We’ve all heard the story of six-year-old George Washington doing damage with a hatchet to one of his father’s prized cherry trees. When confronted with the transgression, George confesses, announcing to his father that he “cannot tell a lie.” An auspicious start to a nation’s history. There’s only one problem: it wasn’t true. It was entirely fabricated by his early biographer, Parson Weems, in order to sell some books.
And while Washington was probably generally an honest man, he did tell a few untruths in his lifetime, as we all do. None of us is perfect. And granted, there are times when a telling a lie might be for the benefit of the greater good – such as in keeping troop movements secret or not telling your grandmother that she’s looking old.
The truth is not always welcome. Jimmy Carter famously promised that he’d never lie to the American people, and as far as we know, he didn’t. He told the truth even when it was to his detriment politically. In his “Malaise Speech” of 1979, Carter told the country some hard truths about overconsumption and lack of confidence. Not a morale-booster to be sure, but his honesty was repaid with a decline in the polls.
But he seems to be the exception. Most presidents have told some whoppers, and history has outed them eventually. Lyndon Johnson claimed in 1964 that an unprovoked North Vietnamese military had attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. This was later proved to be a lie, but by then the US was deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War, using the incident as justification.
James Polk used a similar tactic as an excuse to begin the Mexican War. Ronald Reagan claimed that arms were not being traded to Iran in return for the release of hostages. He was forced to retract his statement on national television months later. Dwight Eisenhower was caught in a lie concerning a U2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton infamously shook his finger at us all and claimed that he had never had sex with “that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” W lied us into the disastrous Iraq War. Barack Obama told us that we’d be able to keep our doctors. Yet nothing seemed likely to ever challenge the liar’s crown that sat upon Richard Nixon’s head.
Hold my beer, says Donald Trump.
Trump makes Nixon look like, well, like 6-year-old George Washington. From the campaign, to the transition, to the first year of his presidency, it is not a stretch to say that Trump has probably lied more than all the previous presidents combined. An untruth emanates from his mouth (or more often, his fingers) on a daily basis. We all know this. Whether everyone admits to knowing this is a different story, and a potentially far more damaging state of affairs.
The permissive attitude that many of the President’s followers take in regard to his rampant lying, in turn, creates a permissive attitude towards lying in general. The more the lie is allowed to remain unchecked or unchallenged, the easier it becomes to accept any lie, from any individual, at any time. When the sanctity of what is true is not defended, then the truth becomes devalued. It doesn’t shine as that ideal to strive for any longer. It becomes merely an “alternative fact” on par with any other version of an incident. And this devaluation leads, eventually, to chaos, confusion, and the disintegration of society and civilization. And that isn’t my own idea. It’s Immanuel Kant in a nutshell. He says that by a lie, a man annihilates his dignity as a man.
We see this already in the numbers of people eager to lie in order to protect the lies of Donald Trump. One such example of this is one we, as Georgians, can be particularly ashamed of. When the president recently referred, in a meeting with several members of congress, to African countries as “s**tholes”, Georgia Senator David Perdue, contradicting other ear-witnesses, claimed that he did not recall the president using such language. Later, when confronted with more evidence that it had occurred, Perdue doubled-down, stating to George Stephanopoulos that Trump had definitely not said such things and that the other witnesses were lying.
I’d like to quote Ayn Rand here, someone who Perdue most likely considers an arbiter of truth: “People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked…The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on.”
But then again, what does truth matter to our Senator? By him lying to us about this matter, he has cast Georgians in the role as merely a means to getting what he, David Perdue, personally wants, not as citizens worthy of his respect. We now cannot believe him about anything else. He has lied about this, so he may lie again. I hate to keep throwing quotes at you, but this one from Friedrich Nietzsche seems apropos: “What has shaken me is not that you lied to me, but that I no longer believe you.”
So the dishonesty trickles down, like sap down a trunk, miring in a sticky mess whatever crosses its path. And it has trickled down to our very own county. There is a crisis at the County Commission. In recent weeks, there have been accusations flying (mostly from Steve Brown to the county manager and some of the other commissioners) that a great amount nefarious coverup has been occurring. Most of this is in regard to the operations of the 911 Call Center, but also includes allegations of designed-to-fail proposals and the improper handling of accident reports.
Someone is lying. Brown claims to have proof that he is not. The others claim likewise that they are telling the truth. But at least someone wants to get at the truth. So maybe for now, we are still good. It seems that the truth still matters in Fayette County. At least let’s hope that’s the case. You, as citizens, have a right (and obligation) to make yourselves heard on the matter. And you can do just that at tomorrow night’s County Commission meeting. Let our elected officials know that the Truth still means something to us, and that lies will not be tolerated in our home. We don’t need platitudes. We don’t need a candy coating. Just the facts, ma’am. Let’s leave Parson Weems and his ilk in the past. We have a chance to be civilized.
Christopher Fairchild is the editor of Panacea magazine and Welcome to Fayette magazine, and works as a photographer and graphic designer for Fayette Newspapers.