The Year of the Liar

From weapons of mass destruction to Jayson Blair, we trusted them -- and they punk'd us. Why do we keep coming back for more?

Topics: Reality TV, Survivor, Al Franken, D-Minn., Joe Conason,

The Year of the Liar

The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth. — H.L. Mencken

At least he didn’t win. That was the attitude of “Survivor” fans who tuned in for Sunday’s finale to see if one of the most shameless liars ever to appear on television would leave with the million-dollar prize. Jon Dalton — or “Johnny Fairplay” as he preferred to be called — did make it to the final three after he hatched an elaborate plan to garner sympathy and gain an advantage over his fellow players. He told a friend that if the show brought him on for a visit, which he knew that it might, he should tell Jon — in front of the cameras, cast and crew — that his grandmother had died. The scheme worked; the other players were choked up and conspired to let Jon win the reward challenge. Later, when teammates questioned his loyalty, he was quick to swear to them, on his grandmother’s grave, that he was being true to his word. They didn’t find out about his lie until the show aired last week.

But on the reunion show, when host Jeff Probst tried to get the other players to express their horror over the lie, no one was taking the bait. In fact, by the end of the hour, outrage and anger at Jon seemed to transform into open admiration. With awe in her voice, one fellow player called Jon’s lie “brilliant,” another referred to his ability to lie as a “rare talent,” while a third, ironically dressed in a Boy Scout’s uniform, congratulated him on his powers of deception.

Maybe Jon’s talents aren’t as rare as they seem. Take a closer look at the headlines this year, and you’ll see that lying was all the rage. From the administration’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction to the Jayson Blair fiasco, examples of lies and the lying liars who tell them were everywhere even before Al Franken’s book sold more than a million copies. Those who thought that corporate cheating would dry up and blow away as the Enron scandal petered out were sadly mistaken — 2003 brought another round of financial scandals as disconcerting as the last, from investigations into unethical practices at many top mutual funds to allegations of misconduct at Boeing. In entertainment, the deception behind “Joe Millionaire” sparked a competition between networks to see which could tell the biggest, most shocking lie for the amusement of millions. Thus, we were treated to “Boy Meets Boy,” the gay dating show on which many of the suitors turned out to be straight, or “The Joe Shmoe Show,” a fake reality show created just to get a rise out of one unsuspecting contestant, over and over again.



But maybe nothing signaled a sea change in our attitudes about lying quite like Howard Dean’s response to a debate question earlier this month about whether it would be OK for the president to lie to the American people. “I can’t think of any circumstances,” Dean said, “with the possible exception of some national security matter that would — if some piece of information were put out that would endanger American lives or circumstances under which people’s lives would be in danger or something of that sort.” Washington’s cherry tree be damned! While it seems obvious that a president can and will at times choose to withhold information that might endanger American lives, the unacceptability of making false statements to the American people should go without saying. Still, the response to Dean’s remark was surprisingly muted.

While the urge to deceive others may be an essential facet of human nature, our attitudes toward lying and cheating seem to change as our sociocultural climate and our values shift. In his book “The Cheating Culture,” author David Callahan suggests that the individualism and free-market ideals of our culture create conditions in which members of every economic strata of society find themselves tempted to cheat in order to get ahead. But the widespread, whispered acceptance of everything from the long-term use of unemployment benefits to inappropriate tax deductions surely doesn’t begin and end with the unfair distribution of wealth in this country. What’s perhaps more unsettling than the lies themselves or the conditions that create a culture in which lying is implicitly accepted is the way we treat the liar and how it has evolved over time. Once the obligatory period of shock and indignation is over, high-profile cheats are welcomed back into the fold with open arms, encouraged to tell their stories, in full makeup, while a sympathetic interviewer coos appreciatively. The book deals and the attention don’t falter for years; in fact, the greater the heat, the greater the potential payday.

