STEPHEN SMITH: Ain't So: Most of Us Spend Our Days Being Lied To
Last week I was strolling down Broad Street with a couple of friends when we spotted a man and a woman arguing in front of The Country Bookshop.
We could hear them yelling, but we were too far away to make out what they were saying. The woman stomped her foot, slapped the man in the face and marched off. The man turned, smiled at us and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "What can I do? She's crazy."
A few minutes later, after the fellow who got his face slapped had hopped in his S2000 and scratched off, the three of us had a discussion about the possible source of the altercation. Each of us had wildly differing interpretations based on what we knew about the couple.
"I'll tell you right now, it was probably her fault," one friend said. "She's a real pain."
"Yeah, well, I can tell you that he isn't any better. You know what he did last summer?"
And of course I had my own theory concerning the disagreement.
It was as if we were talking about completely dissimilar incidents. But we did agree on one point: They were arguing about who was telling the truth, whatever that might have been.
I know this truth business sounds lame, but that's what it all comes down to.
You can yammer on and on about your favorite candidate, praising his or her leadership qualities, personal style, pleasant smile, beautiful wife or handsome husband, vast experience, amazing achievements, extensive education, important friends, infallible judgment, etc., but none of it means diddly if you don't know what the truth is.
Most of us want to believe what we're told, but too often we've been lied to by perfectly pleasant people who turned out to be criminals, or, at the very least, barefaced liars. It may have been that slick used-car salesman who sold us the lemon, or maybe it was the president of the United States. Remember ol' Tricky Dick?
And even professional prevaricators get lied to. Consider this memorable quote: "I looked into Putin's eyes, and I saw his soul."
If you managed to stay awake during a semester of Philosophy 101 -- and believe me, it wasn't easy -- then you've probably attempted to digest the various theories about the nature of truth, all the mumbo jumbo from Socrates to Kierkegaard. By the time the course was over, we were more confused than ever. Anyway, all that undergraduate theory stuff is of little use in the context of the world in which we live -- and the election less than a month away.
So we've been watching the debates and listening carefully to what the candidates have to say, and all we know for certain is that somebody's lying. Whom we believe is more a gut-level reaction than the product of careful research and deep thinking.
In practical terms, and for better or worse, that's how elections have been shaping up in 21st-century America. We've become so polarized that the truth is what each voter needs or wants to hear.
Palin says Obama will raise taxes, and Biden swears it isn't so. Biden says McCain will raise taxes, and Palin says it isn't so. Pick three or four hot issues -- health care, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy, immigration -- and McCain will swear he's telling the truth. And Obama will swear McCain is lying. And so it goes, round and round.
I'm writing this on the Sunday before the second Obama-McCain debate. And I feel safe in saying that when the debate is over, Fox News will say, in no uncertain terms, that McCain won. Tune in MSNBC, and the talking heads will tell you Obama was the clear winner.
It's all relentlessly annoying. And darn confusing.
Unfortunately, there are personal ramifications when someone we trust lies to us -- the truth comes as a painful jolt to our self-confidence. We buy into what we're told, and when we discover we've been manipulated, we get angry with anyone who's foolish enough to point out our mistake. In effect, we lie to ourselves.
We all need an occasional slap in the face to remind us that betrayal is the thing most obsessively wrong with the world.
Contact Stephen Smith at email@example.com.
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