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Lies, Fibs and Facts

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Barton Swaim argues in this morning’s WSJ ( http://www.articles/trump-the-press-and-the-dictatorship-of-the-trolletariat-1485215912 ) that the press should ignore Donald’s Trump’s lies on silly things because not doing so only sends them off on wild goose chases of fact-checking when they have more important things to cover in the Trump administration. I think he is wrong. Lying, even about small things, matters, particularly in the case of public personalities and leaders.

Yes we all lie at times. We sometimes believe it justified, e.g., when keeping national secrets or sparing someone’s feelings or protecting an innocent from harm — or even when we succumb to baser motives and lie to spare ourselves some embarrassment, whether minor or major. But lying is generally wrong and we know it intuitively and we teach this to our children.

But what makes it wrong? Why should we care if others lie — or think we should reject doing so, ourselves? Why not just have a society where no one cares about the factual truth of any claim?

We must care because our words are social currency, the coin by which we seek and gain others’ trust — and trust matters for social creatures like ourselves . . . it matters a great deal. Without it we cannot live and work together, cannot share or interact with others in safety or with confidence. And trust especially matters in the case of those who would be our leaders for obvious reasons.

If Trump means to “rule” (and that seems an especially apt term in his case) through his words, then we need to know they are reliable, can be believed, reflect a man in whom we can place our faith. To many of his supporters, this no longer seems to matter though, despite the fact that many of them routinely excoriated Obama and Democrats generally for being “liars”. But, if being a liar was a bad thing in those cases, isn’t it also bad in Trump’s?

Even lies about silly stuff, like whose crowds are bigger, are lies after all and, as such, foretell the kinds of things we can expect from those who tell them. When they are defended with even more lies, and strategies intended to obfuscate (by changing the subject and attacking the motives of those who notice the lie), they are especially dangerous to the well-being of a democratic republic such as ours.

If once we begin to tolerate deliberate falsehoods from our leaders and explain them away, if once we embrace a double standard that impugns our opponents for doing the very thing we ourselves do, we have lost our bearings and can no longer claim the higher ground for ourselves.

Do we need that ground? We do because its occupancy summons others to join us there. It announces our reliability to others and informs them that we recognize and respect truth and so can be trusted while those who disregard it cannot be.

If only might makes right, then ours will be a society of dogs eating dogs, red in tooth and claw, the hunting ground of tyrants. But if we want something better, a republic of equals ruled by ourselves, we must have trust — and truth-telling is its capital.

About Stuart W. Mirsky

Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official who last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before retiring in 2002, wrote a column, "The Rockaway Irregular," for The Wave, a south Queens based weekly, for more than a decade (until Hurricane Sandy changed the equation). He is an original founder of the Rockaway Republicans, one of the most active Republican groups in southern Queens, and author of a number of books, including The King of Vinland's Saga, an historical novel of the Norse in 11th century North America, A Raft on the River, a memoir of Holocaust survival, and Choice and Action, a work of contemporary philosophy addressing the implications of relativism and nihilism for our moral beliefs.

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