Even When I Lie

So what does that make you? Good guys? Don’t kid yourselves. You’re no better’n me. You just know how to hide…and how to lie. Me? I don’t have that problem.  I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.

Tony Montana’s speech to restaurant patrons from Scarface (1983)

Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (1951)

Justice and honesty will be the first topics of our speech, especially as we are asking for alliance; because we know that there can never be any solid friendship between individuals, or union between communities that is worth the name, unless the parties be persuaded of each other’s honesty.

History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 3, by Thucydides

When I was young, a Sunday School teacher presented our class with a hypothetical.

Imagine for a moment, he said, that a criminal came into the church today and seized your parents. He took them up to the front of the church and pointed a gun at both of their heads. Unless you denied your faith, he would kill them both. What should you do?

A heavy question for a 12-year old, it always disturbed me. ‘Always’, I say, because it was asked of me more than once. It came up shockingly often, although I suspect given differing sensibilities that you might consider once shocking enough. Perhaps it was the favorite brainteaser of a teacher bored of 30 years of giving the same pictorial lessons of Zacchaeus climbing the tree. I think it was a reflection of some evangelical churches’ occasionally morbid obsession with the end times described in Revelations. There was a time when ‘What will you do when you are persecuted for your faith’ occupied much of my mind. ‘What if Jesus returns before a girl ever kisses you?’ occupied most of the rest. There was really no doubt in any of our minds that it was going to happen during our lifetimes. Probably much sooner.

The intended moral of the story was that there is no valid justification for sin. To lie by denying Christ was the greatest of these sins. You will be disappointed to learn that the typical lesson does not discuss the two last people who were asked if they knew Him; the one who lied became Pope, and the one who told the truth hanged himself and, if Luke’s vivid account is to be believed, exploded. Instead, the usual lesson proceeds from Job to a reading from the Sermon on the Mount. You know this sermon, even if you don’t know that you know it. Blessed are the meek, etc. You may not know that this is where it ends up:

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.

Matthew 5:30

More heavy stuff. In a spectacle to be repeated in a thousand thousand Dodge Caravans and Chevy Suburbans on the way to Old Country Buffet after church, the children turn their Sunday School lesson around on their parents. What would you do, mom and dad, if I were brought to the front of the church? I bet that if you could look in on those parents in those minivans, you’d see just about all of them look their children straight in the eyes and tell them the same thing: I would lie a million times before I let someone hurt you.

For the most part, our moral systems end up with a similar basic set of rules. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t lie. The problems arise in weighing conflicts between rules within our value system, or between multiple value systems. Common sense allows us to easily resolve some of these conflicts. Don’t lie, but if the alternative would result in the murder of your children, lie until your lips turn numb. More often, the units we must weigh are irreducible and incompatible. How many lies offset an act of generosity? The answers to these questions are non-falsifiable, even if various ethical systems purport to have adopted more objective means to answer them. That means that we will disagree. It also means that, as much as we might like to say ‘the ends don’t justify the means’, we are often left with no choice but to judge the rightness of actions  by calculating their expected consequences, and by weighing unweighable goods and bads.

This ground was well-trod among ethicists hundreds of years ago. You need a 4,000-word, dime store survey version of it from me today like you need a hole in the head. But if we would be students of the widening gyre of politics and the black hole of financial markets, there is one ethical topic we must grapple with directly and urgently. It is the thing which Thucydides considered a prerequisite for union within a community. It is what Hannah Arendt considered the first casualty of a state veering toward totalitarianism.


Like any other ethical idea, honesty may inevitably come into conflict with other principles. It is these conflicts and how they are resolved or justified, whether rightly or wrongly, that empower the widening gyre. In simpler terms: our differing reasons for becoming liars are what are causing us to fall apart. Understanding those reasons will play a large role in how we chart a path back to sanity. The way I see it, there are three reasons a person becomes a liar: he believes that he must, he believes that he may, or he believes it serves a Greater Truth.

Because He Believes He Must

You may not remember the name Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf. A one-time attendee of the University of Arizona and erstwhile aspiring English teacher, this man is probably better known to you as Baghdad Bob. In his capacity as Information Minister for the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, he gained fame for issuing preposterous lies at regular press briefings during the US-led invasion in 2003, like announcing ‘there are no American infidels in Baghdad’ over the unique whine of the turbine engines used to power the American M1A1 tanks that were maybe a few hundred yards away from where he stood.

There’s something else you may not know about Baghdad Bob: He also used to read the names of the political enemies Hussein’s government executed.

I think most people, if asked whether Baghdad Bob’s must-see pressers made him evil, would say ‘no.’ That isn’t because those people don’t believe that lying is wrong. They probably do. It’s because they have thought through the likely consequences of his lying. It’s because they regarded Al-Sahaaf with empathy. Everyone knew that everyone knew that he was lying, and Al-Sahaaf knew that they knew it.  We all concluded that there was probably little harm caused by his lying, and knew as well as he that his life expectancy was very much in question if he told the truth.

