The other night, we had an ethical dilemma at my house that led to the following conversation with my 6 year old:
DAD: Do you know what a lie is?
CHANDLER (ruefully): A lie is when you don’t tell the truth.
You can bet I nodded my head at that. It was the no-nonsense definition I was looking for: an all-purpose call for truth-telling, addressing untruths of commission and omission alike. I am trying to teach my son to tell the truth, without reservations, equivocations or misrepresentations. It’s a shame that there are so few public role models to help.
We have come to accept lies as part of our civic life, unless they are of the most obvious kind and meet the narrowest of definitions: I said this, when the truth was clearly this. “I did not have sex with that woman.” Or “We must invade Iraq immediately, because its stockpile of weapons of mass destruction poses a threat to the United States.”
But there are many other ways not to tell the truth, and the Bush White House has stampeded us with them. These “mistruths,” as I like to call them, differ from flat-out lies in that they fly below the radar, but their intent is the same: to say one thing, and mean–or do–something else.
–Name-Calling. If you don’t like the facts you’re seeing, dismiss the people who gave them to you. “The only people who believe this global-warming stuff are eggheads who can’t be bothered to come down out of their ivory towers.”
–Implication. Saying “9/11” and “Iraq” in the same sentence over and over–on talk shows, in interviews and in speeches–implies a relationship between them, even if the only relationship is that the words appear in the same sentence. It must have been galling to President Bush recently to have to publicly admit no evidence exists linking Iraq to the attacks of Sept. 11, particularly when polls indicate that some 70 percent of Americans now believe it.
–Misdirection. The imagery of photo ops represents another triumph of fabrication for this administration. Somehow “irony” doesn’t seem like a strong enough word.
Compare the president’s infamous “flight suit” photo op–which depicted him as a handsome Navy flier surrounded by adoring servicemen and servicewomen–with the underlying reality. Not only is Bush not a member of our armed forces, but all records indicate he went AWOL from the national service for which he volunteered to avoid serving in Vietnam.
The examples pile up quickly. Pictures of President Bush with smiling grade school children, striking a manly pose at a national park or with his arm around a bedraggled group of rescued miners all disguise the facts that the Bush administration has underfunded even its own Leave No Child Behind initiative; quietly opened up 250 million acres of federal lands to mining, oil exploration and other development; and cut funding for programs that would protect mineworkers from mine accidents. People see the pictures, but the regulation changes and budget manipulation take place behind the scenes.
–False Advertising. Is it ethical to call an environmental initiative “Healthy Forests” when your primary intent is to allow campaign contributors to cut down trees and earn a healthy profit? Or “Clean Skies” if the program in fact allows your buddies in industry to continue polluting as much as they want? The Chandler Rule formulated above says “No.”
–Refusal to Speak. When George W. Bush was governor of my native Texas he closed state records to public view and operated as though he didn’t need to explain anything to anybody. Now, in Washington, his administration has refused to tell the public who helped the White House generate public-energy policies and stonewalled investigation into the tragedy of Sept. 11. Their refusal to speak comes because they do not want us to know the truth–and so their refusal to speak is, in effect, also a lie.
I teach at Baylor University, an institution that suffered its own ethical dilemma earlier this year. When scandal erupted in our basketball program and a student athlete was murdered, we were held to a higher standard of accountability because we profess to be a Christian institution. This was painful, but also, I think, right and proper.
In Matthew 5:13, we find this: “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.”
I would be less pained by the Bush administration if it did not profess to be Christian, called to restore morality to the White House and, in the recent words of a much-quoted general, placed in office by God himself.
Other writers can talk about how policies of the Bush White House starve the hungry, harm the widow and orphan and discomfort the prisoner. That is not my aim today. I am simply trying to teach my son to tell the truth, and I’d appreciate it if the president of the United States would give me a little backup.
Greg Garrett is the prize-winning author of the novels Free Bird and Cycling, co-author of The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in the Matrix.