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

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Charm And A Silver Tongue - Lying, Falsehoods, And The Fiction Of Truth

Much has been made of the truth lately.  The social media have written new fact-checking algorithms, journalists are like hounds after a deer, and politicians scratch and sniff to uncover wrongdoing covered up by lies, distortions, and misstatements.

Yet everyone knows that truth is an overvalued commodity at best. We all 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.

Donald 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 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 more carefully-worded statements of policy, no considered on-the-one-hand-on-the-other economic wishy-washiness.  They want the meat and care little about the dressing.  

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 hedge 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 lie and 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.

The more complex and interactive the worldwide web becomes, the more truth loses value yearly.  A number of ‘quotes’ by Pope Francis have been circulating on the web, the most popular of which is one in which he says that belief in God is a nice amenity but not necessary to be a good or moral person. Invented scripts attributed to Obama, the Dalai Lama, Eisenhower, and the Buddha are everywhere. When called out, those who have ‘shared’ these quotes and sent them spinning through cyberspace only reply that it is the sentiment that counts.

The truth pales in comparison with the ingenuity, balletic moves, and pure theatricality of invention, fantasy, and clever deceit. Ivan’s Devil in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a vaudevillian who tells Ivan that the world would be a very dull place without him. Goodness, truth, and morality are very overrated, and if we had to hew to the righteous road every day, we would be bored stiff. “Loosen up”, he admonishes Ivan. There is a time and place for moral rectitude and principle, but Lord knows, not always. 


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? 

Imagine a world where every statement is true; if  “I’m just going to pop out to get a quart of milk” was always exactly what the speaker intended? A world where ‘working late at the office’ meant just that?.  A world of absolute face value?

The thing of it is, we are all so used to ignoring the truth and getting away with lies and deceit that it has become our go-to option. Gender equality has leveled the marital playing field.  No one splits because of tomcatting or night prowling.  Marriages of convenience can withstand a lot of distortion; idealistic couples prefer to ignore the truth; and dependent wives choose the lesser of two evils.

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 them 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 and goes entirely after the third.

Harlan Pritchard was at ease with untruth. He had a silver tongue and an effusive charm which no one could resist. Professors, women, colleagues, supervisors, and competitors were all seduced by his grace, intimacy, and personal concern.  They had no interest in really knowing who he was, what motivated him, or from what compassionate or spiritual spring his sympathy and understanding came.  He was so good at his elegant ballet, that people were enticed, engaged, and finally hooked.

Charm and a silver tongue will get you everywhere”, he told his young son. “The only lesson you will ever need to know.”  This bit of wisdom was of course not new, and ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ was the guiding principle 
of P.T. Barnum, the greatest huckster in American history.  

Although there have been plenty of pretenders to his throne, none understood the absolute gullibility of the American consumer better than Barnum.  No matter how exaggerated his claims or preposterous the creatures in his side shows, people packed his big tent and kept coming back for more.

Dostoevsky suggests that Christ was the original huckster, offering man the promise of redemption and salvation but guaranteeing him nothing and consigning him to a live of hunger and misery.  Christ’s rejection of the Devil’s temptations in the wilderness and His crafting of a message of hope to billions who would follow him – “Man does not live by bread alone” – was no more than a bill of goods.

Harlan Pritchard’s deliberate deception worked like a dream. His silver tongue enabled him to lull even his harshest professional critics.  Hours of revisions of proposals, reports, and company white papers were avoided because of his ability to convince people of the irrefutable logic of his arguments and the rightness of his cause. 

His ability to marginalize enemies and build almost universal support among the staff gave him carte blanche. His charm was so convincing that even his severest critics never knew that he had hung them out to dry. He set his own hours, worked at his own pace, produced responsibly if sometimes superficially, and had more time to himself and his personal ambitions than anyone else he knew.

As Winston Churchill said, “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip".  Harland Pritchard was a master. 


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