Even when there are ascertainable consequences to lying to protect our lives, most of us still demonstrate a great deal of empathy. In the Vietnam War, John McCain lent his voice to a Radio Hanoi propaganda recording. In it, he attested to being the aggressor, and praised the quality medical care, food and treatment he received at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Would this have been demoralizing to other POWs? Empowering to the enemy? Yes, possibly. Yet McCain underwent such torture and abuse to extract those statements that few – except for some meta-game morons who used this in campaigns against him for public office – would take any moral issue with his actions. Even if he hadn’t layered on years of courage and selflessness as a POW, McCain would almost certainly have been forgiven this lapse on one simple basis: None of us, being honest, could imagine doing otherwise.

As a rule, our willingness to tolerate those of us who become liars because we must is dependent on our capacity for empathy.

Because He Believes He May

I have two sons – a 2-year old and a 3-year old.

When the boys come down from their room together in the morning, our routine includes asking the older of the two if he slept well. And did you have any dreams? At this point, his eyes begin to scan the room for objects. Yes, Daddy, I dreamt about a…robot…dinosaur…in a rocket ship to…Jupiter! The younger of the two witnesses our eager response and conjures up a slightly modified story, usually with some detail to make it more impressive. I dreamt about TWO Jovian robot dinosaur astronauts, daddy.

In the same way that I lied to you by implying that either of my sons have ever even heard the word ‘Jovian’ because it’s funny (to me) and because I know that you know that I’m making that up, each of my sons is lying through his baby teeth. Because of course they are. Two-year olds are liars. And that’s OK, because we all know that we all know that two-year olds are liars.

Our permissiveness toward certain lies extends far beyond childish boundary-stretching, of course. In most kinds of small talk, we are culturally expected to lie. When we ask Janice about her weekend, we expect her to tell us that it was fine, even if it wasn’t. When we ask Marvin how the kids’ soccer games went, we expect him to tell us how much he enjoyed watching children run around in a horde very, very slowly for several hours. Even our question is a bit of a lie, standing in for something else. It’s us telling a person we love that we were thinking about their family. In exchange, they express gratitude for our concern by not giving us more details about the drying paint that is kids’ soccer. Even in most negotiations (at least in most western cultures), there is some expectation of dishonesty. We expect the car salesman to tell us he’s got to speak to his manager, even though he knows and we know he’s just going to go check his phone – or if the dealership is dumb enough to put the ‘manager’s office’ in view – to sit with the manager for 5-10 minutes of complete unproductivity for all involved. We must find a place to tell someone that something is our final offer, even if we know that it isn’t.

People tell all sorts of other lies because it is common knowledge that they may. It is common knowledge to expect home-team bias from local sportswriters and journalists. It is common knowledge that the cable guy’s 9-12 window means 1:30. It is common knowledge that when someone says they are 5 minutes away, they are 10-15 minutes away. It is common knowledge that the old ’24-hour bug’ probably doesn’t exist. Most of us learn to adopt patience with those who lie because they may, but that patience is not infinite.

Sometimes, of course, we tolerate those who lie because they may because the lies really don’t matter, or because we are indifferent and lazy. But in just as many cases, our willingness to tolerate those of us who become liars because they may is dependent on our capacity for mercy.

Because It Serves a Greater Truth

There is a third reason a person becomes a liar, and it is probably the most powerful: He becomes a liar because he believes it is the right thing to do. Because it serves a Greater Truth.

What are these Greater Truths?

Well, they can be all sorts of things, but they are usually grand concepts like duty, loyalty, honor, fidelity, fairness and justice. It is not hard to imagine examples. What if you were hiding someone in your home who was fleeing from oppression? Would you be willing to lie about their whereabouts to keep them safe? As a soldier of your country under interrogation, would you be willing to tell a lie to protect the secret plans you know? If you were compelled to testify against your spouse, would you lie in their defense? OK, maybe the last one depends on your relationship with your spouse and what they did, but the point is that there are very obviously cases where honesty gives way to some greater moral value.

Fortunately, in modern America we rarely have an interrogator’s gun to our heads. We have little need to hide others from persecution. Hell, many courts in the US cannot even compel you to testify against your spouse. Our civil society provides ample remedies and avenues for redress to conflicts between things we know to be true and things we believe to be important. We are rarely called to consider the relative merits of truth and Greater Truth. Rarely, but not never. There are some social and cultural ideas which are true, which are important, and for which we nevertheless reach an impasse that causes huge political or social blocs to believe – not without reason – that there is no civil redress for their concern. This is invariably the result of the perception of an uneven playing field.

