A Nation of Liars
The attorney general of the United States lied recently to Congress. He said he knew of no citizen’s communications that his department had monitored. Lie!
In fact, Holder knew that his subordinates were targeting reporters. He also did not tell the truth about the New Black Panthers case. He had sworn that there was no political decision to drop the case. Not true; the decision came from the top. He again lied about the time frame in which he first learned of the Fast and Furious case.
The director of national intelligence also lied, likewise while under oath to Congress. At first James Clapper confessed that he had given the “least untruthful” account.
Nixon’s Washington used to call that sort of neat lie “a modified limited hangout.” Later, Clapper admitted that he had just flat-out lied to Congress. Was he disgraced? Fired? Further confirmation of his “largely secular” lie?
Nope. Nothing followed.
Elizabeth Warren simply invented an entire pedigree. That blatant lie helped to earn her a Harvard tenured professorship and a U.S. Senate seat. Ward Churchill was doing well until he dared the country to call out his lies. Who is to say that Warren or Churchill cannot be Native Americans by professing to be Native Americans?
Barack Obama, as is the wont of politicians, has lied a lot — and from the very beginning of his national career. He knew Bill Ayers well, Tony Rezko too. He lied about his decision not to seek the presidency as a newly elected senator, and lied about his willingness to take public campaign financing funds in 2008. He misled about what he would shortly do about most of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols. Obama lied about much of his own biography.
When the president uses emphatics like “make no mistake about it,” “let me be perfectly clear,” and “in point of fact,” we know what follows will be untrue. He did not cut the deficit in half in his first four years. He had no intention of ever doing so. He lies about the circumstances of America’s gas and oil production surge — occurring despite, not because of, him. He lied about his involvement in the radical ACORN community action group, and fabricated about his father’s and grandfather’s World War II involvement.
Tally up what Barack Obama said about his health care initiative, the border fence, and his fiscal policy. Almost all of the major assurances proved lies.
Ministers of Lies
But why pick on the president?
The media routinely peddles “noble” untruths. ABC manipulated a video to show George Zimmerman without much injury to his head. NBC edited a tape to suggest that he was a racist. The New York Times invented a new journalistic category, “white Hispanic,” to suggest George Zimmerman was not Latino in a way that the paper would never suggest that Barack Obama is not African-American or Bill Richardson was a “white Hispanic.”
Much of the prosecutorial testimony in the George Zimmerman case could not be true — unless someone gets grass stains on his back and contusions on the back of the head from pounding on someone atop him. Prosecution star witness Rachel Jeantel made up much of her racist testimony, and boldly confessed as much in her paid-for after-trial interviews.
It’s Not Really the Cover-up
Our current scandals are predicated on lies. No one believed the official White House version that the IRS miscreants were rogue agents from a Cincinnati field office.
No one believes much of the official version of the Benghazi killings — least of all that the violence was prompted by a single video maker in the fashion that Susan Rice assured the nation.
The attorney general of the United States lied about the AP/James Rosen monitoring while under oath before Congress.
James Clapper lied about the NSA scandal. All four travesties are still being sorted out. For now the one commonality is that our officials lied about all of them.
Harry Reid knew nothing about Mitt Romney’s tax returns. But lied about them all the same. It is hard to know whether Joe Biden lies, or simply believes his fantasies. He assured us that President Roosevelt addressed the nation on television after the panic of 1929. Remember in 1987 when he lifted much of his campaign stump speech from British Laborite Neil Kinnock?
Our most treasured icons in the media and literature lie. They tell untruth sometimes in the most serious fashion of claiming the work of others as if it were their own — or simply inventing things out of thin air. Fareed Zakaria plagiarized. So did Maureen Dowd.
Nearly all of Stephen Ambrose’s work, book by book, was characterized by both plagiarism and false statements about archives and interviews. Michael Bellesiles was given the Bancroft Award for a mytho-history. If historians could not initially spot the lie, who else could? Or did they try all that much, given the enticing but mythic thesis that today’s gun nuts, not our hallowed forefathers, dreamed up a nation in arms?
Is There Anyone Left Who Doesn’t Lie?
Why do they lie? Because they can. Or to paraphrase Dirty Harry, they like it. We are a celebrity-and wealth-obsessed society, in which ends, not means, count. Barack Obama got to be president — who now cares how?
That Joe Biden habitually makes things up is the stuff of “that’s just old’ Joe,” not a career-ending felony. Hillary Clinton lied a lot when she was first lady about documents under subpoena. She lied as a candidate about being under fire in the Balkans. And she lied as secretary of State about the train of events in Benghazi.
And? Those lies were either forgiven or forgotten, or contributed to the “complex” persona that now is among the most widely admired in the U.S.
Lying, of course, is a symptom of hubris. The once leftist and long-haired radical Stephen Ambrose finally assumed that he was Lord or Master Stephen Ambrose, voice of an entire generation, accustomed to instant TV access, huge advances, and minute-by-minute adulation on the street.
Lying won him all that, and he knew it. I remember him over three decades ago flat out lying about most of the details he offered on World War II while on The World At War. So to be sure, I watched the young Ambrose lie again last night on that documentary. But no matter: he seemed cool with long hair, a sweater, and an attitude, far more hip than the old plodding Brit historians who were meticulous in their honest recollections.
When caught, a dying Ambrose was unapologetic. He must have reckoned, why say “I’m sorry” to a society that did not care how he had become famous, only that he was? Had Martin Luther King, Jr. told the truth that he stole sizable work from other scholars to write his doctoral thesis, he would never have become Dr. King. Omitting that detail paid dividends.
We claim that no one fools history, especially in the age of the Internet. I grant few do, at least in the long run. Yet in the 21st century, the rub is not getting caught for plagiarism, but doing a cost-benefit-analysis of the downside of now and again agilely lying and plagiarizing, versus the upside of short-cutting to fame and riches.
