The C.S. Lewis Spectator

Screwtape Answers Pilate

By From the July-August 2013 issue

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12 June 2013

Reginald Wormwood, Esq.
Wormwood Consulting, Inc.
1600 K Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20006

AS YOU'RE in Washington, you have a special mission to the liars. You know that, of course, and rightly complain of an embarrassment of riches. Amongst the congressmen, lawyers, lobbyists, university presidents, development directors, diversity trainers, writers of mission statements, White House reporters and other fabulists, just where to begin, you ask me.

Not for nothing is Our Father Below, with whom I am intimately acquainted, also called the “Father of Lies.” What you ought to do, since you are in Washington, is distinguish between different sorts of lies, some of which are endearing to us, and some quite banal. Amongst the latter are the Baghdad Bob lies told by most politicians. When an Obama tells people he wants abortion to be safe, legal, and rare, you know that he means safe, legal, and commonplace. And when a mayor tells you he opposes charter schools out of concern for the well-being of students currently in failing schools, you know that he is pulling your leg, as does everyone in his audience.

These aren’t really lies, in the sense that a lie is a statement meant to deceive, because they don’t fool anyone and aren’t intended to do so. They are the rug merchant’s mere puffs, the rituals of politics in which both speaker and audience are aware of the falsity. They are conventional pieties that don’t mean a thing. Remember our friend Nelson Rockefeller? He used to write BOMFOG in the notes of his speeches, so that he’d remember to mention the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of the Enemy. That’s about as sincere as most politicians get.

We can’t take much pleasure in those kinds of liars. Oh to be sure, there is more than a little hypocrisy there. But I cannot take much pleasure in this, since hypocrisy pays homage to the Enemy’s brand of virtue. 

The second kind of liar is the fellow who intends to persuade but who is only half aware of the untruth. I’m thinking of dear Bill Clinton, of course, who told amazing whoppers without really being conscious of doing so. He can look the camera in the eye, deny having sex with Miss Lewinsky, and think he was telling the truth. It depends, of course, on what the meaning of the word “is” is. For him, the ultimate reality is Bill Clinton, and nothing can break into or upset his immense sense of self-satisfaction, even or especially when he makes an apology. He doesn’t tell lies, even when he says Jonathan Swift’s “thing which is not.”

Remember Rwanda? What a splendid time that was for us. A massacre in which 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered over the course of 100 days. That’s 8,000 a day, most of whom were killed with machetes. (Do you know how tired one’s arms get from that kind of murder?) The killjoy UN commander on the ground cabled his superior in New York for authority to block the killings, but happily this was vetoed by Kofi Annan and Bill Clinton. They knew, of course, that the massacres were taking place. They simply did not want to dirty their hands with a humanitarian rescue. Later Clinton apologized for his inaction. “We in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred,” he said.

Is it not simply delicious, my dear nephew? He didn’t do a blessed thing, except prevent the UN commander from stopping the killing. It was an apology that spread the blame without really accepting any of it for himself, and I bet he felt great when he made the speech. The point is that he knew about the genocide but couldn’t tell the truth or accept responsibility lest he abandon the blameless image he had cultivated. 

There does exist another kind of liar, the sort of person who lies but does so in service of a higher truth. That’s what philosopher Bernard Williams had in mind when he distinguished between truthfulness and truth. The truthful person never says the thing which is not, but in the service of truth tells many lies. That’s the kind of truth Martin Heidegger had in mind when he spoke of the “inner truth” of National Socialism. The same truth divided people during the Dreyfus Affair. Anti-Dreyfusards, such as Maurice Barrès, did not care whether Dreyfus was guilty. The Affair was about something more important, namely defending the reputation of the army. Nor was this attitude toward truth exclusive to anti-Dreyfusards: A good many of Dreyfus’ supporters found the question of whether their man really was innocent an academic one. For socialist leader Jean Jaurès—not entirely free from anti-Semitism himself—the Affair was a convenient excuse to attack the army and the right in general.

You see where this is going, don’t you? These are our people, and there are so many of them in Washington. They are the kind of people who ask you not to pay any attention to facts that get in the way of a broader narrative. For example, Salon’s Irin Cameron reminds readers that the right is employing the Kermit Gosnell trial in Philadelphia to question the notion of absolute female autonomy. This is no time to go wobbly! What it’s all about, Obama reminded the Planned Parenthood conference in the middle of the Gosnell trial, is that “some people want to take us back to the 1950s.” Keep your eyes on the prize!

Then there’s Bradley Manning, the Dreyfus of our day, with the notable difference that he did betray his country. Secrets he disclosed were found on Osama bin Laden’s computer in Abbottabad, but what’s important here is that he is a homosexual.

The press corps routinely serves the cause of inner truth when it buries evidence of Palestinian lies about the Israeli army. Who cares if the photos are doctored, if the reporter is a member of Hamas? What is important is that the Palestinians are on the right side of history and that terrorists must be defended, at least when they kill Israelis and not Americans.

The Washington Post is a paper of record, an important arbiter of truth in our time. There is no section of the paper that does not serve the inner-truth of the progressive left, whether it be the editorials or the food section. Truthfulness it leaves for other people, since truth-telling can serve the forces of darkness that daily surround us. 

Opposition to Obamacare is racism, homophobia pervades the country, Israel unjustly occupies conquered territories, the rich make me poor, and the oil companies want to destroy all life on earth. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know, says the Post. One need not even read the paper. Truthfulness is excluded, the reign of lies has arrived.

These are our glory days, my dear Wormwood.

Your affectionate uncle,
Ebenezer Screwtape

P.S. Have you ever chatted with Jesting Pilate back home? Back when, he wouldn’t stay for an answer, but now he has all the time in the world to talk about the meaning of truth. He’s not going anywhere and it’s our turn to laugh. 

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About the Author

F.H. Buckley is Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law and author of The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.