Is lying as American as good ol' apple pie?

The Argument

There's lots of evidence that the only public shame is to get caught -- but falsehood is fraught with dangers.

April 16, 2000|By Norah Vincent | Norah Vincent,Special to the Sun

America hates a liar -- or, at least, it hates a liar who gets caught. Lies, per se, are not un-American, of course. By design, Hollywood, the American mythmaker, is and always has been a cottage industry of fancies and fakes. It has infected the whole of American life so much that we are almost unable to distinguish between real and celluloid life -- a truth richly examined in "Life: The Movie" by Neal Gabler (Knopf, 290 pages, $27.50). We like our history revisionist, our effects sanguinary and our endings sanguine. Such are the dreams our stuffing is made of.

American politics is no different. There legerdemain is de rigeur and deceit is common coin. We expect as much and tacitly endorse it in the name of party politics. So long as the well-oiled wheels of mendacity are cosmetically disguised, we raise no objection to them turning on our behalf. But when affairs of state become affaires of state, the jig is up. The machinations of "good" government are odious in the light of day, and we disown them.

Take the late impeachment of Bill Clinton, for example. Republicans disowned the president. Democrats disowned the lie. When it was Nixon under fire -- when it was Reagan -- the opposite was true. It's how the patriotic system works.

Perhaps, then, it wasn't incidental that British-born journalist Christopher Hitchens was the only American leftist to break ranks with the Clintonati and finger the president for what he was: a liar -- who did eventually get caught, but not nearly as often as he should have. His recent book "No One Left To Lie To" (Verso, 113 pages, $19) is an object-lesson in the best and cleanest sort of muckraking.

When Hitchens also exposed the creative truth-telling of one-time New Yorker squibist cum White House crony Sydney Blumenthal, he became persona non grata among his apologist colleagues. (Hitchens submitted an affidavit to House investigators stating that Sidney Blumenthal had made disparaging remarks to him about Monica S. Lewinsky. Hitchens' affidavit contradicted Blumenthal's sworn testimony.) Hitchens' stated reason for fingering a former friend: "The pact which a journalist makes is, finally, with the public."

How centrist. How un-American. But, maybe it was time someone salvaged truth in the U.S. press. Veteran journalist James Fallows had already diagnosed it as an ailing, increasingly schlocky enterprise in "Breaking the News" (Pantheon, 1996).

The fourth estate had also suffered a devastating blow in 1998 when young associate editor Stephen Glass was caught fabricating entire purported news stories in the New Republic. An inquisition ensued and Glass' name was mud. Fact-checkers everywhere cowered in shame.

In 1996, a similar brouhaha had erupted in academia. Dr. Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, had perpetrated a fraud on the obscurantist academic journal Social Text -- submitting a parodic article that, after it was published, he exposed as a hoax. His aim? To prove that postmodern theory is a jargon-heap of nonsense that even its purveyors don't understand. Subsequently, Sokal published a book-length jeremiad on the subject titled "Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science" (with Jean Bricmont, St. Martin's Press, 1998).

Writing in the New York Times, academia's gilded wonder-boy Stanley Fish, who himself has just written a book that belies the objectivity of truth, which he considers socially constructed -- "The Trouble With Principle" (Harvard University Press, 288 pages, $24.95) -- accused Sokal and his ilk of fostering "a deep and corrosive attitude of suspicion."

And so, perhaps he did -- or at least a healthy skepticism about impenetrable academese and the vacuity it often hides. But Fish, like Hitchens, had a point: A free press, like the larger liberal society of which it is a part, can operate effectively only if the members of that society are assumed to be telling the truth most of the time. In her landmark classic on the ethics of truth and falsehood, "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life" (Vintage, 1978), Sissela Bok underlined this point:

"[T]rust is a social good to be protected just as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink. When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse."

Perhaps we might qualify Bok's statement by specifying that "free" societies falter without honesty. Tyranny, conversely, cannot exist without lies, and never has. Fascist and repressive Communist states throughout history have made lies (both propagandistic and exculpatory) their stock in trade.

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