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Commentary on currents events
Copyright 1998,
Dorian Scott Cole

Events mean nothing until we understand their impact on humanity. "...Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." It is a writer's task in any story, whether truth of fiction, to look deeply into events and reveal to us the length and breadth of their impact - their meaning to us.

I cannot tell a lie... but I cannot tell the truth | Disillusionment | Why the hype? | Lying represents what? |
To lie or not to lie: (what I told my kids) | Presidential influence | Summary |

I cannot tell a lie, but I cannot tell the truth.

President Clinton found himself in the classic dilemma of being between a rock and a hard place. Tell a lie and die, or tell the truth and die in shame. The American Congress and news media drone on and on about it, and the American people yawn. Does any of it have any meaning to any of us?

Which politician doesn't lie to the people? Indicting President Clinton would be an indictment of all politicians. Unfortunately what we have come to expect from public officials is lies, deception, and cover-up. 

The Congress and the President slid gracelessly into an amazing lack of perspective. The rule of law has become the issue, while betraying the public trust has become secondary and inconsequential - possibly because the public seems not to care. We are, after all, yawning and telling the polsters it's a dead issue. So the focus of the battle has turned to whether the President did or did not commit perjury. We know that he lied to us and to his family. He reports to us that he was deceitful. It's a word that means he lied - he deceived us. He won't say, "Lied under oath," because that would have legal ramifications. 

Where is our sense of perspective? What is the law here to protect - some abstract idea? No, us. The rule of law is a standard that we all subscribe to in order to protect ourselves. So if the President, or any other politician lies to us, then he betrays our trust - which is a solemn consideration not to be taken lightly - and it is the law that is secondary and incidental. 

The law is a place to begin being civil, an insurance policy, and a last resort if we fail. It describes the minimal ideal to which we all subscribe, it is not the ideal. The law safeguards our security.

Another unfortunate loss of perspective happened in the Special Prosecutor's pursuit of Clinton's escapades, the politician's media show about the escapades, and the press reports of them. It amazes me how far politicians are willing to stoop. The public says it wants campains to be about issues. Campaigners consistently preen for the camera with mud slinging shows. The press climbs into the mud puddle and dutifully reports every muddy salvo. Campaign planners know that a camera shot of dirt means votes. The politicians and media sank to lowest common denominator sensationalism. 

I confess, I couldn't bring myself to vote in the recent election. It wasn't apathy. I was so put off by the barrage of negative commercials that I could not discern a worthy candidate. If this was the best they could offer, they would not get my vote. The contest was no doubt determined by the people who sucked in the most smut. 

The Special Prosecutor, for whatever reason, climbed first into the mud and began throwing globs of slime. The American public watched the spectacle, but said it was a diversion, not an issue. He turned a deaf ear to the public and went after Clinton like a toothless vampire. He relentlesly gummed him till he finally got blood. 


Clinton turned out to be like the rest of us. Human. Fragile. Skeletons in the closet. Imperfect. Small surprise. The people we elect to lead us, or even the ones who entertain us, are just people. None are perfect. If we put them on a pedestal and expect perfection, we are setting ourselves up for a fall. No matter who they are or how good they seem to be, they are humans and imperfect, and will probably fail at some aspect of what they do. Even religious leaders fall off the pedestal. No one can stand up to continuous scrutiny. No one is perfect in all things. Mentors, friends, political leaders, religious leaders, actors, writers - everyone fails. 

After President Carter, a very moral leader, took office, he made the statement that he was ready to be tested. I thought, "He should have just painted an X on his head and sent a telegram straight to God saying, 'Drop a bomb here.'" The final year of his presidency was dominated by a handful of college students who seized the US Embassy in Iran. Tested? Perspective? 

The entire Congress has managed to fail on Clinton's problem. They have divided their opinions along party lines. So we are treated to the spectacle of two political parties fighting over impeachment. They have turned the issue into a circus and are making a mockery of justice. Can anything credible come out of this exercise?

Unfortunately we have been thoroughly conditioned by the real world around us to accept lying as a way of life. Not only do politicians lie, but even the police lie to achieve their objectives. If they think you are guilty, they will tell you anything to coerce you into confessing, even if you didn't do it. They will tell you your friend confessed and pointed the finger at you. So guilty or innocent, you believe that all is hopeless and you cave in. 

Even hospitals lie. They put extra items on bills, and inflate prices, to cover the cost of treating those who don't pay and other costs. This hides the true cost of medical treatment, and makes it look like we were robbed. 

Some sales people lie so much that we can't believe any of them or anything they say. 

What is the true cost of accepting lying as a way of life, a way to hide trouble, a way to cover costs, a way to catch the crooks? 

Why all the hype? Why all the media attention?

The American people, conditioned to expect lies from politicians and others, and knowing that each of us might do the same as Clinton if faced with a similar situation, are yawning. Why are some making so much noise about it?

