Glow Booze
Friday Ephemera

Ambient Truth

One for our collection, care of Zoe Williams:

I think she [Margaret Thatcher] almost certainly didn’t say it (the bus thing). It’s just ambiently true, because she seems like a person who hates buses.

The alleged comment in question - “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus, can count himself a failure” - is difficult to verify and somewhat implausible but is nonetheless repeated by Thatcher’s critics, including the BBC. Its repetition seems to exist independently of a reliable source, possibly because so many would like to believe that it’s true. What’s interesting, though, is the notion that this claim, and by extension any number of others, is ambiently true. Which is to say, it’s assumed as somehow typical - accurate or not - and fits a chosen narrative. Presuming the particulars of what so-and-so might as well have said (or done) – whether or not they did – is ripe with potential. It’s therefore no great surprise that others have taken this strategy much further - to its predictable conclusion.

As when Johnathan Perkins, a black law student, told the University of Virginia’s student newspaper that while walking home he’d been taunted and intimidated by two white police officers. Perkins’ letter claimed that “most Americans are raised in racially sterilised environments,” and that “black people are accused of… playing the victim.” The student’s stated hope was that, “sharing this experience will provide this community with some much needed awareness of the lives that many of their black classmates are forced to lead.” A subsequent investigation, involving dispatch records, police tapes and surveillance video from nearby businesses, revealed the student’s story to be entirely fabricated. In a written statement, Perkins admitted, “I wrote the article to bring attention to the topic of police misconduct... The events in the article did not occur.”

As Mark Bauerlein noted recently, Perkins’ dishonesty was oddly free of consequences, for him at least, and not without precedent. Previously, a 19-year-old freshman ransacked her own room and scrawled racial slurs across its walls before curling into a foetal ball, supposedly in shock. When this “hate crime” was revealed as a hoax, Otis Smith, a regional president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, was remarkably untroubled. That the events had been staged and then lied about was, he said, “largely irrelevant.” He added, “It doesn’t matter to me whether she did it or not because of all the pressure these black students are under at these predominantly white schools. If this will highlight it, if it will bring it to the attention of the public, I have no problem with that.”

Similar instances of students fabricating “hate crimes,” rape and “hate speech” aren’t exactly hard to find. Maybe what we’re seeing is, at least in part, a kind of activism, albeit one with an unhinged postmodern twist. Perhaps Mr Perkins and his fellow dissemblers believe themselves to be righteous in illustrating some greater truth – an, as it were, ambient one – in the service of which lies can be told, proudly, repeatedly and in good conscience.



We have hate crime hoaxes over here too:

They've occurred in France & Switzerland too.

If status is determined by victimhood then I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised, much like with the bogus misery memoirs or the way certain radical feminists seem to have been raped every other week (Andrea Dworkin springs to mind).

Any attacks on people who had been "raising awareness" of "far-right" extremists that is usually a hoax. The over use of cliches like a noose or a swastika is also suspicious.

Karen M

Johnathan Perkins, a black law student...

Jason Bontrager

I find the hypocrisy of a black student falsely claiming victimhood to bring attention to his assertion that black people are accused of "playing the victim" particularly amusing. The saddest part, to my mind, is that he's effectively living *down* to the stereotypes that he's decrying. Reminds me of the Islamists who threaten to kill anyone who says that Islam is a violent religion.

To quote Sheryl Crow (who, ironically, got it wrong), "isn't it ironic?".


It’s just ambiently true, because she seems like a person who hates buses..

How does 'a person who hates buses' seem...?


“How does ‘a person who hates buses’ seem...?”

Well, indeed.

But I thought it was small children that she hated; all of them, obviously, but especially the poor ones.
And puppies.
And of course the blind.

Didn’t she bite the head off one? Or was that Ozzy Osbourne…?

Tom Foster


'It’s just ambiently true…'

Hahaha. I spotted that one too. It reminded me of Mr Hari's recent statements. Hasn't he claimed that, although his interviewees didn't actually say what he said they said, it's OK because that's the sort of thing they've said before – and in any case, it's all in aid of some higher truth… or something.


