Lying, Inc.

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Heroic quarterback Tom Brady was apparently caught lying about his involvement in deflating footballs. One assumes that such prevarication counts for little in the larger scheme of football and Tom Brady’s own career trajectory. His defense is that he did not need to use underinflated footballs to win, so what did a lie or two matter?

Were he a second-string quarterback on a losing team, he might be roundly denounced and suffer real consequences rather than a likely brief suspension. No one ever quite believed Lance Armstrong when he swore that he was not using enhancement drugs; they assumed he certainly was doping, but preferred to see him excel and set records first, and then only later get caught and fess up. When he was no longer in the news, then his lying caught up with him.

The national hero Gen. David Petraeus was caught lying when he told federal officials that he had not shared top-secret documents with his mistress. The law and the public apparently bestow to Petraeus, a good man, a sort of exemption from serious punishment on the logic once outlined by Pericles about putting into context the sins of the military hero or in the fashion that we forgave Bill Clinton’s untruths. Academics assured us that in matters of adultery, constructing competing narratives is quite understandable for all involved and sometimes good etiquette.

NBC anchor Brian Williams was not so much a liar as a bard, who spun yarns about life-against-death encounters, in which as Achilles he was always at the forefront of turmoil. Williams lied simply because as a talking head he could become both oral poet and Homeric hero all at once. His autobiographical sagas certainly jazzed things up at 6:00 p.m. Few question network anchor newsreaders. In Williams’s case his “aw shucks” mellifluous shtick and understated dramatics were his versions of hexameters and type scenes, and so made his lying a bit easier to swallow.

After his brief suspension, Williams might even return to his multimillion-dollar per year perch, with the understanding that he can restore NBC ratings and profitability, and do that with occasional exaggeration rather than outright making up stuff. And why not lie, when NBC itself doctors 911 tapes to confirm that George Zimmerman was a racist?

Everyone knows that “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” was an outright lie. Michael Brown never did or said that. Forensics, logic, and the majority of eyewitness accounts confirm that the strong-armed robber struggled with a policeman, lunged at his weapon, ran away, and then turned and charged him, not that he was executed in polite submission.

Does that lie matter? Not at all. “Ferguson” is routinely listed as proof of police racist brutality -- and by no less than the president of the United States. Michael Brown is now the Paul Bunyan of the inner city. U.S. congressional representatives and professional athletes alike chant and act out “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” dramatics. The public shrugs that although it is all a lie, it is felt to be sort of true on the theory that something like that could happen one day, and thus it is OK to lie that it already has. Most knew that the strong-arm robber Michael Brown was about as likely a “gentle giant” as Trayvon Martin was still a cute preteen in a football uniform.

Community agitator and frequent White House visitor Al Sharpton has lied repeatedly about his income taxes and the reasons why he cannot produce accurate tax records, in the manner that he habitually lied about the Tawana Brawley case, the Duke Lacrosse caper, and the Ferguson “hands up, don’t shoot” meme. The public assumes both that Sharpton is an inveterate liar and that to dwell on the fact is either a waste of time or can incur charges of illiberality or worse. Most are more interested in his more mysterious, almost daily-changing appearance than the untruth that he hourly espouses.