We all typically tolerate or ignore a certain amount of bad behavior. Part of the situation is this: When wrongdoing is exposed, then we can't ignore it. If we know about it publicly, then we have to deal with it. Is that what it is, Clinton's lies became public?

Clinton's troubles are probably much deeper than just exposure. There seems to be a particular time for many issues. For example, President Nixon's illegal Watergate activities were relatively common and probably would have been ignored had he not continuously insulted and berated the press, blaming the nation's troubles on them.Vice President Spiro Agnew speeched the press, brazenly calling them an "Effete corps of impudent snobs." (I think I remembered that quote right.) Agnew apparently never heard that the pen is mightier than the sword. So many in the press had it in for Nixon. Nixon's associates were caught with their bag of dirty tricks, and the press had a picnic exposing it. Because of that, many secretive government agencies were reigned in so that they could not harm the public. The time had come to clean up abuse of power in the Presidency. It will be interesting to see what transformations come from Clinton's troubles. For all the good that Presidents do, they are also sometimes a bad example that we learn from.

What does lying represent?

It is deception. It is betrayal of trust. But the question is, would Clinton, or anyone who lies in a similar situation, actually lie about important things? Where does anyone draw the line? In politics, people tell you what they think you want to hear, and tell outright lies to discredit their opponents. In military battles, deception is often the key to victory. Come to think of it, lying is so effective and convenient, why should the President bother to tell the truth about anything?

To lie or not to lie? Who does it hurt?

This is the advice I gave my own children. About sixty percent of people would lie to get something for a lower price. People tend to see money, and many other things, as games. The relative value of an item is somewhere between the person's real need and the sellers ability to emphasize needs to the point of getting a higher price. After all, the seller could always offer a discount or decide to waive an age qualification. If price is so relative, is lying just another way of negotiating price? 

People lie about just about anything from avoiding punishment to making someone feel good. Yet most people feel like they can trust others most of the time. If others lie so much, why shouldn't we? Experts say many people often resort to a very simple way of thinking about lying. You want something. If you want it, you believe you need it. You will do anything to get it. Anything includes lying. But lying can be very destructive and work against things you are interested in long term, and lies typically get exposed sooner or later. People who lie a lot usually are their own undoing. As President Abraham Lincoln said, "No one has a good enough memory to be a good liar." 

The degree to which people lie I think is influenced by three things. 

First is knowing or caring that lies cause damage. Many people sincerely believe that lies never hurt anyone. But in reality, sooner or later liars are caught in a lie, then everything they have said is cast in doubt. The person that was lied to then sees not only their present injury, they are made to anguish over the possibility of many injuries. The liar and his activities are cast in doubt. What else has he hidden and what further damage is to come? The liar shows by his own words that he is a dishonest person. If you are dishonest, what other crimes might you do? Your moral and ethical character is put in doubt. Many people have said in response to Clinton's lying, "How can they trust him now - how can they trust anything he says?" Although some people can live with doubt and distrust, some can't.

Besides hurting the person that was lied to, the lie destroys the liars believability. Try convincing someone about something important to you when you know they know you might be lying again. You have lost the power to communicate and influence people. You have lost most of your power to control your future. 

The second influence over lying is understanding that trust is essential to effective relationships. One lie causes so much damage to trust that it may take not ten, but a hundred good acts to rebuild trust. Or to put it another way, one lie can erase years of good effort. Often, the person who was lied to never gets over it.

You can coexist with others without trust. You won't be thrown off the planet because people can't trust you. But you won't get much. Even dishonest people have codes they live by in order to exist with each other. Most jobs require trust, and lacking that you're either fired or not hired. Family, friends, associates, employers, and even groups of thieves require trust - honesty.

In effective relationships, people help each other get what they want from life (or from business). Facing problems, growth, is an integral part of that. Lying subverts the ability of people to help each other, so growth can't occur. In a relationship, people won't trust you with their feelings. They may try to do what's best for you, but they aren't as likely to be involved with you because they know you will probably hurt them. Additionally, people can see how limited your potential is to get along with others and hold a responsible job. They are unlikely to invest much time, energy, and money in someone who has such limited potential - it doesn't make any sense. They won't help you until you prove that you can be trusted reasonably well. 

People who are close to you value your truthful opinion. When they ask how their clothes look, they want a straight answer they can trust, not just a compliment. They want to be sure you won't let them embarrass themselves in public. 

The third influence is what you believe about yourself. What ideals do you hold for yourself? If you believe in getting what you want dishonestly, you will probably become a very dishonest person, an accomplished and professional liar, and a thief. But you will probably do that at the expense of having good relationships with people. Sooner or later they will know you for what you are, or you will have to move on to prevent your dishonest activities from catching up with you. 