If you knew that something was true AND you knew that it was critically important AND you knew that nothing else in your power – not voting, not debating, not engaging other people – could change it, then would you lie? Then would it be…right to lie? In a sense, you see, like Tony Montana, we would be telling the truth, even when we were lying. It is bewitching logic.

I think there are two such Greater Truths governing our politics.

For my part, I believe that each of these ideas is true AND that each of these ideas is important. You may disagree. But that’s what I think and believe. Now let me tell you what I know. I know that for most of us, when we read these two items together, the bile will rise from our stomach to our throat just a bit. I know that for most of us, our skin will get redder, hotter to the touch, just to be forced to consider this idea next to this other one, which isn’t nearly as important – or maybe not even a real thing!

Let me tell you something else I know. I know that there are maybe two hundred million Americans who feel desperate about their Greater Truth right now, regardless of how important it is to you or me. We believe these things so passionately that we will devote our political lives to convincing more people of their truth and importance. We are so fearful of the damage to our society and our values if we lose these battles, because they are existential. We would do just about anything. Argue with relatives and strangers on the internet? Hell, we do that just for fun! Would we campaign? Sure. Would we give money? Sure.

Would we tolerate lying?

Ah. No?

Then let me ask it a different way. If it meant passing policies that helped the historically disadvantaged reclaim the American Dream, would we tolerate the forceful redefinition of words like bigot and racist to refer not to people who we witnessed treating people differently based on some inherent trait (as it did for hundreds of years), but to refer to people who for some reason opposed our platform of policies designed to tear down unjust institutions? If it meant leveling the playing field dominated by the wealthy and powerful, would we tolerate the presentation of news in ways that actively sought to take those institutions and people to task in exaggerated ways, even if doing so skewed coverage and stepped over the line into opinion and analysis from time to time?

Let me ask it yet another way. If it meant creating a counterbalance to the overwhelmingly biased and unfair media narratives that label every conservative point of view as hate-driven and bigoted, would we tolerate the creation of news networks which are even more aggressive in their mixing of news and opinion? Would we tolerate being led politically by a man who lies constantly and brazenly, just to offset the unbalanced landscape created by our political opponents?

Unlike the other reasons we lie, it isn’t empathy or mercy that govern our reaction. Our willingness to tolerate those of us who lie in service of a Greater Truth is dependent on whether or not we share their belief in the primacy of that Greater Truth. We lie and tolerate these lies not because we must. Not because we may. But because we have convinced ourselves that we should.

And THAT is our greatest lie, the principal tool of our present widening gyre.

What Now?

For at least two more years, until the next ‘most important election of our lives’, parties and people will insist that we must argue about and determine who is more wrong and who is more responsible for our current polarized political state. In fact, I strongly suspect that the majority of email and comment responses will be about exactly those two questions. The word ‘bothsideism’ will make its inevitable, ignominious appearance. And sure, maybe you could make a compelling argument one way or another that there is no comparison. One side has gone way out on a limb, bears the brunt of the responsibility, and there’s no other way around it. Even so, we would still reach the same conclusion:

It. Does. Not. Matter.

I mean, sure, it matters if we’re tallying up points in some imaginary competition. It matters if we are so delusional as to think that a single American is sitting out there determining which policy platform to support and vote for based on our arguments about which party or individual is more to blame for present political polarization.

But here’s something that does matter: If 40% of us believe that the other 40% is irredeemably hateful and bigoted, and that 40% of us believe the other 40% hates us, our country and its values, we have no country. As well-intentioned and well-founded as our Greater Truths may be, if we press ahead with our willingness to pursue fundamentally dishonest strategies with one another in support of those Greater Truths, we have no country. Or, as Thucydides put it:

There can never be any solid friendship between individuals, or union between communities that is worth the name, unless the parties be persuaded of each other’s honesty.

Unfortunately, I think we’re beyond that. Could you really be persuaded? Could I? No. The question for those who still want to be a country together is this: What must I do to convince you of my honesty?

What can members of the political left who still want a country do to convince the other 40% of their honesty? They can start openly talking about and stop ignoring and denying the overwhelming influence of progressives in the media, entertainment and academia. They can stop exploiting ‘hate’ language to end any disagreement over political policy. In every political interaction they have, they can work to suspend every instinct that causes them to believe that the worth and moral value of their fellow citizens are defined by their political opinions.

What can members of the political right who still want a country do to convince the other 40% of their honesty? They can stop justifying lies and liars in support of the Greater Truth of vast left-wing biases in academia, entertainment and media. Lose elections. Lose control of the government. Yeah, maybe that means Beto skateboards into Washington to wag his finger and nominate RBG’s replacement. Do it anyway. And do it for three reasons: do it because, in the long run, it will help the ideas of a party built on individual responsibility and economic freedom. Reagan doesn’t happen without Goldwater. Do it because it will be necessary to maintain a functioning, non-authoritarian society. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.

