When I worked for the American Petroleum Institute (the AMA of Big Oil) I was asked to evaluate a “documentary” on the smog in Los Angeles, which opened with a shot of a diorama of what the LA basin looked like before “civilization came.” Here and there different Indian tribes were gathered around campfires, with a voiceover that went something like this: “Even when there were no white people, no automobiles, there was what some people might call smog from the Indian campfires. It’s the shape of the land, that traps the so-called smog. We must first blame Mother Nature…” And so on.
This smog documentary and accompanying news story went to schools and newsrooms all over the country. Within weeks after release we started getting clippings back with the tell-tale injunction: “First blame Mother Nature.” These stories would usually give API as attribution. We then took the item, appropriately updated it, spun it, but now gave attribution to the newspaper. Thus the item had been both recycled and laundered.
My first job in public relations was a job in desperation. Just out of the Navy, with a wife and six-month old son, I started door-knocking in Los Angeles, walking up Sunset Boulevard, heading west. My resume was slim — nothing but stories I wrote in the Navy. I was at the end of Sunset, on the edge of Beverly Hills, and at the end of that day’s fruitless trek. The very last stop before meadow-sized lawns.
I was interviewed by the wife of the boss, Stanley, brother of the head of the second largest Hollywood PR firm in the world. Clients were either on their way up, headed for the brother, or on the way down, stopping off at Stanley’s.
The wife absently leafed through my reports on Navy “news.” She looked up, amazed: “Honey, this is nothing but the facts.”
Despite the factual disadvantage, I was hired. Usually, the only facts I was concerned with were the correct spelling of clients’ names — names belonging to second-rate singers and first class car dealers. When imagination flagged in mid-afternoon, we would turn to year-old New York papers. Manhattan showbiz columns were recycled and items that a year earlier had belonged to New York entertainers, would find a new life with a new client from LA, with a West Coast spin. “…naked beneath a $20,000 mink.…” would be “…naked under a beach umbrella…” Not for one minute did it ever occur to me that I was a professional liar. I was 1,000 miles and an entire planet away from Webb School, but I was a 30-minute bus ride from my wife and son.
I was just “planting stories.” Whenever I saw one of my items in print, that was all the truth I needed. It was mine — sort of.
Everything from “Lies of Clinton” to Howard Stern, have made “Sacred Cows” an endangered species. The last cow remaining, or so many of us thought, was the judicial system. Occasionally, the system might break down, but the pursuit was always before one — truth and justice. Truly, this a sacred cow.
In a recent AVA, Tony Serra, a brilliant lawyer, showed how truth and justice have been turned into hamburger:
In every criminal case in our alleged system of justice, some form of spy mentality is now present. There are degrees of informants. We probably have more nomenclature for informants than does any other culture. We have citizen informants, confidential informants, confidential reliable informants, unnamed anonymous informants, informants who are precipient, informants who are participatory, informants who are merely eyewitnesses, informants who are co-defendants, informants who precipitate charges by reverse stings. …in every major case the informant or cooperating witness gets something far more precious than money; they get liberty. They get 20 years or 10 years knocked off their sentences.
Since the snitch often testifies before grand juries where there are no checks to lying — such as facing the accuser — truth-telling is often incidental. Originally, the idea of a secret grand jury was to protect the common man from his oppressive lord. Now, it’s used to oppress those it was meant to protect.
Serra tells us that compounding the role today of snitch-tainted evidence is the non-role of the judge who is constrained by legislature-mandated sentencing guidelines. Serra says the entire criminal justice system has been so corrupted — that there is now a corrupt merger of the legislature, executive and judiciary, a merger the Constitution had been designed to thwart.
The influences ending my days as a professional liar were two-fold. I did look back to my days at Webb School, where truthtelling was not so much a “value,” ceaselessly talked about by the sanctimonious, as it was a part of our internal clothing, that we tried to wear unconsciously in whatever we were doing. It was accepted without being taken for granted. It was part of the atmosphere, like the quality of the sunlight in Greece.
