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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Lying–Brian Williams, Lance Armstrong, Bill Clinton, And How We Made Their Lies Possible

In a chilling documentary on Lance Armstrong, Stop at Nothing (Showtime), Australian filmmaker Alex Holmes tells of the cyclist’s rise and fall:

Comprehensively reported, director Alex Holmes’ documentary makes devastating use of Armstrong’s depositions and press conferences to illustrate the vehemence with which he denied doping allegations before coming clean, though not enough to soothe the feelings of those he badgered and sought to intimidate. Perhaps foremost, as shrewdly depicted, the story captures the collective hunger for heroes — and the speed  at which media can turn away from them (Brian Lowry, Variety 11.14)

It was not just that Armstrong lied about his years of doping, but intimidated others to lie as well. According to the documentary Armstrong, leader of the US Postal Service team, convinced all his colleagues to take Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED), maintain a code of silence as absolute and punitive as any Mafia pledge of omertà. As he won more and more medals (seven Tours de France), as his star power increased, and as he became an American hero, his ability to threaten and menace others to guarantee their complicity and silence was complete.

Armstrong was a master at self-promotion and public relations.  His cancer foundation, built on his successful fight against the disease and heroic return to championship athletics, generated millions of dollars; but more than anything it provided an almost invincible shield against investigation into doping.  Largely thanks to his reputation as cancer survivor giving back to the community, he was frequently seen on the dais with Presidents, world leaders, athletes, and Hollywood stars.  From this seemingly unassailable perch, he was able to discredit anyone who even suggested that he doped; and discredit them he did through vicious smear campaigns designed to challenge the reputation of his accusers.  He knew, like a good courtroom lawyer, that the witness is more important than the truth.

Armstrong was unshakeable and implacable in his lies.  He was a master at deception who turned legitimate questions into unfair and reasonable accusations. Given the public adulation, the praise of world personalities, and the absolute silence of all his UPS team members, he went on doping and winning for nearly a decade.

One observer on the Showtime documentary remarked on Armstrong’s ability to tell bare-faced lies without a trace of nervousness, shifty eyes, or uncomfortable rambling.  Each and every time he was asked about doping, he looked his accuser in the eyes and replied with an unequivocal, unhesitating, and viciously stern, “No”.  He was no sweaty, twitchy Richard Nixon.

This wall of deception, intimidation, complicity, and public relations was seemingly impenetrable until a few of his closest friends whom Armstrong had betrayed, risked their own reputations and told the truth.  Once Floyd Landis told his story to a Grand Jury in exhaustive and excruciating detail, the jig was up.  Once Armstrong realized that now that federal authorities were on his case, and he could go to jail for perjury, he started to tell the truth.  In a last ditch, self-serving effort to save whatever remained of his moral standing with the American public, he went on Oprah Winfrey and to each and every one of her pointed questions about whether or not he doped, he replied “Yes”.

Armstrong perhaps hoped that like so many lying politicians who were forgiven by their electorates and reelected, he could rebuild his reputation.  However, this reputation was not built simply on athletics.  If it had been, like many Major League baseball players, he could probably gotten away with an “I’m heartily sorry”, paid his fines and sat out his suspension, and returned to success if not glory.

But Armstrong had not just deceived cycling enthusiasts and sports fans.  He betrayed millions of cancer sufferers and survivors.  He betrayed less gifted young people who were encouraged by his heroic struggles and eventual success.  He could not possibly be forgiven for that.  Armstrong in the view of many was a fundamentally immoral person. He showed not even a scintilla of conscience when he lied, smeared, and defamed even his closest associates.  He cynically manipulated everyone, including the American public.

Lying is common among public figures. The most recent example is that of NBC News Anchor who admitted to making up a story about taking enemy fire while in Iraq in 2003. When recently exposed, he said that he had ‘conflated’ his helicopter which did not take fire and the helicopter in front of him which did.  An unfortunate error in judgment for which he apologized.

Investigation into his reporting on Katrina from New Orleans has suggested that he made shit up there, too. His reports of suicides that didn’t happen, bodies falling from the top of buildings which never flew, and other distortions, misrepresentations, and flat-out inventions are being scrutinized for ‘veracity’.

The ‘conflation’ issue is inexcusable; for not only does it damage the cause of investigative reporting and honest journalism, it makes a joke of the men and women who do come under enemy fire.   It is scandalous.