The alternative is that we can all keep trying to convince ourselves that we’re always really telling the truth, even when we lie. But I’m telling you now – that strategy is as poisonous to its source as the target. And it always ends the same way.

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  1. The two “greater truth” statements didn’t make my blood boil, but here’s what did: The implication that Trump is somehow worse - somehow a bigger liar, a bigger widener of the gyre, is farther outside the boundaries - than Hillary (putting classified documents on her personal email server - effectively putting our national security at risk - to advance her political goals), than Elizabeth Warren (claiming to be a Native American Indian to leverage victimhood status for political glow), than what too many to be named here did to stop Kavanaugh.

    I have no truck with any of them - on either side. I didn’t and wouldn’t vote or support any of them. Maybe I’m taking the easy route by being all moral about it - maybe, but what I can’t stand is the “Trump is worse than Hillary, than Warren, than Spartacus” argument. They are all the same horror show.

    The right should renounce Trump and other Trump-like conservatives and the left should renounce Hillary, Warren, et al. When both sides are willing to lose elections to reclaim some sense of morality, honor and dignity, then maybe the gyre will stop widening.

  2. Excellent. Made me recall my favorite aphorism from William Blakes’s “Auguries of Innocence”,
    “A truth that’s told with bad intent
    Beats all the Lies you can invent.”

  3. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I think you might be reading implications that don’t exist, which can be pretty easily forgiven these days! There’s only two paragraphs which allude to Trump, and neither make any comparisons. Truthfully, Mark, I haven’t even thought about the comparisons, because I think that they’re a distraction and part of the problem we face.

    I will be steadfast in my disagreement with your last point here. If we are playing for anything other than salvaging something from civilization here, enough of us must be willing to move even if the other side doesn’t. If we can make it safe to pursue a losing strategy, I think that we can do more than salvage and shorten the transition to whatever’s next.

    You’re not alone in disagreeing with me rather more fatalistically here. I think Ben agrees with you more than I on this point, and we talk about it a lot.

  4. I will think more about it, but right now, my “lean” is unilateral surrender won’t lead to a greater good. I think we need a temporary truce leading to more trust and, then, more incremental improvement - rinse, repeat. Also, sincere apologies for unintentionally misrepresenting your implications.

  5. Really enjoyed this, thanks.

  6. I second your idea that lying is the most pernicious rot on our body politic. One need only compare the lasting damage of the Vietnam War (a misadventure foisted on us through official lies from multiple administrations representing both political parties), with the effects of any of our non-lie-based wars.

    Lies are the enemy of us all. Systematically dis-empowering liars would seem to be a rational course of conduct then, yet we seem to be doing the opposite. Power & money flows directly toward the lies and the sirens who sing them. We’ve forgotten how to navigate by the stars, and instead gotten addicted to false compasses.

  7. The widening Gyre in the electorate is inversely proportional to the narrowing Gyre in the elected. Only the lies of the latter appear to be diverging whilst their actions are converging.

  8. Avatar for Mav Mav says:

    Hey Rusty, first time, long time…

    I think your analysis is spot on. A lot of people get caught up in the need to argue who’s wrong or who’s worse. (If you think Trump’s bad, wait till you see Hillary or vice versa). I think it’s the same reason why our first reaction in a personal argument is to tell the other person they are wrong. It’s our ego talking. We want to be right. Our minds try to avoid a state of cognitive dissonance like the plague. But like an argument with your spouse, knowing who is wrong is useless. It reminds me of something Jordan Peterson says about this topic. Something to the effect of, if you are constantly arguing with your spouse about who’s right and you win, congratulations you’re married to a loser. Your marriage will fall apart, just like the country will fall apart.

    Arguing is also useless because it doesn’t offer any solutions. It focuses on the past and not the future. Why spend time and energy on the things we cannot change? I think the prescription is to switch from a problem-oriented/past mindset towards a solution-oriented/future one. Suspend our egos and work towards solutions to the small problems everyone can agree on. That or more cowbell.

  9. We are led to Believe a Lie
    When we see not Thro the Eye

  10. Avatar for Mpm186 Mpm186 says:


  11. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thanks, Christopher - very insightful! I had not heard that Peterson bit either, but it’s spot on.

  12. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    People in comments need to stop writing prettier things than I do, please and thank you! In all seriousness, I couldn’t agree more with your description. For my part, I continue to think that the false compass that steers us is the perception of existential risk. It’s the tool that never goes bad, because it works through our most primal biology.

