The Inanity Defense

In a banner year for local scandal, the public figures starring in the assorted follies have been offering up some mind-boggling excuses. It makes you wonder which is worse: the violation of our trust, or the intelligence-insulting whoppers that follow.

Illustration by Vicki Ellen Behringer

Illustration by Vicki Ellen Behringer

I don’t object to being lied to by people in the public eye. As a resident of Massachusetts, I’ve become accustomed to it. What I resent is being lied to poorly. Because that sort of thing doesn’t just reflect badly on the liar; it also reflects badly on the lied-to. When someone lies poorly to you,
it means they think you’re a moron. There’s a sense of “Well, I wouldn’t be handing you this manure if I didn’t think you’d eat it, so mangia!”

That said, the absurd lie (along with its cousin, the wholly implausible excuse) can also be an effective tactical maneuver, as its frequent and successful use this year demonstrates. Certainly, we’ve been treated to some pretty outrageously lame whoppers in 2008 from masters of the form, people with names like Mitt, Sal, and the lesser-known but equally adept Albert.

Given the sheer volume of offensiveness we’ve been subjected to, you’d think we’re simply a state of morons. But if that’s not entirely true, it does pose some awkward questions: Why is it that the local power structure seems to believe we are? And, more important, why do we let them carry on with such a low estimation of our intelligence?

The art of the absurd lie rests on the liar’s ability to issue a statement so dumb or outrageous that it cannot be countered by a thinking individual. The intended result is to get you, the deceived, so frustrated and angry that the liar looks sane and forthright in comparison. Used in measured doses, this trick is merely a conversation stopper. For instance, when Globe metro columnist (and Boston magazine foe) Kevin Cullen was criticized this summer for calling Delaware part of the Confederacy, he responded by devoting a column to blaming the lapse on the fact that he went to UMass, while simultaneously implying that the real reason people had attacked him so vehemently was that he attended a state school and they were elitists. If your brain is an engine, this kind of reasoning is the banana in the tailpipe.

Oftentimes, the strategy is deployed out of presumption of virtual invincibility. Once you attain power around here, you tend to stay in power until you and you alone decide to step down. When you lie so baldly, lazily, you do it because you have always done so with impunity. If it’s worked this well for this long, why expend more effort than you have to? Our labor groups and politicians have the routine down cold. The cop union’s continued insistence that traffic details make roads safer—despite reams of evidence to the contrary—is a good example, topped only by the likes of the abject nonsense heaped upon the populace by disgraced firefighter/bodybuilder Albert Arroyo, who topped himself when he went on the radio in August after his retirement appeal was rejected (like his initial diagnosis, it emitted a faint quacking sound), and claimed he was able to be both hideously disabled and utterly jacked because he never lifted weights of more than 30 pounds.

House Speaker Sal DiMasi, who’s been bombarded for much of the year by damning revelations, has put on a veritable clinic in the use of the bafflement defense. He first turned to the tactic during the Richard Vitale scandal. Vitale, DiMasi’s chum and former accountant, had been paid $60,000 by the Massachusetts Association of Ticket Brokers to help push through DiMasi-backed legislation that would deregulate that industry, a task for which his primary qualification seemed to be his long ties to the House speaker, and perhaps the quarter-mil he’d loaned DiMasi, at a sweetheart interest rate, the year before. To the average observer, taking money from an interest group to work a relationship with an elected official to get a piece of legislation passed looks a lot like lobbying—an activity Vitale was not properly registered for, in violation of the law. But DiMasi saw nothing unbecoming in the whole arrangement. Vitale was not a “lobbyist,” a spokesman argued, but instead a “strategist,” and that was that. It was only after Vitale was forced to register as a lobbyist, mainly on account of all his lobbying (which included being on the payroll of Cognos, a software firm that won a controversial DiMasi-backed contract with the state), that DiMasi was finally cornered, and paid off the loan.

