Come Clean: It's National Honesty Day

M. HIRSH GOLDBERG

April 30, 1993|By M. HIRSH GOLDBERG

A mother recently wrote to the advice column Dear Abby wondering how to answer her child's query: ''Why don't we have Truth Day?'' Abby suggested that the mother explain that every day is Truth Day.

Actually a Truth Day does exist. I took particular interest in that child's question because I am the one who proposed National Honesty Day, which is celebrated today. I wrote in to Chase's Annual Events, the repository of special happenings, to have it listed, and have been busy ever since the 1991 edition came out responding to requests from around the country for information about how to celebrate it.

While every day should be truth or honesty day, we as human beings need a day or event to focus our attentions -- which is why we have a Mother's, Father's and Thanksgiving Day. The idea for Honesty Day came to me after a book I wrote on lying, ''The Book of Lies,'' was published several years ago. In &L researching and writing this book, I was astonished with how much our history has been affected by lying and how deception is becoming an increasing part of our society. One psychologist has estimated the average person tells 200 lies a day, counting white lies, lying by omission and fudging the truth.

5% Here are just some of my findings about historical lies:

* The inventor of the typewriter lied about why letters are jumbled on the keyboard. The original alphabetical keyboard jammed when typists got up to any speed, so the inventor's brother-in-law devised a scrambled keyboard to slow down typists -- but the public was told the strange keyboard was developed to speed up typing.

* Our continent bears the name of a liar. Amerigo Vespucci lied about being on an early voyage to the New World, but because a letter he wrote referring to that voyage contained his expression ''the New World'' a map maker used Amerigo's name for South and then North America. Ralph Waldo Emerson later bemoaned the fact that half the earth bears the ''dishonest name'' of a ''thief.''

* Our maps perpetuate a lie. The Vikings falsely named Greenland to attract settlers. In fact, this frozen Arctic mass is 85 percent perpetually covered not by greenery, but by thick ice.

2` * Our most revered figures are suspect. Benjamin Franklin, author of Poor Richard's Almanac who preached that ''a penny saved is a penny earned,'' lived lavishly while in Europe and admitted to a dirty little secret: Frugality, he said in 1782, was ''a virtue I never could acquire in myself.''

* J. Edgar Hoover repeatedly fudged the truth to build up the FBI and himself by making the bureau and himself appear to be instrumental in the capture of highly visible criminals, such as Machine Gun Kelly and the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby, both of whom were caught without the FBI.

Of greatest concern is the increase in deceit and deception in society today. Cheating on income taxes is now the biggest crime in America, dwarfing drug trafficking. The Federal treasury now loses upward of $88 billion a year from under-reporting of income and other tax evasions.

The political landscape is getting shadier. The number of federal officials indicted went from 53 in 1975 to 563 in 1985; those convicted shot up from 43 to 470. And the public seems to be losing faith in its elected representatives. A Parents magazine survey found that after the last national election only 10 percent of those surveyed believed the presidential hopefuls had been honest.

The savings-and-loan scandal, the insider-trading practices on Wall Street, consumer scams (fraudulent telephone selling schemes now cost the public $1 billion a year) -- all plague our nation and cost government and the private sector dearly.

If you buy a used car or truck, you now stand a one-in-five chance of being the victim of odometer rollback. And your health-insurance premiums are being forced up because fraud now costs the health-care industry an estimated $10 billion a year. False or inflated claims are said to be escalating, and the fraud is not so much by patients as by the health-care providers themselves.

A National Honesty Day may not stem such a tide, but it can help renew and refresh our sense of values and ethics. When I am asked what activities could mark such a day, I respond that schools could make honesty the subject of assemblies or class discussions, religious leaders could give sermons on honesty the weekend before or following the day, and newspapers and radio talk shows could provide the forums to discuss whether honesty can be a policy in today's America.

Individuals could warn others of business scams they have encountered. People and companies who have demonstrated outstanding acts of honesty could be honored publicly. Just as there are Oscars, Emmys and Tonys to praise performers, I propose that such individuals be awarded Abies -- in honor of Honest Abe Lincoln.

I chose April 30 for National Honesty Day because April is ushered in by the only day on the calendar that celebrates lying -- April Fool's Day. Let April now close on a higher moral note, not only this year but for years to come. My hope is that by celebrating honesty and honoring the honest we can restore trust within our nation and encourage integrity within ourselves.

M. Hirsh Goldberg heads a public-relations agency. Nominations for Honest Abe Awards can be sent to him at Suite 350, CommerCentre East, 1777 Reisterstown Road, Baltimore, Md. 21208.

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