Diogenes, the story goes, spent his life in a futile search for an honest man.
He never made it to Washington, which is a good thing, because based on what you see on the news or read in the papers, his search wouldn’t have ended there.
Nor would he have found honesty in America’s corporate suites. Nor Hollywood, the manufacturer of dreams and illusions which have no basis in truth.
So where is honesty? Does it, in fact, even exist?
Good question. Not one, however, with an easy answer.
“Chase after truth like hell and you’ll free yourself, even though you never touch its coat-tails,” said Clarence Darrow who, as a lawyer, knew first hand that truth seldom mattered.
Author Edith Sitwell said “the public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth,” a belief that drives most elected officials.
Early in our lives, we are taught that “honesty is the best policy” and then we immediately forget it as we lie to our parents about where we’ve been and what we’ve been up to or lie to teachers about whether or not we really read the assignment.
We learn there are “degrees” of truth, that “little white lies” are not as bad as big, bad, blatant misstatements. As kids, we worry about getting caught when we lie. As we get older, the lies get more complex but the worry subsides in an environment where truth is an expendable commodity.
A Gallup Poll in 1998 showed 60 percent of married men and 52 percent of married women admitted cheating on their spouses at least once (and that’s assuming they were telling the truth about when and how often). The same poll said 66 percent of Americans regularly cheat on their taxes.
In 1992, an Ohio State Trooper pulled me over for speeding just outside of Cleveland.
“Do you know how fast you were going?”
“Yeah, about 75.” I was more pissed at not noticing him behind me than in the fact he caught me speeding.
“Well, today’s your lucky day,” he said. “I have a rule that when a motorist is honest with me, I only give them a warning. I don’t give out many warnings.”
In Washington, the truth gets lost under a pile of spin and political rhetoric designed to put an elected official in the best light even when the facts say otherwise.
When is the last time you heard a member of Congress admit he or she was “wrong” or admit they lied about a past action? Can’t remember? You’re not alone. Does this mean all members of Congress are honest? Not bloody likely.
Bill Clinton stood up before the American public and lied outright when he claimed he never, ever, had sex with “that woman…Ms. Lewinsky.” It took several months and a DNA test on a semen-stained dress for him to finally, hesitantly, admit he lied.
Clinton isn’t the only President to lie to the American people. Ronald Reagan lied about Iran Contra. Richard Nixon lied about Watergate. Kennedy and Johnson lied about Vietnam. Even Jimmy “I’ll never tell you lie” Carter lied when it served his political purpose.
Yet apologists for all these men offered hollow excuses for the lies, saying they were in the “national interest” or, in Clinton’s case, were a futile attempt to “avoid embarrassment to his family.”
What normally happens is that the lie, in the end, turns out to be the biggest embarrassment of them all, a lesson that none of us ever seems to learn.
Journalists claim to be on a search for the truth, yet we print the obvious lies of political spokesmen every day. Watch any of the Sunday talk shows and you will see all the political hacks offering up the party line unchallenged by the talking heads who host these vehicles of misinformation.
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” Mark Twain said.
But it may have been a communist who best understood the real role of truth in modern society.
“A lie told often enough,” Lenin said, “becomes the truth.”
On second thought, maybe Diogenes should have come to Washington (had Washington existed during his ancient search).
He would have taken one look around, shaken his head, abandoned his search for truth and gotten on with his life.