Tag Archives: Frederick Buechner

The Age of Dishonesty – a Lament

News item:
Labour minister barred from Commons for three years
Former immigration minister Phil Woolas lost his seat as an MP today after an election court ruled that he knowingly made false statements about an opponent in May’s general election.
(from The Telegraph)

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I speak regularly to residents in Retirement Communities.  My topic is always the same – Current Events.  My opening line is always, “My name is Randy Mayeux, and I’m here to talk about whatever is in the news.” I frequently pick a news story that I begin this way: “we really don’t know what the most important news story of the day is – it may have nothing to do with what is actually in the headlines.”

Well, here is one of those stories.  We are, I’m afraid, living in The Age of Dishonesty.  And this is a very serious problem.

The examples are everywhere around us.  Charles Rangel, who is facing a very public censure on the House floor, complained that he did not have time to find a lawyer.  One of his constituents, a “fan,” interviewed on NPR, said, (slight paraphrase):  “That’s ridiculous.  He had two years.” John Boehner said that his schedule conflicted with a requested meeting from/with the President.  He simply did not want to take the meeting!  Michele Bachmann spread the word that Presidnet Obama’s overseas trip was going to cost America’s taxpayer s$200million a year.

All three of these demonstrate the dishonesty of our age.  And we could come up with countless more examples.  Thomas Freidman wrote an entire column, Too Good to Check, praising Anderson Cooper for exposing and calling out Michele Bachmann’s (repeated by Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity, and others) dishonesty regarding the cost of the President’s trip.  Here’s the concluding paragraph of his column:

When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem. It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues — deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate — let alone act on them. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together. But the carnival barkers that so dominate our public debate today are not going away — and neither is the Internet. All you can hope is that more people will do what Cooper did — so when the next crazy lie races around the world, people’s first instinct will be to doubt it, not repeat it.

These examples are from the political arena, thus they are very well known.  But we could come up with so many more, from practically every arena.  Business?  How about the image of all of the tobacco executives declaring, under oath, that cigarettes were not addictive?

(Testimony of the 7 CEOs of Big Tobacco, April 4, 1994)

MR. WYDEN. Let me begin my questioning on whether or not nicotine is addictive. Let me ask you first, and I’d like to just go down the row, whether each of you believes that nicotine is not addictive. I heard virtually all of you touch on it. Yes or no, do you believe nicotine is not addictive?

MR. CAMPBELL (President of Philip Morris U.S.A.).
I believe nicotine is not addictive, yes.

Or, how about this?  This is a fascinating first hand account from a man who makes his living writing college undergraduate and graduate papers for students, who then pass them off as their own work.  Including for Theology students (and Law students, and Medical students).  The article is: The Shadow Scholar:  The man who writes your students’ papers tells his story by Ed Dante (Editor’s note: Ed Dante is a pseudonym for a writer who lives on the East Coast. Through a literary agent, he approached The Chronicle wanting to tell the story of how he makes a living writing papers for a custom-essay company and to describe the extent of student cheating he has observed. In the course of editing his article, The Chronicle reviewed correspondence Dante had with clients and some of the papers he had been paid to write. In the article published here, some details of the assignment he describes have been altered to protect the identity of the student.)

Here’s a key paragraph:

Of course, I know you are aware that cheating occurs. But you have no idea how deeply this kind of cheating penetrates the academic system, much less how to stop it. Last summer The New York Times reported that 61 percent of undergraduates have admitted to some form of cheating on assignments and exams. Yet there is little discussion about custom papers and how they differ from more-detectable forms of plagiarism, or about why students cheat in the first place.

I think there are (at least) three kinds of dishonesty:

1)  Sloppy dishonesty. You hear or read a story, assume that it is true, and do not check.  And, especially if the story fits with your “thoughts” about the subject, you then repeat it without checking.  This is the kind of dishonesty that Michele Bachmann, and all those who repeated her story, are guilty of.  I hope!  I hope they simply did not check.  If they did check, discovered that it was not verified – i.e., “dishonest,” then that is the more despicable kind of dishonesty. 

By the way, exhibit A of this kind of dishonesty can be found in the way that people repeat that “Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet.” He never did so!  Never.  From the always excellent, and at times entertaining, Snopes.com:

Claim: Vice-President Al Gore claimed that he “invented” the Internet.
Status: False.

