Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

As a truly gullible individual, I’m fascinated with the facility with which some people lie. I, myself, am a rotten liar; one of those the Irish describe as having to talk through my hat, in order to conceal the smile on my face. As a result, I do not lie often. Oh, lots of lies about little things as we all do, but nothing big or terribly secret.

This is perhaps one of the reasons I disliked journalism the longer I stayed in it – even though I was a rinky-dink reporter working at a small paper doing mostly community news, I got tired of being lied to. My experiences as a journalist can best be described via a quote from Dave Barry: “I knew corruption was out there somewhere, but I had no idea of how to go about finding it.” My gullibility in taking people at their words did not serve me in that occupation, which is why I’m glad I’m not a reporter any more.

But I love reading about lies, half-truths, shady deals and people and organizations working either on the edge of legality or in the heady world beyond what is legal. That may be what attracts me to the likes of Richard Nixon (I’ve read several biographies and have yet another waiting in the to-be-read queue.) Now I’ve just finished reading Don Hofstadter’s Goldberg’s Angel, which describes a pack of lies surrounding the theft, sale and recovery of four mosaics from an obscure Byzantine church in Cyprus. Hofstadter concludes the book with a tall tale of his own, in which he finally concedes he won’t ever “walk through the door” and find the truth behind the story, as he finds it impossible to sort through the lies, truths, half-truths, lies passed on as truths that came to him as he investigated the story.

This is, by far, the best book I’ve read on mendacity, and the intrinsically American chauvinism that leads most of us to believe either we cannot be lied to or that we are intelligent enough to see through the lies we’re told. I’ve learned enough about myself to know that as far as reading others is concerned, I’m a moron, so I don’t trust myself in situations where lies are common; this is why my wife is in charge whenever we go shopping for a new car, and one of the principal reasons I failed as a journalist.

Hofstadter deftly captures the allure of lies in this passage:

[T]he lies guarding all this secrecy had a strange beauty, like the beauty of cypresses watching over a cemetery. There were lies that you wanted to hear because they exculpated some charming person or fit a pet theory, and such tales were always balm for a while, even if you knew at the back of your mind that they were false.
This is how a lot of us, conservative and liberal, get caught in rhetorical traps, and is one of the biggest dangers of the Daily Me mentality that is fueling the rush of news to the Internet and away from traditional media. Not that traditional media is ethical and above board, by all means, but what is presented as news on the Internet goes beyond denying apparent biases and flagrantly wears its biases and lies on its sleeves, displaying falsehoods and the balm of untruth like helium balloons beckoning from some fair booth.

Hofstadter also deftly describes those who live on the fringe of lies:

In this social milieu there were some who didn’t lie, but even they, I felt certain by now, were dwelling in the anxious shadow world of the unsaid. And since they had chosen to live in this world, didn’t they have to love it somehow, didn’t they have to glory in their own compulsive withholding of information, their superiority to the ignorant and uninitiated, their metamorphosis into vessels empty of everything but a few whispering leaves inscribed with prices and phone numbers and guilty names? And since people were so often lying to them, didn’t they have to like, to enjoy, being lied to? Didn’t they aid and abet the mendacity?
In other words, there can be no fence-sitting when it comes to truth or lies. One either lies, tells the truth or abets the liars by remaining silent.

Fortunately, Hofstadter offers no solutions. He admits himself to being gullible, easily swept away by one story or another and, at the end, ultimately willing only to question whether anyone he’s spoken to or written about has told the whole truth.

Hofstadter also challenges several notions that are kind of making up an unintended theme of my reading of late: The American tendency to believe that throwing money, technology/industrial might, or both at a problem will solve it; and certainly the admirable, but misguided belief that with every problem, a successful dig-through of the facts in the case will bring things to a truthful resolution. Hofstadter reminds us that one person’s fact is another person’s fantasy.

“What Peg knows – what all canny buyers in the international antiquities bazaar know – is that every one of those cracked or corroded treasures has its own voice, its own tale to tell,” Hofstadter writes. “You or I may not be able to hear it, but somewhere there is someone who can. The strange and sinister thing is that many of these tales are untruths, for certain objects can lie.”

I found an interesting follow-up to Hofstadter's story here, detailing the fate of some of the people he met. It makes for interesting reading.

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