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Are We a Nation of Cheaters and Liars?

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Posted on Jan 24, 2014

By Richard Reeves

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I was surprised to see two long stories in last Thursday’s New York Times about the same subject: cheating.

"Philadelphia Principals Fired in Cheating Scandal"

"Nuclear Corps, Sidelined in Terror Fight, Produces a Culture of Cheating"

What surprised me was that Philadelphia principals and 34 Air Force officers manning our nuclear missiles were caught. Cheating, phony resumes, lying are part of the American way.

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But I was pleasantly surprised to see another article, this one stating that the Times had hired Farhad Manjoo as its new technology columnist, taking over the column "State of the Art."

I am a fan of a book Manjoo wrote in 2008 titled "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society."

Ironically, I was just back from a "writer’s conversation" at Sunnylands, the Annenberg estate, now a kind of museum and conference center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. It’s where President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met last June. Our conversation was off-the-record, but I don’t think I’m violating any code by saying that the subject of fact fabrication and truth denial came up again and again.

So I’m happy to see Manjoo writing on a larger platform. I’m not happy to believe that America is marching on post-fact, post-truth and even post-lying. One of the examples of the dangers of all this lying is that it is increasing exponentially, I think, with the hyper-speed of information (true or false) transmitted using one new technology after another.

And, yes, at Sunnylands, the word "truthiness," coined by the comedian Stephen Colbert in his first show on Oct. 17, 2005, was used more than once. So was the observation by media scholar Henry Jenkins that factual truth is not the gold standard anymore, that it’s been replaced by anything that "rings true" to readers, viewers and talkers.

The late scholar and senator Daniel Moynihan once said we are free to have our own opinions, but not our own facts. Well, forget that. Truthiness and truth have mated, and the offspring is poisonous.

In his book, Manjoo, who has written mainly for the online magazine Slate, offers a list of examples of the manipulating and mangling of facts—and the devastating effect that has on any society. His table of contents was enough to hook me:

"Introduction: Why Facts No Longer Matter

"1. ‘Reality’ Is Splitting

"2. The New Tribalism: Swift Boats and the Power of Choosing

"3. Trusting Your Senses: Selective Perception and 9/11

"4. Questionable Expertise: The Stolen Election (of 2000) and the Men Who Push It

"5. The Twilight of Objectivity, or What’s the Matter With Lou Dobbs?

"6. ‘Truthiness’ Everywhere"

"Epilogue: Living in a World Without Trust"

The key sentence in the book is: "People who skillfully manipulate today’s fragmented media landscape can dissemble, distort, exaggerate, fake—essentially they can lie—to more people, more effectively than ever before."

And all of that is supplemented by the loss of true photography, demolished by Photoshop and its many descendants. A picture may still be worth a thousand words, but the words may be lies.

Manjoo uses scholarly research to good advantage in making his case about "post-fact America." In fact, he leans on work done in the 1950s by Edward Banfield, the Harvard political scientist. Banfield, it seems, wanted to figure out why productive Northern Italy was so different from wasteland villages in the south of the country. Moving to Italy and settling in a peasant village for a year, Banfield concluded that the difference was that people in the north generally trusted each other. Peasants of the south, he stated, did not trust anyone outside their families.

"In Montegrano," wrote Banfield, "people simply did not trust each other and therefore could not act together for their common good or, indeed, for any end transcending the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family."

Years later, Americans are becoming something like that, with one caveat: American families scatter. We are about the only people who raise our children to leave home. So, who can we trust?


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