Land of the Free

            The old joke goes “Q: How do you know if a politician is lying? A: His (or her) mouth is moving.”

            This has truth to it. We are taught as children that lying is wrong. As adults, we discover reality is more nuanced. Some questions have no truthful direct answer. If someone asks you, “Why did you punch your mother in the face?”, you may truthfully say, “I didn’t punch my mother in the face”, but that doesn’t answer the question asked, “Why did you punch your mother in the face?”. (See my last post, “Mirrors”, for another discussion of this kind of question.)

            There are also times in our lives when we decide that truth will cause more harm than untruth. We tell what we call “white lies” and don’t think it immoral. Sometimes a situation, perhaps the question itself, causes so much stress that we can’t think or answer clearly, and what we say isn’t the truth, it’s just the best we can do in the moment. Is that really morally wrong? Sometimes the person asking the question is purposefully causing stress in order to induce us to answer untruthfully. Who is wrong then?

            For politicians, these conditions are maximized, along with other considerations that most of us never encounter. In order to do their job, represent their constituency, and make the best possible decisions in government they find themselves lying.

            I’m talking about honorable people in politics. There are most certainly selfish, stupid, and/or immoral politicians. They are a problem, but they are not the ones I’m concerned with here. Sometimes the truth is more complicated than can be told. Here are a few examples where a lie might be the best and most honorable option.

  1. Information that a politician has is not only confidential but if it were known that they even knew about it, the source of the knowledge would also be known and that would put an innocent person (or persons) at risk. I’m sure this happens occasionally with national security issues.
  2. A politician has fresh information, and they haven’t had time to process how it might affect an important decision. Answering a relevant question truthfully now carries more risk than a quick lie.
  3. The politician believes a whole line of discussion is misleading and complex and trying to answer truthfully would take the conversation down a path that distracts from what really needs to be discussed. A simple lie ends the conversation.
  4. (most common) The politician believes, probably correctly, that telling the truth would mean not getting elected. If they believe they can do good by being elected, perhaps the end justifies the means. You may or may not agree, but it’s a considered argument.

            There is another type of lie which politicians tell all the time that is far more important. That is lying in order to promote progress towards making the lie become truth

            Franklin Roosevelt famously said at the beginning of WW2, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That’s literally ridiculous, but it helped to create the desired outcome. The country in general wasn’t afraid and went on to win the war.

            It’s also common for a president or other leader to tell everyone that the economy is doing fine, to keep on spending, because if people keep on spending maybe the economy will do fine.

            In the United States, the biggest lie of all is that we live in a free country. How can a nation founded on slavery, and still denying many minorities their full 14th amendment rights, have ever been “with liberty and justice for all”? Not to mention that we, today, imprison a higher percentage of our citizens than any other country in the world, including China, Russia, etc. That’s a free country?

            The proper response is to keep believing that freedom is our country’s destiny, our DNA, and keep doing the hard work to make it real. If we stop believing in America as the land of the free, we give up hope. It’s a balance between the misplaced patriotism of blind belief and the despair of only seeing the lie.

            It’s hard, when you were raised to believe that everyone is as free as you are, to learn that never was true. It’s hard to keep struggling for your freedom when others don’t even know what you’re talking about. Whatever you may think, we are bound together in this land. If this ends badly, no one is safe, and everyone loses…a lot.

            There’s a saying I heard a long time ago. “Strive to be what you wish to seem.” Don’t give up, America. Don’t try to go back to the good ole days that never were, and don’t tear everything down because so much of it isn’t good. Don’t take the high ground. Instead, find the common ground that unites us, then work together to make our country truly free and just for all.

            Turn the lie into a dream, and make the dream come true.


Hugh Moffatt
Waltham, Massachusetts
June 5, 2019