That was one thing. Another were the following words, the beginning of an essay written almost two centuries ago by one of England’s greatest writers, William Hazlitt.
Corporate bodies are more corrupt and profligate than individuals, because they have more power to do mischief, and are less amenable to disgrace or punishment. They feel neither shame, remorse, gratitude, nor goodwill. The principle of private or natural conscience is extinguished in each individual (we have no moral sense in the breasts of others), and nothing is considered but how the united efforts of the whole (released from idle scruples) may be best directed to the obtaining of political advantages and privileges to be shared as common spoil. Each member reaps the benefit, and lays the blame, if there is any, upon the rest.
William Hazlitt could have been writing these words today about Fort Bragg’s $1-million hole,” as characterized by the Fort Bragg Advocate, or “bankruptcy,” in Roanne Withers’ less euphemistic language in last week’s AVA. Who gets the blame? Who reaps the benefits? The $20,000 audit that revealed the shortfall, is in itself flawed, according to former City Administrator Gary Milliman, who is quoted in the Advocate-News as saying, “…the way the document is constructed may lead one to conclude that the city is worse off financially than it really is.” Laying the blame? Well, acting true to form, you blame the messenger, the outside producer of the audit.
Comparing a reading of Fort Bragg’s annual budget to an attempt of “divining meaning from goat entrails,” Roanne backs up her view of bankruptcy by saying the City’s Financial Officer, Roy Mitchell, “intentionally scattered the the annual budget’s raw number entrails over some 65 pages without any real explanation of what the numbers meant.” Deception? Since it’s taken a number of years for Fort Bragg residents to finally realize their tax monies have been diverted to ill-advised projects, I’d say there was deception, big time.
Ever since Nixon’s Watergate, the command has been drummed into us: “Follow the money.” Obviously it is easier to follow the money, as revealed in a bookkeeper’s column of figures, than it is a pack of lies — slippery words that are gone even before the wind. Nevertheless, remember, without the lie, there would have been no need to follow the money.
Never in the past has there been such an accepted culture of lying; never has Congressional and Presidential lying been more socially acceptable.
What we are seeing is an extrapolation of certain acceptable behavior in Oklahoma during the decades the state remained “dry” after the federal repeal of prohibition. During these dry years, “having a good bootlegger” had the same social cachet as “having a good lawyer.” Bootleggers passed out their cards like any other respectable businessman.
In the 40s the breakup of one particular bootlegger’s family led to foster care for one of the daughters, who later was committed to the state insane asylum in Vinita. The diagnosis was paranoid this, paranoid that.
No progress was made until one of the shrinks, whose father had also been a bootlegger, realized that the girl’s morality was backwards. The shrink wrote that “When she lived with her father, to lie and tell the authorities that her father was not at home, when he was hiding in the closet, was socially acceptable behavior in her father’s eyes. From the time she was a toddler, she was taught that lying was being true to her father; disapproval of truth-telling was like being whipped for lying. It was like skidding on ice; you have to turn in the opposite direction to straighten yourself out.”
Perhaps when Clinton was doing all his public agonizing about limiting Sudanese casualties, one would never have known ,that out of the vast millions of Americans who believed this was lying, there were actually a few active protesters, who were virtually blacked out of the news. Concerning these Christmastime protests, Christopher Hitchens writes in the current Vanity Fair: “Washington police officers were giving the shove to demonstrators outside the White House who protested the December 16-19 bombing of Iraq with chants of ‘killing children’s what they teach — that’s the crime they should impeach,’ and a ‘No blood for blow jobs’ placard.” The latter is in bad taste. Bombing the innocent in order to save a lying President is a laudable act of patriotism.
The only Americans who don’t believe the President’s a liar are those with Alzheimer’s. Clinton has seemingly reached the point the great Roman orator Cicero was talking about more than a millennium ago when he wrote, “We give no credit to a liar, even when he speaks the truth.” Cicero meant more than that; he meant more than not giving credit to a liar; he meant that in denying credit to the liar, the liar was made to feel he no longer belonged.