The melodrama of John Edwards who had betrayed his dying wife, fathered a child whom he denied, and asked a subordinate to take the fall for him and lied through it all was a disgusting spectacle. Mark Sanford, Senator from North Carolina lied through his teeth about his Argentine lover and to cover up a tryst with her in Buenos Aires told his constituents that he had been hiking on the Appalachian Trail. The list is endless. Everyone in power – or so it seems – lies to cover up indiscretions whether financial, marital, or sexual.  The confessional apologies are worse than the escapades, and it is painful to watch dutiful wives and children stand up on the stage with the sinner quietly forgiving and forgetting.

Of course, we Americans are given to hero-worship and tend to leave our senses at the door when a hero candidate appears.  Few of us wondered at a feat that couldn’t possibly be. It is one thing to be Michael Jordan whose brains and superb athletic talent led his teams to victory after victory; but another altogether to win the most grueling, challenging, and brutal sports event ever – the Tour de France.  One or two wins, maybe; but seven? That defied statistical odds by a wide margin.  Any cyclist who has won twice finds it increasingly hard to tolerate the punishing training, the fatigue of constant and absolute discipline of will, and the complete relegation of all other activities.  He rarely wins repeatedly.  Yet no one asked the right question of Armstrong. We were complicit in our willing suspension of disbelief.

Politicians didn’t want to ask either, because they were benefitting from being on the stage with Armstrong.  They could bask in his glow, not the other way around – no risk, and easy gain. Yale Medical School professor Dr. Diane Komp in her book Anatomy of a Lie raises an interesting explanation to the now common phenomenon of lying in America.  Perhaps it is not the lying star figures who influence us, but we who influence them:

"I began to wonder about the possibility that my own seemingly harmless white lies had an impact on the world, that maybe, instead of there being a trickle-down effect when people in exalted positions or in public life lie, there is a trickle-up effect," Komp explained in a recent interview. "In other words, maybe the cultural trend in lying begins with those of us who are not in positions of power, rather than the other way around. Maybe the 'trivial' lies that most of us tell without any real pricks on our conscience do matter." (Yale News, 1998)

She goes on to suggest why people tell lies:

To protect themselves from punishment or embarrassment, to protect their own fantasies about themselves, and to protect the feelings -- or, in extreme cases, the lives -- of others, she says. Regardless of the purpose, "the desire to assume control over another human heart is the basis of most human lies”.

She is not the first to consider lying, to wonder whether ‘white lies’ and ‘compassionate lies’ regardless of their seemingly honest purpose to alleviate pain and suffering, contribute to an erosion of moral rectitude and honesty.

A few decades before Sisela Bok in her book Lying said:

A good man does not lie. It is this intuition which brings lying so naturally within the domain of things categorically wrong. Yet many lies do little if any harm, and some lies do real good. How are we to account for this stringent judgment on lying, particularly in face of the possible trivial, if not positively beneficial, consequences of lying?

Long before Bok, the philosopher Immanuel Kant said that lying was always morally wrong:

He argued that all persons are born with an "intrinsic worth" that he called human dignity. This dignity derives from the fact that humans are uniquely rational agents, capable of freely making their own decisions, setting their own goals, and guiding their conduct by reason. To be human, said Kant, is to have the rational power of free choice; to be ethical, he continued, is to respect that power in oneself and others.

Lies are morally wrong, then, for two reasons. First, lying corrupts the most important quality of my being human: my ability to make free, rational choices. Each lie I tell contradicts the part of me that gives me moral worth. Second, my lies rob others of their freedom to choose rationally. When my lie leads people to decide other than they would had they known the truth, I have harmed their human dignity and autonomy. Kant believed that to value ourselves and others as ends instead of means, we have perfect duties (i.e., no exceptions) to avoid damaging, interfering with, or misusing the ability to make free decisions; in other words - no lying. (Tim Mazur, Santa Clara University)

And well before that the Christian theologian and Catholic saint, Augustine, said:

Wherein if there is any error, yet as Truth is that which sets free from all error, and Falsehood that which entangles in all error, one never errs more safely, methinks, than when one errs by too much loving the truth, and too much rejecting of falsehood. For they who find great fault say it is too much, whereas perhaps Truth would say after all, it is not yet enough.

