The Day of the Raspberry and the Age of Mendacity

“There may be exceptions, but in unregenerate human nature, lying is the proper use of the faculty of speech.”

Hartley Coleridge (1837), quoted in Memoir of Hartley Coleridge (1851)

“The generality of men have no sincerity in their speech, no sense or profit in it.  You are better listening to the inarticulate wind . . .” 

Thomas Carlyle, Journal (November 26, 1840)

In a recent post, Bonald asked how we are to discern true authority in today’s marketplace of ideas, where the idea-vendors are numerous, the vended ideas are various, and caveat emptor is a shopper’s only guide.

Beware, indeed!  How, I also ask, am I to beware without more guidance than this?  How am I to tell a scoundrel from a sage? And my discouragement deepens when I reflect that the dictum caveat emptor applies with equal force to those who shop for an authority on scoundrels and sages.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, scientists and journalists usurped the authority of the churches, and for two hundred years their patter has been accepted as truth.  But the internet has now taught us that journalists are children of the Father of Lies, and Covid has taught us that scientists have no special regard for the truth.  These things have taught us that these self-styled votaries of veracity do not have, as George Washington had, an insuperable aversion to an advantageous lie.  They are, on the whole, on a level with the generality of men, of whom Carlyle said there is “no sincerity in their speech,” or even any sense.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, scientists and journalists attacked credulity and enjoined the masses to adopt an attitude of searching skepticism.  They taught the masses to doubt what they were told and shrewdly ask, whose interest does this serve?  They taught the masses to disbelieve statesmen and priests, never thinking that the masses would one day learn to give scientists and journalists that same rowdy raspberry of disbelief.

But the Day of that Raspberry has arrived.

I have never represented myself as a scientist, or as a man of supernatural veracity, but I have worked among scientists all my life.  Indeed it falls to me to give our graduate students the annual exhortation on the glory of truth and the horror of academic dishonesty.  My spirited harangue is received with a dull apathy similar to that with which boy scouts no doubt receive (assuming they are given) a spirited harangue on the glory of purity and the horror of self-abuse. Despite my best efforts, the young scholars leave my classroom with the crafty understanding that academic honesty is whatever an academic can get away with.

And Covid has taught the masses that an academic can get away with quite a bit.

No class of men is especially honest.  There are, to be sure, especially honest individuals scattered here and there in every class of men, most often in the lowest ranks because truth-telling is a bar to advancement.  I daresay there are honest men toiling in the lowest ranks of unsuccessful used car salesmen.  But no class of men stands above the general level of unregenerate human nature, and every class is therefore larded with men who believe, as Hartley Coleridge tells us, that “lying is the proper use of the faculty of speech.”

Now the masses know this, and that is why the Day of the Raspberry has arrived.

The Day of the Raspberry is not, I hasten to add, the dawn of a new age in which men, like the truthful Houyhnhnm that Gulliver met on his travels, scorn to say that which is not.  Rather, I fear, it is the dawn of a new age of universal mendacity.  When there is no truth to be had in the marketplace of ideas, no one will go to that marketplace in the hope of finding truth.  They will go in the hope of finding advantage.

And in that hope they will be very seldom disappointed.

My hero Thomas Carlyle foresaw this new day of universal mendacity, and more especially how, in this age, truth-telling would become very nearly impossible.  What is more, he saw that the descent into mendacity would be mendaciously represented as an ascent to the high country of clear air and candor.  Indeed it must be so (mis)represented.  What is more natural than that liars should lie about their lying, or that, in the age of universal mendacity, every man should say–perhaps even believe–that he has the probity of a young George Washington.

It is too bad about all those cherry trees, but at least we have plenty of raspberries.

Here is the historian James Anthony Froude describing Carlyle’s age of universal mendacity, and that was an age, I hasten to observe, that still boasted men like Carlyle and Froude.  I say this is a vision of a future of falsehoods that has, at last, arrived.

“England as he saw it was saturated with cant, dosed to surfeit with doctrines half true only or not true at all, doctrines religious, doctrines moral, doctrines political . . . . Jeffrey had told him that, although things were not as they should be, they were better than they had ever been before.  This, in Carlyle’s opinion, was one of those commonly received falsehoods which were working like poison in the blood.  England could never have grown to be what it was if there had been no more sincerity in Englishmen, no more hold on fact and truth, than he perceived in his own contemporaries.  The ‘progress’ so loudly talked of was progress downwards.  There was not a statesman who could do honestly what he thought to be right and keep his office; not a member of Parliament who could vote by his conscience and keep his seat; not a clergyman who could hope for promotion if he spoke what he really believed; hardly anyone of any kind in any occupation who could earn a living if he tried to do his work as well as it could be done; and the result of it was that the souls of men were being poisoned with universal mendacity.”*

*)  James Anthony Froude, Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London, 1834-1881 (1890)

16 thoughts on “The Day of the Raspberry and the Age of Mendacity

  1. The Age of Mendacity indeed. What has been equally extraordinary over the last year or so is the number of people who appear actively to want to believe all the lies.We always knew that once the belief in a supreme being goes the concern with truth does too but the plunge downwards has been quite breathtaking.

