The title above was one of my father’s throwaway lines, possibly taken from Lenny Bruce (and seen, in variations, on signs in stores with puckish proprietors). I am thinking about trust today, don’t ask me why. Trust is largely gone from public life in our ever-suspicious, tribal “fuck you”/ “NO, FUCK YOU!” culture. Our public servants, for the most part, are untruthful or equivocating whenever they need to be, to protect their brand for integrity. As a nation we’ve gone to war, more than once, based on outright lies that were known to be lies when the liars were repeatedly lying about why we needed to go to war. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s known knowns, if you know what I mean. How do we trust people who lie whenever they feel the need to? An interesting challenge.
I knew a woman married to a charming man who was a reflexive liar. He would lie convincingly whenever he felt himself to be in a corner, and as a lifelong secret gambler who regularly lost big bets he needed to cover up, he found himself in a corner frequently. As things got tighter for him, and his need to cover up some shameful excess grew, his lying became increasingly impassioned. He would appear, at such times, achingly sincere, even admitting embarrassing things during these untruthful confessions.
He was an excellent actor who was adept at gaining sympathy with a convincing, though false, story. The relief of getting out of very tight spots with these lies is probably what got him hooked on lying. He was eventually caught in a few big lies involving undeniable credit card fraud, deliberate deception over large sums of “borrowed” money, outright embezzlement and so forth.
He had some increasingly serious physical problems and, out of politeness, I once asked his wife how he was doing. His wife said “how would I know?” I never asked how he was doing after that.
It’s a mystery to me how you can stay close to someone you can’t trust. We may sometimes hear things we don’t like from our nearest and dearest, be annoyed once in a while by the tics of our closest friends, but what we don’t doubt is the sincerity of these friends. When the truth is needed, we will have some version of it from those who care about us the most. Importantly, they will try to provide hard truth with sympathy. This is my assumption and it seems to be confirmed by my experience. On the other hand, I’ve been disappointed in this belief too, and relationships end over a revealed lack of trust. Regular lying is not the only deal-breaker in close relationships, but it can be a big one.
A deliberate lie, of course, is in a separate category from the more common unintentional falsehoods that stem from self-delusion, a deep belief in dubious shit. One person’s fucking lie is another person’s honest self-deception, and much of self-delusion is easy to understand and fairly innocuous. Until it feels under attack. Self-delusion can become aggressive when it must defend itself against all objective argument, marshaling a stubborn determination to see only one side of the situation. This is the category, I think, that much of the untruth we are regularly presented with falls into. Not deliberate lies as much as strong opinion based on one-sided information, prejudice, the easy reflex to fall back on what feels right, inconvenient facts aside.
Is someone lying or misguided when they dismiss the climate disruption warned of by climate scientists as communist bullshit? In most cases, they are probably not lying. They sincerely believe, in spite of ever more common killer storms, droughts, floods, wildfires and other observable evidence, the alternative explanation they have been given by very smart public relations people working for the cynical leaders of the lucrative, if problematic, fossil fuel industry. Is everyone who believes that cutting taxes on the richest corporations and families actually helps everyone in society lying? Probably not, there are many reasons to believe a given proposition. Is a politician knowingly lying to convince people to support a position always acting like a psychopath? You can argue that it’s not.
I don’t want to veer into politics here in 2020. I’ve spent too much time on the vexing details in the last few nightmarishly turbulent years. We are regularly lied to by various leaders, it is a given in our commercial culture today. I’m going to give one example of a lie told to me, directly, by Barack Obama, secret Muslim, illegitimate presidential candidate unqualified for the Ivy League schools he went to, a man I voted for twice. While he was pushing Obamacare, at a time when I very much liked my doctor, I was reassured to hear him say that under his plan “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” Not necessarily. In my case Obama scored a zero for truthfulness since I could not keep my doctor, his corporation did not participate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).
On balance the ACA was a step forward for a nation that had, before the law was passed, an even larger segment of its population dying unnecessarily after too-late diagnoses in emergency rooms, dying in the final stages of curable diseases for lack of health insurance. Millions more Americans are now covered, at affordable rates, and that’s a net gain for everybody previously unable to afford health care. It’s a problematic program with a lot of fucked up aspects to it, the insane complexities of its billing system high among them (as well as the millions still uncovered by the ACA), but the program was an undeniable step forward from what existed before.
Even people who hated Obama don’t want to see Obamacare abolished. Nobody but health insurance executives and wealthy psychopaths not affected by the program are in favor of reinstating the brutal “pre-existing condition” loophole that served only to further enrich health insurance companies. Personally, I now save thousands of dollars a year over the cost of my former privately purchased health insurance, and I’ve found good doctors who participate in the plan, That said, the motherfucker did look me directly in the face and lie to me, with great sincerity. A small lie in the service of a much greater good, I suppose. No need to go into some of his more deadly lies and omissions that really fucking irked me.
There are, of course, different categories of lying. Some are harmless enough, a need to constantly brag, to exaggerate one’s importance, for example. This kind of lying is used to push away the torments of low self-esteem, and, you know– what the fuck? You can take this sort of lying, what lawyers call “puffery”, with a grain of salt most of the time. Some lies are quite destructive, as we all have experienced. Why do people believe the habitual tellers of these kind of self-serving, damaging untruths? Love.
If you love the person telling the lie, not being upset by the lie goes down much easier. The lie is much easier to see as understandable, justifiable. He HAD to tell it that way, you see, looking at it from his point of view– he was sincerely ashamed about what actually happened, you can’t blame him. Or, it doesn’t matter, the guy is so good to me about everything else that his occasional lies, even things like the rare but undeniably shocking surprise bankruptcy days before the closing on our new home, for example, are acceptable.
The downside I can’t find a way to overlook is the necessary complicity of those who accept the liar’s need to lie. This requires supporting the liar’s right to lie without consequences, to lie yourself to cover the lies of the loved one. It includes the forced complicity of everyone who knows the secret stories that must never be revealed.
The lie of the loved one needs to stand, and so does the need to talk around it, to dance, to contort the conversation in such a way that the lie is no longer central to what you are talking about. In a pinch, just get angry as hell when someone keeps harping on some relatively harmless untruth they are so relentless about exposing. Smash-mouth offense is the best defense in such situations, especially when people keep bringing up ancient history.
For me, the challenge is to be truthful and fair, to the extent any of us can be, without being combative about it. It is a challenge I am wrestling with in the clear, stinging light of 2020.