Shortly after I started full-time school in 1936, I remember relating to my mother some wildly exaggerated stories told by one of my school mates about how wealthy his family was. His father owned and operated a six-stool, two-booth diner in downtown Hartford. She responded to this by saying that one of the great advantages of always telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you said. That statement, my first occasion to contemplate the importance of truthfulness, and/or the lack thereof, has stayed with me.
My father’s employer was a U.S. Congressman from Connecticut’s 1st District in the 1930’s. Once, during a family dinner at home, my parents were lamenting something about how the New Deal of the Roosevelt administration was being less than honest about how some federal funds were being allocated. My father made the comment that his boss, the congressman, had once shared with him that elected politicians have always lied, and it wasn’t anything to get excited about. The congressman’s apparent attitude was that lies don’t really matter, since we seem able to live well enough, even with a national government replete with them.
I heard the phrase “trust but verify” for the first time in 1987, when it was attributed to then-President Ronald Reagan. He apparently used it during the late stages of nuclear disarmament treaty negotiations with Russia to describe how implementation would be conducted. I learned much later that it is a translation of a Russian proverb that in its native land connotes a lack of trust, and a need to have assertions fact-checked. The proverb’s inherent assumption is that lies are just a given in all of life.
I’ve lost track of the Washington Post’s final numbers in their recording of then-President Trump’s continuous stream of lies, but at last counting, they had identified more than 20,000 straight-out false public statements made by him during his single term in office. That averages out to be more than 14 misleading pronouncements a day delivered to the American people, an obvious basis for mistrust. However, that fact notwithstanding, more than 74 million citizens, almost 48% of the active electorate, voted to re-elect him to head our government. To what extent should we believe that to reflect our society’s character?
As we move along in the 21st century immersed in what has been aptly termed an American surveillance economy, a condition fueled by a galaxy of unregulated misinformation sources, two questions arise: Can we restore ourselves to an ambience of truth-based trust and, do we even care enough to do it? I believe that the answers lie mostly within each of us, assuming we can come to terms with ourselves by identifying our foundational core values and then behaving in faithful accordance with them. That is not an especially easy thing to do, calling as it does for unrelenting honesty with ourselves. Seeing it as a fulfilling code of conduct, however, can make the effort worthwhile.
In order to get our values in focus, we need to overcome the many ordinary pressures that can divert us from behaving authentically; that is, in accordance with our own very personal guidelines. Authenticity is a form of truthfulness that goes a long way toward establishing trust between ourselves and our communities. These pressures vary from person to person, but, for instance, our relentless efforts to acquire material things tend to keep us over-focused on stuff that in the long run never reflects who we really are. Our misunderstanding that structural advancement at work always represents fulfillment can compromise truthfulness as we strive for an imagined stature that in itself may contribute nothing toward a trust-based reputation. Finally, the rush of living in a 24/7, mostly transactional way, allows little time for acquiring self-knowledge.
When we lack a vivid code of personal conduct, we can be dishonest with ourselves and our neighbors without even trying. Just going with the flow, and not properly accounting for the variances that might exist between what is actually going on and the initial reasons for deciding to join a community in the first place is an easy way to simply spectate. Assuming those initial reasons had something to do with hopes for being a value-contributing member, the perceptions of our neighbors on our contributions is a big factor in establishing anyone’s reputation.
When what we do and say is consistently faithful to our core values, that consistency is noticed over time and is appreciated for its truthful integrity alone, even when there is disagreement on any particular matter. That appreciation leads directly to trust, especially when it acknowledges a member’s apparent caring for the whole community’s well-being. Further, truth and trust in any context enables leadership to emerge and allows decision-making close to the first points of implementation. When an organization becomes characterized as one with a trusting nature at all levels, chances are great that the people who comprise it feel largely fulfilled as they add value every day.
All of the above notwithstanding, the prevalence of lies as an omnipresent part of human society has to be recognized. Because of that unfortunate defect in our nature, it is small wonder that a number of thinkers and international competitors continue to regard America’s 200-plus year old democracy as an experiment that might very well fall apart at some point. We got a horrifying glimpse of what disintegration of our republic might look like on January 6, when a violent mob, fueled by seditious lies and incited by encouragement from a defeated former President, stormed through the U.S. Capitol building in an effort to block the official seating of America’s legitimately elected new President.
We all know that that insurrection failed, but what lessons do we take from its occurrence? And, overcome by lies, what key elements of American governance were missing or ignored to an extent that enabled the January 6 national disgrace? One broad response to both questions is that as a country we either lacked enough shared truths to support reasonably common trust in our elected officials, or that too many people were just tired of a governance system they perceived as not putting the public’s common good ahead of special interests. International history provides an abundance of examples of bad outcomes arising in such atmospheres, such as the rise of Russian and Chinese communism as well as corrupt authoritarian regimes like the Nazis.
When all we do about the existence of untrustworthy situations is to complain privately about them, we become complicit in their existence. People with misgivings about them have the opportunity to improve things by communicating with other members through honest dialog. “Honest” in this context means that conversations always reflect an individual’s true core values, allowing critical trust and social capital to grow among members. As trust grows, conversations shift away from an organization’s problems and more toward exciting consideration of positive possibilities.
Shared truth, and its resultant trust, is at the core of any unified community. People who live in one enjoy the personal growth that derives from things like being heard in the process of reaching truth-based agreements, or even respectful disagreements. Most people, at least occasionally, experience the urge to lead something, and they almost always seek recognition for having contributed something of value. These real needs are always best supported by communications that are truthful expressions of personal value structures.
America today is dreadfully divided. The unfortunate racism that has been a part of us since our very beginnings has grown very recently to the point of violent protests. We refer overmuch to “those” and “them” as if they were opposing tribes within our national structure. Ethnic hate has emerged from lie-based politics. The world has noticed this, and our reputation and example as the trusted principal human rights society has been greatly impaired.
Our trustworthiness has been seriously degraded by our announced “America First” nationalistic policies. We have drawn away from vital strategic alliances that have been some of the world’s most powerful deterrents to dangerous aggression. The economic gaps between the “haves” and “have-nots” have expanded exponentially. Most recently, America has begun to repair these divisive damages, but there is far to go. Serious progress depends on individual citizens coming together in common cause and engaging in this restoration. If we rally together as we have before when confronted with enormous crises like two world wars, the first Cold War, two debilitating depressions, and now by a world-wide virus pandemic, the American people can prevail and make our union stronger than ever, especially when we eliminate the suspicions of and discriminations against various others that have led to so many race and class inequities.
It’s up to each of us. E Pluribus Unum is needed as never before.
Charles M. Ericson lives in Farmington. He wrote this commentary in collaboration with Sedona Ericson, his 15-year-old granddaughter, and son, David Ericson of New Milford.