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How to Deter Bush Fibbing and Hoopster Flopping

How to Deter Bush’s Fibbing and Hoopsters’ Flopping

By Dennis Hans

In the past month I’ve appeared on several radio shows to discuss my essays on the “techniques of deceit” the Bush administration has employed to win public support for an attack on Iraq. One host, France Senecal of KDVS, the station at the University of California in Davis, emailed her questions ahead of time, and here’s one we didn’t get to:

How do I relate my analysis of cheating in basketball (I write about pro hoops for several publications) to my analysis of dishonesty in government?

Here’s what I would have told Ms. Senecal:

In basketball, there is legitimate and illegitimate deception. The legit stuff is aimed at a foe: You look left and pass right, or maybe you lope along at half-speed to lull the defender into a false sense of security, then turn on the jets. The object is to create an illusion with your body language so as to deceive the defender. Such deception violates neither the letter nor the spirit of the rules. Faking fools out of their shoes is a beautiful part of the game.

The illegitimate stuff is aimed at the refs. Some players will create the illusion that they have been fouled by reeling, like a Hollywood stuntman, from legal incidental contact. The tactic is called “flopping,” though I prefer the term “visual perjury,” which better captures the unethical intent of consciously painting a false picture for the refs — that is, for on-court judges responsible for ensuring a clean, honest game.

Over the years I’ve seen many crucial games turn when a key player is flopped into foul trouble and onto the bench. I empathize with athletes who’ve worked hard for years to get to a championship game or series, but then are forced to sit and seeth for long stretches because an unscrupulous foe (e.g., Dennis Rodman) conned the refs into calling bogus fouls.

In democratic governance, as in basketball, there is legitimate and illegitimate deception. The former is rare and limited to wartime and perhaps a few other very special circumstances. During World War II, few if any democratic theorists or American citizens objected to deception aimed at the Nazi or Japanese leadership or battlefield foes. Few Americans today would object to the sending of false signals to Osama bin Laden that might induce him to lower his guard.

Illegitimate deception by a democratic government is aimed not at murderous enemies but upstanding citizens. It is aimed at ordinary Americans who are entitled to complete and accurate information, without which they cannot fulfill their duties as citizens in a properly functioning democracy. Government “of the people, by the people, for the people” is an empty slogan if the people are basing their decisions on distortions and lies fed to them by a cynical administration.

Alas, that is precisely what has happened over the past several months. President George W. Bush and his aides have repeatedly pretended that unproven allegations by discredited defectors are established facts. As a matter of routine, Bush exaggerates, distorts, misrepresents and lies. Even after a lie has been exposed, such as the howler about a “poison factory” in a remote corner of Kurdish-controlled Iraq, the president brazenly continues to peddle it, as he did in his surreal pseudo-press conference of March 6.

Administration deceit is clever, conscious and systematic, as I document at length in the essays “Lying Us Into War” ( and “The Disinformation Age” (

Illegitimate deception flourishes in both the NBA and America’s democracy because the people in position to deter deception refuse to do so.

The rules committee of the NBA has yet to provide the refs with a penalty to impose for flopping. Today, the worst that can happen to a flopper is that he won’t get the call — that is, the ref decides no foul was committed. The flopper need not worry about a special penalty just for him — say, a five-game suspension without pay — for committing visual perjury. That’s why this form of cheating flourishes and has become, to the NBA’s everlasting shame, an accepted part of the game.

The news media in a democracy play a role comparable to the rules committee in NBA basketball, in that they are ideally positioned to deter illegitimate deception. On the Jan. 19 edition of the ABC political show “This Week,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recommended to journalists a deterrence technique that would cause most any leader to think twice before telling his next lie.

“Saddam Hussein is a liar,” Rumsfeld said. “He is still claiming that he won the [1991] war. . . . Now, it seems to me that almost every time you quote something from him, you should preface it by saying ‘here’s a man who has lied all the time and consistently’” (

Imagine if Brokaw, Rather, Jennings and Lehrer applied Rummy’s remedy to Bush’s pronouncements on Iraq, prefacing each soundbite and speech with this warning:

“Here is a president who repeatedly lies, exaggerates, misrepresents, deletes crucial context and states actual facts in a manner cleverly designed to leave a false impression. After he speaks, we’ll be back to tell you which techniques of deceit he just employed.”

If our media were to issue that warning on a nightly basis, never again would Bush squeak a peep about that poison factory, those aluminum tubes or Niger’s uranium. Deterrence works.

*** # # # ***

©2003 by Dennis Hans

Bio: Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball — including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting — have appeared online in Slate, Dime, and The Black World Today ( His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets. He can be reached at

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