A Stab at the Heart of Human Society

RICHARD REEVES

September 10, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

New York. -- If the worst is true and the United States is indeed destroying itself, economically or ecologically, politically or spiritually, this will be our epitaph: ''They lied!''

When I was younger, I thought lying was un-American, even if I was one American who sometimes did it. My illusions, like those of others of my generation, were shattered in May of 1960, when it was revealed that we, specifically President Eisenhower, lied in the matter of the shooting-down of an American U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. The Soviets, in the person of Premier Nikita Khrushchev, were telling the truth.

That was literally unbelievable to an American student in those days. ''They'' lied; Americans didn't -- or so we thought. ''We'' subscribed to a literature of truth.

''The whole way to hell,'' said William Penn of lying.

''Half the truth is often a great lie,'' said Benjamin Franklin.

''Sin has many tools, but a lie is a handle that fits them all,'' said Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Quaint stuff to people as sophisticated as you and I. We sometimes ''misspeak'' ourselves, to use the phrase that emerged in the festival of American lying known as Watergate.

Now, who cares? The most depressing thing about the era we grew into, or created, is a bored toleration of lying. We all do it, of course -- well, most of us. I was most struck a couple of years ago by a Wall Street Journal survey of personnel officers, who estimated that 40 percent of the resumes they saw were phony to some degree. If he without sin must cast the first stone on that one, I am eliminated several times over.

Is that where it begins -- that ultimate American liberty, the freedom to define and redefine yourself? I sometimes think it began with Hollywood. As I read it in my first encounters with the business of show business years ago, the ethic was this: ''OK, I lied. You caught me, good for you. Now let's go back and start from where I . . . ''

Maybe it started in the defense industry. Am I the only American who is shocked by the little items that regularly pop up in the business sections of newspapers saying that General Electric or Northrop or some other contractor admitted or pleaded no contest to charges that it defrauded the government by faking test results or using materials it knew to be below contract standards? It's the same with drug manufacturers or automobile companies.

Who cares? What does it matter? It is simply rude to use the word ''lie'' or, worse, ''liar'' -- as in ''Oliver North is a liar!'' Now people pay to hear him.

One impolite little publication that does use the word ''liar'' whenever and wherever it applies is The Washington Monthly, the province of an uninvited Washington insider named Charles Peters. Earlier this year, he assigned one of his writers to do a piece called ''Lie Society,'' arguing that lying was a natural consequence of becoming a national-security state -- lie about the communists, lie about the number of dead in Vietnam, lie about arms deals with Iranians and the Iraqis.

''Part of it was the national-security atmosphere,'' said Mr. Peters. ''Decent and respectable men stopped questioning themselves about unjustified lying in the late 1940s. They got used to lying their heads off and got away with it . . . Then you had the explosion of that great industry, public relations, which created celebrities, made-up people.''

The writer, Peter Gray, a science writer by trade, offered this analysis of the content of the front section of the New York Times on March 27, 1992:

''One in four scientists suspect their peers lie about their work; nuclear test-site employees in Nevada, claiming they were lied to about the dangerous levels of radiation to which they were exposed, are suing the government; two California inmates are freed after 17 years in prison for murder after three 'witnesses' admit they lied in their original trial testimony; the federal government and Rockwell Corp. admit to lying about their handling of radioactive waste at the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant; a letter to the editor defends a law firm that lied on behalf of a client, Charles Keating; and an op-ed piece notes that as a Silverado Bank officer, Neil Bush approved a $100 million loan to his business partners and then, straight-faced, claimed he never suspected it was a conflict of interest.''

It's killing us. How can government of the people survive if the people believe or accept things that are not true -- and they may know are not true? To quote one more American, Ralph Waldo Emerson, on lying: ''Not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but stab at the heart of human society.''

Emerson was a pretty sanctimonious fellow who may have never lied to get out of a lunch date. But that doesn't mean he was wrong. Even leaving President Bush and Bill Clinton out of this, lies are personal and public betrayals more certain to overthrow a country than violence -- and if there are more of them now at all levels of American life, it means that we are in greater trouble than we think.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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