  2. It is the past that speaks truth to the present. When an age commits itself to quashing the past, it commits itself to quashing truth and declares itself, by obvious indirection, as committed to the lie — the Big Lie. In my college days in the early 1970s, I acquired the habit of reading authors who had been castigated by my professors during their lectures. Such castigations were often side-bars only distantly related to the oratorical topic. If a history — or maybe an astronomy — professor delivered a mini-lecture within the larger lecture in which he denounced Immanuel Velikovsky, I searched the second-hand book shops in Westwood Village, adjacent to the UCLA campus, and bought a beat-up copy of Worlds in Collision and read it. When a psychology professor denounced Carl Jung, I bought a beat-up copy of Four Archetypes and read it. Ditto for Oswald Spengler, whose Hour of Decision I purchased and read. Ditto for Pauwels and Bergier, whose Morning of the Magicians I purchased and read.

    Okay — Worlds in Collision and Morning of the Magicians were dubious, and I recognized this at the time. Nonetheless, I appreciated (although not as deeply as I did in later life) the willingness of the authors to oppose the jejune “scholarly consensus” in which almost all professorial lectures consisted. While I could not have formulated it in my early twenties, I had a vague sense that “scholarly consensus” was not only jejune, but mendacious and that there was something deeply wrong about the view of the world being proffered by higher education. This impression no doubt led to my fall from matriculation and my agogic detour of some few years before finishing my degree. That all of the forbidden books belonged to the past (even if it were only a Twentieth Century past) and that people still found it imperative to denounce them also taught me a lesson although again I could not have formulated it at the time.

    The “scholarly consensus,” like Donald Trump obsession, is obsessive. The “consensus” moreover bases itself on the suppression of anything that disagrees with it — continuously. In addition, Velikovsky, to take him for example, was not lying; he was identifying gaps in the “consensus” and it was legitimate for him to do so even if his caroming planets at the end of the Bronze Age were implausible. My partiality for dissent had begun.

    • There is no need to ban a bad book, since a truly bad book bans itself. I remember professors giving dark warnings about “social Darwinism,” which of course caused me to sample that Devil’s brew. What I discovered was that the execrated social Darwinists were far more subtle and charming than the professors who execrated them. I also discovered that those professors had only a second-hand knowledge of these books.

      One really has to live among professors to understand what is meant by “scholarly consensus.” I use the example of a “school” of fish to explain this to outsiders, since there is no difference between the way scholars and fish act in their schools. They all respond alike.

  3. What is interesting to me is that what is popularly regarded as “my truth” is being broken into smaller and smaller chunks, and this has only been accelerated by the internet despite the extensive proliferation of falsity. One could argue that it began with Martin Luther (though there have been examples throughout history) that “my truth” was simply a ‘reformed’ church, but that a church was still necessary. Then came the national truths–there was no truth which transcended national borders, so church of any sort begone. Then came the scientists and journalists as you describe, who subdivided national truths into academic fields of truth. Then the era of victim-heroes, who formed groups that defy science but at least they had a group.

    And now in the age of covid, we have subdivided truth to the point of individual experience. The next cut will subdivide truth into atoms, and then where will people go for truth? When even their own individual experience fails them, it seems to me that there’s no choice but to go back to the top of the order.

    • When social institutions lose, which in most cases means destroy, their authority, subjectivism is unleashed upon the world.

  4. It is acutely satisfying to me that Professor Bertonneau read Pauwels and Bergier. I did, too. Bantam Books, right? And Charles Fort. All those guys are wrong and stupid and inconceivable and deplorable, until, hello, it turns out that the US Navy does indeed encounter hundreds of UFOs, and there are indeed from time to time rains of frogs and of fish. Ditto of course for Fatima and Lourdes.

    There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio …

    Yesterday afternoon I saw one of those bumper stickers asserting that the human mind is like a parachute, in that it functions properly only when opened. My first thought: good luck going around all day with an open parachute dragging along behind you. My second: no, you stupid absurd idiot, the mind is *not* like a parachute. It is a sorting operation, that can run only on closing off categories. Aargh; don’t get me started.