But most people don't think of themselves as dishonest. Most people think of themselves as honest, but draw the line. Where that line is drawn depends on how strongly they want to hide something. The question becomes: how cheap are you? Would you sell out your moral and ethical convictions for a few dollars or to avoid the slightest uncomfortable situation? Can you be bought? Is that line so close to the border that you have to admit you're really a dishonest person masquerading as an honest one? The problem with having lines that can easily be moved is that what we really are is a a high priced con man. If you really believe you want to be honest, you may have to make sacrifices to stay that way.

Chances are your own self esteem will erode as the disparity between what you fool yourself into believing and the real you becomes more apparent because of your frequent lies. Again, the liar gets hurt by the lies.

Is it ever appropriate to lie? It usually isn't good to make yourself hard rules that leave no flexibility for decisions and eliminate the opportunity for kindness. Telling the truth can sometimes be as damaging as hiding it. There is a test. Will the person who you lied to thank you if they ever find out? 

People who ask your opinion of their appearance typically want the comfort of your approval, whether or not you appreciate their taste in clothes or their facial structure. Most people are not going to change their style or get a nose job just because you admit you don't like theirs. But they will have a bad day thanks to your truthfulness. 

Beyond that, in the continuum of human relations, there are people who are extremists in their ways of dealing with people. Telling them the truth can be more destructive than hiding it. There is no right way to deal with unreasonable people; their relationships are already destructive.

Sometimes hearing the truth will destroy an already weakened person. But sometimes failure to face the truth is the very thing destroying the person. There are times when people don't want to know the truth. It isn't always a good time to deal with the problems that learning unwelcome news can bring. For example, people who are seriously ill or mentally distraught may be further injured by learning more bad news. Also sometimes people prefer to ignore someone's bad deeds when addressing them would disrupt some other effort. But if it's minor, it's their decision, and they will usually give you cues that they aren't open to hearing minor grievances against that person.

Most of us are human and imperfect. We're not always brave enough to admit the truth when we can live with a lie. But we always need to keep in mind the terrible consequences that can come from hiding the truth. Lies are usually just not worth it.

From the Kung-Fu TV series (paraphrased): "I may not have much but I have my honesty. If I lose that, I have nothing."

Presidential influence

Do what presidents do and say influence the moral fiber of a nation? George Washington (erroneously) was attributed with not lying about cutting down a cherry tree. It was a moral imperative taught to countless children. Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the most revered president, was known as "Honest Abe." President Kennedy, also known as a philanderer, influenced a generation with the words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." 


In the circus we call a congress, in our homes where we yawn at the repetitive media spectacle, in our conversations and stories about the consequences of presidential lying or the insignificance of Clinton's problems, there are several issues that might be important. 

1. Have politicians and others so practiced the art of lying that when placed in the same situation as Clinton, they can't bring themselves to tell the truth?

2. Is Clinton the victim of an overly ambitious prosecutor, or of his own deceit in years of hiding his errors?

3. Should Special Prosecutors be given guidelines about what is significant - there are no perfect people. If you look hard enough you can alway back someone into a corner. Or is the President, because of his public visibility and responsibility, to be held to a higher standard?

4. Which is more important, breaking the law or betraying the public trust?

5. Is deceit an accepted way of life in politics, business, relationships? What is the impact? What can we do to change it? Should the profile of deceit be raised so that it is again associated with great shame? Can we as a society survive without trust - survive in chaos? Or is this a bleeding heart issue in the real world of jungle out there?

6. What are the personal affects of deceit? What do we think of ourselves when we have to look in the mirror and see a dishonest face? 

7. Is it ever appropriate to deceive others? 

8. Should the Congress be supervised by a citizens oversight committee to set their agenda and keep them on track? It seems their personal agendas are inseperable from responsibilities, which is sad but ironic considering that any one of them could be backed into the same corner that Clinton is in.

9. Is it time that lying became an issue?

10. Should the Congress deal with this issue, or take it to the back yard and bury it before it comes back to haunt them? Who will be accused next? Who will be dishonored by the controversy?

11. Have elections lost all credibility with the campaign and media focus on dirt? What will it take to straighten it out? Honor? Shame for throwing mud? 

12. Should "the public trust" should be a supreme code of honor aside from the law, enforced by citizens and with special severe penalties. If "betraying the public trust" was grounds for voting politicians out of office in a special election, would politicians just find it another convenient weapon to use against each other. Kind of makes you wonder if there is any honor among politicians, doesn't it? What would it be like to be an honorable politician among those who will use any device to win?

These are complex issues. It seems to me that there are some really great stories with a lot of conflict in them just waiting to be born.

Press coverage rightly covers controversy between politicians, and unfortunately these are often the mud throwing, spectacular, deception prone politicians who gain the limelight. There are, of course, many honest and highly honorable politicians who serve the public well and who bear no resemblance to the preceding article. 

- Scott

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