  13. It’s so refreshing to be able to have a framework to think your own thoughts and be able to start seeing through the fog.
    I have been struggling with the “Great Brexit Debate” over here which has been emotionally challenging to say the least in exactly the same way as your “left / right” analogy above. It.Does.Not.Matter certainly helps take me to a quieter place where I can think more clearly but I’m not out of the woods yet…
    Thank you again so much for your inspiration.

  14. I’m with Mark here, Rusty. Sorry. I love your essay, but first, they’re not equal. Both sides want Power over us, but the answer does not lie in allowing acquiescence to either of them.
    What is really going on with Trump isn’t support of him; most people on the Right simply thought giving him the power of the Presidency was the less odious option. That their opponents on the Left have repeatedly - viciously - called those same voters racists, bigots, deplorables, has only confirmed their decision. But I don’t believe very many who voted for Trump think he is some kind of “answer” to… well, to just about anything. Other than not giving the Clintons access to the Machinery of State. (And NB, I didn’t vote for him, either).
    Second, the claim that the Media was a Progressive Propaganda Organ was proven conclusively to be true. The Wikileaks and Podesta emails put that beyond the realm of reasonable disagreement forever. There is conclusive, incontrovertible proof of interference in an election - by Hillary! And no one cares. Instead, the machinery of State goes after Trump over the leaking of completely truthful information. I would be willing to assume he knew in advance and still wouldn’t care. In fact, I would go further and say it was someone’s civic duty to have leaked that information. The American people had a right to know what was in those emails - there’s even a federal law (one of the few good ones) that says so - FOIA. That’s why she set up her own server in the first place - to avoid people seeing what she was doing.

  15. One other thought, Rusty. I could agree with both of your propositions, not have my blood boil, and still say that one side IS definitively (more) Wrong than the other. As I look at those statements, one is Truthful - completely - and the other is only partially True, and also contains some flagrantly immoral lies, too (but, of course, that’s how the best lies work).

    Hillary was given debate questions in advance on two occasions by a CNN moderator - who now openly admits it - and she faked and answered as if she didn’t know. She was even told where the audience the question would come from! That she pretended she didn’t know was a massive fraud on the American people. It doesn’t matter that it was in the Primary. The Media have responded by continually abetting that lie, covered for themselves, and foisted the myth that there was something wrong with us getting those emails - to the point of throwing people in jail over it. These are not equivalent Wrongs. One of these sides IS Wrong.

    Suggesting that the answer is acquiescence to the Left is a form of injustice. It’s like suggesting that both sides of the slavery issue were the same. That was a divided body politic that makes current days seem quaint, but the answer was not acquiescence to the slaveholders. Roughly 500,000 (mostly WHITE MEN) had to march willingly to their death and kill another 250,000 (yep, WHITE MEN) to put that to issue to rest. Sherman had to cut a swath through the South and burn Atlanta to the ground, leaving widows of a lot of poor white families. I wonder how privileged those white guys and gals were?

    Here’s a Trivia question to drive home my point: How many black regiments/soldiers fought in the Civil War on the side of the North? That no reader is likely to know this without looking it up proves the point about which side’s “truth” is really True. (N.B. Black soldiers fought with distinction, earned 15 MOHs, and comprised roughly 10% of the total force. They also did their fair share of dying. The bulk of the dying, however, was done by white males - on both sides.)

  16. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thanks for reading, Dale. Let’s say that everything you say is true. Let’s say you’re 100% right.

    Now what?

  17. ‪This is another great piece by Rusty. I understand his points yet want to respond to Mark and Dale’s comments with arguments. Completely validating his points.

  18. Your points about lying have re-energized a thought that’s been pinging around my small brain for awhile now: our culture has shifted its hierarchy of traits and behaviors that define a good, moral person.

    Up until about twenty years ago, personal responsibility and integrity - do not steal, cheat or lie / act with honor / be responsible - was the first and highest set of values a person was judged upon. Doing charitable work was always in the mix of things people were taught to do, but it was a notch down on the moral scale from personal integrity.

    You didn’t get to lie and (figuratively) erase it by serving dinner in a soup kitchen. In the '40s and ‘50s, my, then a-young-man, dad drove kids with polio to “outings” (picnics, a day at the beach, the circus, etc.). As kids, my generation knocked on our neighbors’ doors collecting change in orange cardboard UNICEF boxes. But those actions hardly garnered a mention on a school application or resume. Be the person caught stealing or lying back then and “you could ruin your life.” You knew to never damage your reputation by doing those things because no one would ever trust, hire or respect you again.

    But around the turn of the century, a shift occurred and resumes started popping up with extensive descriptions of charity work - “built homes for the…/served in… -” at the same time I heard more and more anecdotes, loudly proclaimed, about all the charity work friends’ and family’s kids were doing. It’s why wearing wrist bands for this or that cause became so popular these past two decades. It’s why, today, you’re accosted at so many cash registers to “donate” to whatever cause that particular company is sponsoring (and will pound its chest about loudly and everywhere to enhance its moral glow…partly, on your dime).

