Thursday, 16 March 2017

Nope, It's Just Lying

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John Olson writing in The Conversation has some fun with the 'go to' word favoured by politicians these days when they are caught out telling 'porky pies'.

'Misspeaking' is all the rage in 21st century politics and Hillary Clinton certainly used it with gusto when she spoke about a trip to Bosnia as if she had been under enemy fire when her aircraft landed, which was subsequently shown to be completely untrue.

Clearly Jeff Sessions falls into the same category because when he said "I did not have communications with Russia" what he really meant was: "I actually held two separate meetings with the Russian Ambassador to the Unite States, one of which was completely private".

 Now that's just plain old-fashioned lying, if you ask me.

From Geoffrey Chaucer to Jeff Sessions, misspeaking is when you lie about lying

By John Olsson- The Conversation

Lecturer in Law and Criminology, Bangor University
Disclosure statement

Taking the oath. EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

When US attorney-general Jeff Sessions told his confirmation hearing he had not had any communication with any Russians during the presidential election campaign, only for it to turn out that he had twice met with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, he was apparently “misspeaking”. So that’s ok then.

But maybe not – while “misspeak” undoubtedly has the innocent connotation of “speaking incorrectly” or even “mispronouncing”, it is a sad reflection on contemporary life that whenever a politician uses a word, no matter how blameless the context might appear, people are less and less inclined to take the meaning of that word at face value.

There is no other word quite like “misspeak”. This is because to claim to have misspoken – as used by our political overlords – is essentially to tell a lie about a lie. So it not only relates to untruth, the phrase itself contains an untruth.

Chaucer, Wycliffe and Shakespeare all used the word. Even at first blush, we can see that it has a phylogenetic relationship – that is, it shares common roots – with other expressions prefixed with “mis-”, some of which have blameless connotations, such as “mistake”, “mislay” and “mishap”. Others, though, are less innocent – notably “mislead” and “misuse”.

The English seem to have borrowed the mis prefix from their Norman cousins at some time in the 14th century: so the Old French word m├ęsparler meaning to traduce or calumniate may be a worthy progenitor of “misspeak”.

Fessing up
As George Orwell pointed out in his essay Politics and the English Language, politicians routinely misuse language. Orwell’s main point about political speech is that it is essentially stale: politicians mindlessly recycle expressions – and misspeak is a prime example. We have seen this word used in two ways, the Hillary Clinton way and the Ted Cruz way. Unexpectedly, both owe a debt to Bill Clinton.

Clinton ‘misspoke’ about her experience in Bosnia. EPA/Jeff Zelevansky

First, let us deal with the Hillary Clinton variety. Clinton famously asserted that she had misspoken when it was established that her aircraft, upon landing in Bosnia, had not been fired at, as she had previously stated. In her defence she claimed:

I say a lot of things – millions of words a day – so if I misspoke it was just a misstatement.

However, it was pointed out that she had made her claim in a prepared speech. In other words, at some point in time, she and her speech writers had sat down and typed or written the words that she later “misspoke”.

Clearly, this is not “misspeaking” of the “speaking incorrectly” or “mispronouncing” variety. It was, in other words, a planned, premeditated industrial production of invented or distorted facts. When Clinton claimed to have “misspoken” she was simply dressing up a lie: not only had she lied, she was now lying about lying. She had invented facts and then attempted to attribute that invention to error.

The second variety is that espoused by Ted Cruz, a luminary from the other side of the political spectrum. Referring to the recent debacle surrounding US attorney‑general Jeff Sessions’ omission of certain facts relating to meetings with the Russian ambassador, Cruz said:

His answer was less than clear, he misspoke and did not answer as clearly as he should and that’s unfortunate.

Cruz went on to describe Sessions’ lexical misadventure as “an oversight”. 

Ted Cruz was ready to help his friend Jeff Sessions out of a tight spot. EPA/Michael Reynolds

However, the claim that Sessions did not “answer as clearly as he should” cannot be substantiated because Sessions was quite clear in his Senate confirmation hearing: “I did not have communications with the Russians”. This unequivocal construction begins with the words “I did not have”, reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s “I did not have” – in his case “sexual relations”. Notice that both “have communications with” and “have sexual relations with” are themselves less cognate forms of “speak to” (or similar expressions) and “have sex with” respectively.

Looked at together, the two denials are linguistically fascinating not only for their structural similarities, but also for their euphemising of “speak to” and “have sex with” as “have communications with” and “have sexual relations with” respectively, as the table below shows:

Misspeaking? Or telling a fib? 

