It was the latest example of what’s become an epidemic of dishonesty. A few days ago, historian Stephen Ambrose admitted that in his new book, The Wild Blue, he’d lifted passages from an earlier book by historian Thomas Childer. Many sentences were similar; others were identical to those in Childer’s book, The Wings of Morning.
To his credit, Ambrose, whom I know and respect, promptly apologized and said Childer would be properly acknowledged in future editions of the book. He also said the word-for-word copying was inadvertent. But as Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard asks, “How could such a thing happen inadvertently?”
How, indeed. In recent years, politicians and pundits, professors and even Pulitzer Prize-winners have been caught dealing in deceit. For example, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis was caught inventing a Vietnam War record. So was Tim Johnson, manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. And just a few weeks ago, football coach George O’Leary was caught embroidering details on his resume — a deception that cost him his dream job as coach of Notre Dame.
Sadly, these people are not a minority. James Patterson and Peter Kim, authors of The Day America Told the Truth, estimate that 91 percent of us regularly trash the truth.
Why has lying become so much more prevalent? Some scholars believe the problem arose out of the gradual adoption of a utilitarian ethic — one that began eroding the traditional ethic in the West in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Utilitarianism can be made to say that a good end justifies the means — that if a lie does more help for more people than harm, then we ought to feel free to employ one.
In the late twentieth century, this problem was exacerbated by the rise of postmodern deconstructionism on college campuses. Postmodernists teach that the truth is not merely irrelevant; they believe it simply doesn’t exist. As Lynne Cheney observes in her book, Telling the Truth, academics “leaped beyond the common sense observation that people’s descriptions of reality differ to the conclusion that there is no independent reality and thus no basis for making judgments about truth — or falsity.” Truth claims are in reality “the constructs of dominant groups — the creations of the powerful,” Cheney writes.
This assault on truth has spread beyond academia — and today we’re seeing the grim results. Today, even the man on the street sees little wrong with lying. For instance, in the wake of the George O’Leary scandal, a football fan told the New York Post, “I think Notre Dame is acting holier than thou.” O’Leary ought to be judged, not on his integrity, but his coaching record.
It’s the perfect postmodern response to lying: Perfectly okay to re-invent ourselves, because what we say and do matter less than whether we can coach a team.
The good news is that while America’s tolerance for lying is greater than ever, Americans retain enough of their Judeo-Christian ethic that the news that a public figure lied is still viewed as scandalous. We have to help our neighbors understand what’s behind this propensity for lying: A worldview that denies the existence of truth itself.
And then we must point them to the Author of truth: The One who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
For further reading:
Charles W. Colson, The Line Between Right and Wrong: Developing a Personal Code of Ethics (Barbour Publishing, 1997).
Stephen E. Ambrose, The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
Thomas Childer, The Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down Over Germany in World War II (Perseus, 1996).
Lynne Cheney, Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense — And What We Can Do About It (Touchstone Books, 1996).