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As you may know, the trouble started when "The Smoking Gun," an investigative web site, reported about a million little lies in A Million Little Pieces. It turns out that whole sections of the book were either wildly exaggerated or outright fiction. The author was confronted about the allegations on "Larry King Live," but he insisted that everything was essentially true. Then Oprah called in to the show and said the "inaccuracies" did not matter because the book was helping folks who were dealing with their own demons. Then, a few days later Oprah had a change of heart and, to her credit, she apologized to her millions of fans for presenting the book as factual. Whereupon she lambasted the author on her show. Don't mess with Oprah!
Of course, A Million Little Pieces is far from the first autobiography to fudge the facts. No surprise. But the incident also illustrates the sad state of "truth" these days. An awful lot of "truth" is nothing but spin, and one gets the impression that if something is declared loud enough and long enough, people begin to accept it as "true." That, of course, was the "Big Lie" theory of the Nazis, and it does work. Politicians have been proving it ever since.
Are you familiar with satirist Stephen Colbert? He is the host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," a late-night takeoff of talk-show blowhards, and he has added a new wrinkle to the conversation. When his program debuted last October, Colbert made clear that his mantra would be "truthiness," a devotion to information that he wishes were true even if it's not. Did you hear that? A devotion to information that he wishes were true even if it's not. Okee-dokee. "I'm not a fan of facts," he says. "You see, facts can change, but my opinion will never change, no matter what the facts are."(2) Uh-huh. Colbert is a comedian, but in hearing him one wonders whether he has not opened a window into our souls.
Are we more devoted to truth...or truthiness? William Bastone, the editor of The Smoking Gun website that researched and documented the fabrications in James Frey's "memoir," was stunned when 40% of those who responded to the exposé were furious, not at Frey and his lies, but at The Smoking Gun reporters for exposing him. Go figure. Whistleblowers, whether in business, research, the military, politics, or some other institution, often experience similar responses to their attempts to expose the lies and corruption in their agencies.
Dr. Harry Frankfurt, a retired Princeton philosophy professor whose brief treatise last year with the intriguing title, On Bull----(3), has become a best-seller, speculates that perhaps we have become so accustomed to lying in all areas of society that we are no longer surprised, let alone outraged, when it is exposed. "The country has lost its taste for the truth," he says.
One of my friends thinks it all started with Ronald Reagan. As a nation, by the time the Great Communicator came into office, we were profoundly tired of scandal in high places, we were tired of hearing about a national "malaise," so we were ready when he told us everything we wanted to hear. He invented the myth of "welfare queens" driving Cadillacs purchased with welfare benefits, and he schmoozed his way through the Iran-Contra scandal, in which White House staffers demonstrated a contempt of the law every bit as egregious as anything that the Nixon White House ever perpetrated -- but they got away with it. When this smooth-talking former actor died, there were some who wanted to carve his face into Mount Rushmore -- that is how much we loved the Big Lie.(4) Interesting.
Have we indeed brought the problem on ourselves? How would we react these days if the President stood up before Congress at the beginning of the year and declared, "The State of our Union STINKS?" Do we WANT to be lied to? Perhaps. That is the way we can live with ourselves when we think of Vietnam or Iran-Contra, or now the situation in Iraq.
The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. "It would be easy to say that lying is always bad and truth telling is always good but that would not be the truth either." So says Caroline Keating who is a professor of psychology at Colgate University. "We protect ourselves and we protect our social relationships by disguising the truth."
Although we hardly even realize it, we lie to ourselves and each other daily, she says. "We ask our friend how she is and she says 'fine,' even when she isn't. That relieves us of our responsibility of solving her problem."(5) Hmm.
Then suddenly we come upon Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of Lent, this unique season of introspection, the UNVARNISHED truth about our innermost selves, or at least as unvarnished as we can handle. We read the lectionary lesson and hear Isaiah thunder, "on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists." He complains about the kind of repentance that only involves sackcloth and ashes, then insists that we put our money where our mouth is - "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter - when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?" We do come up a bit short there, do we not?
How do we handle that? To be honest, it is easier for us to lie to ourselves about ourselves than to face the hard truth of our shortcomings. We, down deep, prefer "truthiness" to truth, but Lent will not let us.
"The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." But the good news as begin our Lenten journey is that the phrase as we know it is incomplete that way. We know it as, "The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, SO HELP ME GOD." Those last four words, "so help me God," make all the difference. As we come to the Table this evening, we are reminded once again that we have that help. Come, eat, and be blessed.
1. New York : Anchor Books, 2004
3. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 2005
4. Carlos Wilton, "The Immediate Word," http://www.csspub.com/tiw.lasso?
5. Andrea Simakis, "Is the big lie no big deal?" Cleveland Plain-Dealer, 1/15/06