No, we’re not talking about a new Nintendo handheld here.
NOTE: This is something I wrote circa 2006; it applies pretty well today.
Since the dawn of organized politics, those in power have gotten themselves in some sort of trouble. Whether that trouble involves sex, drugs, money, power, or a combination of all those (and maybe a little rock n’ roll), there’s something that shrewd politicos have developed to keep them alive and kicking. Actually, there’s five “somethings” that are in this Machiavellian toolchest, and they are the five “Ds” which you’ll learn about.
First of all though, why should you care? Oh sure, you could take what you learn here today and use it to spot some of these tricks that are used by politicians of any stripe when they have to squirm. The more devious among you [beady eyes!] may find the information presented here of great value, though I’m sure you already will know these basics. With that said, let’s get started with what these five dark arts are: deny, delay, distort, deceive, & distract.
Let’s start with denial. Imagine this: you’re at a news conference and a questioner blitzes you with a question like, “why did you lie about such-and-such”? We might expect a capable, emotionally well-developed person to come clean at this point. Ah, but that’s so boring! Besides, do you really want people to think of you as a liar? Of course not! This is going to be the time to use denial. Against weaker willed opponents, this can work wonders – they’ll simply sit down and shut up. If you get someone a little more stubborn, you’ve got a few options. “You’re taking my statements out of context” is often useable, as is “that’s not exactly what I said”. Both of these imply that the questioner doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and will put you back on the offense. If nothing else, “I have no memory of making that statement” will alleviate some of the heat on you.
Unfortunately denial doesn’t always work, as seen with the whole Monica Lewinsky affair, as well as with a more recent incident with Donald Rumsfeld where a reporter asked why he had lied about WMD. When deciding whether or not to use it, remember the mantra “plausible deniability”. Meditate on this well.
There are times when denial isn’t going to cut it, or it needs a helping hand. That’s where our second D can help: Delaying. In our fast-paced culture, delaying can be an extremely powerful tool for taking off heat. Simply acknowledge the issue only as little as possible, if at all, and the next scandal or disaster to come along will undoubtedly come along and take the focus away from your indiscretions.
For a few testaments to this technique, does anyone remember the Downing Street memo? How about Valerie Plame, the CIA operative that was outed? They likely exist as dim memories right now to most people, which shows how powerful this technique can be.
If simply forgetting the past isn’t enough, there’s always the subtle tweaking of it. Distortion is our next tactic, and unlike the other two Ds I’ve mentioned so far, you can use distortion even when you’re not in trouble!
The key to distortion is not to lie – at least, not completely. Again, this is all about tweaking the truth to fit your ends. In fact, distortion was what statistics was invented for! As an example of distortion, let’s take an economics report that says “the jobless rate decreased”. Alright! We’ve done something right….right? Well, pay no attention to the other count of people that were previously making much more money before, that is, the underemployment rate has increased as well. Classic distortion there.
Distortion can also be used to muddy things up, which is often an effective strategy for confusing the issue to the point where people give up trying to understand it. To some extent, this can happen naturally, especially with as many media outlets as we have available.
When I think about distortion though, it really is the venial sin when compared to the next D: Deception. Oh yes, this is where the big boys and girls flex their muscles, make no mistake. Now sure, I could’ve folded this into distortion, but I thought since five is greater than four, I’d sound more impressive.
In any event, the thing that separates distortion and deception is fairly simple: distortion picks and chooses ‘truthy’ (to quote Steven Colbert) elements, while deception is an outright lie. Examples of this phenomenon abound and I’m sure many of you have your own favorite examples, so I won’t delve further into it here.
The fifth and final implement of the squirmy politician is distraction. In stage magic, they call it ‘misdirection’. This is my favorite D, because I get to mention ancient Rome, particularly a poet named Juvenal. He was the originator of the phrase “bread and circuses”, describing how the emperors would use cheap food and coliseum events to distract the poorer members of the populace to keep them from rioting.
Distraction goes hand in hand with delaying, because it draws the negative attention away from the scandal in question. One recent example is Bush bringing up a gay marriage scare in June when his poll numbers were sagging heavily.
That about summarizes the five Ds. As you’ve noticed, there is considerable overlap between them, and that’s by design. Many of the Ds are meant to dovetail with each other, to reinforce their collective power. Master them, and you’ll find that not only can they be used fairly interchangeably, but also can be used on top of each other – a distortion of a distortion or distracting away from a distraction! Remember, the next time you’re in trouble, think, “how can the five Ds help me right now?”