    While charitable work is great, there was, unfortunately, a hardening in another part of our culture despite the charity meme: individual integrity, while still important, seems to have been downgraded, at least, one level. Take a look a at the political continuum: an affair ended Gary Hart’s run for the presidency in '87; news of Bill Clinton’s affair - while in office (literally and figuratively) - was a storm, but he survived in '98 and candidate Trump’s affair was just one more partisan brickbat in '16.

    Concomitantly, in business or in my personal life, I can’t remember the last time I heard “your word is your bond.” And while I know many young people with great morals and integrity, when they boast (as we all do), they don’t lead with their personal integrity, they lead with their charitable efforts.

    Sorry, but I think this is bad and has contributed to all the things Rusty, above, and Ben and Rusty, in general, note about the widening political gyre and coarsening of our culture. I have no idea how we shift back, but part of the “fix” that we all talk about here will require a new norm (meme) that returns us to the old norm (meme) of putting personal integrity atop the morality pyramid. Maybe it just has to be a one-person-one-day-at-a-time approach.

    Were we ever, and will we ever be, perfectly moral people? No, of course not. But if everyone’s gyroscope is set to worry about his or her own reputation (and, even better, if people sincerely want to be better people), then what we are willing to accept from our politicians will force them to behave better. Maybe, then, we can return to having political arguments about different ideas without condemning our opponents as racists or as people who hate their country and want to destroy Western Civilization.

    And last note, I think this cultural shift was a Team Elite initiative. It allows their members to engage in perfidious personal behavior and cover it up with charitable acts or obeisance to whatever is the cause or movement of the moment. It’s why Clinton and Trump survived and it’s why Harvey Weinstein - knowing the game - tried to save himself by talking about donating money to women’s causes (too transparent, but he played the only cultural card that might have worked).

    The foundations of morality matter. Our society will begin improving when everyone tends to his own moral garden first. Be a good, honest, decent, person - bring no negativity into the world / break nothing / tear nothing down / cheat no one / lie to no one - then, do good charitable work.

  19. I’ve observed the same self-congratulatory trend in charitable acts and decided, some time back, to keep
    my own giving private, anonymous, and focused on “individuals” in need of help.

    There’s a deep sense of rightness that comes from hearing the speculation about who the “do-gooder” was and to be the only one in the room who knows it was your own lowly self. : )

  20. What about the Bendict Opition? If our country is 40/40/20, perhaps we are beyond the tipping point? I have read that republics have a limited life span, perhaps 250 +/- years. Maybe we are approaching Megiddo pass the site of a decisive battle.
    Isn’t the history of the world repleat with societies the coalece around a few core principles, acquire resources and grow to become empires which then crumble due to exestiental forces or internal forces?
    Perhaps it is time to start anew with small communities that focus on neighbors, try not to force their beliefs upon others and work to provide a heritage to their membes that acknowledges others, including strangers, as equals before a far, far greater Other or Divine?

  21. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this.

    My first observation is that you are right: quiet acts of goodness, or perhaps more clearly stated, a state of being that is full of integrity, seem to be given less cultural value, and are certainly less emphasized. Large acts of charity are emphasized. Greatness! As we chatted about on Twitter, Ben and I wrote about both parts of this in The Two Churchills and his latest Things Fall Apart note.

    But I don’t think that there is a causal link between the two, by which I mean that I don’t think the emphasis on greatness is crowding out goodness. I DO think that moral licensing is a thing (see And They Did Live By Watchfires). But outside of some of that moral licensing, I think the root cause is different.

    I think that the rise of greatness and fall of goodness is that they are BOTH symptomatic of how the world has gotten so very large so very quickly. Like no other time in history, we are constantly reminded of our own insignificance. The small-scale communities in which goodness and integrity could be acknowledged and prized, in which they mattered and provided positive reinforcement to our egos - a town, a neighborhood, a community organization, a fraternal order, a book club, a Bible study, a place of worship - occupy so much less of our aggregate social engagement. Our engagements are all simultaneously one part genuine human interaction, and several parts messaging about who we are and why we ought to be influential. There’s a lot of this in Ben’s Game of You.

    It sounds crass to say that we need a reason to be simply good, but biologically, well, we kind of do. And on the surface, the feedback we get from big, public, good-sounding things rewards and reinforces in a world of 7 billion people and infinite social connection in ways that small goodness can’t. More controversially, I think the loss of religion (and its replacement with other mythologies to fill in the gaps) has been devastating on this front as well, since it has historically provided so much of that reinforcement even when other communities might not.

    Our answer is always the same: find your pack. It’s not a new message, it’s the old one. Redefine your world as one in which you provide and commit to mutual reinforcement and accountability on a set of values, principles and moral standards with people you can grow to trust implicitly. Ben and I debate a good bit whether this must be - at least in part - a localist movement. I say yes, and Ben’s not so sure.

