Prevarication to Propaganda: A Guide to Forked Tongues

Lies We Live By: Defeating Double-Talk and Deception in Advertising, Politics and the Media , by Carl Hausman. Routledge, 229 pages, $24.95.

Not long ago, traveling abroad, I spent many fruitless, expensive minutes trying to log on to my AT&T Internet provider to retrieve important e-mail. Over and over, the connection failed, each shutdown accompanied by an error message that clearly implied that the fault was mine, that something was amiss with my laptop or with the dial-up connection I was using.

Experience has taught me to be suspicious of any excuse offered by AT&T, and I was shortly afterward able to confirm (by a roundabout journey through the semantic maze that AT&T labels “tech support”) that the problem wasn’t mine, it was theirs: Their servers were, quite simply, overloaded–but in order to disguise the fact, and the truth, and to minimize the potential cost of fixing the problem, someone at AT&T had cooked up a clever message to make frustrated customers believe the fault to be theirs.

This is the way it is these days. Except in perhaps the least developed countries, where ancient tribal notions of honor based on interdependence still hold sway, the values broadly associated with globalized New Capitalism have pervaded existence with a golden glow of euphemism and prevarication. The operative philosophy, from the White House down, appears to be–I quote myself, from an earlier column in this paper–that if everyone’s lying, no one is.

Carl Hausman has provided a useful, pretty comprehensive guide to the way we lie now. On the strength of his example and citations, it really is appalling how widely the culture of falsity has spread. He doesn’t really ask the question “Why?” and I, for one, don’t hold against him that he hasn’t produced a quasi-philosophical tract that can claim descent from such earlier writers on lying as Montaigne and Sissela Bok, who had loftier, more metaphysical game in their sights. In this racket, the devil is in the details, and the payoff in the specifics.

Lies We Live By is what used to be called “a Cicerone”: a valuable, illustrated handbook identifying and explicating the manmade wonders that comprise the landscape of duplicity. It is a book that should be put into the hands of every young person taking his or her first steps into what might be called the adult world of works and days. It may help them defend themselves, either by seeing through the other guy, or out-lying him themselves. It is the young who will gain most from Mr. Hausman’s research and exposition: Adults who have endured a decade or more of the money culture unleashed by the Reagan Revolution will be fairly hardened, past redemption or beyond conversion.

It isn’t a profound book, nor particularly original. Indeed, it has a fine, engaging unpretentiousness. Its signal virtue is the number of bases it touches, everything from the calculatedly offhand scams of the used-car lot to the canny euphemisms of Wall Street and the self-serving obscurantism of Academe, and the come-ons that are sent forth by the millions, packaged so as to seem aglow with false hope, by the likes of Publishers Clearing House, to–ultimately–the lies made by, for and of the people: the flood of mis- and disinformation that pours forth from the chanceries of government in support of the political agenda of whoever is currently ensconced in those marble halls. The examples given are numerous. Many are entertaining–or would be if they weren’t so disgusting. Charts abound. A useful appendix lists governmental and other ombudsman-like bodies to which the beset and mulcted can appeal.

Mr. Hausman’s edgy, well-documented approach is nicely conveyed by the following passage from a chapter called “Reach Out and Confuse Someone: Baffle-Gab on the Phone Line,” which deals with telemarketing doublespeak: “Men and women with the apparent moral development of shower-curtain bacteria … have opened charities with names similar to the real things.… When a woman named Linda Blue, desperate for advice about her husband’s brain cancer, called a sound-alike ‘charity,’ the ‘charity’ wanted to charge her for advice. In fact, they went so far as to ask for her checking account number so they could call the bank and get her money immediately. That’s so awful I can’t even come up with something sarcastic with which to end this chapter.”

Like any well-assembled guidebook to sin, Lies We Live By is as instructive as it is cautionary; the alert reader will put it down equipped equally to spot a lie or to produce one of his own: every man his own Donald Trump, if you will, or–if politics is your game–his or her own Bill or Hillary. Depending on a given reader’s intentions and interests, therefore, the admonitory blessings bestowed by Mr. Hausman may be perceived as mixed.

I would judge that 90-odd percent of the lies analyzed by Mr. Hausman are made in the service of turning a fast buck, and this would be my only criticism of his book, since I am of the persuasion that a work on the telling of untruths, of whatever degree of gravity, that doesn’t include a chapter on Henry Kissinger must, lamentably, forfeit its claim to definitiveness. But this is a small failing in a work that touches on a syndrome that has worked its toxic roots into our social, economic and civil order to a degree and depth that anyone educated to a certain standard a quarter-century or more ago must find heartbreaking.