Doris Kearns Goodwin is a plagiarist. But after a brief sojourn in the Washington doghouse, she is back again on television. Bringing up her untruth would be bad manners.
In Ambrose’s case, it seemed a simple decision. It was “take another multimillion-dollar advance and spend 3,000 hours out of the limelight” — or “take the money and simply cut and paste the work of others over a few hundred hours.” Did he fear that his widely read publishers and editors worried about sales, or the integrity of their branded text?
It was not entirely money that drove columnists or reporters like Mike Barnicle, Patricia Smith, or Jayson Blair to lie, but the desire for attention, prestige, and being something more than an honest reporter in our empty metrosexual elite urban culture.
The Cover-up Pays
We repeat the nauseous canard that “it is not the crime, but the cover-up” that gets you in trouble in Washington. But that too is often a lie, at least most of the time. Had Eric Holder told the truth about Fast and Furious, the New Black Panther case, or the AP/James Rosen case, he would not be attorney general now.
If Susan Rice had gone on television and confessed the details about the status and recent history of the security measures in Libya, or the true nature of the post-“lead from behind” misadventure, or the spread of post-bin Laden al-Qaeda franchisers in 2012, she might have been out of a job — either by dismissal or by the failure of her president to win reelection. Lying worked. Obama is president. She is national security advisor.
Had Jay Carney confessed that the talking points about Benghazi were doctored from the outset, it might have mattered in the 2012 election. Lying then and now worked.
Why Do Our Best and Brightest Lie?
There are both age-old and more recent catalysts for lying.
One, lying and plagiarism are forms of narcissism. I know fabrications are born out of feelings of inferiority that makes an otherwise fine historian like a Joseph Ellis or a good actor like Brian Dennehy make up an entire war career, replete with tales of personal gallantry. But they persisted in such seemingly destructive behavior because they assumed that they had reached a level of fame and stature that made them immune from the normal accounting laws of the universe. There is no servant running along our triumphant masters when they star on television, muttering to them “Respice te, hominem te memento,” or at least “memento mori.”
Sic transit gloria? We would counter with vero possumus!
Two, lying more often than not pays. Take an ethical shortcut and the odds are small that one gets caught. Yes, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Fareed Zakaria were found out. But after brief anguished penance, they reinvented themselves and returned to the level of their prior stature. Perhaps some young journalist one day will do an Ambrose on them, and review all their previous work. But for what purpose? We know they have been dishonest once, and suspect the modus operandi was not a one-time occurrence. But we also know that the purified water in which they swim is not too toxic for liars and the dishonest.
Liars are good at what they do. Eric Holder certainly is. Again, like a shoplifter, why stop when you have mastered the craft? Does anyone think Patrick Fitzgerald is going to come out of retirement to indict Holder the way he did Scooter Libby for a crime that did not exist, and had it existed was committed by Richard Armitage — and known thusly to both Colin Powell and Fitzgerald himself at the outset?
Three, more recently postmodernism has blurred the divide from reality and truth. Tsarnaev is not quite a mass murderer, given his looks and youth. Major Hasan is guilty of work-place violence. For thirty years, the acolytes of fakers like Michel Foucault have taught our elites that truth is socially constructed — a relative thing, a power narrative fabricated by those of the right race, gender, and class to perpetuate their privilege. Howard Zinn could publish fantasies because who was to say that they were entirely wrong, and who would dare suggest that his myths were not put to a good cause?
Note that Maureen Dowd, Fareed Zakaria, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mike Barnicle, and Eric Holder shoot their sometimes false arrows at the right targets. Does it then matter that their missiles were occasionally plastic rather than of authentic Native American wood?
Much of what Barack Obama has weaved about his past girlfriend, his parents’ meeting, his father’s/grandfather’s war service, or his upbringing in Hawaii at one point or another is false. But why would I mention that if not for illiberal political reasons? And what a 59-year-old, rural white guy from the Central Valley calls “truth” may not be so for a young multiracial child coming of age in Hawaii, anguished at having door locks clicked by “typical white” people as he crosses the street.
So Why Not Lie?
I end with three reasons to tell the truth. The majority has to tell the truth — to the IRS, to the police, to the DA, to the census — if a consensual society is to work. You readers tell the truth so that the society can survive an Eric Holder or Mike Barnicle. Average people must speak honestly or our elites’ lies will overwhelm, even destroy us. If 100 million tell the IRS lies during audits or take the 5th Amendment, our voluntary tax system collapses. We can take only so many Lois Lerners.
Two, this often sordid, sometimes beautiful world is not the end. There is transcendence. Lies damage our soul. Selling out in the here and now has consequences later on. If you are religious, your immortal soul is lost. If you are not, at least consider that your legacy, heritage, and remembrance are forever ruined. Ask the ghost of Stephen Ambrose. What good was all that money, all those interviews if based on a lie? All the insight and delight that he brought millions of readers was tarnished. And for what, exactly?
Third, we must strive to be tragic heroes, perhaps not as dramatic as Ajax, not as cool as Shane. Would you rather have been Ethan Edwards or Will Kane or have run Lehman Brothers in 2008? Sometimes, in less dramatic fashion, the choices are that Manichean.
We must try to tell the truth, not to doctor films, edit tapes, erase talking points, or lie before Congress, fabricate heroic war records, or invent false sources. Again, why? Because we seek to do the right thing with the full resignation that in the here and now we will often still lose and will lose often and gladly telling the truth.
“We always lose,” says Chris at the end of the The Magnificent Seven after he did the right thing. Or to paraphrase the cinematic T.E. Lawrence about Auda Abu Tayi, we will not lie, as do our elites, because it is simply “our pleasure” not to.