None of the reasoning of these moral philosophers can explain why we, despite millennia of warnings about the insidious effects of lying, do it more than ever.  Growing up in the Fifties when religion, social conservatism, and traditional moral values still held sway, lying was unacceptable.  You confessed it to the priest, apologized to your parents. Fibs were lies and not tolerated. Of course people lied in the Fifties – how could investment banking, industrial capitalism, politics and the court system survive without it? Lying might have been part of the art of the deal and a good defense, but it was never so endemic and tacitly accepted as it is today. In the thinking of Prof. Komp, it is easier for leaders to lie today because they do so within a social context which tolerates it.

Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, and hundreds of politicians share one common trait – arrogance stemming from the assumption that as heroes they can do no wrong.  Former Senator Gary Hart was so confident of his personal power, that he literally challenged reporters to catch him with his pants down.  They did, and he quickly became history. Armstrong according to the documentary was becoming messianic – nothing and no one could touch him.  He was too smart, too willful and determined, and too good to ever be caught.  In fact, within his twisted logic, his doping and lying produced the inestimable benefit of more cancer research and the incalculable value of hope.  Few people think that he really believed this entirely; and that he was a world-class liar for one and one reason only – self-aggrandizement and wealth.

Bill Clinton’s parsing of language to deflect the accusation that he had sex with Monica Lewinsky seems to have happened in a far more innocent age.  The President obviously knew that what he did was wrong; and he had moral compunctions about the act itself, the deception of his wife, and the betrayal of the trust of the American people.  So in his testimony before the Grand Jury, he said:

"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the--if he--if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not--that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement....Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."

Now almost twenty years later, his demurral seems naïve. Politicians today have their affairs, cheat on their wives, lie about it; and then, when caught, make a public act of contrition and are forgiven by all.  Their wives, often from humble beginnings, are anxious to keep up the good life, fame, and invitations to Washington’s best events. Their children are proud to say, “My Daddy’s a Congressman”.  Good Christian constituents believe that the message of Jesus was forgiveness and redemption; and the many monied interests the politician favored are loathe to see him dunned out of office.  The media are always looking for a good story, especially if it is one of a fall from and then return to grace.

As Komp suggests we all are like that.  Fewer of us have Father Brophy to scare us in the confessional and stern, disciplinarian fathers to lay on a few lashes with the razor strop. Morality is relative, we say, and having rejected formal religion with its absolute dicta about right and wrong, we devise our own standards.  There is no quicker way to moral lassitude than that.  No more slippery slope to perdition, as the good fathers used to say.

What is perhaps most amazing in all this is that despite the fact that everyone gets caught, people continue to lie. Husbands are congenital liars about their affairs and tomcatting.  Children lie outrageously to their parents.  Politicians lie and cover up their indiscretions.  The Catholic Church lied for decades about the sexual abuse of its clergy.  Each and every one of the ‘Seven Dwarves’, CEOs of the tobacco industry lied to Congress about the addictive nature of nicotine.  Richard Nixon consistently lied to the American people about Watergate.  They all got caught.  The faithful wife sees an open email on her husband’s computer. Investigative reporters now armed with an arsenal of high-tech snooping tools play gotcha for fun and notoriety. Whistleblowers are everywhere. The Survivor Culture in America has encouraged many aggrieved and abused Catholics to speak the truth about their priests.

We all think that we are too smart and agile to ever get caught; and it is that arrogance which is a trait common to all of us liars.  In this era of permissiveness and erosion of institutional authority, we can easily justify lying as ‘harmless’; and that too, characterizes us all.

“Why shouldn’t I leave my loveless marriage behind for a few hours every once and a while? I am entitled to some genuine love”, say self-pitying and selfish husbands. “I am lying to protect the American people”, say spies and the NSA. “OK, so I fudged a little on my resume; but my credentials are otherwise rock-solid and any employer would be happy to have me”.  And on it goes.

There will be more books to come on lying; but probably fewer and fewer. Social media have added a complexity to the issue, for no one has to be what they really are on Facebook; and in the age of virtual reality there is no such thing as a lie.  Perhaps, then, all of us liars are simply the avant-garde wave of the brave, new world coming soon.

The only good thing about all this is that most of us feel at least a twinge of guilt when we lie.  Deep down we know it is not right, and although we get over it quickly, that little twinge never really goes away.

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