" To quote Sheryl Crow (who, ironically, got it wrong), "isn't it ironic?". "

Sheryl Crow seems like she would have said it but wasn't it Alanis Morrisette who actually warbled that line?



Sheryl Crow? You mean Alanis Morissette.

It's so ironic that you should get the artist wrong.


It's so ironic that you should get the artist wrong.

Or is it just ambiently ironic?

sackcloth and ashes

Of course it's OK to tell lies and act in a deceitful manner if you're doing it for the 'right' reasons. Just look at how Johann Hari is being defended by the likes of Peter Preston, Laurie Penny, Polly Toynbee, Simon Kelner et al.


I seem to remember Piers Morgan using a similar line after being sacked for publishing those fake prisoner abuse photos. Ah, yes:

"..the pictures accurately illustrated the reality about the appalling conduct of some British troops. "

Some on the left just seem to have a pretty slim grasp of facts; their lies or fabrications are often portrayed as revealing 'a Deeper Truth' or 'the Reality' of a situation far better, to their minds, than the actual truth would- maybe because the real truth wouldn't fit with their pre-conceived ideas?


The road to truth is not paved with lies.


"Similar instances of students fabricating “hate crimes,” rape and “hate speech” aren’t exactly hard to find."

In fact, they seem easier to find than the actual "hate crimes" they're supposedly trying to bring attention to.

Andrea Harris

Actually, it doesn't seem at all like the kind of thing Thatcher would say, and she never struck me as the sort of person who "hates buses." I mean, she always struck me as a very pragmatic person who would just see a bus as a vehicle for getting from point A to point B. And her generation was one where cars were something of a luxury, not a "must have" for any man to be considered not a failure. (As a matter of fact, the car = success thing is an *American* idea. Why would Thatcher, an Englishwoman, care whether a man owned a car or not?)

I tried to read that Zoe Williams article, incidentally, but I couldn't make sense of it. It seemed to be one of those looking-for-a-new-victim angle things ("I live by myself and people think I'm unloved! They're victimizing me with their pity!") but it just sort of rambled on pointlessly.


I love that :) It's 'ambiently true'. In other words it isn't true but I want to believe it so much that I think I can almost convince myself it is true.

A Guardian credo, that.


Its repetition seems to exist independently of a reliable source.

10 minutes of googling and all I came up with is 'so Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have said' or 'she famously observed'.

So it's a famous quote but no-one knows when and where she said it?


Or possibly they're just moral imbeciles.

sackcloth and ashes

Stephen Colbert refers to 'truthiness' - 'truth that exists in the gut, not books'. A further definition is that it is 'the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true'.

So a concept hitherto applied to the right of the political spectrum is applicable elsewhere. I'd point you not only to the examples of Hari and Morgan, cited above, but also the recent brou-ha-ha about Sheikh Raed Salah, and the claims by his defenders that 'he's not an anti-Semite' (even though he cites blood libel, claims Jews did 9/11, and also fondly reminisces about the day in which he drew a swastika on the blackboard in his classroom ...)


Reality is a malleable concept, when you know you are just, well, 'right'.

Check out:
UN Human Rights Council’s expert on Palestine, Richard Falk.


"If this will highlight it, if it will bring it to the attention of the public, I have no problem with that.”

What exactly is "it"? There can be no "it" for a lie to point to, since any such "it" would (by definition of a lie) not be real.

Simen Thoresen

Excellent, David.

I know ambient truth as Fake but accurate from elsewhere - specifically Rathergate ( and the Mohammad al-Durrah ( case. I also wonder if Obamas birth certificate would fit into this topic...

I guess the main point is that you don't need any real evidence to document or support the known truth, so if you need something solid, then making something up is just as good as fining something real.




“I tried to read that Zoe Williams article, incidentally, but I couldn’t make sense of it. It seemed to be one of those looking-for-a-new-victim angle things.”