Stephen Glass is still grilled and second-guessed openly, ImClone CEO Sam Waksal is pictured leaving the courthouse, looking pale and fearing his impending stay in prison, President Bush is interrogated about how he can support a war that was so firmly focused on the imminent threat of weapons that seem not to have existed at all. But eventually, these figures are folded back into the realm of the acceptable, as if lying is not only expected but the lies themselves are only relevant for a very short time, and once our interest in those lies (or the prison term) expires, then the liar is returned to the same position in society — or an even higher position — than he or she held before.

Is it just because fame — even if based on notoriety — is always celebrated? Or do Americans believe so firmly in upward mobility and the virtue of reinvention that we would rather allow the powerful to retain their position than admit to a scenario in which a real loss of money, power or status can occur? Maybe our grip on our own material and circumstantial successes is so fragile that it clouds our ability to take a firm stand against those who deceive and cheat the system, since their fall from grace might signal that our own demise could be next. As our personal sense of responsibility decays, we forgive those whose missteps strike us as utterly human, thereby ensuring that deceit and corruption will prosper while we avert our eyes.

Of course, it helps when our celebrated liars are, well, such good liars; the very same talents that were used to deceive others can be called up to add just the right spin to the crime. A few charmingly self-deprecating asides go a lot further than a convincing apology, and with them soon any memory of the original crime — now termed a “mistake” or “low period” — is erased. From Henry Blodget to Henry Kissinger, a myriad of liars invariably find ways to wriggle their way back into the public’s embrace, and dwell happily ever after in the spotlight. A key rule for rehabilitating your image seems to be that if it makes a good story, you’re already forgiven.

Our inconsistency and lack of principles as a culture becomes apparent upon reviewing some of the year’s most memorable spin jobs. Whether deceit was sanctioned by the networks or ignored by the voting public, those who lied this year seemed to have less and less to answer to.

Fictionalize, then apologize. Stephen Glass told monumental, audacious lies. He created characters and situations out of thin air and wrote elaborate features on them. Once his lies were discovered, Glass channeled his obvious skills as a storyteller into a novel about a liar just like himself, only different. When the movie about his life, “Shattered Glass,” came out this year, Glass humbly stepped into the spotlight again, describing the film as his own personal “horror movie.” He also apologized to those he hurt, spoke of regrets and analyzed his behavior from afar, all the while preparing to become — what else? — a lawyer. Journalists have rehashed the Glass story obsessively, tirelessly ruminating on the parable he presents. “How dare he be compensated for his lies!” they fumed, and then invited him to appear on their shows. And when Glass stuttered and turned pale and insulted himself on cue, they were still left wondering if he was really, truly sorry or not. After all, he seemed really sorry, but maybe that was just another act, one custom-made to sell his new novel! The real question is, why would we turn to this infamous storyteller for anything but stories?

That’s entertainment! This was the year that lies were told repeatedly and shamelessly, all for the sake of ratings. Tune in for the moment when he finds out his new boyfriend is actually straight! Watch, as the hot girl pulls off her fat-suit disguise and reveals that she heard what her would-be suitors said about her behind her heavily prostheticized back — it was all captured on a hidden camera! See the look on the chump’s face when he finds out the reality show he’s been a part of is entirely fake, and that his new friends, whom he’s been living with for weeks, are actually paid actors! While we’re quick to separate entertainment from real life — “It was just a game! It all turned out fine in the end!” — how much more effectively could the networks encourage lying than by letting us participate in the raw fun and excitement of telling lies? Still, reality TV has bloomed under the approving glow of audiences who accept that those who participate in such programs can and should be manipulated, shamed and lied to repeatedly. Just as our tolerance for one lie expires, producers dream up new lies, and soon we encounter so much deceit and manipulation that we begin to believe that entertainment and lies are necessary bedfellows — even when real human beings’ lives and reputations are toyed with.

Play the underdog What better way to spin your lies than by pretending that your deceptions were just another way of “sticking it to the man”? After he admitted to filing dozens of phony or plagiarized stories, Jayson Blair not only got a book deal, but chose a title for his memoir that only a deceiver could love: “Burning Down My Master’s House: My Life at the New York Times.” Wouldn’t you know it? Blair’s lies weren’t the missteps of a bumbling, blindly ambitious buffoon, but just one small part of an elaborate plan to bring disgrace on one of the most powerful voices of the white man! Only a master of duplicity could spin such a disgrace into an honorable struggle against the same institution that was his amiable benefactor just months earlier.

