The many breeds of liar
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 May 2003)

May has been a great month for liars, from Toronto's city council to The New York Times. Liars are always with us, but few make the cover of Newsweek just by prevaricating, as Jayson ("I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism") Blair did this week. He's not the most vicious liar who ever worked for the Times: Walter Duranty, the Moscow correspondent in the 1930s, wrote outrageous falsehoods promoting Stalin's regime. But Blair has set a record for quantity. Neither the Times nor any other modern news organization has ever before been afflicted by such a promiscuous fabricator, so far as we know.

Are we living in the Golden Age of Mendacity, or simply a period that acknowledges lies when they're uncovered? I find that question hard to answer. Computer searching now makes it easier to spot telltale inconsistencies, and spectacular examples appear often these days; many, however, go a long way back. Betty Friedan, we now know, re-invented her life in The Feminine Mystique, the book that launched contemporary feminism. She depicted herself as a naive housewife, imprisoned in the suburbs, who finally rebelled. We believed her story, till Daniel Horowitz of Amherst College, a Friedan admirer, discovered that for 15 years before her book appeared she had been writing about social issues for communist and other publications and organizing protests even in the dreaded suburbs. Betty the Innocent Housewife never existed.

Bruce Allen Murphy's recent Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas, demonstrates that Douglas, a famously liberal judge on the U.S. Supreme Court, reshaped his youth for drama and pathos, giving himself polio (it was colic) and childhood poverty (actually, middle class), claiming First World War service (10 weeks of student training), and the struggle of working his way through law school (his first wife paid his fees). David Stoll, a Middlebury College anthropologist and a sympathizer with the struggle of the Guatemalan people, caused an even larger scandal by exposing the many self-serving fictions in the autobiography that helped Rigoberta Menchu win the 1992 Nobel peace prize.

While skilled at exposing liars, academics have themselves achieved notoriety in a specialized form of fiction, the writing of wildly overstated letters of recommendation. Deirdre McCloskey, an economist, claimed in the Chronicle of Higher Education that a certain Nobel winner has been writing "the best student I have ever had" in every supporting letter he's sent out since the 1950s. I've read hundreds of such letters, and I'm not sure I've ever read an honest one. (Now that I think of it, however, I wouldn't want to take a polygraph on the references I've written.) Those who are not entirely frank on such occasions can take comfort from the fact that even Immanuel Kant, king of 18th-century moralists, enemy of untruth, nevertheless wrote a letter of recommendation for a servant who had stolen from him for years. Kant's kindness overcame his honesty.

Lying has acquired sophisticated apologists, like David Nyberg, a philosophy professor in Buffalo. He wrote The Varnished Truth: Truth Telling and Deceiving in Ordinary Life, a realist's elaborate defence of deceit. He considers truth-telling morally overrated and describes deception as not only tolerable but essential. Civility and privacy, the resolution of conflict among those with different views, coping with uncertainty and pain -- all require various forms of deception. Jeremy Campbell, in The Liar's Tale: A History of Falsehood, argues that lying is not an artificial or deviant aspect of life. It's natural, and we can't get along without it. The London Telegraph had that book reviewed by Jonathan Aitken, a convicted perjurer, who came down firmly on the side of truth.

Anton Chekhov had a brother who tried to lie his way out of every difficulty. Chekhov advised him, in a letter, that the best people "dread lying like fire. They don't lie even in small things." As usual, Chekhov chose his image well. Lies, like fire, can rage out of control and destroy those who imagined they were insignificant and easily contained.

Toronto city council's former budget chief, Tom Jakobek, now understands that point too well. Last week, he admitted before a public inquiry that he had lied about accepting a trip paid for by a company seeking a city contract. This week, he had to amend last week's testimony, saying he lied while explaining his lies. Contrary to what he said last week, he did in fact know his lawyer was threatening to sue the Toronto Star for printing the truth. He also admitted lying to the lawyer.

"Do I regret it?" he said of the original lies. "Yes. This is an example of what happens when you don't tell the absolute truth. It just gets worse."

It just gets worse: That's what links all of these liars. Aristotle explained that we act in crisis much as we act in ordinary life. "We are what we repeatedly do." Honesty and dishonesty are habits. That's easy to grasp, but hard to live by. It's also more or less what our grandmothers told us, whether they read Aristotle or not.

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