Past weeks have seen a great deal of attention paid to now-disgraced NBC Anchor Brian Williams and the lies that brought him down from the heights of status and popularity. Apparently it did not occur to Mr. Williams, or to his early supporters, that an anchorman’s “irrelevant” lies about his wartime exploits are something more than small indiscretions; they go to the heart of one’s honor and credibility as a reporter of news—news being by its nature facts buttressed by a bit of context and some superficial analysis rather than just “good stories.”
Recent weeks have seen another, less-noted development that also points to the problem with lying in American public life. The story concerned bicyclist Lance Armstrong. Mr. Armstrong was famously caught out in his years-long lie that he had not taken performance-enhancing drugs to win various big-event races. His admission has cost him a great deal of money, but he is not parting with it easily, let alone graciously. It seems one of Mr. Armstrong’s sponsors won a multi-million dollar suit against him on the grounds that his doping (and subsequent forfeiture of a number of bicycling titles) violated their contractual agreement. Mr. Armstrong has responded by fighting the order to pay. The lawyers’ semantics of that dispute would be worthy of enjoyable mockery, if they did not serve to further an increasing wave of intellectual dishonesty threatening to wash away what is left of our public honor.
Sin being a deep-rooted part of human nature, dishonesty is nothing new. But in recent years there has been an increasing toleration for lies of important kinds, told by important people; and such habits are catching. Republican government relies more on honesty than any other because the people must have facts on which to make electoral decisions, and this requires a generalized habit of truth-telling and truth-demanding. Unfortunately, Americans seem ever more indifferent to the truth, preferring to escape, and let their leaders escape, the consequences of their own actions and their own lies by arguing over, to quote one shameless former president, “what the meaning of is is.”
It is worth asking a general question about those who make lies a part of their business model and the increasing number who actually extend their practice of lying to the courtroom and other official documents and proceedings “under penalty of perjury.” The question? Why is it that almost no one any longer is punished for lying? Perjury—“bearing false witness”—for many centuries was a capital offense. Today it seems to be standard-operating procedure. Fraud remains a crime but seems to be prosecuted only against petty criminals and those like Bernie Madoff who are so arrogant and reckless in their criminal conspiracies that their use of lies to loot their “customers” is utterly beyond question.
As we know all too well, the lying problem reaches the heights of our political world. President Obama promised that under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) we could keep our existing health plans; he knew this would not be the case. He also said he supported traditional marriage when, according to his close advisor, he was merely waiting for enough people to “catch up” with his “more progressive” views on the matter. And then there are the Obama immigration decrees, which his staff now calls “common sense,” but which he repeatedly acknowledged before was beyond his constitutional power: the making of new law.
Politicians never have been among those from whom the people generally could expect to hear truth. Nevertheless, there do tend to be ups and downs on what one might call the “mendacity meter” in American public life. LBJ’s infamous “credibility gap” seemed a down time, and so does the present. What makes the situation worse is a general unraveling of public demands for a certain level of honesty and, as important, punishment for liars in the form of professional and personal disgrace.
George H.W. Bush lost his chance at a second term as President in significant measure because he was thought to be dishonest for first stating “read my lips, no new taxes,” then raising taxes. But his successor bore no such burden of responsibility. Few people remember, if they ever knew, that Bill Clinton, after being impeached–but lamentably and through cowardice not removed from office–had to accede to suspension of his bar membership because of his perjury. Clinton’s claims about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky (among others) involved lies—that is, intentionally misleading statements. His defenders continue to pretend that Mr. Clinton’s lies do not matter because the underlying acts–adulterous sex with someone working for him in the White House—were not directly related to his official duties. Yet Richard Nixon’s acts related to a bungled break-in as part of a feckless and utterly unnecessary campaign to undermine an opponent (George McGovern) who had no chance of defeating Nixon in the ensuing election. One could “explain away” either underlying act.
The point is that in both cases a sitting President sought to obstruct justice, in significant part by lying. In each case the President, sworn to see that the laws are faithfully executed, sought to subvert them for his own ends. In each case the actions were equally shocking, damaging to the rule of law, and worthy of removal from office. In Nixon’s case, realization of inevitable failure led the president to resign. In Clinton’s, shameless ambition and lack of character combined with a smug and sadly accurate assurance that the American people now care too little about truth and virtue and his Republican opponents lack sufficient will and loyalty to the nation and its standards to do their duty brought resistance and continued power. This is not progress.
I would not want to overstate the dire nature of our current state. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn told people “live not by lies” he was urging, in effect, the downfall of an evil political religion seeking to rule according to the lies of human perfectibility and the efficacy of tyranny. The lies of communism in effect killed hundreds of millions but eventually were revealed as such and massively rejected. Today the danger is not so much organized lies as a general loss of honor, a kind of lethargy in the face of temptations to, among other things, lie. But it is a real danger, potentially sapping our ability to judge our leaders and govern ourselves and even our most basic relationships with one another.
More than three hundred years ago liberal philosopher John Locke, in his “Letter Concerning Toleration” urged protection for almost all religious believers (besides Catholics, who were deemed “loyal to a foreign prince”). He rejected protections for atheists on the grounds that their word could not be trusted, their oaths being sworn to no higher being, hence meaningless. It is fashionable today to dismiss such concerns as rooted in superstition and prejudice. We should trust one another’s words on faith, we are told—though faith in what is unclear. If not a mutual recognition that we live in an ordered universe in which false oaths bring damage to oneself, either directly from a personal God or through permanent damage to one’s soul, what is left for the enforcement of oaths and contracts? How are we to trust one another in the basic dealings of life, let alone the crucial determinations made by courts and self-governing peoples?
The “economic” argument for truth-telling is punishment. If we are caught lying, we will have to pay a price, through prosecution or the enforcement of contracts. This self-delusion has been shown repeatedly for what it is. Only a society that values truth above expediency will punish lies with sufficient frequency and severity to keep them from undermining itself. As with all laws, unless the vast majority of the people the vast majority of the time choose on their own not to commit fraud or perjury, transaction and enforcement costs will allow too many people to escape punishment and the standard of truth-telling will falter. As for the softer means of enforcement—damage to one’s reputation for honor and truth-telling—these rely even more than the law on generally accepted standards, which, here, already are far gone into disuse.
What our culture needs is an antidote for the sense of entitlement infecting our highest echelons of power and prestige, an attitude which has spread throughout our culture, in particular by means of elite educational institutions and their progeny. One has no “right” to have others do one’s work, or to keep that which one got through one’s dishonesty on account of “really wanting it,” let alone to escape responsibility for one’s actions through lies. Americans today feel they have the right to bow before no one and nothing. But our liberties were founded on our willingness to bow before God, the law, and the truth about ourselves and our actions. The disgrace of Brian Williams, should it stick, will be but one necessary step on the road toward recovering a sense of honor that applies to those in prominent positions of public trust—and also to ourselves.
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