"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Telling It Like It Isn’t–The Beautiful Art Of Deceit

Everyone knows that truth is a valued commodity, especially because it is so hard to find. We all fib, exaggerate, embellish, invent, and out-and-out lie; and today more than ever we get away with our deceit.  Politicians lie through their teeth and deny wrongdoing.  Preachers philander and filch until they are caught.  Husbands look their wives straight in the eye and tell the most outrageous, outlandish, barefaced lies. Children lie about their whereabouts, CEO’s lie about mergers, buy-outs, and downsizing.

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Richard Nixon would baldly lie to hide is crimes and political dirty tricks, never flinch before the cameras, and never admit to any wrongdoing.

Bill Clinton used his particularly gifted intelligence to do everything to admit the truth but never actually lie.  His testimonies during the Monica Lewinsky scandal were examples of linguistic parsing, philosophical needle-threading, and balletic moves, all devised to hide the truth.

Politicians, preachers, and priests all seem to be in the business of hiding the truth for personal gain or to cover up moral failings.

The rest of us, common American citizens, are no different.  We like, fib, distort the truth to suit our needs, and do anything to conceal our infidelity, waywardness, or financial irresponsibility.  The truth is there when it is unavoidable and absolutely necessary, but not before.

Eyewitnesses think they are telling the truth, but they are so deceived by their own perceptual apparatus that they swear up and down that they saw X do Y to Z, all of which has nothing whatever to do with what really happened.
The Internet is an ideal breeding ground for deceit and deception. The easier it is to click-and-share, the more immediately sensational and compelling the graphic images, the easier it is to assume the truth.

There is plenty of residual guilt to go around.  Men do indeed have their moments after crawling into bed, showered, powdered, and mint-fresh beside their sleeping wives. They look over at their wives and watch their sweet, untroubled, and innocent sleep; and feel pangs of inconsolable guilt.

“How was your business meeting, darling”, the wife asks, stretching and putting her arms around her husband’s neck, kissing him on the cheek.

“What have I done?”, the husband thinks to himself. “How could I have been such a deceitful cad?”; but of course, having gotten away with his adultery, and surprised at how easy it was, any resolve made at first light dissipates at the first martini of the evening and goes away entirely after the third.

Moralists like Immanuel Kant wrote that lying was morally reprehensible:

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)
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Yet why is lying – the most persistent, durable human trait – criticized rather than admired? Lying is not only as common as a winter cold, at its best it is an art, and the bald-faced lie, told with no expression of deceit, no anxiety or guilt, is shamelessly perfect.  In the face of such universal, daily, unrepentant deceit, moral censure seems sanctimonious at best.

John Malcolm was such a perfect liar.  He chose his roles carefully and never repeated a performance.  He avoided trivial lies – why he was late for an appointment or why he forgot to return a call – and saved his stage time for the more serious deceptions. He could lie thoroughly, convincingly, and empathetically when it came to professional advantage. No one doubted his sincerity and good intentions.  His words were reassuring, his body language was sympathetic, patient, and accommodating.  His handshake firm and gaze clear and untroubled.  He had so concealed his real intentions and purpose that not only did his clients, associates, and rivals believe him, but they raised him to a higher moral standard.   Malcolm was better than Jean-Louis Barrault, Sarah Bernhardt, and John Barrymore all rolled into one.

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The lies he told his wife about his unfaithfulness were persuasive, compelling, and brilliant.  They were masterfully-crafted, artful denials couched in sincere apology, expressed with  loving concern and compassion, and expressed with a practiced physical intimacy that no woman could refuse.  To his lovers he was equally passionate about love and caring; his growing dissatisfaction with his wife, his intention to be free of her yoke and finally able to live the life he deserved.  At the same time, he was convincing in his demurrals when it came time to break off his affairs.  No one could have framed such escape more poignantly and attuned to his lovers’ concern.  He was not right for them, he argued, a flawed, immature, deluded man who should never inflict his pain and uncertainty on others, let alone those who loved him.  No, they were better off without him.

