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Jewish World Review March 2, 1999/ 14 Adar, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg In defense of lying

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) IN LIGHT OF RECENT EVENTS -- in the glaring light of recent events -- an old friend has sent me a copy of H.L. Mencken's defense of lying. It's even better than Dale Bumpers' in the U.S. Senate not long ago.

Written in 1924 and titled "The Art Eternal,'' Mr. Mencken's contribution to this never exhausted subject is not only relevant, but eerily prophetic. Especially when the Sage of Baltimore foresaw that the day would come when the lie would enjoy the sanction of science, as even in his time it was approved by social convention. Brother Mencken could have been peering into the American future when he wrote:

"If I lie on the witness-stand and am detected by the judge, I am jailed for perjury forthwith. ... But as jurisprudence grows more intelligent and more civilized it may change its tune, to the benefit of liars, which is to say, to the benefit of humanity. Science is unflinchingly deterministic, and it has begun to force determinism into morals. On some shining tomorrow a psychoanalyst may be put into the box to prove that perjury is simply a compulsion neurose, like beating time with the foot at a concert or counting the lampposts along the highway.''

The Sage of Balímore
Indeed, haven't we heard a slew of lawyers of late assuring us all that not a case is tried without somebody lying on the stand? Or that perjury and obstruction of justice are only natural responses in certain circumstances?

Back in the age of flappers and flippers, it was a rare occasion when Herr Mencken agreed with Doktor Freud, but on this point their views coalesced: "One of the laudable by-products of the Freudian quackery,'' wrote Mencken, "is the discovery that lying, in most cases, is involuntary and inevitable -- that the liar can no more avoid it than he can avoid blinking his eyes when a light flashes or jumping when a bomb goes off behind him.''

Think about it: The young of the species need not be taught to lie; Homo sapiens comes to it naturally. It's telling the truth that comes hard. Our self-esteem, to use a term that Henry Louis Mencken was spared in his merciful time, demands that we trim the truth to fit our own elevated idea of ourselves. Or as Dr. Mencken put it:

"No healthy man, in his secret heart, is content with his destiny. He is tortured by dreams and images as a child is tortured by the thought of a state of existence in which it would live in a candy-store and have two stomachs. Lying is the product of the unconscious yearning to realize such visions, and if the policeman, conscience, prevents the lie being put into plain words, then it is at least put into more or less plausible acts. We all play parts when we face our fellow men, as even poets have noticed. No man could bring himself to reveal his true character, and, above all, his true limitations as a citizen and a Christian, his true meanness, his true imbecilities, to his friends, or even to his wife. Honest autobiography is therefore a contradiction in terms: the moment a man considers himself, even (ital)in petto, (unital) he tries to gild and fresco himself.''

If the great editor's prose sounds a bit tortured when he tries to explain how a man can lie without actually lying -- but just sort of dissemble around the edges -- that may be because, in his simpler time, the Clinton Clause was not yet clearly named, immediately identifiable in every suspect sentence, and increasingly employed.

The truth is so precious, as Mark Twain once observed, that it should be dispensed only sparingly. And the lie is so great a comfort that it has gone from a mere institution, like cocktails at five, to a constant support for a slightly wobbly society in need of a 24-hour, time-released tranquilizer.

The lie lubricates; the truth may only abrade. If only the House managers during the late unpleasantness in the Senate had read their Mencken, they wouldn't have been at all puzzled by the widespread hostility they invoked.

"For the habitual truth-teller and truth-seeker,'' Editor Mencken warned, "the world has very little liking. He is always unpopular, and not infrequently his unpopularity is so excessive that it endangers his life. Run your eye back over the list of martyrs, lay and clerical: nine-tenths of them, you will find, stood accused of nothing worse than honest efforts to find out and announce the truth.''

As if speaking from experience, Editor Mencken took special pains to warn the naive who set out to hunt down that most elusive of game called truth: "Especially in the United States is his whole enterprise viewed with bilious eye. The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.''

So much for all this contemporary nonsense, usually heard from those doomsayers who have just lost the latest round in the culture war, about truth's suddenly having gone out of fashion in these untied states. It was never (ital) in (unital) fashion. That may be the nature of truth.

Mr. Mencken could see how "lying may even take on the stature of a positive virtue.'' At least when it is committed unselfishly -- to protect another for no personal gain. Mencken cited a royal example:

"The late King Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, attained to great popularity throughout Christendom by venturing into downright perjury. Summoned into a court of law to give expert testimony regarding some act of adultery, he lied like a gentleman, as the phrase goes, to protect a woman. The lie, to be sure, was intrinsically useless; no one believed that the lady was innocent. Nevertheless, every decent Christian applauded the perjurer for his good intentions, including even the judge on the bench.''

Here we have the best defense to date, namely 1924, of Bill Clinton's repeated lies sworn or unsworn. Alas, motive can be all in these matters. Like the Prince of Wales, our president might have been an object of universal admiration if only he had lied to protect the young lady rather than himself. Unfortunately, he had already begun depicting her as a stalker, a predator, before a science more accurate than the Fraudian variety left him little choice but to change his story. Darn it, there's so little arguing with DNA tests.

Yet it could still be argued in our president's menckenesque defense that, even when forced to tell the truth, Bill Clinton told as little of it as possible.

Poor Mencken. He only had a president like Warren G. Harding, that poor slob, to analyze. Imagine what the Sage of Baltimore could have done with material like William Jefferson Clinton. And weep at literature's loss.

Up

2/26/99:King Richard's revenge
2/25/99:Open season on the fetus, and a good word for the pagans
2/23/99: It never ends: Here comes the judge
2/19/99: After the storm: Going through the debris
2/17/99:Where's the closure?
2/12/99: Hussein the Hashemite: The wiliest player on the board
2/09/99: The social security game
2/04/99: Our own Inspector Clouseau
2/01/99: Night scene, night thoughts
1/28/99: The decay of the art of lying
1/26/99:Impeachment: Short subjects
1/22/99:Bounce, glitz and tedium: The State of the Disunion
1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99:Clintonís janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/24/98: IT'S STILL A WONDERFUL LIFE
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/20/98: EXTRA! RULE OF LAW UPHELD
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke


©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate