Of Facts and Liars


Their fixation on factuality is perhaps a vestige of prudence, metastasized by modernity’s gaping intellectual deficiencies. Or perhaps they are merely heirs of the Enlightenment, sons of science persisting in the belief that the world of men bears factuality and that to this factuality the minds of men resistlessly capitulate. Or it may be a remnant of an old Yankee disposition, an eye for this world’s present situation, coupled with an inquisitive, ingenious, practical, problem solving bent. There is a story to be told of this exclusive faith in the persuasive power of the factually valid. But whatever the narrative’s beginning and middle, the end is clear: the rhetorical malformation of an entire circle of earnest liberal wonks.

Fully taken with that gleaned by the collection of data, by the application of method, by empirical finding, by statistical inference, by the distillation of sheer phenomena into intelligible theorem, they recourse again and again to their singular rhetorical instrument, to all that was once called atechnic, to the seen and heard and observed, to the testimonial, to the demonstrable, to the expertly established. They adhere strictly both to their credo that politics is primarily and properly a domain of factually informed policy making, and to their principle that the integrity and efficacy of political discussion is measured best by its congruence with that end. Appeals originating in the intrinsic power of words contravene this end, clouding and confusing a discourse whose factuality must remain unsullied. Infidelity to fact is deviant and destructive, passionate appeals abhorrent. And holding that the persuasive merit of the person depends upon the person’s guardianship of factuality, not upon the person as such, their personal appeals are also mere proxies for factuality. Forfeiting all the old artful topoi, even among their preferred intellectual advances they confine themselves to one slender segment of rhetorically extrinsic intellectual appeal, to pisteis of the atechnic variety delivered in a disputational, even forensic style. Artlessness has been made a rhetorical virtue.

But politics has never been, is not, and never will principally be a domain of policy formation. Politics primarily and properly regards the jointure of men. Individual deeds, intents and desires are politically meaningless, acquiring both political relevance and worldly effect only when the individual joins with others in common enterprise. Unless the many coincide with the one, purposively carrying out his original intentions to perfect completion, through this jointure the individual sacrifices control for the sake of effective power. He may join in world relevant action as one among many, but as only one among many he forsakes all hope of controlling action’s outcome. The shape of human affairs in general, the manner of policy realized in particular, is but the efflux of the jointure of men. What some one man will do, what some one man will pursue, are politically foolish, actually absurd, inquiries. It is wiser to ask with whom that one man will join.

Only persuasion humanely and honorably animates and achieves the jointure of men. Deriving from suadere, persuade means literally to make thoroughly sweet. The Romans personified this sweet appeal that instills a welcomed confident impulse toward concurrence as the goddess Suadela. In Greek she was called Peitho; in the inviting, egalitarian atmosphere of her perfume the jointure of men breathed. An attendant of Aphrodite, Peitho was the goddess of rhetorical persuasion and erotic seduction, activities that differed not in kind but in context. The calibrations and textures vary by condition and moment and intended, but allurement remains allurement, and persuasion is seduction no less than seduction is persuasion. The suitor recognizes and seizes the fleeting, opportune moment, he assays his intended, discovers and appraises the possible personal, emotional and intellectual appeals, marshals his most potent verbal and signal resources, arranges them carefully, and transmits the most vigorous appeal he can muster. Those who out of ignorance fail to discover the full array of persuasive possibility, those who out of adamance fixate on one mode of seduction to the exclusion of all others, are hapless suitors, pathetic at best, obnoxious at worst.

Peithein is a spur or stimulus or enticement inclining men toward agreement, not a cudgel that demands it. As seduction excluding rejection’s possibility is no longer seduction, so persuasion ceases to be persuasion if it excludes the possibility of disagreement. Words become instruments of force, weapons, when allurement no longer seeks to entice but to compel. Weaponized language constrains and pulverizes and annihilates the freedom of men to choose with whom to agree or disagree, with whom to join or not join. Putting words to modern experience, modern men have developed a lexicon to differentiate and locate varieties of linguistic compulsion: manipulation, propaganda, brainwashing, coercion, agitprop, indoctrination, disinformation. But the first who wished to annul the human freedom to choose to whom to assent and with whom to join, the first who wished to displace such freedom from the realm of human affairs, the first who wished to exchange persuasion for compulsion, were those ancients who wished the world of men governed not by opinion but by truth.