Liars come in many forms.  The elegantly persuasive like John Malcolm are of one type, the bombastic liars like Donald Trump are another.  Trump, his opponents claim,  is an inveterate liar, a shameless huckster with no respect for the truth.  He tells barefaced lies, distortions, and exaggerations but, to his critics' surprise, his partisans are unconcerned.  They can easily extract the main messages from his hyperbole, melodrama, and Las Vegas showmanship.  They have no interest in the ‘truth’ and could care less about statistical accuracy.  They want no carefully-worded statements of policy, no considered on-the-one-hand-on-the-other economic reasoning.  They want the meat and care little about the gravy.

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Everyone knows that for Trump there is no such thing as truth, only the theatrical semblance of it.  It could be true is the essence of the bombastic liar.  Democrats are corroding the country from within, intent on destroying our free market system, promoting welfare for the indolent, creating a politburo of American Trotskyites, a socialist elite whose goal is nothing less than a complete remake of democratic institutions.  Whether any of these claims are true or not makes little difference.  They could be true, and that’s all that counts.  Trump is a master of guilt by inference, innuendo, and suggestion.  Yet he does not insinuate.  He shouts, he declaims, he demands.  His oratory is inflammatory.  He is enraged.   His fustian performances are believable and persuasive, confident as he is of his base, and as disdainful of his opponents. 

As a son of Hollywood and Las Vegas; a performer, vaudevillian, and big tent revivalist in the old American tradition, Trump doesn’t mean what he says.  He says what he means.  His is a political circus act with a semiotic foundation.  Crazy as a fox and as smart as a whip, he speaks a firestorm but is as rational – more rational in fact – than his opponents who speak in platitudes, shopworn nostrums, and old-fashioned appeals to ‘experience’. No one but unreconstructed liberal elite take him at face value.

Americans never loved Jimmy Carter.  His moralism, his cardigan sweaters, pleas to turn down the thermostat and to embrace brotherhood fell on deaf ears.   As a nation of liars, it was not surprising that we turned against someone who arrogantly claimed some God-given insight into ‘truth’

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Perhaps ‘a nation of liars’ is too harsh.  After all, capitalism is based on selling a bill of goods.  Snake oil salesmen have been around since the beginning of the Republic.  The sub-prime mortgage bankers were no less hawkers of snake oil than the original.  Advertising is based on dressing up the most flimsy product to look like a million dollars.  Marketing is another term for purposeful persuasion.  No matter how much government may wish to temper caveat emptor and protect the consumer from fallacious claims, he always falls for the newest and latest chicanery.  Of course he turns right around and lies to his boss, his wife, his children, and his girlfriend to feather his own nest.

The Clios are awards given to the best advertisements – the ones that are catchy, memorable, and persuasive; and get people to buy what they are selling.  The Super Bowl is one of the most popular shows on television only indirectly because of the football.  Most viewers tune in to watch the ads.  We may admire the truth, but we love getting around it.

So we have to admire the great liars of the world – those that lie with confidence, persuasion, and elegance.  If lying is endemic, part and parcel of the human experience and the human character, practiced daily, incessantly, and repeatedly; then why is the truth so revered?  Platonic ideals are all well and good to read about, but what do they mean in actuality?  It is the artful liar who gets ahead, gets what he wants, and gets satisfied. 

Will Rogers said that “Diplomacy is saying, ‘Nice Doggie’ until you can find a rock”.  Diplomats are skilled in saying nothing in a persuasive way; telling untruths as though they were Biblical injunctions; and telling truths to seem more attractive and alluring than they really are.   Lying – or at least the art of subterfuge – is at the heart of international relations.  We admire the skilled diplomat for his artistry, not for his recitation of facts.

John Malcolm was a consummate liar – perfect at his craft, a theatrical master, a genius.  A quiet, unassuming, undiscovered standout in a competitive world.  He was brilliant and an expression of what, if not the best of America, certainly the most telling.

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