In going back to Roman times we go back to Biblical times as well. Back further, when we read some of those great sages, their words are so denunciatory, so startling we read in awe… and shame. In Proverbs we read: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.” and, “A lying tongue hateth those that are afflicted by it.” And, “I hate and abhor lying.”
Historians and anthropologists say injunctions against lying are common to tribal societies. We read that in dealing among themselves, native-to-native, Algonquins, Cherokees, Osages believed much the same in this regard as did the Jews. It is only when dealing with the lying White man that Indians felt they had to lie themselves.
Like most older people I idealize the past. Both the philanderers, the saints, seem bigger than life. My grandfather, a Webb alumnus, is one of those. He could be mean, spiteful, cold, but for the most part he couldn’t lie, and he was nervous being around one. While heading a family-owned business in 1929, he assured the buyers of his stock they had nothing to lose. Months later, the Depression came. He reimbursed those who bought stock from him. At the time, people described his actions as decent. In time, people called it absurd. Times change.
For 20 years, in the 30s and 40s, my grandfather belonged to the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. One of his fellow members was Bill Skelly, whose oil holdings later became part of the Getty Oil empire. Moreover, Skelly was Tulsa’s most popular personage. He gave the city its football stadium, and until the Kravis family came along, he was the community’s biggest benefactor. Excluding those he defrauded, everyone thought Bill Skelly was terrific. One day Skelly said something outrageous in a Chamber of Commerce meeting. My grandfather made him repeat it, and upon doing so, he told Skelly to stand up, and then my grandfather knocked him down.
The Tulsa papers were silent on the matter but papers in Oklahoma City took note. Later, Grandpa’s children remonstrated with him, saying that “everybody knows that Bill Skelly’s a crook, and so he lies.”
“But he had never lied to me before,” Grandpa said, “and when he stuck to it, I knew he was thinking I was a fool as well. That did it.”
By most standards, Grandpa was not a good man; he was an uncommunicative and sometimes cruel father. He was often unfaithful. But after the first couple of years, Grandma never asked; if she had, he would have told.
His last years were spent with a housekeeper on the family farm an hour’s drive from Tulsa. His diabetes was so serious, it’s unlikely if he ever slept with the housekeeper. The children were terribly disapproving; my grandmother was distraught. They were all kept in the dark. They seethed but remained silent. They never even came close to a question. Earlier in their marriage, my grandmother remonstrated with him, “Russel, that’s why you don’t have more friends. What’s one little fib? Who’s going to know? He looked at her in silence until, finally, she turned and walked out, saying, “Well, if that’s the way you want to be.”
He didn’t necessarily “want to be” that way. His veracity was like the way he parted his pitch-black hair, like his big hands and feet, like the slow and gallant way he talked to all women.
Last month in “The Fort Bragg Advocate-News” it was deja vu, vis-a-vis Bill Skelly and Grandpa. I read the following by senior citizen Albert Hein Wooden, who was writing about her father in a piece she called “Man of My Life”:
He was the greatest teacher of hard work, honesty, respect for others and for their property. He expected everyone else to have the same values. I still remember him confronting the man who had lied to him about a cow he bought at an auction. It was right after church on a Sunday morning. Dad stopped at the country gas pump and the man drove in right behind us. Dad let him know in no uncertain terms that he had lied. He not only lied, but took money under false pretenses, which is stealing — two commandments broken with the sale of just one cow.
Dad’s anger reminded me of Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple.
Today the anger is suppressed. “So sue me,” is the happy retort.
Presently, the city of Fort Bragg is being rocked by people who Alberta Hein Wooden’s father would have had a whole lot of problems with. Mysterious fires that go unprosecuted; the theft of city water; money diversion; the proposal of a water-guzzling vanity golf course, and of course the antics from a one-story-too-tall motel owner who exploded after the town’s last elections when he threw a temper tantrum and roughed-up a city councilman who he had opposed. Fort Bragg has always been corrupt, but for the most part it’s been the simple rapacity of powerful timber barons.
