A dis­ap­pear­ing art

On the sad de­cline of ly­ing

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

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.

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