“For the history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sown thick with evidences that a truth is not hard to kill, and that a lie well told is immortal.” Mark Twain “Advice to Youth,” 1882
An old joke goes: “How can you tell when a politician is lying?” The answer: “When his lips are moving.” While that may not be universally true, lying and deceit have infested our culture to an extent we no longer expect the truth. Lying is not new, but it has become pervasive.
White lies have always been around; they have always been acceptable and, in fact, are critical to a smoothly-functioning society. What characterizes such lies is that they are told to make someone else feel good, with little or no harm inflicted. For example, when my wife shows off a new outfit it is in my interest to express admiration. In turn, she will say things to inflate my ego, while (I am sure) crossing her fingers behind her back. Lying begins early. I recall occasions when, as a child, lying was preferable to the spanking I would get for a broken window or letting goats into the garden. The 2009 film “The Invention of Lying” depicted what the world would be like without lying – intentionally blunt and cruel, with no religion and no fiction.
There are also lies we expect, especially those from politicians and the marketing departments of consumer goods companies, banking institutions and the like, which download their message on a gullible public – those of whom P.T. Barnum was thinking when he said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” We learn to become skeptics; if we don’t, we become victims.
But there is a line, once crossed, where lies and deceit damage civility and the trust we must have in one another and in the institutions that serve us. Today, such deceit infests our culture. These are lies designed to promote the teller. They are deliberate mis-statements: cheating in schools and in sports, lying to advance a career, politicians promising that which cannot be delivered and bold-faced lies to those whom we love and who love us. We even lie in accusing other of lying.
In 1940, when college students were asked as to whether they had cheated in high school, 20% admitted they had. In a recent poll, the response was 75%. Tellingly, fewer college professors today consider student cheating a problem (35%), than the public as a whole (41%). While both numbers are low, cynicism seems to come naturally to many who teach in universities?
The hullabaloo surrounding Tom Brady speaks to this cultural decline. He is perhaps the best quarterback in the NFL, but it is beyond credibility to believe Mr. Brady did not know the football he was tossing was deflated. This is a man who has played more than two hundred games over thirteen years as a pro. He was first-string quarterback at the University of Michigan for two years, and before that played high school football in San Mateo, California. Of course he knew the football was deflated. But we live in a culture that puts winning above integrity. In doing so, we set terrible examples for children who look up to star athletes. Why did Lance Armstrong feel the need to take steroids and then lie about that fact he had? He was already the world’s best cyclist, and he’d had cancer! He was a certified hero. Did neither he nor Brady consider the effect their lying had on millions of youngsters who idolized them?
We expect politicians to lie. As H.L. Mencken once said, “Looking for an honest politician is like looking for an ethical burglar.” When we see politicians bobbing and weaving, as Hillary Clinton is now doing in search of her progressive self, or Jeb Bush in regard to Iraq, we are reminded of Groucho Marx’s line: “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”
It is amazing that there is no sense of remorse from public figures who deceive. Social media has meant there is no place to hide from one’s past. We are left with absurd excuses: “everyone does it,” or “get over it; it’s time to move on” – excuses apparently acceptable to mainstream media – consider the lies of Dan Rather, Brian Williams and George Stephanopoulos.
There are those in public life that deliberately lie in order to get legislation passed that they believe will provide a public good. I don’t believe Mr. Obama lied with malicious intent when he told the American people they could keep their doctor if they chose. He did so because he believed that passage of universal healthcare coverage was worth a few lies. But, in doing so, he prevented an open and honest debate as how to best achieve that goal. It could be – though it seems far-fetched – that Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton actually felt the video was responsible for the attack on the Consulate in Benghazi and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others. But the information that has since emerged, and the timing (less than two months before a Presidential election), suggest that the statements were made knowing they were false. Their purpose was self-serving. Such deception diminishes us as a people.
When those on the left bellow out, “Bush lied,” it is the bellowers who are lying. Rational people may disagree with Mr. Bush’s decision that took our Country to war in Iraq in 2003, but to accuse him of lying serves only to lessen the credibility of those who disagree with the decision. All the facts we now know support the argument that he, along with the intelligence community and most of Congress believed that Saddam Hussein had biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction and that he was working to get nuclear capability. The lies of the opposition, in this instance, have become so ubiquitous that it is no longer possible to have a reasonable dialogue as to the causes of the war. Instead we get “gotcha” moments that provide no illumination.
One of the worst deceptions of the 20th Century, and one still perpetuated, has been the relatively benign depiction of Communism, especially when compared to Nazism. The Nazis were ruthless killers and rightly deserved our condemnation. In a thirteen-year period they murdered between fifteen and twenty million people, including six million Jews. However, Communists were (and are) just as brutal. A study by University of Pennsylvania History Professor Alan Charles Kors (“The Age of Communism Lives”), notes that the Soviets and Chinese killed a hundred and thirty million people, something to ponder as we open our arms to the Castro brothers.
As Mark Twain warned in the quote at the top of this piece, “a lie well told is immortal.” For the sake of our future and the preservation of our liberty and culture, we must reverse this acceptance of deceit. It is the truth, which is frangible, that sets us free.
The Opinions expressed above are mine alone, and do not represent those of the firm Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co., Inc., or of any of its partners or employees.