2)  Lazy dishonesty. This is closely related to sloppy dishonesty.  We hear something – we repeat it.  We don’t care if it is true, if it is accurate – we just enjoy telling it.  It is just lazy…  and it is wrong, and can be hurtful.

3)  Intentional dishonesty. This is the most despicable kind.  I could, again, provide so many examples of this from the world of politics.  (See the story from Great Britain at the top of this blog post).  This is what the tobacco executives were guilty of.  (Remember they all were replaced, over time, after their testimony).  Plagiarism would fall under this category.

I have read, and presented synopses of, a lot of books over the last 12+ years.  There have been some great books, some good books, and some poor to mediocre books in that span.  But only one book made me angry.  It is the book Power and Influence:  The Rules Have Changed by Robert L. Dilenschneider.  It is a book about power and influence.  It left a bad taste in my mouth.  It seemed to argue that gaining power and influence trumped sincerity.

Consider this quote:

For a power player, it’s important to be humble enough to reach out to the shoeshine boy as well as the CEO.  Sometimes its more important to reach out to the shoeshine boy so that (emphasis added) the CEO sees that you’re a person of the people, a person who’s generous, who’s humble, who’s willing to do outreach.

It seems to argue – the entire book seems to argue – that you do what “looks right” because it gains you advantage; not because it is right.  This is the height of dishonesty.  I didn’t like it, and said so in my synopsis.

Telling the truth shouldn’t be, but is, hard work.  It requires that we pay attention.  It requires vigilance.  It is so casually treated by so many, that the age really does feel like the age of dishonesty.  There’s so much more we could say…  So many people exaggerate constantly.  They misrepresent, hide crucial details, in so many ways…  I am not immune from the temptation, or guiltless.  Many of us need to do better.

Tell the audience the truth, said Frederick Buechner in his excellent Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.

We are living in an age of dishonesty.  I think we all need to commit to quit being dishonest.  Starting now.  Don’t you?

The Blogs Are Alive… With The Sounds Of Deception (From BP, And Others)

Do not, under any circumstances, tell a lie – of either commission or omission.  Do not stretch the truth, exaggerate, or make ___ up to get out of trouble or make yourself look good…
Do not attempt to project different images depending on whom you’re with.  People can spot inauthenticity…  Show up as yourself consistently.  Unless, of course, you are a jackass.
(Susan Scott’s “Memo to Leaders,” from her book Fierce Leadership).

Here’s the thing.  In today’s world, if you don’t tell the truth, someone is going to find out. And write it on their blog.  And then the world will know.

The Wall Street Journal reported on BP’s amazingly rosy reports coming from the Gulf Region, BP Magazine Discovers Bright Side to Oil Spill.  Here’s an excerpt of the Wall Street Journal’s take on this aproach by BP:

in Planet BP — a BP online, in-house magazine — a “BP reporter” dispatched to Louisiana managed to paint an even rosier picture of the disaster. “There is no reason to hate BP,” one local seafood entrepreneur is quoted as saying, as the region relies on the oil industry for work.
Indeed, the April 20 spill on the Deepwater Horizon is being reinvented in Planet BP as a strike of luck.
“Much of the region’s [nonfishing boat] businesses — particularly the hotels — have been prospering because so many people have come here from BP and other oil emergency response teams,” another report says. Indeed, one tourist official in a local town makes it clear that “BP has always been a very great partner of ours here…We have always valued the business that BP sent us.”
Fortunately the articles — on which BP declined to comment — don’t go as far as praising that new treat: seasonal shrimps in (crude) oil…

Well, the blogs, and the Comedy Central shows like Stephen Colbert’s, have adopted headlines like this:

BP Sends Fake Journalist to Cover the Gulf Spill

Colbert Report – Lube Job (click here to see the video).

I wish I had my full library available.  There is a passage in Frederick Buechner’s book:  Telling the Truth:  The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, that tells of the precise moment when a congregation looks up to the face of the preacher waiting for the beginning of the message.  He writes (this is definitely a paraphrase):

“And what shall the preacher tell them?  Let him tell them the truth.”

We are truly a generation starved for truth-telling, and there seems to be so little of it to go around…