    And we can (and will) rail about all these things we are observing in the big world, but I am convinced that no number of essays, no amount of self-control, no level of influence can really change this ordering of cultural values if our efforts are not grounded in a mutual commitment to accountability.

  22. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Developing comfort with the paradox of taking quiet pride in our humility is a really powerful trait to cultivate, I think! If you’ll forgive my going back to the old sources again (this time Paul’s letter to the Hebrews): let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds! For my part, I’ve found that same feeling of rightness you mention in exactly the same circumstances, and have found it an effective spur to my own behavior.

  23. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Whether or not those tipping points exist, I believe that making our own worlds smaller CAN make the big world better. Ben prefers to talk about it in Sci-Fi terms, but in many ways the Benedictines WERE Asimov’s Foundation for western civ.

  24. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thanks, Michael. And it’s a fine line - we’ve still got to be able to disagree, debate and argue! That is a critical part of our political connection to our societies. Knowing when we are being seduced by the desire to discover and promote truth into a process of argumentation that is inherently incapable of uncovering and promoting that truth is very hard. As much grace as we can muster for one another as we muddle through this, all the better!

  25. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I’ve gotten a few emails comparing this to Brexit, too, and I have to admit I had not thought of it. It certainly makes a lot of sense that it would bear similarities. I’m even more grateful to know that you found this personally useful. Thank you, Clive!

  26. Really good point about the loss of local community changing the reward dynamic of quiet acts of goodness. Great line, “I think that the rise of greatness and fall of goodness is that they are BOTH symptomatic of how the world has gotten so very large so very quickly.”

    It makes sense as the way I saw those values work best was in small communities like a town or - believe it or not - the Wall Street partnership community of the the '80s (which is nothing like corporate Wall Street of today). Also, I agree that the decline of religion contributed as personal responsibility is part of the full package of many religions.

    That said, I see two caveats. One, I want to emphasize a distinction between small, quiet acts of charity and small, quiet acts of integrity. I was really discussing the latter as the values that have been downgraded. A person can practice integrity without practicing much formal charity at all.

    And, that’s not a bad or good thing, it just is. But the value to society of integrity - don’t lie, cheat or steal / your word is your bond / personal responsibility is paramount (all of which require not much charity) - is more valuable to our social ligatures than acts of charity (quiet or out-loud). Practicing personal integrity knitted communities together, in part, by breeding trust and respect and, in part, by reducing the number and corrosiveness of large and small acts of selfishness and venality.

    People aren’t angry - and willing to assign the worst motives to the “other side -” because someone didn’t work in a soup kitchen, but they are angry enough to do so from the cumulative effects of the plumber cheating them on their small house job, the bank executive lying about a late wire, the doctor’s office dissembling about an appointment error it made, Nabisco hiding a price increase by reducing the size of its package of cookies*, the neighbor screaming because you accidentally drove over a small bush on his property near your driveway or someone not leaving a note after they dinged your parked car.

    And that leads to the second caveat, while these quiet acts of integrity were most notable at the small community level, they “filtered up” to our larger society as a norm or meme. If you’ve learned not to lie, cheat or steal locally and to expect the same from others, you will also expect it from people at the national level. Gary Hart might not have been in your church or rotary club, but you expected him to behave as if he did because you expected everyone to behave that way. That’s why, as the local norms broke down, what sunk Hart, only wounded Clinton and hardly even dented Trump.

    You are right that the loss of small communities (defining the term broadly) has undermined the value - the reward feedback loop - of quiet integrity, but unfortunately, its ramifications are much broader in scope as it caused our expectations for people outside our communities to diminish at the same time the enervating accumulation of small acts of rudeness increased. None of that is helped by out-loud acts of charity.

    And that’s where we are today: we’re angry at and worn out from all the rudeness, the selfishness, the pettiness and the small acts of cheating, but we’ve also come to expect them, so our standards are lowered. We are disgusted by Trump, by Hillary, by all if it, but we don’t know how to put the toothpaste back in the tube, so we put on our team jersey and yell at the other side.

    Just yesterday, New York State of Health tortured me on-line and on the phone over my Obamacare renewal for 2019 (we all know exactly what I mean: the bureaucracy pushed me around) on the same day that the cable company called four time (!) to confirm my appointment (an automated call that cost me time, but cost the company nothing, but helped it, not me) and, then, called twice for me to take a survey about my experience, but of course, the tech showed up with the wrong piece of equipment. At that point, unrelated but true, I had little patience left for understanding the view of “the other side.”