By Federal-poverty standards, 40% of Fort Braggers are poor. What little remains of the fishing and timber business is seasonal. There’s lots of scrambling for other work. Hard-working fry cooks, waitresses and carpenters have little time to research what’s going on at City Hall or in Sacramento.
So, a year and a half ago, when state bureaucrats proposed for Fort Braggers a replacement for the Noyo River Bridge, Caltrans project manager Karen Tatman thought that even in the early proposal stage the bridge was a “done deal.” After all, bridges are necessary, and Fort Bragg… is Fort Bragg. Even in the early proposal stage, Ms. Tatman clearly indicated on a KDAC talk show that the proposed bridge was “a done deal.”
Being the “non-aesthetic” community she apparently assumed it to be, Ms. Tatman’s comments were supposed to take care of the opposition. After all, the town’s got to have a bridge. Ms. Tatman said the state’s quality control regulations were not germane. She “misspoke.”
Roanne Withers of CoastWatch called Caltrans. But the damage had been done. Only four or five people showed up at an obscurely advertised meeting. From this sparse turnout, Caltrans inferred, “The community liked the bridge.” Fort Braggers neither liked nor disliked; Fort Braggers didn’t know.
At a later hearing, because of letters to the editor, there was a big turnout, 60-100 people for a five-hour meeting. About this meeting, Roanne Withers wrote in a recent AVA, “I discovered one copy of the Caltrans Visual Assessment Study lying on the floor near some boxes. This was the first time I was aware of a visual comparison study of what would not be visible with the new bridge. I was astounded! No one else at this ‘hearing’ was given this information in the misleading visual diagrams displayed by Caltrans on the wall.”
Roanne wrote that if you wanted to get an idea of what the bridge would actually look like, one had to go around the room to the different “experts,” each of whom gave a narrow point of view from his own perspective, that of lighting, height, materials, etc. It was sort of like a blind person getting a description of an elephant from “experts” stationed at the tail, the feet, the side, the head, the tusks.
Do we need whatever’s being forced on us in our home? The planet?
For the past 20-30 years, the preceding questions might have been asked by every adult in the Fort Bragg community as he and she read of the destruction of the forests, the siltation of the rivers, the theft of water, the decimation of the fishery. These, however, were, for most of us, out of our control. “Jesus, what can I do? Let’s go to the Tip-Top.”
Have we become so anesthetized, that with the growth of tourism, the influx of funny money, our idolatry of nefarious carpetbaggers, the burning up of books; the burning down of a library; the burning down of our courthouse; the burning down of a hotel; the crippling of a railway; the creation of an enervating drug culture that substituted smack for salmon; the proposed building of a bridge that nobody needs; the arrogant disregard of state and local laws in the erection of an unneeded one-story-too-tall building that will destroy a window to the beauty of the sea — beauty that in tourists dollars and cents is now worth far more than all the community’s redwoods; the foolish proposal of a water-guzzling golf course that will satisfy the vanity of a vain handful; the diverting of tax revenues from Fort Braggers, for the benefit of San Franciscans — vis-a-vis more motels… if all this be so, why have we killed our souls before our bodies were ready to die?
I know that somewhere in Fort Bragg there is a young man or woman, a nurse, a bookkeeper, a carpenter, an electrician, a chef, someone with like-minded friends, mostly young, someone who will not let the bastards get them down, someone who will drive the bastards out of town. It would not take many. Eight? Ten? Twelve?
Unfortunately, our movie and television environment is so blindly, sanctimoniously, non-judgmental that one is judged corny or square in talking about truthtelling and honesty. I can imagine Jay Leno pretending to be puzzled by the mention of veracity, then saying, “Oh, isn’t that another brand, like Versace?”
Jerry Falwell acts as if the basis of Christianity is revenge and intolerance. The writers of many TV shows act as if certain lies, coming from the mouths of children, deserve a wink and a nod more than a frown and a reprimand.
The CIA has taken one of the disciple John’s statements — one of the most profoundly beautiful lines in the Bible — and adopted it as its own slogan: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Let’s take it back.