Opinion is what seems to one man, and what seems to one man is devoid of political significance. One man’s opinion acquires pertinence for the world of men only when numbers of others are persuaded to adopt the same opinion as their own. Such numerical addition, a purported check on opinion’s validity, is nothing of the sort. The amplification of numbers raises the stakes of opinion, but it can never obviate opinion’s deficiency. This deficiency is not that opinion is as varied and mutable and errant and dangerous as men, and it is not that even great masses can be persuaded by the worse opinion. These are only the usual complaints. The deficiency is that irreducible doubt is inherent in every opinion: what seems to a man is never more than a statement of probability, a sense of what is likely, and not a statement of any manner of certainty. Opinion cannot exclude the possibility of its own invalidity, it can never exclude the possible merit of its negation. With opinion one may always disagree, and this is why opinion can never compel, why opinion is the fount of persuasion, and why lovers of truth have eyed politics, opinion’s locus proper, always with such derision and trepidation.

Because the ratiocinative mind is identical from one man to the next, so rational truth is also identical from one man to the next. Annulling all basis for disagreement, it leaves no ground for doubt. The validity of rational truth is unambiguous and universal. All those who disagree with rational truth are in error, all those who persist in disagreement once presented with rational truth are rationally deficient. As the rational mind perfectly submits to rational truth, so rational truth perfectly dominates the rational mind. Where such truth is known, persuasion is entirely superfluous, and any man boasting to know a rational truth contradicts his boast if he must resort to persuasion to convince others of this truth. More than exemplary, rational truth is truth’s perfection. That the affairs of men might no longer be confounded by the ambiguous shadows of what seems to men, that they might instead be ruled by the invariable clarity of what is unequivocally true to the universal rational mind: the displacement of politics by truth’s hierarchy is an old, sublime wish. It is a wish for a government by the knowing, and also a wish for rule, both within and beyond the mind, by a wise and benign impersonal despot, namely the transmundane nous of rationality itself. But the ultimately arithmetical, logical light that presents itself from within the austere darkness of men’s rational minds is at most tangential to the mist and murk of this worldly human affairs. This irrelevance tended to save the old truth loving men of knowledge from worldly folly.

If it is love to affirm what is without wishing that it be otherwise, and if it is honesty to acknowledge what is without flinching into self-deception, then that new man of knowledge, the earnest liberal wonk, regards factuality with neither love nor honesty. He flinches and deludes himself into believing that facts are, or at least ought to be, as dominating as rational truth. Only reiterating the old animus, he holds that politics could be relieved of its deficiencies if only those who know not would submit themselves to the pedagogy of those who do. That these new liberals are so wary of persuading by sweetness of word that they would prefer to prevail by force of fact is a curious affront to the ancient interlacing liberal commitments to freedom and persuasion. Or it would be so if this wish did not immediately fall into a folly of its own: facts do not and cannot dominate the minds of men. Factuality does demand peremptory affirmation for its validity, but this demand is mere pretence, a show of puffery and conceit. Rational truth is unequivocal and no act of the will can compel the rational mind to doubt its certain validity. Opinion is equivocal, inherently doubtful, and no act of the will can remedy this. But factuality is easily disturbed, made equivocal, and plunged into doubt. That factuality cannot compel any affirmation for its validity, the liar, the genuine expert on factuality, has always known. Suffering neither illusion nor aversion, the liar is honest enough to stare unflinchingly upon factuality, candidly understanding factuality for what it actually is. Never wishing that factuality be other than it is, delighting in what he beholds, the liar is the sincere lover of factuality.

The liar knows what the earnest liberal wonk cannot bear to accept. He knows that the persuasiveness of a fact is determined less by verity than by verisimilitude, less by what is factually valid than by what appears factually valid. What appears factually valid is what appears plausible, and what appears plausible to one man may not appear plausible to another. That factual plausibility inherently remains a matter of opinion is unbearable for the man who wishes, if not to disregard opinion for the sake of validity, then to tame opinion by bridling it to facts. He would rather insist with vehemence that though one may be entitled to one’s own opinion, none may have title to their own facts. But if one is entitled to an opinion, then one is entitled to an opinion about the plausibility of facts. And in factual matters plausibility is the decisive measure. Should a fact appear undisturbed by opinion’s evaluations it is only because the fact accords with opinion, or because, as with the endless array of simple, quotidian verities, the fact is so irrelevant to opinion that opinion silently overlooks it.

