The Contemporary Lies

by HERBERT LONDON January 30, 2013

It is now customary for lies to drip from the fountain of public discourse. "I did not have sex with that woman," "your investments are safe with me," "doping did not play a role in the Tour de France victories", a film about Mohammed was responsible for the raid in Bengazi," are merely recent examples of dissimulation. Whether the liar is former President Clinton, Bernie Madoff, Lance Armstrong or President Obama, there is the belief you can pull the wool over the public's eyes. And, as events have shown, this is often true.

Now we have the case of Notre Dame football star, Manti Te'o's faux dead girlfriend. Apparently a photo was taken from a Facebook page and used to depict Te'o's fictitious girl friend, named Lennay Kekua. Te'o's "romance" with Kekua tugged at the nation's heartstrings since it was reported she survived an automobile accident only to die of leukemia the same week Te'o grandmother died.

Although this has been described as a hoax perpetrated against Te'o, he certainly played along giving one interview after another over his grief. It was reported that he loved the attention this narrative gave him, a story that may have even given him the sympathy vote for the Heisman trophy - the award for college football's best player. Te'o came in second.

It might be asked, but rarely is, why the spate of lies at this time. As I see it, in the age of narcissism the prevailing sentiment is notice me. Moreover, if the story line can foster sympathy so much the better. Te'o's story of overcoming adversity to lead Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season is made for Hollywood. As Rigeberto Menchu, Nobel Prize winner, noted after her former book turned out to be untrue, is that the events described could have occurred even if the report was inaccurate.

Similarly, Lance Armstrong said he never felt he cheated when doping before and during bicycle races because he was merely "leveling the field" in which other competitors were cheating. Ultimately he was rewarded for his success. The man who overcame cancer to win seven Tour de France races became an international hero. His narrative was mythic, even if false. The public wanted to believe in him.

One reason why the lie often has a life of its own is that the public has a thirst for heroes, for those who overcome the odds arrayed against them. However, when those heroes fly too high, like Icarus, their wings are clipped and they become objects of derision. For those seeking public acclaim, it is useful to recall Homer's words in the Iliad: "I too shall lie in the dust when I am dead, but now let me win noble renown."

There you have it. Sacrifice truth for success. The desire for recognition or to maintain one's position of authority often severs the bonds that unite people. Memory grows faint and relaxes when the pot of societal gold is held out as a reward for dissimulation. Te'o became a figure of emulation, a secular god whose public grief yielded sympathy and attention. Lance Armstong defied death and translated determination into success. The world is given to lying, exaggerating minor achievements into major triumphs. Yet mostly the fabrication is mildly innocent.

In some cases, the lie shakes the foundation of elementary decency. That is what we are now confronting; lies that makes us cynics and distrust the heroes we want to embrace. Like a character in Alice in Wonderland the truth is often what we say it is. What we want to believe trumps what we often see and hear until that moment, that frightening moment, when we can believe no more. That is the era we are in. The lie dominates our thoughts and the hero has been knocked from his pedestal.


Herbert London is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the President of the London Center for Policy Research. He is the author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). 


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