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Friday, March 31, 2006

Argument For The Right To Lie

The recent fuss about the exaggerations discovered in a best-selling “memoir” annoys me. It is not only hypocritical for “journalists,” bloggers and talk show hosts to decry a lack of integrity or adherence to Truth, it is downright un-American.

No, I’m serious. If America stands for anything, it is the right and ability to re-invent yourself as often as you wish. The Founding Fathers did it. Every immigrant and pioneer took advantage of it. “Upward mobility,” the process of overcoming the deficiencies of birth status, is the goal of every right thinking American. Every sinner, including our current president, who insists he is “born again” relies on this right. Bush isn't the only politician whose image was manipulated. Abe Lincoln, a wealthy railroad lawyer, ran for president as "The Rail Splitter."

Our very economic survival depends on every teenager's right to tailor her image: she shops, adopts cool lingo, drives a hip car, listens to pop music, gravitates to a clique of friends.

When defendants testify in their own defense, denying guilt in the face of more credible contrary evidence, most judges will punish them more severely than if they had remained mute. One of my favorite judges was in other respects not a very admirable person. He was irascible even nasty to some lawyers, often so drunk by mid-afternoon that he needed sleep. But he never punished a defendant who testified, recognizing what he called “our constitutional right to lie in our own defense.”

Historical fiction, whether in books or movies, has always been controversial. Distorting facts to make a point is a time-honored practice (Oliver Stone) justified by the demands of asserted “license” and "poetic truth." Whether required for dramatic effect or to underscore the theme, altering the reality is accepted. The familiar claim “based on” or “inspired by true events” is meant to explain the variances and usually it satisfies as a warning that what we are seeing or reading is not meant to be exactly the way it happened.

Biographies of course are notorious for this kind of editing. Real lives are far too complex to be accurately portrayed on screen. Autobiographies are the least reliable sources.

The problem is muddled by works which claim to be “non-fiction.” Documentaries have been reemed when they resorted to “re-creations,” and spawned a sub-genre called “docudrama,” which is frowned upon by serious journalists and historians. Of course those noble professions have also taken hits when fabrications are uncoverd, notably The New York Times and New Republic. Michael Moore’s kind of comical polemic has other problems.

The impulse to alter reality is a most human trait. The need to create "Drama" in our lives is overpowering. It drives our deepest yearning: self-fulfilment. It easily trumps lessons about ethics. Fear of exposure as fraudulent is a nightmare we willingly accept. The risk, after all, is thrilling. We can't help it; we will continue to be "wannabes." It is our nature, our right, our duty.

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