But opinion readily detects factual uncertainty, and even when the facts appear blatantly undeniable it is only a trifle to cast doubt upon them. One need not even contend that the testimony of those who saw and heard and observed is unreliable, that the methods employed and the inferences made are suspect, that the senses deceive, that the data is corrupted, that the documentation is forged, that the experts are bought or biased or outright quacks. Even absent cause, no matter how palpably incontrovertible, the will is free always to affirm or deny, to say yes or no to whatever comes before it. Wise to the facts, the liar is a willful man of brazen freedom. And the assent of overwhelming numbers is no defense against doubt. This is not because anyone wishing to dispute or deny the validity of a fact will warn that majorities are frequently mistaken, that overwhelming numbers are likely to extort false testimony in some, silence in others, and that concurring numbers are likely as not only a fraudulent effect of human infirmity coupled with a human desire for inclusion among majorities. It is because it would be absurd to subject the validity of facts to plebiscite unless factual validity actually is determined not by what is valid, but rather by what appears factually valid to most, that is by the majority’s opinion of what is and is not factually plausible. The earnest liberal wonk is repulsed by these conclusions, the skilful liar revels in the opportunities they afford him. Whatever confirms opinion will delight and move, whatever discords with it will seem unexpected and undesirable and uncertain, even false. And where no discord exists, it can always be created.

Fully present in the rhetorical moment, knowing already what men will believe and deny, the skilful liar is prepared to seize his opportunities. Patient in observation, probing in memory, perceptive of time and place and circumstance, the skilful liar tends to men’s opinions by tending to men. He knows men’s aversions and desires, their assumptions and expectations, their hopes and dreams and fears. He knows men in their associations, what binds them together, what hurls them apart. And the skilful liar sings what he knows. To individuals he sings in sympathetic identity, intellectually echoing his mark’s thoughts, emotionally sharing his feelings, personally mirroring his character. To communities he sings always from within that community, harmonizing with the sensus communis, voicing its commonplace hymnal, arranging its myths and maxims and symbols, to instill rapport and build confidence, to gain credence as a trustworthy, sensible member of the community, to appear as a worthy interpreter of the koina, as a man who enunciates and amplifies the community’s essential, animating spirit. He knows at his opportune best he will not so much seduce his mark as demonstrate that his mark is already seduced, that he will not so much persuade his mark to join him, as he will show that he and his mark are already joined. Politics regards the jointure of men; the jointure of men is the product of persuasion, persuasion hinges on a judgment about who belongs with whom: the shape of political life flows from that judgment. To all this the earnest liberal wonk remains incognizant. Absent from the rhetorical moment, he would present the same factually valid, detached argument to anyone, at any time, in any place. Disengaged from his audience, he appears at best as an insufferable interloper from nowhere, at worst as a besetting stranger from an alien land. But the skilful liar is so recognizably a friend that even if his mark thinks him lacking in factual validity, he will still prefer to err and join with him than to hold veracious and join with his opponents. And the skilful liar does this while arguing for whatever he likes.

The skilful liar disarms the earnest liberal wonk, bending and breaking his quiver of arrows, leaving him defenseless. Too disgusted to nod to the deftness of an opponent who knows so well how to defeat him, he turns away without noticing that a liar sufficiently skilled to persuade his mark of whatever he likes, could just as readily persuade his mark of the factually valid. Dazzling poet that he is, the skilful liar is a man of such inventive dexterity, imaginative facility, and cognizant prowess that he could tether language to any position. His ability derives not from his infidelity to fact, but from his rhetorical mastery. But the earnest liberal wonk shrinks from language’s intrinsic freedom, he recoils from its power to create and destroy sensible reality, and he cowers from its capacity to establish political power by instilling union among men. Superstitious of its potency, convinced of its maleficence, he shuns the artful deployment of language as if it were taboo. Preeningly devoting himself to its atechnic opposite, he wishes for a powerfully compelling, objective, purely descriptive language in which word fits reality immediately and perfectly. But into belief wish soon turns, and to the atechnic he credulously ascribes talismanic power, taking it for persuasion’s irresistible summa. If groundless belief actually relented before the evidential truth of factuality, then the earnest liberal wonk would long ago have been disavowed of his chimerical faith in the rhetorical power of factuality. But to that factuality the earnest liberal wonk is inured. For he too is a liar, only an unskilled one, and worse an oblivious and pathetic liar, a liar too dull, too blind, too insensible to have any awareness of the lie he so blithely inhabits.

(Summer, 2012)