It’s not a lie, it’s just ‘post-truth’
In his memoir, Locked in the Cabinet, Robert Reich, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor, cast himself as the hero in confrontations with members of Congress during public hears on Capitol Hill. After a magazine reporter checked videotapes and transcripts of the hearings and found the heated battles that Reich had described never happened, Reich defended his misrepresentations by maintaining that “I was absolutely true to my memory.”
Fired from The New York Times for fabricating facts and events in news stories, reporter Jayson Blair defended his falsehoods as justified because of his grievances against the newspaper. He was rewarded with a six-figure contract to write a book on his misadventures at the Times.
Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu became a hero among certain segments of the academic community when she wrote an autobiography about growing up under oppression in Guatemala. But when Menchu later conceded that major portions of her book were fabricated, her defenders in academia said they would continue to make it required reading for their students because her story represented a larger truth.
“Whether her book is true or not, I don’t care,” said a professor at Wellesley College.
Misrepresentations — lies to be more blunt — have long been a staple of life, whether in show business, politics, academia, journalism or routine interactions among people. But what’s become increasingly common in recent years is the tolerance that society shows not only for admitted liars but acceptance of their falsehoods as not necessarily false.
At least, that’s the contention of author Ralph Keyes, a former Champaign resident whose latest book is titled The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. Noting continued episodes of deceit, Keyes said he has been struck by society’s reaction to liars and their lies.
“The main (point) is saying, ‘Maybe we’ve become too fib-friendly,’ he said. “As long as there is no penalty for the transgression, we’ll continue to have a post-truth society.”
Keyes, of course, is not surprised that people from all walks of life say things that aren’t true. Whether it’s to impress people, make a sale or get out of trouble, people have been telling lies since the beginning of time.
What’s changed, Keyes contends, is the willingness of certain segments of society to label falsehoods as either “spinning,” “poetic truth,” or “nearly true,” depending on how they feel about the individual’s political or social causes.
“We’re pretty clever at coming up with all these rationales. But we’re really losing our grip on the difference between truth and lies, between honesty and dishonesty,” he said.
Keyes said the issue sometimes boils down to this: “My guy’s lie is understandable, but your guy’s lies are reprehensible.
People lie for a variety of reasons, sometimes just to impress others.
The noted historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Ellis regaled his students at Mt. Holyoke College with his adventures as combat soldier, football hero and civil rights activist, none of which was true. After Ellis’s falsehoods were revealed in the Boston Globe, Mt. Holyoke’s president defended Ellis’s misconduct until public criticism forced her to suspend Ellis from the faculty for a year.
Ellis ultimately paid a high price for his transgression, but that’s not always the case.
Fired from The Boston Globe for fabricating stories, columnist Mike Barnicle quickly landed work as a columnist elsewhere as well as a radio/TV commentator. Had Barnicle had lesser stature than that of a well-known columnist, his journalistic career would have been over. But influential personal friends helped the colorful Barnicle resurrect his career.
Politicians, not surprisingly, are among the worst liars, with offenders coming from the ranks of both Republicans and Democrats. But any offense taken at their misrepresentations often is divided on partisan lines.
Keyes’s latest book is his 13th. He has worked as a freelance writer since 1970, a perilous career path because of the irregularity of income.
“People ask what the secret is to being a freelance writer, and I say, ‘A wife with a steady job,'” he said. “Freelance writing is a very odd and harrowing way to make a living. I don’t recommend it, although I enjoy it.”
Now 59, Keyes grew up in Champaign-Urbana, the son of university professor Scott Keyes and Charlotte Keyes, a writer. He graduated from Champaign High School in 1962 and went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he soon met the woman who became his wife. After living in various places across the United States, Keyes, his wife and two sons moved back to Yellow Springs in 1990.
Although he’s primarily an author of books, Keyes said he also supports himself by public speaking and teaching, mostly on topics about which he’s written books.
Keyes said his latest book has been well received, particularly in religious circles, even though the book is is not religious in nature.
“I think they see this as something that ties into messages (of honesty and morality) that they’re trying to convey,” he said.
Keyes said he has not seen much evidence that society is changing its tolerance for prominent people telling lies. But he described the Internet as a tool that can and is being used to expose that kind of dishonesty, something he said might deter people from lying.
“It’s a great fact-checker,” he said.
Although he contemplated the project for years, Keyes said it actually took him about two years to research and write. He’s now working on a couple of other projects that will keep him occupied for the foreseeable future.
Keyes said he is “looking at the big 6-0” on Jan. 12, but has no thoughts of retirement. After all, he said, writers write and if he retired “what would I do?”