Yes, Zoe’s “peculiar randomness” (as one reader puts it) isn’t always easy to follow. She seems to want us to believe that an unspecified “we” are in some way being oppressed by what unspecified other people think of our living arrangements. Like whether we own cats. For an avowed egalitarian with “a mind of her own,” she seems awfully preoccupied with her theoretical social status and any imagined attempt to diminish it, however intangibly. What other, unnamed people allegedly think – what they frown upon and “proscribe,” etc – crops up remarkably often in Guardian articles.

It must be because the writers are such thrusting and fearless individuals.

Tom Foster


'I tried to read that Zoe Williams article, incidentally, but I couldn't make sense of it.'

It is incredibly hard to work out what her point is, though taking her last sentence…

'People who prefer to live alone at least have the independence of spirit to do so; £3,500 is a small price to pay for a mind of your own.'

…as a reasonable summary of her position, I assume what she's trying to say is:

1) People who live alone are the only people who can really think for themselves.

2) They are oppressed by people who live conventional, bourgeois family lives being mean about them.

3) It's wrong that it's more expensive to live alone – perhaps the government should step in and do something about it.

I wonder if she's talked to her colleague, George Monbiot? If memory serves, he thinks the whole country should be one big commune where people who have more than one room to live in are forced to give them up to house other people.


'People who prefer to live alone at least have the independence of spirit to do so; £3,500 is a small price to pay for a mind of your own.'

Didn't Virginia Woolf say something along these lines....? And yet a room of one's own doesn't seem to have done much for Ms. Williams (whose prose, I'm sad to admit, has defied my humble attempts to parse as well).

Here in the States we have Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, who have "said" all kinds of things that nobody can accurately source. In fact, there's a whole left-wing group called Media Matters, which describes itself as "a Web-based, research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media." They do little but transcribe Rush Limbaugh's show, so you'd think it'd be easy to point out where these quotes came from. But no... they're just "ambiently true," the way Sarah Palin "said" "I can see Russia from my house!"

And, really, what does it matter? The so-called "truth" is just a tool of the oligarchic power elite anyway... or so I'm told by the rest of the Guardian's editorialists.


It is very hard for rational people to understand or even engage at a minimal level with people whose idea of what is real exists only in their heads or those of fellow progressives.

Another disadvantage is the impermanence of their 'reality'. Progressive opinion has wild swings from fervent, "kill the denier" belief in a thing to fervent, "kill the denier" belief in its opposite in often very short timescales.


BTW I hardly ever read the artickes themselves these days, just the comments. One gem from another article caught my eye:

"Capitalism has created the welfare dependency" or words of very similar meaning.

This is another great example of reality being whatever the Left wants to believe.

virgil xenophon

How about the obverse of "ambient truth" (something NOT based on facts)in the form of the label "barely true," i.e., something demonstrably true but supposed to be discounted (by all "right thinking" people)as if it were untrue. Awhile back one early am CNN's Carol Costello was running a series of some clips of recent political ads, the last of which was a dynamite Rand Paul ad about Obamacare quoting the CBO as saying the Obamaites had double-counted the claimed 500 million savings by the elimination of payments to Medicare. It was a devastating indictment of the mendacity of those promoting Obamacare in the effect of its presentation. IMMEDIATELY following the running of the clips Costello announced to the camera (somebody must have REALLY been monitoring things like a hawk in the control room to realize the deadly implications of what they had just allowed the public to see) that (para from memory here) "what you just saw in that last clip offered by the Rand Paul campaign, "while barely true, is highly disputed by many who say it will never come to fruition," etc. LOL! is "barely true" same same "partially pregnant?" These lefties kill me..

Rich Rostrom

I think perhaps the correct term is "bad facts". The principle asserted in the case is correct, even though the actual evidence is all the other way.


In a very real way, not being oppressed is the worst oppression of all. If you think about it.

Col. Milquetoast

It’s just ambiently true

Is there a term for this? Besides "lying" I mean.

I'm dumbfounded when I come across someone who'll state their line and when pressed may admit it isn't true but then they blithely move on to their next line. After all, they know their opposition is wrong, misguided, dangerous and perhaps even evil so whatever it takes to make sure people shun them is what must be done.

