How many times have you watched this scene on, say, “Law and Order” or “Matlock?” A witness is asked to swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God.” He or she takes the witness seat to be examined or cross-examined, depending upon who’s called him. Is there even one among us who expects the oath just sworn to make the slightest bit of difference in the testimony?
Research and experience show we all do it — lie, that is. Some of us in our so-called golden years may claim to be past the prevaricative state, much like Robert Frost’s elderly Witch of Coös, speaking of a long-ago murder: “But tonight I don’t care enough to lie — I don’t remember why I ever cared.” Lying has long been considered naughty: Remember Tom Lehrer’s Irish lass, who slaughtered and dismembered her family members one by one? But she told the truth “when at last the police came by; her little pranks she did not deny. To do she would have had to lie, and lying she knew was a sin.”
It’s not hard to understand its genesis (speaking of which, in Genesis, just after the great flood, God grouses that we’re all evil in our hearts from birth.) We lie to make ourselves appear better or more important; to cover up misdeeds (how your dog wishes it could lie when you confront it with an eviscerated pillow!); to gain advantage; to sell a thing or an idea we know to be problematic. The reasons go on forever.
Recalling my childhood, it seems to me that I was an early liar. First of all, my parents were deaf, which allowed me more than the usual latitude and time to invent explanations for alleged misdemeanors. Second, the ambience of our household was a bit Old Testament-y — there was more of the penalty of Sodom and Gomorrah bruited about than of Jesus declining to condemn the poor woman about to be stoned. So, being a creative little devil to begin with, I unconsciously weighed the penalty for telling the truth against the odds of being discovered in a fabrication and generally chose the fabrication.
It’s pure coincidence that I’m writing this on April Fools’ Day, when the internet is loaded more than usual with falsehoods — like Mookie Betts being traded for three draft picks, or Donald Trump apologizing to the American people in a lengthy (and suspiciously well-written and punctuated) tweet for repeatedly lying to them. The Mookie one had me fooled for about 10 seconds; the Donald one not beyond the fifth word of the first sentence. Harmless lies are getting a pass today.
Trouble is, many lies aren’t harmless, especially when promulgated by “leaders of the people.” The lies of Herrs Hitler and Himmler, for example — “repeat it often enough, and they will believe it” — led to the focusing of already beleaguered German citizens upon scapegoat “others” and unspeakable crimes against innocent fellow citizens. Lest you think those two rabble-rousers clumsy and obvious, consider the tens of thousands of United States citizens who flocked to Nazi rallies in New York City and elsewhere, roaring for retribution against the Jewish people. “Flocked,” as in sheep.
The present state of affairs in our country thus seems like old times, doesn’t it? Led by a tweeter who daily rails against perceived enemies, coins names like a fourth-grade bully, and has by actual count lied (and been recorded lying) about 10,000 times, the nation seems to be having difficulty distinguishing between fact and fiction. Some of the provocateurs on Facebook, for example, may be just what they say they are — anti-liberal true believers — but some may be sitting at computers in St. Petersburg. And, I suspect most of us are wondering why many people in government jobs seem to be lying.
In my 35 years as a contractor, I developed a deep loathing for deadbeats — people who contracted for work, and when it was done, found excuses for not paying for it. So, considering his record, I admit I give our president short shrift to begin with. But to discover, in a newly released book, “Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump,” that he cheats even at golf — giving himself mulligans, moving his ball and those of others, carding bogus scores — is boggling. I think often of the late writer Roderick Haig-Brown, who argued, “I submit first of all that there is no such thing as sport without ethics.” As someone who can’t cheat even at solitaire, I find it incomprehensible. Where’s the sport in that? A self-aware person would realize he wasn’t testing himself against the course, but against his own integrity — and losing.
Perhaps the best response to the question, “Do you swear...?” came from a Cree elder being questioned by a hostile HydroQuebec lawyer some 40 years ago during the public hearings for the massive James Bay Project. “I don’t know this ‘truth’ that you are talking about. I will tell you only what I know.”
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.