Big Lies and Little White Lies

Pinochio

The redesigned Newsweek started coming a few weeks ago amid promises of combining the best of print newsmagazines with their cousins on the Web. They broke their promise. I presume it was a case of misleading PR rather than an outright lie. I wouldn’t have thought about lying if it were not for an article in this latest issue about that very subject. The article I refer to is a book review by Tony Dokoupil of James Stewart’s Tangled Webs. Stewart writes about some of America’s greatest living liars, defined by court judgments of perjury and the like. The names are very familiar: Barry Bonds. Martha Stewart (no relation), Bernard Madoff, and Scooter Libby.

I do not know the work of Stewart the author, not Stewart the felon, but the review presents his pedigree.

Through three decades, eight books, and countless articles, the gentleman scribe has made exposing liars the leitmotif of his career. Just don’t ask him to explain why. “It’s in the Ten Commandments!” he exclaimed recently over a plate of candied-almond pancakes. “Do you want to see what a society looks like where everyone lies? It’s horrendous! It’s corrupt!” It’s also America, at least as Stewart presents it, sounding the alarm on “a surge of concerted, deliberate lying” at all levels of society.

Stewart has settled on a few of the most blatant of headline gathering cases. He has limited his book to criminal lying, skipping over what I see as a much more dangerous form of lying, the lies we tell ourselves about the state of the world. It’s lies like Bush’s claim of “Mission Accomplished.” In one sense this falls into the category of little white lies, not quite true, distorted so as not to dash the hopes, expectations, ego, dreams of those to whom the lie is aimed. Another, more nuanced, more insidious form of lying, in this case to oneself, is the denial of reality--a common occurrence that has great social, public implications.

Climate change deniers are an obvious example here, but so are those that claim that inequality either does not exist or is good for us. In these cases it is not necessarily a character flaw as it is for Madoff or Bonds. It may be true dissembling (a politically correct term for lying) or the distorting work of ideology at play. Ideology has a strong tendency to filter the truth found in reality to fit the needs of some argument framed to convince or persuade. All forms of lying from those Stewart writes to the little white lies that go for news and PR erode public life.

What concerns Stewart the most isn’t the everyday street criminals who blinker cops but white-collar royalty, those at the pinnacle of media, politics, sports, and business, who are supposed to be role models, not rogues. Although there are no data on this clean-handed corruption, Stewart believes it’s on the rise, threatening to swamp the legal system, stymie the courts, and sow cynicism nationwide. Ultimately, he argues, “it undermines civilization itself.” That’s a grand statement. Limited to the kind of blockbuster cases that Stewart examines, however, it’s hard to deny its essential truth. Lying under oath is poisonous to a society rooted in fair play and rule of law. And when the most public of liars aren’t pursued and punished, more lying ensues, reducing the chance of any one person getting caught and encouraging still others to deceive.

Another form of lying comes in the way science is used to tell stories about the world. I take the grand pronouncements of economists (arguably not true scientists) as a prime example. It’s not that economists are liars in the sense of Bernie Madoff; they are accidental liars, but liars all the same. The lies comes in the “truths” about the economic future that their models predict, and which then are used to set policy and make decisions that have grave societal implications. The elevated status of the Nobel prize-winning economists blinds us to the inevitable falsity in their work. Their models cannot capture the full reality of the complex world and always work in a cloud of uncertainty. Uncertainty is a nice, neat technical word that means that the information being produced is not precise. Stated more crudely, it means that the models tell lies; little white ones for sure, but untruths about the reality of the systems they apply to.

Madoff got away even as some people grew suspicious of his promised returns. This dangerous consequence of lying comes from an underlying trust that is part of the glue that holds societies together. We want to believe that people are telling the truth, even when we have an inkling of the opposite. The famous White Sox baseball scandal of 1919 spawned an apocryphal story of a little boy going up to Shoeless Joe Jackson, a fabulous hitter and uttering, “Say it’s not true, Joe--please!” We want to believe in our heros.

We want to believe in the truth about everything. All meaningful human relationships depend on it. All relationships depend on it, even those with non-humans. When our actions are predicated on lies, a more pejorative word for untruths but categorically the same, the outcomes may not turn out the way we expected. We are taking a big chance on our future by mixing up uncertainty, white lies about climate change, with downright big lies claiming that nothing is awry. It is the same about every aspect of unsustainability. Whatever has become unsustainable is always in part a consequence of these little white lies. Now that I am driving a hybrid, everything is going to be all right. High-fructose corn syrup is not harmful. Nuclear plants are safe.

These little white lies about the state of the world and how our actions affect it are unavoidable. Our knowledge about the world will always be incomplete. If we accept that it always lies to us, but unavoidably and innocently, we can act appropriately through the frame of pragmatism. Pragmatism is a way of acting deliberately and consciously within the untruths of analysis, always watching the results and adjusting to maintain the course toward the ends being sought. Even pragmatism fails to work well in the face of deliberate lies. If we are to cope with the huge social and environmental breakdowns of the moment, we have to start by telling the truth, as closely as we can.

ps. I'm thinking about canceling my Newsweek subscription.

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