Monday, September 15, 2008

Peas and Tea: People of the Lie and the Dissolution of Civic Virtue

“I’m making tea.”

“Peas? Why on earth do we need peas? I’m making quiche.”

“Not peas. Tea. I’m making tea.”

“I said we don’t need peas. Quiche will be plenty. With salad. I don’t want to be any trouble.”

Cooking with my aunt. Every storm that blows through now seems to cause some problem for her: downed trees in her yard with loss of power in the last spate of tornadoes in Little Rock; or just plain loss of power, which happened this weekend as Ike raked the city Saturday night, downing trees and causing power outages in many places. As did my aunt, Steve’s brother Joe also lost power.

So we had a post-hurricane party yesterday, cooking up things that were defrosting in both of their freezers. During which I realized that my aunt, though she can bake a mean sausage and cheese quiche, is not hearing as well as she used to. The problem is compounded by the fact that she lives alone and, like many elderly people who are alone much of the day and don’t hear well, talks over other people as they talk, making ludicrous tangles of conversation.

One thing that’s not waning as she approaches 80, though, is her sharp people sense. She can size someone up in a heartbeat, with unfailing instinct for solidity of character, or the lack thereof. Few people pass the test, I’m sorry to say. Not many people, in my aunt’s view, reach the sterling mark: tell the truth and shame the devil; tell the truth in season and out of season, even when it costs to speak truth; put loyalty to family and friends above your own life; guard your honor and that of those you love; give freely to those in need and don’t count the cost; show particular concern for those most trampled on in society.

Listening to my aunt, I realize how ingrained those ground rules of ethical behavior are in me, simply because they’re the ground rules with which I was raised—my family’s core values. We are far from paragons of virtue: we can excoriate each other wickedly with our tongues; we never met a grudge that we didn’t want to invite home and fatten up; we have too little patience, especially with people who lack manners. To our lasting discredit, we once expelled a cousin who became pregnant in high school, with painful consequences that go on right to this day. Her father, my mother’s brother, threatened to shoot himself when the news broke, raging through the house brandishing a pistol shouting, “My mother and all my sisters were virtuous women. You have ruined our honor!”

But truth counts with us. Lie to us, and it’s over. In her time cooking and eating with us yesterday (and with Steve’s brother and mine, and my nephew Luke), she spent much of the afternoon grieving the loss of a man who has mown her yard for decades now. She liked this man. She has recommended him to others, has helped him grow his business.

But he made the mistake of lying to her recently. About something inconsequential. Apparently not realizing that any lie is consequential to my aunt. Tell the truth and shame the devil; tell the truth in season and out of season, even when it hurts to proclaim the truth. She will not put up with a lie. Or with a liar. It’s now over. She has a new yard man, who doesn’t do her yard nearly as well as her former friend did.

But one can’t have one’s lawn mown by a liar. It’s as simple as that, as stark as that, as plain as that. Let a lie pass unheeded, and who knows what will happen next?

I wonder what the body politic would be like if my aunt’s no-lies-period ethic held sway there. And to wonder that is to ask why it’s so important, anyway, to tell the truth—why it’s so important to have leaders who are truth tellers.

After all, our society has grown accustomed to the lie. Hasn’t it? Haven't we? The political circuses of the last several elections have been, in one sense, a long training for all of us—a training in which we’ve been carefully tutored to swallow larger and larger lies, and to pretend we can’t tell the difference anymore.

It’s all he-said, she-said. The media are adroit about playing one side against the other, as if both sides are equally capable of equivocation and mendacity. As if the truth is not plain, and plainly to be seen. And it's not in the middle. Some people lie. Others don't.

And we’re supposed to go along. We’re supposed to turn off something inside us—our consciences, perhaps?—that can clearly distinguish truth from fiction, the lie from the honest statement. We’ve supposed to conclude that politics is, after all, a dirty Machiavellian scorched-earth game in which the better liar inevitably wins. And should therefore be lauded for her or his skill in playing the game. And should therefore be recognized as a born leader capable of leading a nation, or a corporation, or a university.

I’m not comfortable with these conclusions. I tend to be very much like my aunt. Lie to me, and I'm done with you. I'll interact with you. But I won't trust you. And I surely will not esteem you, or support your leadership, if you're a leader lying to me.

And here’s why, I think: let people lie to you, and you open the door for any and all violations of ethical decency, in how they treat you and others. Let leaders lie, openly, shamelessly, without challenging their distortion of truth, and you contribute to the destruction of civic society, whose existence depends on maintenance of fragile bonds of trust founded in the belief that people are being honest with each other and are committed to seeking the truth together.

Let leaders lie, and be prepared to be led into ethical never-never land. Where wars can be pursued (where people can be killed) on the basis of the grand lie. Where good people can be muzzled, vilified, hounded out of the public eye, robbed of their sterling reputations, because their very existence is a reproach to those who want to lie boldly. Where wealth snatched through rapacious greed can masquerade as honorable acquisition, and the poor can be blamed for being poor, can be told that they do not have initiative or intelligence or God on their side.

Where “Christians” become known primarily for those they hate and oppose, and where the fundamental core of Judaeo-Christian belief and ethics—a belief in practical compassion as the goal of all religious observance—can be absolutely cast aside as malicious prejudice represents itself (and successfully so) as the only accurate incarnation of the values of synagogue and church. Where the only religion regarded as authentic by the liars in whose hands the reins of control rest is the religion that blesses their rapacity, their dishonesty, their cruelty towards those who oppose them and those at the bottom of society.

I know. I've seen the process up-close, first-hand, in some universities at which I have worked, where leaders were people of the lie and surrounded themselves with people of the lie. Where they did all they could to disempower truth tellers.

It doesn’t take much study of history to see what happens when lies prevail—and are allowed to prevail—in any social context, whether a corporation, a university, or a nation. Nor does it take much study to learn what happens when those lied to not only learn to like being lied to, but learn to dislike having the truth told to them.

Let people of the lie prevail, and expect the dissolution of the bonds that hold together a civil society. Let them rule the land, and expect the decline of the land.

It’s as simple as that. And this is why, in the last analysis, my aunt felt she had no choice except to let her yard man go. Do business with someone who lies to you and overlook the lie, and who knows what might happen next.