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Monday, July 8, 2024

Lying, An American Birthright - Liars And Those Willingly Deceived Make A Good Match

Lying is common among American public figures.  A few years ago a NBC News Anchor admitted to making up a story about taking enemy fire while in Iraq; but 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 Hurricane Katrina from New Orleans suggested that he made stories 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 had to be 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. All of us were awed at Lance Armstrong's cycling feat of seven straight Tour de France victories; but never questioned it. However to win the most grueling, challenging, and brutal sports event ever seven times?  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.

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.  

The more he lied, deceived, and distorted the truth, the more he was lionized - how could the press be so arrogantly destructive of a true hero?  The public, as always in need of heroes, simply turned a blind eye, preferring to bask in the glory of a fellow American, refused to look beyond the spotlight. 

Of course, Armstrong was a genius at confabulation. One observer 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”.

Bernie Madoff, the shyster, convinced hundreds of Jews, most of him his friends, to invest in his Ponzi scheme, a house of cards of no value whatsoever.  He bilked millions and never looked back.  Once again, it takes two to tango.  There seems to be a credulousness inbred in all of us, especially and unfortunately in Americans. 

Rudy Kurniawan, another master trickster, bilked friends, associates, and wine wannabees out of millions in his fake wine scheme.  P.T. Barnum, circus impresario, said 'A sucker is born every minute' and nothing has ever been more true. 

Of course not only the rich and powerful lie - we all do.  Men cheat on their wives and invent the most outrageously implausible, cockamamie fables. Children rarely tell the truth unless called on the carpet.  Lying is endemic, hardwired, persistent, and permanent. 

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." 
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?
Athletes like Armstrong and 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 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."
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.

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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.

Lying is very American, but it is also very human if that is some consolation to moral purists. Credulousness is also American and human - we all desperately want to believe in something, anything that confirms our own identity, commitments, and preferences.  As mentioned, such credulousness enables liars - it is even the first principle behind deception. 

So unless we the gullible public do some serious self-inspection and stop ascribing value to others based on our fantasies, the liars will keep on telling bigger and bigger whoppers and the whole country will be a marvelously fictional place. 

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