You lie, I lie, we all lie. Especially politicians, right? Is there anywhere a handhold of truth we can cling to?
In Nana Krame Adjei-Brenyah’s apocalyptic story, “The Era,” included in Best American Short Stories 2019), truthtellers have taken over the world, and the atmosphere is every bit as grim as in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Through interactions in school and at home, we witness the unhappy boy protagonist being told how “slow” he is, a girl being told matter-of-factly she’s ugly, a student telling a teacher he’s fat and a failure. Although the truthtellers are in charge, they’re miserable. On his birthday, lured by his attraction to a girl, the boy visits a home in the poorly maintained district where the subjugated lower classes live. The girl’s family tells lies, such as that the boy’s birthday is a special day and that, despite his misery, all will turn out well. They give him something he’s never had: birthday cake. This downtrodden, lying family is capable of happiness. Admittedly, they exploit other people in an even less hallowed state, the eyes-cast-down “shoelookers,” to whom, for a fee, the family give lessons on how to be happy. The boy escapes back to his unhappy world.
One way to interpret this story is as an affirmation of the notion that society works best when compromise averts conflicts over differences. Social lies enable us to get along.
A literal person might reject that contention. That literal person might also dismiss Adjei-Brenyah’s story as pure fiction, that is, as a pack of lies. Indeed, fiction writers admit they lie. Even when authors depict real-world events as background to novels, they may shorten the time between events and make up dialog in order to keep the narrative tight. Such methods shouldn’t undermine the story’s authenticity, but can we be sure? Maybe the timeline was crucial to the parallel real-life events. Perhaps the dialog turns heroes into cowards, or vice-versa.
Then what are the lies that ought to concern us? Here’s a feel-good story. A tenant farmer is given an opportunity to buy the farm he has worked for a decade. The current owner is getting old and needs cash to provide for himself and his family. It is a wonderful opportunity for the tenant farmer who has tilled the soil and raised the animals without any prospect for improving his circumstances. He goes to the bank, which agrees to issue a mortgage if he can provide satisfactory collateral. Thankfully, he can. The mortgage is approved, and the farmer becomes the proud owner of the land that used to own him.
I think of my beloved uncle who was a tenant farmer his entire working life near Carlisle, in England, and who was arguably exploited by the farm’s owner. He never gained ownership of the farm, although he did manage a comfortable, if all-too-short retirement.
Here are two additional details that might change how we think about my story: The time is 1850 and the location is Mississippi. So now we envision a slave society where white men hold all the cards. Suddenly, we see our farmer as comparatively privileged. Perhaps we’re no longer thinking in terms of a modest man making good. Was omitting those two details a lie? It affects our perceptions, perhaps, but not the fundamental story. After all, he didn’t choose where to be born, and moving away would have been a drastic option even if he’d considered it.
Now, add a third new fact. What was the collateral our farmer gave the bank? The two slaves he owned. (My story is derived from real-life historical records brought to life on PBS’ Finding Your Roots.) The idea of owning another human being is disturbing enough; converting a human being into an asset that can be repossessed by a bank as collateral is, if possible, even more so. Was omitting this third fact a lie? I suspect that for most of us, it completely undercuts the good feeling we had about the story. Our farmer won his farm on the backs of his slaves. In fact, learning he owned slaves all along alters the whole story. So yes, I’d call my omission of this detail a lie.
Of the many lies promoted in our time, one of the cruelest has to be those told about the mass killing at the Sandy Hook kindergarten school in suburban Newtown, Connecticut. No resident of Newtown can doubt that in 2012, Adam Lanza murdered twenty children and six of their teachers. That is a fact. Yet far-right conspiracy theorists claim variously that the event was stage-managed and enacted by child actors, that opponents of gun ownership rights manufactured the news in order to gain support for gun control legislation, and that President Obama arranged the mass shooting to deflect attention from other political issues. Together with the National Rifle Association, the conspiracy theorists mostly carried the day. Congress passed no gun control legislation, and few (if any) states outside the northeast did so, either. Called on to denounce Alex Jones’s InfoWars website, which promoted the child actor fantasy, President Donald Trump refused.
Few lies can be more painful and even damaging to the afflicted than denial of a traumatic event that actually happened.
The Washington Post‘s count of lies issued by Donald Trump during his presidency numbers in the tens of thousands. Even Trump’s supporters acknowledge he lies. The defense boils down to this: Everyone lies. This is the essence of relativism. Trump’s lies are only relatively more frequent and serious than those told by all politicians.
Yet Trump’s lies have a disproportionate impact. Take his attacks on the FBI and our foreign intelligence agencies. When our president calls good conduct bad and bad conduct good, as we witness in Trump’s firings and some of his presidential pardons, we are precluded from rooting out our law enforcement agencies’ real problems. Under Trump’s attacks, senior staff is distracted and their postures defensive. I’m guessing Trump’s lies will have already contributed to an increase in ordinary corruption at those agencies. Beyond that, we must question the effectiveness of our national security under such a regime.
I live in a state, New York, whose leaders spare us from fantastical conspiracy mongering. However, New Yorkers recognize that our mostly liberal government units are riddled with corruption. This is where our focus ought to be directed, but Trump’s lies are of such an order and have such a global impact that they absorb our entire political energy. We can’t fight the perennial battles that must be fought and balance the conflicting interests that forever haunt public life.
A few decades from now, Trump’s statements and actions will be viewed against a background similar to that of the 1850 Mississippi farmer. Historians will discount even his accomplishments against the lies and corruption for which his administration will stand as the worst example.
Relativism is a wall far more real than Trump’s fictional border wall with Mexico. You cannot persuade someone of any truth if they are convinced that all lies are equal.
Just as killing one person is murder but killing hundreds of thousands is a statistic (to paraphrase a notorious exchange involving Joe Stalin), we must distinguish between everyday lies and big lies. It doesn’t mean condoning everyday lies, any more than we condone murder. But it does mean rejecting the pretext of relativism. When we succumb to relativism, we enable corruption everywhere at all levels. We cannot afford to allow the everyday lies we tell, and even the stupendously mundane lies many politicians tell, to immunize us against monstrous lies that cause catastrophic, fundamental harm.