As we can see from the above, the provenance of Sessions’ denial owes its syntax entirely to Bill Clinton who – although it was not claimed on his behalf – clearly “misspoke”. It could thus be that Hillary Clinton’s “misspeech” is the indirect progeny of her husband’s misadventure, which – in turn – spawned Sessions’ misleading comment. What we take from this is that mendacity crosses party lines effortlessly.
Weasel words

Here is a simple test to determine the ethics behind “misspeak”: imagine you are a lawyer in court and you give the judge incorrect information. It can be guaranteed that if you later on tell the judge that you “misspoke”, there will be a raised judicial eyebrow. In court, a lawyer’s first duty is to the court – not only must a lawyer not mislead a court, they must not allow the court to be misled, directly or indirectly, knowingly or recklessly, by commission or omission.

To sum up, to claim misspeech when what actually occurred was a distortion of the truth, an invention of a fact, or the denial of a reality, is clearly to misuse the word “misspeak”. The person is not holding up their hand and admitting to having lied; they are still in denial. They are sugarcoating the fact that they did not speak the truth. They are using “misspeak” because “lying” is an ugly word and they do not wish to be associated with it.

So “misspeak” is wheeled in to rescue a reputation, but in doing so the person is lying yet again. As Orwell cautioned all those years ago: we must be on our guard not to allow ourselves to be anaesthetised by the deceptions of political rhetoric. Politicians lie because a lot of the time they are doing things we would not agree with. “Misspeak” suggests that some politicians have taken lying to a new level: they have learned to lie about lying. You might think of this as simply a phenomenon of the post-truth era. Nope – it’s just lying.

Russia Row Rages On (03/03/17)

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"I did not have communications with the Russians"
At his confirmation hearing on 10 January 20017 Donald Trump's new attorney general Jeff Sessions denied flat out that he had had any contact with Russian officlals.

Yet it now appears that Mr Sessions met the Russian ambassador (Sergey Kislyak) on two separate occasions during the presidential campaign and that one of these two previously undisclosed meetings was held in private. 

So Mr Sessions is in now very big trouble for telling what looks like a barefaced lie to any reasonable person and for misleading the American people.  

President Clinton also got into hot water some years ago, and rightly so, some years ago for telling a blatant lie about his relations with a junior member of the White House staff, Monica Lewinsky. 

All of which means that after only days into his controversial presidency, yet another member of Donald Trump's top team is mired in scandal.

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No One Talked To Russia! (02/03/17)

Jason Kander on Twitter says:

"No one talked to Russia except my Campaign Manager, National Security Advisor, Attorney General and like 11 other guys. NO ONE."

Now that is funny - even without Donald wearing a lovely Russian fur hat!


Dr Jekyll vs Mr Hyde

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The Guardian's US columnist Richard Wolffe concludes that Donald Trump's first big Congress speech was completely at odds with his wild behaviour in the White House along with the President's public utterances on Twitter and elsewhere.

So will the real Donald J Trump stand up and identity himself - is he Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde?


Donald Trump's Congress speech was a heroic effort in contradiction and cliche

By Richard Wolffe - The Guardian

The president’s first address to Congress was full of inconsistency when compared to his words and deeds in the White House

All presidents deserve the respect that belongs to the office of the commander-in-chief. Even orange ones who trash the media, hide their business interests from public view, and praise Russian foes.

Yes, even Donald Trump deserves something more than “you lie!” Especially when he lies.

So it falls to us, on the occasion of his first address to a joint session of Congress, to take Trump at his un-tweeted word. At least for one night.

After just one month in office, it is safe to say this has been the most tremendous start to a presidency. It’s safe to say that because Trump says it all the time.

“I think in terms of effort, which means something, but I give myself an A+,” he told the ferocious interviewers on Fox and Friends on the morning of his big speech. “I think I get an A in terms of what I’ve actually done, but in terms of messaging, I’d give myself a C or a C+.”

Don’t be so hard on your messaging, Mr President. Your heroic effort has certainly been noticed around the world, in federal courts across the nation, and by the true measure of your success: on Saturday Night Live.

At the very least, based on this brutally honest self-assessment, the new president’s first address to Congress deserved an A+ for effort.

You can almost feel the surge of optimism in the previously downtrodden minority known as white supremacists. The impossible dreams of David Duke are firmly within his grasp, including his warm embrace of Trump’s conspiracy theories about those antisemitic bomb threats.

David Duke (@DrDavidDuke)
NYT "Prez Trump says attacks were reprehensible"[VERY TRUE] "Could be the reverse...trying to make people look bad." [Of Course it could]
March 1, 2017