    Here, with redundancy, is another tell: when someone says that x is like y, when x is in fact nothing like y – minds and parachutes, forsooth? – you know you are dealing with a deluded fool.

    • Pauwels and Bergier — I think it was an Avon, not a Bantam book, but anyway with a colorful psychedelic cover — led me to so much. They also validated things that had already snatched at my interest, but which other people (“adults”) deprecated, like the stories of H. P. Lovecraft and Fredrick William Holiday’s Great Orm of Loch Ness.

      In the tenth grade I took a composition course with Miss Rollins. We were supposed to turn in a “book report” every second Friday. I was reading Burroughs at the time and my “book reports” were in praise of A Princess of Mars and Tanar of Pellucidar. Finally a note came back with one of the assignments to the effect that I was wasting my time and should be reading the classics (Miss Rollins did not know the width of my literacy even at the time).

      When I taught A Princess of Mars in my Western Heritage course, I ordered it in the Penguin Classics edition.

      • I find this delightful and interesting. I came upon Fort and Pauwels and Velikovsky and for that matter Agrippa and Hermes Trimestigos and John Dee and Le Comte de St Germain from the opposite direction, through pulp culture and its modern equivalents. I’ve carried on a long-term interest with hermetic magic and its more modern mental offshoots (conspiracy theories of all kinds) ever since. I find this seedy underbelly of philosophy fascinating, and I think it’s truly essential, albeit very wrong in important respects.
        Among other things, it functions very well as training in detecting intellectual laziness, mendacity, and incapacity, both in the author and his detractors, and it exposes the reader to new horizons. I may say, too, it’s one of the few areas in which the idea of the marketplace of constitutions has any merit.

  5. What delightful writing! Admirable!

    Nature lies. What is the chameleon’s camouflage but a fraud? Human mendacity is a function of our animal nature. We ought to take it — human mendacity — for granted, and not to be surprised by it.

    Knowing this, the discovery of Truth, otherwise called Beauty, of the transcendent ideal, often called “the Divine,” becomes ever more valuable to those of us readily made despondent by its seeming absence: It is a rare earth mineral hidden among a planetary surface of common sand.

    The surprise and delight we should sense in our deepest core — as when I saw it in your writing just now — is the finding of that Ideal on the earth plane. And, this I know from experience, when we look for that — the Ideal demonstrated here — we find it and, wow! is all I can say.

    • Thank you. Your observation on camouflage is excellent, as what you say about beauty. A mountain rising from a level plain is more awe-inspiring than one mountain among many in a range. This is one reason I so like the fortuitous beauties the suddenly stand out in everyday life. Paintings in an art gallery are like those mountains in a range. A chance bit of sunlight on a curious bend in the road is like that solitary peak.

  6. We were required to submit regular reports on books of our choice in sixth grade. I once submitted a report on a Hardy Boy book–I believe it was The Secret of the Old Mill, and this was returned with a terse note to the effect that Hardy Boy books were not books. My next book report was on Richard Henry Dana’s Two Year Before the Mast. This was not because I had resolved to show that teacher that I was not simply a mouth-breathing reader of syndicated fiction, but because the Old Mill and Two Years were both whacking good stories with no mush.

    Incidentally, I read several Hardy Boy books aloud to my children, and I found the prose rather good. The moral lessons are, of course, excellent. And the plots are not as formulaic as my old sixth grade teacher may have supposed. There is also a perceptible change in quality from one author to the next, since I believe many poor hacks wrote under the blessed name of Franklin W. Dixon.

    I suspect that English teachers on the whole have produced more prejudice against literature than for it. I know my own discipline has spread a hatred of maps.

    • One of my favorite books, beginning in the tenth grade when I bought a copy of it, which, incidentally, I still have in my possessions today, was — the Penguin Atlas of Ancient History. The Atlas progresses by important “snapshot” years. When the reader opens the book, the text on the left-hand page faces the map on the right-hand page. There is also a Penguin Atlas of Medieval History.

  7. I’m not sure that many contemporary American teachers of high-school English could, themselves, read through one of the Hardy Boys series; ‘it’s so boring, it’s so hard’. What can one say about a nation that, more or less deliberately, selects some of it’s dumbest citizens to ‘educate’ the next generation?’

    • I know the vocabulary of Franklin W. Dixon would send most college students to the dictionary once or twice. I am not about to argue that The Tower Treasure and A Figure in Hiding are great literature, but every sixth grader should aspire to the moral of Frank and Joe Hardy and the prose of Franklin W. Dixon.

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