A radio show by the name in the headline, emceed by a man named Ralph Edwards, became a big hit starting in 1940. It eventually became a TV show, and all told, it lasted for decades. The format of the show was to be asked a question, and if it was not answered truthfully, the contestant submitted to undertaking a silly stunt of almost any kind.
The show seemed reflective of a culture that valued untruth for perceived rewards, however trivial. It is interesting to note that it came onto the popular scene in the midst of world turmoil both in the Far East and in Europe. Germany, for instance, had started its unspeakable military expansion, supported by a Nazi Party that had risen to power in large measure by lying to its people. Adolf Hitler had become head of state and had hired a propaganda minister named Joseph Goebbels whose sole responsibility was to propagate a continuous stream of utterly false inciting messages.
These lies were constantly repeated in comprehensive broadcasts, following the patterns of earlier actual and wannabe dictators, who traded on the sad fact that lies repeated often enough by authority figures would come to be accepted as truth by much of the country. The process included identifying the free press as the “enemy of the people.” It laid full blame for all of the country’s troubles on one segment of its population, and then undertook to suppress and eliminate them, by any manner of violent means.
The lies stipulated the absolute need to cleanse the population of any cohort except white “pure Aryans.” What emerged from this hideous base of lies, of course, was World War II, the Holocaust, many millions of deaths, and enormous physical destruction. After Germany’s surrender, the leading surviving Nazi figures were held accountable for their atrocities, and almost without exception, they were removed from society permanently. Subsequently, with much help from the U.S. and western allies, Germany regained its solid footings and became once again a prosperous nation.
The question lingers, however, as to what lessons all societies really and permanently learned from this extraordinarily excruciating period of world history.
Sadly and painfully, America has now been witnessing the pain of, and attempting to get beyond, our own severely challenged era of lie-based politics. The tactics used by the person elected President in 2016 are eerily reminiscent of what put the Nazis in power 90 years ago. Tell the same lies over and over again , characterize the free press as “enemies of the people,” use every available public platform to advance personal interests and ideologies ahead of vital national issues, and use a mindset that identifies all who disagree as evilly wrong-headed, while tossing verbal insults instead of making any effort to reconcile differences.
All of this came to a head most recently, when the defeated White House incumbent screamed election fraud, lost every legal maneuver to hold on to power, and resorted to inciting a huge seditious mob invasion of the U.S. Capitol. How we arrived at such a sad state is a vital area that screams for thoughtful non-partisan review and assignment of appropriate penalties for everybody who chose to be part of the attempted insurrection.
Where should we begin? Currently there is talk of creating a 9/11-type of non-partisan commission to probe every aspect of the insurrection and ultimately assign responsibilities for planning, supporting, and participating in it. If chartered, such a commission should make it absolutely clear to all Americans the who, what, where, and how of the crime’s planning and implementation.
We all know that in America we have enjoyed a range of freedoms that most of the rest of the world envies. We used to be able to say or write almost anything short of sedition without governmental retribution. Now, however, our country has become so divided that free speech can and is being severely challenged by special interest groups, even to the point of death threats.
We still can go about our religious persuasions without political interference, but there are communities of hate abroad that look for ways to demean and insult those with whom they disagree. Our public education facilities are open to virtually anyone residing in the country, but enormous quality of learning differences exist, particularly between many disadvantaged urban and more prosperous suburban centers.
As citizens we can vote our consciences without prejudice when deciding who we think we want in public office, but, increasingly, party loyalties seem to be evermore decisive in making choices, rather than individual candidate competence, fair mindedness, and dedication to the public’s well-being.
We also know that we have stubborn vital issues, such as systemic racism, economic, hard knowledge, and justice inequalities, and the long-since galloping growth of a political class. All of these in detail are particular to our society. Recent American leadership has abdicated its obligations to participate decisively in worldly, even existential, concerns such as climate change, disease control, equitable global commerce, regulation of data flow, jurisdiction over undeveloped territories, and usage of space. Each and all of these, severally and together, are crying out for wise American leadership.
It is surely fair to observe that to a constraining extent we have taken our freedoms for granted, and have not confronted them as usefully as we could to address these matters. For example, according to fairly recent data we re-elect our congressional incumbents about 93% of the time, excluding retirements. This single fact supports a conclusion that there is little or no accountability for performance in public office.
Such a judgment is troubling in itself, since it indicates that we don’t take our citizenship very seriously, but it also seems a strong causative factor in what has been the decided growth of a political class that tends to set itself above and apart from its constituencies, pursues re-election to a privileged body with over-the-top health insurance, retirement, and financial allowance benefits, all at the expense of the time available to address the well-being of our national community. It can be argued that this condition is, in itself, a key divisive force, instead of the intended unifying leadership arm of a representative democracy.
The prospect of exercising serious citizenship duties within an enormous national community can seem intimidating. It may be easier to understand a person’s personal allegiances to an entire nation when we consider that the nation itself is comprised of a multitude of communities: religious denominations, professional societies, civic service clubs, educational associations, political parties, business entities, labor unions, sports leagues, families, ethnic clusters, geographic neighborhoods, etc. Almost all of us consider ourselves members of one or more of these disparate groups for any number of conscious, or, in many cases, unconscious reasons. Taken together, whether we are aware of it or not, they make up what is, hopefully, the indivisible country we call the United States of America, a nation conceived and intentionally governed as a representative democracy, one that takes its authority from its citizens, all of whom are obliged to behave in ways that are consistent with the nation’s constitution. When we engage locally, therefore, we can and should have an ultimate national impact.
There are several modes of engagement available to us as we seek to be a value-adding part of our local communities, doing so in ways that reflect our unique personal value structures and demonstrate continuously our commitment to authentic behavior; behavior that reflects what we truly believe in. We can be reactive, proactive, and/or interactive. We engage reactively when responding to external stimuli, in either positive or negative terms, depending on how we judge and perceive the ways in which our community, as well as we personally, will be affected by those stimuli.
We behave proactively when we advocate for different means and measures to advance our community toward whatever vision it holds for itself. We are interactive when we actually engage with other members to accomplish part or parts of the community’s mission. These modes are usually progressive when they are directed toward real, specific, and positive change in improving the community’s effectiveness in allocating its time, treasure, and physical resources in coherent ways; that is to say, in ways contributing to accomplishing the community’s defined objectives in pursuit of its vision.
Engagement always offers opportunities to provide leadership, which is a critical role in change management. It requires communications, empathetic, and risk assessment skills. More than anything, perhaps, it requires a dedication to finding the root causes of issues, which are most often lurking in the answers to a number of “why” questions. These, when posed, will frequently challenge traditions, and often elicit defensive postures thrown up by those who prefer to follow long-established processes, and who are uncomfortable with the whole idea of change per se. Such encounters can be touchy, and require some courage in order to be asked in the first place.
That said, ways forward can be achieved by finding truth-based common ground with all involved parties, and are usually discovered through continuing quality communications.
Truth lies at the core of positive personal value structures, and is a prime element in leading an authentic life. There will always be community settings where truth is unpopular, however, and it requires serious leadership skills to find passage through them. One of the most effective ways to accomplish that is to engage the community’s attention on how thoughtful changes can realize attractive possibilities, rather than remaining focused predominantly on its problems.
Charles M. Ericson lives in Farmington. Sedona Ericson, his granddaughter lives in Spokane, WA.