Lord, how this world is given to lying. Quite so, Falstaff, but there is lying and lying. No, not another diatribe on police mendaciousness or theft or even racism, but a little folly on two former, but in their own way famous, European heads of state who were rumbled. Kurt Waldheim deliberately obscured details of his career in the German army. What was he up to in the Second World War? Nothing creditable, according to the diggers-up of documents. But that is not the point. He lied and for that reason deserves punishment. My other villain is Nicolai Ceausescu. He said he was modestly surprised on his 70th birthday to receive greetings from, among others, Queen Elizabeth and the Kings of Spain and Sweden.
The monarchs must have been surprised too. The former Romanian dictator is not on their birthday-card list. He, or perhaps his toadies, had been falsely dropping names. The Ceausescu lie, though, provoked a weary smile rather than a scowl.
The difference between the two liars, apart from the difference between war and a birthday party, is that Mr. Waldheim breached the liar’s code of privilege; Mr Ceausescu did not. The code permits the lie of flattery, particularly when the subject is a person of power. Sycophants are the breath of life to the boss (hey Mr Rudd, they are, aren’t they!). The code also acknowledges that diplomats lie for their country, that truth is the first casualty of war (guess that’s why the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Afghanistan is euphemistically called the War on Terror – allows for the liar’s code of privilege to come into play).
Politicians are not expected to lie (the ALP needs to review its copy of the code), but may conceal the whole truth until they have been sacked and writing their memories (the KRudd memories should make for some fascinating reading). The code has a sub-section devoted to spying. A British Civil Servant, Sir Robert Armstrong, conceded that he was ‘economical with the truth’ when giving evidence in the Sypcatcher case. Spies themselves are totally exempt from telling the truth; you could not be a double agent otherwise. Lovers are allowed beautiful lies. Most greetings contain harmless lies. This is a nice surprise. Good to see you.
Privileged liars prefer not to be called liars. The code has its own vocabulary, with elegant words like hypocrisy, euphemism and insincerity, and jokey ones like whoppers and fibs. As a rough and ready guide to privileged lying, ask yourself: is it reasonable to expect this person to be entirely frank, given his job, background and prejudices? If the answer is no, he qualifies for the liar’s privilege.
In the 1980s nobody doubted that Mr Waldheim was a man of integrity. Before he became President of Austria he was Secretary General of the United Nations, a kind of secular pope, regarded as infallible in his purpose, if not always in his judgments. It would in the circumstances, be judged a small sin: he fudged his CV. His excuse of a ‘frailty of memory’ is not acceptable. Send him to the pillory. He has brought into disrepute the ordinary, everyday lying needed to get through the day without causing unnecessary offence. As Elizabeth Bowen, a novelist, observed, never to lie is to have no lock on your door. Lying, in its white and off-white forms, will survive. No problem. Take care. Have a nice day. You’re welcome.