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Common Knowledge
Living on lies

Former congressman Anthony Weiner made a revealing (forgive the word) statement when he belatedly explained his recent unraveling sex scandal. At a press conference, Weiner admitted that even when he first lied about the situation, he ultimately knew he wouldn’t get away with it.

Weiner lied, of course, in the horror of being caught doing things that were inappropriate for a sitting U.S. Representative – or anyone else, probably. But his lies were direct attempts to avoid or delay a reckoning that might ruin his career and marriage.

In his book Tangled Webs – How False Statements are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff, James B. Stewart argues that our government, academic institutions, medical industry, and more are being undermined by a growing culture of lying. “How much do you think people believe politicians today?” he asked on the Today show.

Frankly, I’m not sure people care.

Nearly two decades ago, I interviewed conservative writer (and former Moral Majority vice president) Cal Thomas for a magazine article. He had just written a book filled with heart-warming tales of building ties across the political divide, having dinner with Ted Kennedy, that sort of thing. For my interview, he talked a great game, and I – the young greenhorn journalist – didn’t know I was being snowed. The interview was published, and sure enough, the next time I picked up a newspaper and looked at his column, he was fulminating against all of those horrible political opponents with nary a thought of brotherly love, Christian grace, or shared roast beef dinners.

I hate being snowed. I hate being told lies. I hate hype. So I was pleased to discover a Hamilton College report a few years ago that ranked Cal Thomas as the least accurate major columnist out of more than two dozen studied.

Here’s a good reason not to like being on the receiving end of lies and misinformation. People are supposed to be doing their own, consumer-side investigation of any product or service they use. That is the bargain that has been struck in this country: decreased (or even nonexistent) regulation coupled with supposed greater freedom for consumers to educate themselves and choose their products and services. The burden of detecting falsehoods is on the consumer.

On a single-case basis, this seems to make sense to people. Some bought subprime mortgages they couldn’t handle when the market turned? Stupid them – they should have carefully read the 40 pages of small print and known not to get into such a mess. People lost a ton of money with a shady investment banker? They should have done their research. Others have bad doctors? There are zillions of websites that list which docs are most popular with patients. And those who bought a product that turned out to be unsafe? They should have investigated the company’s history and management.
But put that all together and consider that the average person is supposed to somehow be able to research and make perceptive decisions about medical treatment (minor and major), investments (minor and major), real estate deals, their kids’ schools – and that’s all before they have to decide if their congressman is lying about a legislative bill.

Do we really think the average person, or even the average above-average person, can do all of that?
Polls have shown that one quarter of Americans don’t know what country America fought for its independence. Nearly 20 percent of our fellow countrymen told pollsters that the sun revolves around the earth. More than half of Americans don’t believe in evolution. And as Newsweek famously pointed out in a 2006 poll, “more than three quarters of Americans could name at least two of the seven dwarfs, while not quite a quarter could name two members of the Supreme Court.”

The list could go on. No one is hiding the answers to the questions so many Americans are clueless about. The identities of Supreme Court judges are not top secret; you do not go to Guantanamo for revealing their names.

So how effective will most people be when it comes to getting information about companies and backroom political deals and corporate malfeasance – things that other people try very hard to keep from the public eye?

Ultimately, of course, government does regulate to some degree, and people take some degree of responsibility for figuring out what’s truth and lies. It is therefore helpful to have leaders who are as open as possible, knowledgeable as possible, and not sexting as much as possible. And citizens have to spend time learning more about the news than what fits in a tweet or a Facebook posting.
That’s why we don’t put Snow White’s dwarf pals on the U.S. Supreme Court. They have a good work ethic, but they’re not good at parsing the law.

John Zipperer is a San Francisco-based writer and editor. E-mail:

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