A disappearing art
On the sad decline of lying
ONCE UPON a time in Arkansas it was seriously proposed that this state’s Division of Youth Services should not only maintain records on its clientele, which is sensible enough, but that if asked about them— here’s the hook—deny that those records ever existed. To borrow an old line from Dave Barry, WE ARE NOT MAKING THIS UP.
Don’t believe it? Here’s the key clause from the text of the bill: “When records are retained for data collection and research-related purposes, the division . . . shall not acknowledge the existence of records as to a particular juvenile and shall lawfully answer any inquiry inquiry or subpoena by stating no records exist.”
Back then, more’n a decade ago, we kept reading that section and rubbing our eyes. But the wording was always the same, the message unwavering: Thou shalt bear false witness. A forgotten spokesperson for the state explained that the proposed law wasn’t any different from a court’s expunging a criminal record. Even though that bill (was it from 2001?) would have let that department retain records rather than expunge them, and then deny they existed. Even under subpoena. It sounded like something out of 1984. As when poor Winston Smith was handed a slip of paper by his interrogator along with the assurance that it didn’t exist and never had existed.
At the same time, Innocent Reader has to recognize that lying has had some eloquent defenders in its dubious time. H.L. Mencken called it the Art Eternal, and Mark Twain, aka Sam Clemens, claimed he had no objection to lying so long as it was done well. Indeed, he acclaimed it as one of the great virtues and lubricants of social discourse. What he objected to was that this Art Eternal had fallen onto hard times.
Called on to address the Historical and Antiquarian Club of Hartford in 1882, Mr. Clemens titled his address “On the Decay of the Art of Lying.” Lest he be misunderstood, the great author made it clear that he didn’t mean lying had lessened, not at all, but only the art of it. He claimed to be all for the lie. What he abhorred was a clumsy one. “Observe,” he told his listeners, “I do not mean to suggest that the custom of lying has suffered any decay or interruption—no, for the lie as a virtue, a principle, is eternal; the lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man’s best and surest friend, is immortal, and cannot perish from the earth while this club remains.”
Has ever a speaker paid a greater compliment to his audience?
And yet the great man confessed himself perturbed. “My complaint,” Mark Twain told the members of the club, “simply concerns the decay of the art of lying. No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted . . . . Indeed, if this finest of the fine arts had everywhere received the attention, encouragement, and conscientious practice and development which this club has devoted to it, I should not need to utter this lament or shed a single tear. I do not say this to flatter. I say it in a spirit of just and appreciative recognition.”
Mr. Clemens’ defense of lying remains unmatched, yet he does not convince. Because it is his very truthfulness that makes his case so strong, his cynicism so charming. Mark Twain, it is clear, never told a bigger lie than when he claimed to be in favor of lying. His every word winks.
If only our modern PR types would defend lying with the same verve and candor, they might win us over. Instead, bureaucrats may engage not in a honest, forthright lies but the worst sort of truth—the misleading half lie. It makes the direct and unblinking lie seem honest by comparison.
The more this public “servant” of the past explained, the less convincing, or even convinced, he sounded. Yes, the bill could have been better worded, he admitted. As if the difference between a truth and a lie were only a matter of wording and not a matter of the essence.
This bureaucrat’s was the kind of performance that made one yearn for the days of Earl Long in Louisiana. After his election as governor, an angry delegation descended on his office. It seems they’d been promised that he would restore gambling in Jefferson Parish just outside New Orleans, and they wanted to know why he hadn’t delivered on his promise. When an aide asked the governor what he should tell these outraged voters, Uncle Earl was completely truthful: “Tell ’em I lied,” he said.
Now there was an honest man.
TO GO BACK and read Mark Twain’s words about the decline of lying in his time is to be struck by how little, really, he had to complain about. How dare Mark Twain grouse about the state of the art when his contemporaries included statesmen like James G. Blaine, the continental liar from Maine? Not to mention New York’s incomparable Roscoe Conkling, whose lies were so bounteous and florid that to compare them to today’s would be like hanging a Rembrandt next to a stick figure.
It was Roscoe Conkling who in his now forgotten day was asked if he intended to support his bitter rival Blaine for president. He replied: “No, thank you. I no longer engage in criminal practice.”
How compare the artful embellishments of a Blaine or Conkling to the bald and unconvincing narratives even our most skillful practitioners offer today? What are our contemporary transparencies compared to the works of those old masters? The art of lying has declined considerably since. Who didn’t watch those dreadful videotapes years ago of William J. Clinton, Esq., testifying under oath, and come away feeling . . . what? Embarrassment? Pity? Or, worst of all, nothing at all. The problem with transparent liars is that, after a while, it’s hard to work up any real interest in whatever they have to say—true, false, or any shade in between.
Compared to the sheer verve and sweep of an Earl K. Long, what a comedown Bill Clinton was: his pathetic attempt at charm, his brittle imitation of genuine rage at anyone who would dare doubt his word, his lip-biting faux sincerity, and over it all a thick vanish of self-pity . . . And in the end, a couple of years later, there came the anticlimactic confession. Why, yes, he’d been testifying falsely all along.
But there is some solace: Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken, honest advocates of the lie deluxe, aren’t around to see how low the Art Eternal has sunk. In their time the lie was a work of beauty and imagination. In ours we had been obliged to seriously consider a proposal that would oblige officials to lie. It’s like trying to legislate art.