  • ambiently true : obviously has too much shiny varnish to be useful. To say something is _____ true when you mean false is a farce.
  • lying/perfidy/etc : doesn't capture it's political nature and motivation.
  • propaganda : sometimes pure lies but more often it is simply biased, shallow and/or one-sided. I want a word to convey a complete fabrication.
  • agitprop : limited to propaganda put forward in the arts. I'm looking for a word to express the fictional but presented as reality.
  • disinformation : not bad, but it doesn't convey the vileness of being an unthinking political hack and knowingly repeating lies in an effort to create a new "truth" that everybody knows and everybody knows is true.

Virgil, Col. & Rich,

Bad facts… barely true.”

Yes, I like those.

Years ago, when I was new to this Shouting On The Internet Thing, I was commenting at another website, debating some issue with two other people at excruciating length. I noticed there was an asymmetry in our approaches to the topic. The people I was talking with seemed happy to make rather wild assumptions and to make claims that were often self-flattering but rarely clarified or supported, even when questioned repeatedly. When I managed to disprove one of their key assumptions, this had no impact whatsoever on the adamance of their claims. The tone remained pious and indignant. Eventually, I dug out some figures and quotes that I thought closed the matter once and for all.

The two people I’d been debating with, both of whom were getting quite heated and emphatic, didn’t challenge the evidence I’d presented or address it in any way; nor did they concede the point. They simply ignored the information. Instead, they shifted their annoyance to me personally. By insisting on things that could be verified, and by not accepting their preferred narrative as they felt I should - and all good-hearted people should - I’d somehow become a bad person. And as a bad person, my comments on pretty much anything could be dismissed out of hand. Better yet, they could assign to me views on other, unrelated subjects that I’d never expressed and didn’t in fact hold.

It was an educational moment. And similar exchanges have happened here.


That's a very interesting earlier post David, that I hadn't seen before. I've added some comments there.

I have had (and witnessed) a few encounters like that in the "blogosphere" - some on IT newsgroups, some on politics (particularly gender-politics) blogs. As I suspect you have seen, the internet can easily become an echo-chamber for people with the same views reinforcing their own views. Rational debate is either not allowed to happen, or else an argument goes back and forth for a shockingly long time with no resolution.



“…some on politics (particularly gender-politics) blogs.”

Yes, discussions of gender politics are particularly prone to this phenomenon.

See also this thread involving ‘far-centre loony,’ who felt that “white male” critics of academic feminism should be regarded as suspect unless they first demonstrate their feminist credentials - as defined by… well, people like far-centre loony. FCL declined to address counter-arguments, even points of basic logic, but was happy to make assumptions about my views on unrelated topics and to insinuate that I was sexist while refusing to offer any evidence to that effect. (Despite the lack of evidence, his accusations were no doubt ambiently true.)

And again, by highlighting certain common assumptions, I’d become a bad person.

[ Added: ]

What’s interesting is that almost every exchange of this kind that I’ve had has been with people who aren’t idiots. By which I mean, they’ve generally been students, former students or people employed to educate others, albeit in subjects I don’t hold in much regard. I doubt the same unfounded adamance would be quite so common in debates with the same people on less politically charged subjects. It’s almost as though the people concerned had been taught to react in the ways they did despite their intelligence, possibly because they’d been taught that certain assumptions must be taken as self-evident and certain conclusions must be arrived at regardless of evidence.

Which, oddly enough, is a point I was hoping to convey in the exchanges linked above.


This kind of narrative-driven approach to truth for which mere plausibility is sufficient is what gave rise to the term "reality-based community." Some distinction had to be made between the real world and the tendentious, political representation thereof. Once again I'm led to conclude that the crucial divide in human affairs is not between left and right but between belief and doubt.

Jason Bontrager

Re: Crowe/Morrisette, my bad guys. I can't keep my alt-rock-hipster-chicks straight:-P


I fantasise, therefore I am.

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