What if we recognized a lie when we heard it? Like in Disney’s 1940 classic, Pinocchio: Pinocchio’s nose grows when he lies and the Good Fairy knows right away! She says, “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.” In reality, lies—even small lies—are secret, insidious, treacherous, designed and executed to fool us. They undermine our very ability to live: what if we couldn’t trust anything or anyone, if we needed proof for everything we do? Trust is such an essential part of living and every lie undercuts that.
Yet if you challenge someone about a lie, the daring response is, “Are you calling me a liar?” Lying is a fundamental failing that no one wants to admit…liars easily lie to deny! We instinctively find it hard to answer, “Yes, you’re a liar!” And so the lie and the liar live on!
The terror is that liars and lies are everywhere; today, people use the euphemism, “fake news,” but it’s really institutionalized lies. Now I question everything I read; even once-respected news sources report things that turn out to be lies because instant news is more valued than facts!
Of course, it’s an old story:
- In the 1940s, Hitler and the Nazis rose to power based on promises and treaties they never intended to live up to: lies. They “relocated” millions of people into death camps: lies. Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, understood when he professed, “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” Their lies, of course, led to mass murder and dragged the world into war.
- In the 1950s, Sen Joseph McCarthy built his power on lies, even producing false evidence. His lies ruined careers and lives and it took years—and Edward R. Murrow—to prove him a liar: his smear campaign began in 1950 and continued until he was censured by the US Senate in 1954.
- In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon perverted the election process, lying repeatedly to the American people and proving the Good Fairy correct. It took 783 days for Nixon’s lies to lead to his resignation. In 1977 when Nixon was interviewed by David Frost, he admitted that, “I said things that were not true,” but he admitted to neither “lies” nor being a “liar.”
- In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton was charged with perjury—lying under oath, an elevated form of lying—regarding a sexual relationship he had had with an intern. The lies continued and expanded until he went on national TV to announce, “I want to say one thing to the American people…I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” A plain, public, prominent lie. It took 212 days for Clinton finally to admit the truth. “I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people,” he said. His admission focused on the “inappropriate” relationship, and never really addressed his easy ability to lie.
- In 2008, Bernie Madoff and his Madoff Investment Securities LLC were charged with massive fraud, whereby they lied to more than 13,000 clients and stole an estimated $10 billion to $20 billion. Clients had paperwork and records to “prove” their claims, but in the end, everything was based on elaborate lies, lies that grew from the early 1970s until 2008.
The devastation that grows from lies is really a reflection of our need and willingness to trust. Nations grow, businesses are built, relationships deepen based on trust. But when liars and their lies break that trust, there is no going back. A lie may steal our money or pervert our election or even lead us to war, but worse: it makes us doubt our nature to trust. Conor Oberst in “Ladder Song” writes (even he can’t call them “lies” and “liars”),
Don't hang around once the promise breaks
Or you'll be there when the next one's made.
Kiss the feet of a charlatan.
I think that’s the right image: don’t hang around after the lie. I have known and worked with liars and been victimized by their lies; they deny them. Yet I’ve moved on with those I trust. It isn’t easy to recognize a lie, it isn’t easy to spot fake news, but I don’t forget liars once I’ve recognized them. I pay no more attention to Trump’s tweets than to Joy Behar’s comments on The View. Leaving the lies and liars behind, I’ll struggle to recognize truths…that’s where I want to be.