Last Friday's email brought this little gem to my inbox: Super PACs spent $23 million on deceptive or misleading advertising in GOP primary races, more than half of all advertising they purchased through April 3. Now, you might think that the SPACs aimed their big buckets of money at President Barack Obama, but no. Almost all of it was directed at fellow Republicans--Mitt Romney's PAC lying about Rick Santorum, Santorum's PAC misrepresenting Newt Gingrich's record, Gingrich spinning about Romney.
Politics is nothing if not a dirty, cutthroat business.
I'm not sure about much--a little less, it seems, every year--but I'm fairly certain about this: Everything is connected. The little ditty about our body parts--you know: the head bone's connected to the neck bone, etc.--illustrated to me at age 6 that connections are everywhere. Some are obvious: Don't pay the light bill, no light. Some are a little harder to discern: Throw plastic in the trash, and somewhere a sea turtle chokes to death.
Lying can have some interesting consequences, not as in: Gee, how fascinating! No, the results of lies are more like this old Confucian curse: "May you live in interesting times." Lies, once loosed, take on a life of their own that can quickly turn, well, interesting.
With an excess of information as close as the nearest Internet connection, it's as easy to find supporting "evidence" for a lie as it is to find the truth. But for most people, fact-checking the hours and column inches of political advertising they see or read in any given year isn't feasible.
It doesn't help that most mainstream media don't bother to fact-check politicians statements, much less tell their readers when someone flat-out lies. Most will stretch to ridiculous proportions to present a false equivalency even when there is really only one side to a story--or 18. Not even when the lies are obvious and outrageous--such as Gov. Phil Bryant's April 25 statement that those on the left have only one purpose in life: to abort as many babies as possible, or when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West declares that "78 to 81" Democratic members of the U.S. Congress are members of the Communist Party--does the media call it. Rather, they leave it up to viewers and readers to figure it out. Unfortunately, most of the public doesn't bother. After all, how do you know if any source is trustworthy?
Maybe we'd rather hear pretty lies than unpleasant truths. Maybe. Former President Jimmy Carter did his best to be truthful about the economy back in the 1970s, and Americans quickly gave him his walking papers.
Most of us will believe a lie if it supports our convictions, or if the truth means we must take responsibility for our actions and do the hard work of self-examination, even when we know better. We'll rail against the truth if it doesn't fit with our carefully crafted reality.
Probably like you, I learned early in life that telling lies is just plain wrong. It took Congress, however, to stop businesses from lying to consumers about their products. The raft of U.S. truth-in-advertising laws fill law libraries and, I suspect, make a damn good living for a boat-load of lawyers. No such laws exist for politicians or media.
The truth can be devilishly difficult to find. Ask organizations such as the Annenberg Public Policy Center's factcheck.org. Most of us don't really know what happens behind the doors of power. We might get a glimpse when a sound tech doesn't turn off a microphone quickly enough, or when a disappointed insider publishes a tell-all book. Any journalist who has attempted to get information out of a public official who doesn't want him or her to learn the truth can tell you how hard it can be. Freedom of information laws don't exactly make facts easy to get to. On the contrary, they often seem implicitly to protect politicians and others with power to obfuscate freely.
Politics may demonstrate the most egregious example of how acceptable lying has become in America, but it's certainly not the only one. Much of what we hear on info-tainment programs disguised as "news" has habituated us to accept lies as fact. Rush Limbaugh's show, for example, should come with a warning label and frequent reminders: "Nothing on this program should be construed as informed opinion, much less the truth." We don't get those warnings, and that's a shame.
Certainly, our culture of lying has infected our children for some time. In 2002, a Rutgers Management Education Center survey of 4,500 high-school students showed that 75 percent of them had engaged in "serious" cheating. Ten years later, those kids are adults in the word force. In 2011, a Common Sense Media study showed that 35 percent of teens use cell phones to cheat.
Scratch the surface of many people who loudly declare their religiosity, and you're likely to find they know little about their own religion, much less about the canons of other faiths they vehemently condemn. In America, atheists and agnostics have more knowledge about world religions than mainline Protestants, according to a 2010 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey.
White evangelicals--those mandated by their religion to bring the heathens to the light--only got a little more than half the survey's multiple-choice questions about the Christian Bible correct, on average, which means many know far less than half the "truth" they mean to tell the world.
Unlike wealth, morality--or lack of it--really does trickle down. When our leaders regularly deliver lies, half-truths, exaggerations and misrepresentations, it should surprise no one when more than half of the voting-age population just doesn't bother to show up. Not being able to rely on the truthfulness of the information they receive, why should they? I'm not much for conspiracy theories, but maybe demoralizing their constituents into apathy is part of many politicians' plans to retain power.
And if everything is connected, where does that leave you and me?
For those of us who believe the system can still work, we're steeling ourselves for the upcoming season of national politics filled with people who knowingly obstruct the truth or just outright lie for personal or party gain. Call me an optimist, but I'm convinced we can hold politicians' feet to the fire. It will take courage, tenacity and most of all, a belief that we deserve better than convenient spin designed only to get our votes.