Shades of truth
Issue #85 • January/February, 2004
An acquaintance of mine from my years living in the city eats his dinners free from soup kitchens meant for the poor. He says the food is good and he saves at least $5 every time he goes there. Bill, a confirmed bachelor, has always been a penny pincher during the 30 odd years I’ve known him, so much so that he has amassed savings totaling more than one million dollars.
What’s wrong here? A guy worth a million eats the free food meant for the poor so he can be worth a million five. Technically he’s not being dishonest, at least by any conventional rule I can think of. No one at the soup kitchen is asking him if he is really poor, so he’s not lying. And the food is advertised as free to the hungry. Bill is no doubt hungry at dinnertime. Bill thinks he’s pretty clever.
But anyone looking at this situation can sense that something is wrong. Bill’s behavior is at least sleazy, and probably dishonest when measured against how most of us feel people should behave.
It got me to thinking about the other borderline dishonest things in society. Take, for example, politicians trolling for votes. In the ghetto they try to spark the envy of class warfare by talking about the rich getting most of the tax breaks and the corporations gouging the poor, while in middle America they play on middle class fears of minorities by talking about fighting crime and drug abuse by getting tough on criminals and drug pushers. They’re not telling lies, but they probably wouldn’t interchange messages and audiences either.
The other day my local congressman, Peter DeFazio, told a group of senior citizens that President Bush’s tax cuts would “quickly wipe out the Social Security and Medicare trust funds and threaten to bankrupt the country.” Well, there really is no Social Security trust fund to wipe out. The so-called trust fund contains only Government IOUs that future generations will hopefully pay off. But DeFazio sees an opportunity to blame Republicans for a huge looming problem, so he uses a bit of sleight-of-hand rhetoric that seems to make sense. Not quite a lie, but not quite the whole truth.
Politicians don’t have a monopoly on shading the truth. When is the last time any of us ever thought that lawyers or Government prosecutors pursued the truth in court trials? They pursue victory, not truth. The judge makes sure they don’t violate any rules as they play the game. If you’re rich and famous, like O.J. Simpson, you hire the lawyers who play the game best, so you win and get away with murder, but if you’re a poor ignorant slob who gets caught with a marijuana joint, you automatically lose and go to jail.
How about the mass media. Does anyone still believe the mass media tries to inform us of the truth? News outlets, by and large, have their political agenda and slant the news accordingly. Just look at California’s recent recall election of their unpopular governor, Gray Davis. Behind in the polls to his chief challenger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the incumbent Governor’s chief ally, the L.A. Times, pulled out all the stops one week before the election by running a story that claimed 14 women had come forward to accuse Schwarzenegger of fondling them 25 years previous, and that Schwarzenegger was an admitted admirer of Adolf Hitler. For voters fed up with the gross distortions that had characterized the recall campaign, the Times story was the last straw. They threw out Davis and elected the new Governor Schwarzenegger in a landslide.
Then there’s the environmental groups. Think they’re after the truth? Environmentalists who fought so long to save the spotted owl admitted after they had closed down old growth forests that the owl was mainly a convenient foil for them, that it was the trees they really wanted to save. So congratulations to them for winning. They don’t seem to feel the need to apologize for using a lie to win.
No wonder Bill feels comfortable padding his million with an extra $5. It’s just a game to him, just like it is for the politicians, the lawyers, the media, the environmentalists, and lots of other people. Why not grab the free meal if it’s for the taking, why not shade the truth if no one holds you to a higher standard, and why not bend the rules if it means winning the game. Technically, you’re not breaking any laws. But some of us still think it’s sleazy and wrong.