DiMasi dipped into the same playbook when more trouble arrived a week later—and why not, since it had proved so effective the first time? After he filed legislation that would make it easier for his close friend Jay Cashman to build wind turbines in Buzzards Bay, DiMasi was asked by reporters whether he’d sat down directly with Cashman to discuss the matter. He said such a meeting hadn’t happened. When that was revealed to be untrue, DiMasi told the Globe that “it was not my intention to give the impression that I didn’t meet with Mr. Cashman,” adding that if they did meet, there was no wrongdoing; even if they discussed wind farms during the session, they never touched on the specific Buzzards Bay wind farm Cashman wanted to build. For his part, Cashman spokesman George Regan (whose firm also reps both Vitale and this magazine) said initially that Cashman wasn’t sure if he’d met with DiMasi. Seeing that dodge later rendered inoperative, he said, “We’ve never denied any meeting with the speaker, and in fact we informed the Globe that he met with the speaker’s staff and that the speaker may have been present.” By the time the public was asked to swallow the suggestion that Cashman simply didn’t notice that the diminutive and retiring DiMasi was sitting in the corner while the developer met with his aides, most people had decided they had better things to do than try to parse this insanity.

Such are the insidious effects of living in a bullshit-rich environment, where carrying on an intelligent discussion about politics can be like trying to talk situational ethics with a Tickle Me Elmo doll. Ordinarily smart, savvy people throw up their hands and withdraw altogether, figuring it’s beneath them to engage with this claptrap. Better to regard the whole thing from an ironic distance with a mix of resignation and suppressed mortification, like those Cape residents who wake up every few years to find themselves buried under 6 inches of shrieking, humping cicadas. All the bad lies may not actually make us dumber, but if they get us to tune out in disgust, that accomplishes the same end.


Would it be unfair to blame all this on Mitt Romney? Well, yeah, but that’s hardly a deterrent. Everyone’s favorite Plasticine supervillain started us down this slope in February when he bowed out of the presidential race with an exquisitely sleazy Parthian shot. Was he quitting because he was getting his clock cleaned? Because of his uncanny ability to inspire intense and immediate dislike in the hearts of even the most ideologically aligned Republican voters? Of course not. Because to acknowledge such factors would be to invite more questions about the viability of those future runs for office he so wants to make. So Romney went hard in the opposite direction: “If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention,” he said, “I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and, frankly, I would be making it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. Frankly, in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.” As far as I can tell, never has a foundering candidate tried to make himself look good by suggesting he’d become a threat to national security. Mission accomplished, Willard. The mind, she is officially boggled.

But the Romney example also shows the limitations of the absurdity defense, and stands as a positive sign that a pushback is on the way. Romney didn’t get the VP nod he wanted because apparently he’s even more of an unknown quantity than an unvetted Alaskan politician no one had ever heard of. Arroyo is off the job, and the exuberantly crooked-looking Boston Fire Department, for which he’s become the poster child, is under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The governor is making noises about curtailing police details. DiMasi, who not long ago was the King of Beacon Hill, now carries a mild stink of political vulnerability, and today is under the cloud of twin ethics investigations. Others who have offered their own laughable defenses—Jim Marzilli (D-Bench) and the forgetful-but-certainly-not-amnesiac Clark Chris Christian Karl Rockefeller Chichester Gerhartsreiter—are facing charges.

So perhaps, for a time, our crop of local villains will be forced to adopt a more nuanced defensive posture than just blurting out the most outlandish thing they can think of. Something with a slightly longer expected shelf life. That, or we’ll continue on with this dark period, which in addition to all the aforementioned has produced one of the more spectacular examples of utter absurdity this city has seen in some time. It was, fittingly, prompted by Albert Arroyo and company. After the extent of the pension abuses and the more uproarious cases of illegal activity at the BFD surfaced, the union and the accused handled everything so ineptly that the man who had allowed the problems to fester for years, the man closing in on becoming the longest-serving mayor in city history, somehow wound up bearing the mantle of reformer. As far as the straining of credulity goes, that’s right up there with filing for disability to free up time and energy to pursue a career as a bodybuilder.