America, you’ve been Punk’d! Given how tough it is for celebrities to gain street cred with the cool kids, you have to hand it to Ashton Kutcher. Instead of getting schooled for being the host of some MTV show, Kutcher wisely positioned himself as a traitor to his class, a devil-may-care crusader out to embarrass and offend the stuck-up, spoiled inhabitants of tinseltown. Forget that Kutcher’s glee in tricking, manipulating and humiliating celebrities flies in the face of his celebrity-embracing lifestyle — Frankie Muniz looks so funny when he’s mad! And like any good lie, “Punk’d” fueled a wave of second-guessing. Why did the celebrities seem less and less surprised during the second season? Were they in on the joke? Is that why the show ended so quickly? Was the entire show a lie from the start? Is Kutcher punking America? Does it really matter either way?

Hush, now, don’t explain. The president’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was easily the biggest lie of the year. Strange, then, that months after his State of the Union statement that the administration’s evidence left “no doubt” that weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq, President Bush still hasn’t been forced to explain himself, nor has he apologized for duping the American people by allowing them to believe that the imminent threat of WMD in Iraq justified an immediate invasion. Even if WMD turn up now, the administration has failed to produce the preponderance of evidence that we were repeatedly led to believe existed. Bush pulled this off not only by refusing to admit guilt, but by sidestepping the entire question, continuing to distort the facts by discussing 9/11 and the need to “battle terrorism” in the same breath with Iraq. Sadly, the American public has the patience of a hyperactive squirrel, and the tough questions only come for so long. Eventually, the country seems to resign itself to never really knowing the truth, or never getting a reasonable response to a serious allegation. Just as our problems in Iraq seemed to be registering with the public, we capture Saddam — and Bush’s poll ratings soar. The second he seems to be winning, all previous trespasses are forgiven or forgotten.

Pride goeth before — and after — the fall When you’ve lied early and often, don’t be afraid to openly announce to the world that you’re a liar. If you make that twisted web of deceit sound like a nuanced plan of attack, they might just admire you for it. Sometimes the easiest way to win the public’s love and approval is by playing into their fear and loathing. Look how well it works for Dennis Rodman, Courtney Love, Eminem and any number of high-profile stars with apparent sociopathic tendencies. “Survivor’s” Jon Dalton has always been an outspoken fan of wrestling — so what better way to secure fame in a realm that glorifies infamy, than by inspiring an audience of millions to hate him? It’s only a matter of time before Dalton’s knack for proudly flaunting his lies wins him a permanent spot in this subculture’s limelight.

In formulating a plan of attack, some potential liars might be daunted by the countless books, many on the bestseller list, with titles about lies and lying: “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” by Al Franken; “The Lies of George W. Bush,” by David Corn; “The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq,” by Christopher Scheer; or “Big Lies,” by Salon’s own Joe Conason. Don’t let such strident language deter you! America may be outraged and titillated by people who lie, we may have a sense that there’s nothing worse than a liar, we may take pains to describe our shock and despair over the behavior of liars, but the more fire and brimstone we spout, the more callous the public becomes. “Everyone’s lying!” they figure, and then vote for the guy with the nicest haircut. Once you’re hosting a spot on the WWF or appearing on “60 Minutes” or signing books at Barnes and Noble, who’s going to care what got you there? Such tales of redemption and reinvention are just too tantalizing to ignore, aligned as they are with the American dream.

All of which makes captured Pvt. Jessica Lynch all the braver for stepping up and rebutting the Pentagon-produced story of her as a pocket-size Rambo, “fighting to the end” — instead of a deer caught in the enemy headlights whose gun jammed. But did the public embrace her for it? The TV movie on her tanked, and her own book (co-written by a writer who turned his own troubles with the truth into a fat book deal in a matter of months) was a sales disappointment. Poor Jessica. If she’d been paying attention, she would’ve ditched her quaint morals and gone with the flow. She would’ve understood that a lot of the time, Americans prefer to be lied to.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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