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George Santos lied profusely. Elizabeth Holmes lied scientifically. Vladimir Putin has at his command an organized system for propagating lies and deceit, and he’s not alone. Systems of this kind exist everywhere. They are behind the calls and emails from persons claiming to be who they aren’t, representing institutions they don’t. If you are a student looking for somebody to write your papers for you, many companies offer the service — so many that you may need a consumer guide to the “10 Best.” And if you feel guilty about scamming your school, the website of one paper-writing firm provides justifications: “Our help saves you time, which is your most valuable asset. Share it with your close ones.”
How did we get to this state? Digging into the question may yield clues to where we are headed, so let’s start from basics.
What we are seeing is an evolutionary process. Lying, which began as a natural human instinct, has become an industry. Mr. Santos, a freelance operator, draws attention because he bundles the industry’s traits into a single walking, talking package. Founder/CEO types such as Ms. Holmes are bridge figures who illustrate the links between a lying individual and a lying corporate entity. But all grow from the same roots.
In its simplest form, lying is like autocorrect. When a situation arises that would make one look bad, the impulse to lie kicks in automatically. This auto-lie impulse says reality is wrong (for me) and must be reset to look right. It is an ancient impulse, perhaps as old as speech itself. To the compilers of the Book of Genesis, it was already legendary: “And the Lord said unto Cain, where is Abel, thy brother? And he said, I know not: am I my brother’s keeper?”
The instinct lives on within each of us. I work from home. Sometimes I sleep late in the morning, and some of those times, the unexpected alarm is a phone call from somebody important. The person hears my nasally clogged hello and says “Oh, I’m sorry, did I wake you?” And before I can stop it, out comes an auto-Santos. I’m starting the day with a lie.
But I seldom go far down that road. Once I’m up, I mostly say true things. I credit this not to innate virtue, but to momentum. When I was young I flirted with lying, as children and teenagers often do. Being a triply challenged kid — awkward, self-conscious, nerdy — I wasn’t good at it. So I scaled back, going only for easy lies (“The bus was late”) and shying away from anything bold or tricky. Which is no way to practice a skill. It drove me on a downward spiral, in which the less I lied, the less I was able or willing to, and vice versa. These days, I pass up golden opportunities to lie. I barely cheat on my taxes.
The trouble is that the other path also has a self-reinforcing momentum. The more you lie, the better you can be. Just as magicians practice to hone their sleight of hand, liars practice to hone their sleight of everything. They learn when to lie versus when to lie low. They learn how to look and act the roles they’re playing. They know that their credibility will be attacked, and they learn how to be Teflon™ warriors. It’s work, but the potential paybacks are huge. If you lie well, you can get what you want without earning it. Without the hassles you’d face if people knew what you were really up to.
Of course there are risks. Many liars get caught. But the fact that death catches all of us, eventually, doesn’t prevent us from enjoying life in the meantime. And so it is with lying. Successful lies are those that beat the speed of detection. Before the liars are exposed, they enjoy years of cheating on their partners. Or they take a sucker’s money and run, or run for Congress and win.
Errors are made. Charlie Javice, the “fake it ‘til you make it” entrepreneur, apparently thought the lies about her startup would come true before the reckoning came due. In some cases it can be smarter to steal the Cadillac a piece at a time, lying for small stakes repeatedly. A friend of mine, a fiction writer, wrote fiction into his tax returns. The IRS lets you claim part of your housing costs as business expenses. The amount should depend on how much of the home is used for business. My friend’s calculation always included his bathroom, kitchen, parlor, and outdoor apartment deck. “That’s where I do my thinking,” he said. Sadly, this friend is now deceased. But he beat the taxman all the way to the end.
Since ancient times, athletes have teamed up to play team sports and fighters have teamed up to fight in armies, and it’s not surprising that liars do the same. Together, they can have more fun and greater impact. Teams of liars have been developing their playbooks throughout the millennia. Today’s corporate and political lying — built on that knowledge base, and boosted by modern technology — can be quite sophisticated. Yet it would be a mistake to think the effectiveness of the lying relies on stuff like social-media gadgetry. Much of what’s done consists mainly of new variations on an ancient, time-tested formula for getting people to believe lies. Tell them what they want to hear.
“Too good to check.” The phrase is from journalism. Say you’re editing a story, and you come to a brilliant passage that totally nails the subject. There’s just something about it that sets off a tiny tingle in your spidey sense for spotting inaccuracies. You need to fact-check the passage. The voice of temptation will try to tell you it’s too good to check.
That voice is how a clever lie reels us in. The lie fits splendidly with what we believe — or want to believe. It makes us feel too good to question it. Worse, another factor is present, which amplifies the power of lies.
We lie to ourselves. Everybody does. I know I do. In our heads we construct stories about the way the world works, and who we are, and why our current situation is what it is. Maybe some of the stories don’t quite align with reality. But we love them because they, too, make us feel good. In my self-lies, I am the hero or at least a noble victim. One example: “Although I haven’t achieved my goals as a writer, I’m doing the best job possible, given my circumstances and the sacrifices I’ve made to help people around me.” You might call this an affirmation. I call it a lie, because in fact I tend to be lazy and scattered. It’s darn unlikely that I am doing everything possible. Yet often, I cling to the self-lie. It feels better than the hard prospect of admitting I’ve wasted a lot of time and changing my M.O.
Self-lies are insidious. They become ingrained in one’s thinking, where they are difficult to self-detect and resistant to being pointed out by friends. Further, what’s done in the head doesn’t stay in the head. Self-lies have repercussions. (“Granted, I withhold certain information from certain people who’d like to know. But things will go best for all concerned if they don’t.”) And when you consider that many self-lies are more heinous than the examples I’ve given, you can begin to grasp a picture that does not look promising.
Our nation is home to a few hundred million self-liars. Frequently, their worst self-lies are played upon and augmented by lies broadcast professionally. Vast numbers of people believe vast numbers of lies, while at the same time believing that verifiably true reports are lies. To mix metaphors, the result is a society behaving like a hallucinatory hive-mind in a maze of fun-house mirrors, egged on by a culture that celebrates illusion. Virtual reality! Buy the system. Wear the goggles. It feels better than trying to question our entire techno-capitalist system.
In David Ives’ play The Liar — a madcap comedy, adapted from a centuries-old French play — the title character is a proto-Santos, except with artistic flair. He spins fabulous tales of his adventures in love and war, acting out the cool parts and embellishing the details, all of which are made up. His rationale: “The unimagined life is not worth living.”
In a sense, he’s right. Imagination is a precious asset. The ability to imagine something new and then create it is central to the arts, the sciences, and personal-growth seminars. Lying, however, involves denying or distorting reality, and that’s a different game. You can win for a while, perhaps a long while, but reality is relentless. Reality punishes people who make a habit of ignoring it.
Is the apocalypse at hand? Are we headed for a grand and awful reckoning? I would refrain from over-dramatizing the case. Let’s just say that what is going on across the country, and around the world, looks like a massive experiment in finding out how close we can come.
Copyright 2023 Mike Vargo
Mike Vargo is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Pittsburgh.
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And Trump’s egregious lies made him president. Perhaps Santos can do the same. He has the talent.
I’m sensing that North Americans, most of us at least, are moving away from the nutso right.
Busted on the self-lying: “I can’t do anything about it, so …”