December 24, 2019
Language is for Lying, Impeachment, and Russia
The intense media coverage of last week’s impeachment hearings, not to mention the massive controversy since then, brings one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous sayings to mind:
Language is for lying.
What did he mean?
In the most benign sense, Nietzsche was calling out the way you lie, on a daily basis, to friends and family. For example, when responding to a question like,
How are you?
You will, of course, answer with some banality,
Hopefully, you’ll share more personal, detailed answers with your close friends.
Nietzsche also meant that language fails to accurately describe your subjective experiences. Assuming you only know English, and your friend just got a serious illness, the words available for you to use to describe your emotional reactions are limited by language itself.
Frightened might be one word you’d use.
Sadness, having a sense of loss, or worry, might be other ones.
But these would all fall short of fully expressing your actual feelings.
Malignantly, language can be used to blatantly lie to other people.
The discussions regarding the pending Articles of Impeachment provide dramatic examples.
During the House debate about the Articles, Representative Barry Loudermilk compared Donald Trump to Jesus. He said:
When Jesus was falsely accused of treason, Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers. During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded this President in this process.
Jesus was given no rights.
He was tortured, starved, and crucified to death.
This second example of language being used for lying includes a multiplicity of lies:
Trump’s December 17, 2019 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was, in fact, a paragon of the language-is-for-lying idea. Among other mis-statements, Trump wrote:
More due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials.
It’s actually difficult to tell which was worse: what Loudermilk said about Jesus or Trump about witches.
In reaction to Trump’s letter, the Mayor of Salem, Kim Driscoll, noted that the so-called trials, conducted in 1692, resulted in “powerless, innocent victims” being “hanged or pressed to death” on scant evidence. In all, 20 people suspected of witchcraft were killed in Salem that year. Nineteen were hanged, and one man was crushed by rocks, during the witch-hunting frenzy stoked by superstition, fear of disease and strangers, and jealousy.
This discussion of using language for lying, strangely, leads to the regular state of affairs in contemporary Russia.
Some months ago, I referred to an amazing 2014 book about the country written by Peter Pomeranz. It reads like a spy novel. But, far from fiction, it is an account of the author’s experiences there. They are breathtaking if disturbing.
Among the many tales Pomeranz tells is the story of a multi-billion dollar lawsuit, litigated in the UK, involving two Russian oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, there was a chaotic transition. A kind of democracy briefly emerged, only to be quickly quashed by what many call a Mafia state run by Vladimir Putin.
(This dynamics of this transition—the greed, wealth, power, and superficiality—are much of what makes Pomeranz’ book enthralling).
During the post-communist transition, what were previously state assets were put up for private sale.
One of the country’s largest oil companies, Sibneft, was sold to Berezovsky. He made literally billions of dollars from owning the firm. Later, he fell out of favor with Putin who then handed ownership over to Abramovich.
Because both men left Russia and lived in the UK, it was there that Berezovsky sued Abramovich, then worth nearly $10 billion, for his part of the oil company. Berezovsky had barely $1 billion by then. He hungered for his share of the profits which, he argued, Putin had stolen from him by handing the firm over to Abramovich.
Such a dispute could never have been adjudicated in Russia. The country lacks anything even resembling a fair judicial system. But it could, and it was, litigated in London in 2012. Berezovsky lost the suit, by the way, and killed himself by hanging in March 2013.
(One of the lawyers in the case, a Mr Sumption, studies medieval history in his spare time; he believes conditions in Russia since the collapse of communism “have not been seen in this country since the 15th century”).
Where the heck is this post going?
Again, to a brief discussion of the normalcy of lies in Russia.
The judge in this case, Justice Gloster, wrote this about Berezovsky in her concluding arguments:
I found Mr. Berezovsky an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded the truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be molded to suit his current purposes.
See the connection?
Comparing the impeachment to Jesus’ crucifixion, or to the Salem witch trials, overlaps precisely with what Justice Gloster wrote, namely handling truth as transitory, flexible, and molded to suit whoever’s purposes.
Therefore, when Nancy Pelosi said to Trump a few weeks ago,
All roads lead to Putin,
she perhaps unintentionally meant this:
Trump has not only been politically compromised, or accepted illegal financing for his failed real estate ventures, from Russian officials. He, and many others in the Republican party, demonstrate a transitory and flexible concept of the truth. The post-truth era common in contemporary Russia has equally invaded our own.
Whatever you may believe about the impeachment process, please know, for certain, that lies, distortions, misdirections, and other examples of using language for lying, are occurring at epic proportions.
Comparing the impeachment process to Jesus’ crucifixion?
Comparing it to the Salem witch trials?
These represent much more than language being used for lying.
They are absurd, dangerous, and suggest a slide into propaganda—a phenomenon consisting of deliberate and repeated lying.
Obviously, some truths are clearer than others.
No one believes Trump’s phone call was “perfect,” because no phone call could ever be perfect.
(His description of the call as perfect offers yet another example of the use of language for lying).
Just in the last two days, emails have surfaced confirming that payments from the Pentagon to Ukraine were indeed put on hold—only 90 minutes after that phone call.
Ultimately, the point is this:
Beware of how truth has become a slippery slope.
Beware of how once-reliable sources of information have lost reliability.
Read extensively and critically and, above all else, think for yourself.
Pomeranz, P. (2014). Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. New York: Public Affairs.
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