedia Britannica, you will find that a respectable amount of the material is drawn from German sources. A British and a German historian would disagree deeply on many things, even on fundamentals, but there would still be a body of, as it were, neutral fact on which neither would seriously challenge the other. It is just this common basis of agreement with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as “Science”. There is only “German Science,” “Jewish Science,” etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not such a frivolous statement.
It’s not about left and right. In the above passage Orwell points to the Nazis but in other places (notably 1984) he talks about the Soviets having the same attitude.
The Orwell quote is relevant, I think, to the recent story, following the inaugural festivities, of the White House press secretary unleashing a series of false statements—I think we can’t quite call these “lies” because it’s possible that the secretary went to some effort to avoid looking up the relevant facts—followed up by a presidential advisor characterizing these falsehoods as “alternative facts.”
The tricky thing about all this is that there are few absolutes. I won’t say that everybody does it, but I will say that Donald Trump is not the only leading political figure to lie about easily-checked facts. There was Hillary Clinton’s “landing under sniper fire,” Joe Biden’s plagiarized speech, and who could forget the time Paul Ryan broke 3 hours in the marathon? All these are pretty inconsequential, and I can only assume that the politicians in question were just in such a habit of saying things they wanted their audience to hear, that they didn’t care so much whether they were telling the truth. My take on it (just my take, I have no idea) is that for these politicians, speech is instrumental rather than expressive: it doesn’t really matter if what you’re saying is true or false; all that matters is that it has the desired effect.
So I guess we have to accept some ambient level of lies on issues big and small. I agree with Orwell, though, that there’s something particularly disturbing about lying being endorsed on a theoretical level, as it were.
This is related to various statistical issues we discuss on this blog. It can be hard to move forward when people won’t recognize their mistakes even when the evidence is right in front of them. At some point the practice of refusing to admit error edges toward the labeling of false statements as “alternative facts.”