    It’s not about charity as doing more of it won’t matter because it’s about personal integrity. And while, in the past, it might have been practiced most effectively at the local level, it infused our larger society with those same expectations and standards. Losing that has left us where we are today - angry, fractured and with a widening political gyre. I think it’s why seeing all this out-loud “bragging” charity can annoy me on the wrong day as it reminds me that its elevation came with a downgrading of the more-important quality of personal integrity.

    • If the standard Oreo package doesn’t stop shrinking, it will become a single-cookie serving at some point in the not-too-distant future.
  27. Avatar for ET82 ET82 says:

    “When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.” - Paul Gerhardt

    Thank you John.

  28. Hey Rusty,

    Great article and my apologies for being late to the reply section for this one. This note helped to bring forth some ideas and lead me to a thesis that I would not have reached alone.

    Going back in US history, there have been three questions that have historically divided the country to the level to which there was no effective direction and the future of the country seemed uncertain. First, the Revolutionary War brought forth the question of whether the country was to continue to be governed as a subject of the crown, or would a newly formed self governing body be able to overthrow the mother country, a task that had rarely (if ever) been accomplished before? The Civil War pit brother against brother over the second question of whether all men are truly free in this country, a question that severed the country, a severance which shadow still haunts the country today. The third issue relates to the path the country would follow as it dealt with and emerged from an economic catastrophe in the 1920s and 30s. Would it succumb to Father Coughlin, the Silver Legion, and listen to the siren song of fascism? Would Lindbergh & the American First Committee be successful in maintaining the ideals of the founders and remain uninvolved in foreign affairs that were oceans away? Could Roosevelt somehow convince the people that the best move for the United States is to plunge into the fray in order to aid old allies and maintain small “l” liberalism in the Western World? In this case, the Japanese made that decision for the populous.

    Although your two theses of the political right and the political left above are 100% correct and accurate depictions of the core ideas for both sides, I would like to present two different theses for both wings for reasons that will become apparent below. For the right, the idea states that there is something fundamentally wrong in the United States today, and action needs to be done to jump-start the US economy in order to make America great again, as somehow that greatness has vanished. For the left, their thesis is that of a Sanderian plea, which declares that average American worker cannot succeed given the current economic structure and that social programs such as medicare for all and free tuition are needed to help rectify this injustice.

    Now, I’m a bit on the younger side (27), but I have not seen the country as politically divided as it is today. I’m of the thought that, unless an event such as 9-11 in which a greater truth that the country is under threat overwhelms the political truths of the right and left, we may soon reach a time in which another core question that will come to define the US is posed. However, I have been unable to properly grasp what that question could be until now. I’m thinking that the framework the that question could be related to the following:

    What happens to the United States if the unwritten social contract of America, the American Dream (defined as the idea that should they work hard, the life of the future generation will be “better”,) is viewed to be untenable for the plurality of citizens?

    Ben does a great job detailing the plight of the non-2% “Average One” in the “Westworld” note. As a result of central bank liquidity injection, stock and bond prices increased and wealth inequality grew, as wealthier families own greater amounts of financial assets. However, the pain for the average families was born from envy of those who held financial assets, but through higher rents where they lived, as low interest rates allowed for housing prices to return to prices seen in the housing boom in the few areas that had jobs available. Suffering was caused not from families regretting that they didn’t bet the house on bitcoin, but from P/E firms engineering mergers in acquisitions that led to bonuses and stock buyouts for the two percent while layoffs and higher prices of goods for the average. Before the “Great Recession,” the average ones knew that while they wouldn’t live as glamorously as the 2%, the rules of the game made sure that all citizens prospered when the nation was doing well and suffered equally in the bad, a societal cooperative game. With the Fed-driven economic recovery leading to success for the upper classes and the lower and middle left in stagnation, the narrative that has held the country together since 1946 is now in the process of crumbling. The cooperative game in which we all succeed or fail together as a nation has been broken. The cooperative game shifts to a competitive model. The gyre widens.

    Now, when we look at the current party structure, there appears to be three effective wings today: the Trump-based right wing, the Sanders-based left wing, and a patchwork of centrists in both the Democratic and Republican parties. The Trumpian thesis of MAGA resonates with a lot of the Average Ones, as it acknowledges that what has made America great since the end of WWII is no longer exhibited in the nation post 2015/2016. The Sanders thesis attracts the Average Ones as well, as through it actions it attempts to balance out the competitive game by government force. The center candidates who push the status quo see there numbers thin, as they are unable to recognize the breaking of the cooperative game, and the gyre will continue to widen until they do.

    I’m interested to see if you, Ben, or anyone else has any opinions or thoughts on this. This is still a very rough idea that I have been playing around with since reading your letter; one that I feel needs refinement on order to bring out its potential.


    (Note - by using the term “Average Ones,” I mean merely to imply that they are not a part of the 1-2% club discussed in the Westworld note, nothing more.)

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