The scarce commodity of truth in American society and politics

You want to get ahead, you want to impress—you lie. People do it, politicians do it, and it's bad for America.

Where did lying to America's public begin?
Where did lying to America's public begin?

WASHINGTON, Jan. 2, 2016 — Truth is no longer held in high regard in America. This is not entirely new, but it seems to be getting worse.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident, the event that allowed President Lyndon Johnson to launch the Vietnam War, was manufactured. Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, which were used as a justification for launching the second Iraq war, have never been found.

In his book, “Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America,” James B. Stewart warns of the risks from an epidemic of perjury that has “infected nearly every aspect of society.”

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Citing prosecutors who speak of deliberate lying by sophisticated individuals, often represented by high-priced lawyers, he focuses on four cases involving well-known people: business executive and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, convicted of lying to investigators about the sale of her ImClone stock; former Dick Cheney adviser Lewis “Scooter” Libby, found guilty of perjury in conjunction with the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity; baseball star Barry Bonds, indicted for perjury related to illegal use of steroid drugs; and Bernard Madoff, who, while conducting the greatest Ponzi scheme in history, and lying to investors and investigators, was never actually indicted for perjury.

Stewart believes that lying is on the rise, threatening to swamp the legal system and sow cynicism nationwide. In the end, he argues, “it undermines civilization itself.”

More and more people claim to have military honors they never earned. Joseph Brian Cryer, a former candidate for City Council in Ocean City, Maryland, claimed to be an elite U.S. Navy SEAL. He bragged about having 77 confirmed kills in 102 hours during a Libyan operation in 1986. To prove his bona fides, he showed a government ID card that showed him to be 100 percent disabled and a Navy commander.

Bill Cryer is a fraud, says Don Shipley, a retired SEAL who makes it his business to expose false ones. Shipley has access to a database of all Navy SEALs since 1947. After Navy SEAL Team 6 took out Osama bin Laden, he said he received about 50 requests each day to investigate people who claimed to be SEALs.

The list of those criminally charged for falsifying their military service is long. In one case, Command Sgt. Maj. Stoney Crump, the senior enlisted man at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, was fired for faking his record and wearing numerous unauthorized awards and decorations. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

Lying has become a way of life for many people, including some of those who are offering themselves for the presidency.

One practitioner of shading the truth is Republican front-runner Donald Trump. He said that the latest trade agreement enables China to take jobs from Americans. China is not a party to the agreement.

Trump said Obama plans to admit 250,000 Syrian refugees. The real figure is 10,000.

He said, “The Mexican government is forcing criminals, drug dealers and rapists into the United States.” There is no evidence that immigrants commit more crimes than native-born Americans, and most unauthorized immigrants in prison do not belong to the categories cited by Trump.

Trump said, “I watched thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheer as the World Trade Center fell.” There is no evidence to verify this claim. He said that 80 percent of white homicide victims were murdered by blacks. The real figure is 15 percent.

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Trump is not the only candidate making things up out of whole cloth. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed falsely to have arrived in Bosnia with gunfire causing her to run for shelter; it never happened.

She claimed that the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi Libya was a protest over a video, not the result of terrorism. In a presidential debate, she said that ISIS had produced a  video featuring Donald Trump and his statements about keeping Muslims out of the U.S. as a recruiting tool. There is no evidence that such a video exists.

Clinton defended her husband’s signing the Defense Of Marriage Act in order to “stop an anti-gay marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler notes that, “There is little evidence in the public record that was the case.”

Not only presidential candidates play fast and loose with the truth. President Obama said that,”The Keystone pipeline is for oil that bypasses the United States.” According to the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, “Long before President Obama killed the Keystone pipeline project, he made a number of claims about it, including that the pipeline would have no benefit for U.S. producers at all. But the crude oil would have traveled to the Gulf Coast, where it would be refined into products such as gasoline and diesel fuel; the State Department said odds were low that all would be exported. Also, about 12 per cent had been set aside for crude from North Dakota and Montana.”

Consider the slogan, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” It became a rallying cry for protests after the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri. Accounts after the shooting held that Michael Brown raised his hands in surrender, crying “Don’t shoot” before being shot  execution-style. Democratic members of Congress raised their hands in solidarity on the House floor. But official investigations concluded that this never happened and that the police officer Darren Wilson acted in self-defense and that the killing was justified.

In 1987,  the Rev. Al Sharpton began his career of racial agitation by claiming that 16-year-old Tawana Brawley had been held captive for four days and raped by a gang of white men, some of whom were police officers. A grand jury concluded that Brawley had concocted the entire story. The 170-page report said there was “no evidence that any actual assault had occurred.”  Brawley’s “advisers,” including Sharpton, later said that even if Brawley had been lying, it didn’t really matter, since she was the victim of a “racist” society. Sharpton has embraced the “Hands up, don’t shoot” hoax as well.

The widespread promotion of untruths by candidates for public office and others may tell us a lot about the state of our society. In the end, more is involved than simply immoral behavior. This behavior is a threat to democratic self-government.

When did it become OK for politicians to lie?

Edmund Burke, in his letter to a member of the French National Assembly in 1791, made a point we might well ponder today:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and honesty of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less there is of it within, the more of it there must be without.

It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.