The Culture of Lying

Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore got himself into hot water recently by telling a number of whoppers, including remembering being lulled to sleep by his mother singing “Look for the Union Label” (the ditty was written when Gore was 27), claiming he co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act (the legislation was written after he was out of the Senate), and saying he was in on the planning of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (the reserve was created years before he took office.)

Combine these with his well-publicized fibs about inventing the Internet, claiming the book Love Story was based on his and Tipper's romance, and falsely stating that his mother-in-law's arthritis medicine was more expensive than his dog's — along with a number of fabrications made during the first presidential debate — and you're looking at a clear pattern of deception.

Has all this prevarication hurt Gore's candidacy? Not really.

The Vice President is still widely favored to win the election, and nearly half the American people consider him someone they can trust. Is this casual attitude toward lying Al Gore's problem, or ours?

Certainly, truth telling suffered a number of body blows during the Clinton presidency. Besides his perjury during l'affaire Lewinsky, Clinton's reputation for shiftiness and hair splitting are legendary. A catalog of his little white lies would outweigh the New York City phone book.

Yet, he remains a very popular president. Is this lack of veracity from our national leader his predicament, or the American people's?

It's probably both. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society.”

In the past, for a politician to be caught lying in public was the kiss of death. The severest charge leveled at Richard Nixon during the Watergate imbroglio was that he “lied to the American people.” Former Senator Gary Hart famously denied his philandering and then was forced from the 1988 race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination when he was caught nuzzling Donna Rice.

More recently, George Bush, Sr., pledged during his acceptance of the 1988 Republican presidential nomination: “read my lips, no new taxes.” Shortly thereafter, under pressure from the Democratic Congress, Bush raised taxes as part of his “deficit reduction” plan. The result: A crushing defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1992.

Nowadays, though, politicians seem to be able to lie openly to the American people without consequence. What's happening to us?

In his 1987 best-seller The Closing of the American Mind, the late university professor Allan Bloom made a shocking assertion: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative… Some are religious, some atheists; some are to the Left, some to the Right; some intend to be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen; some are poor, some rich…”

But whatever their backgrounds, they are all, according to Bloom, moral relativists.

Bloom points out that “relativism is the virtue, the only virtue which American primary education has dedicated itself to inculcating in the last fifty years.” This relativism — under the guise of openness — is the great modern education idol. Students are taught in Social Studies that in the “bad old days,” one group always considered themselves to be right and that wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism resulted. The lesson is not to learn from the past and be right; but not to think you are right at all.

Every educational system has the ideal human it wishes to create. In medieval society, it was the pious person; in ancient Athens, the philosophical; in old Sparta, the warlike; in early America, the industrious. Modern public education is no different: it wishes to produce the non-judgmental, tolerant, open-minded, morally relative unit of the state.

And that's exactly what it's done.

If Bloom is right — and there's every reason to believe he is — for over fifty years, the vast majority of Americans have been trained to believe that there is no real truth, what's right is relative, and, hey, who's to say what reality is?

The practical result of this indoctrination is that the love of truth, the virtue Socrates believed to be the bedrock of a democratic society, is virtually extinct as an American trait. Is it any wonder, then, that office seekers feel free to lie blatantly, secure in the knowledge that most Americans don't believe there is such a thing as truth anyway?

Lying will always be easier than telling the truth. The truth can be ugly, messy, painful, embarrassing, unflattering, and difficult to discern. The only sure way to keep truth in circulation is social pressure — the punishing cultural stigma of being known as “a liar.” Once that epithet's sting is removed, the weakness of human nature takes over, and flattery and fabrication will flow unceasingly.

The negative impacts of relativism don't just end with politics, they infect every aspect of our society, resulting in a culture built on lies. (Think how many laws are enacted because we don't trust each other.) Unfortunately, a populace that doesn't demand the truth from its leaders — or from its fellow citizens, for that matter — isn't going to get it from either one.

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