By Frank Wessling
When the truth counts for less than winning something, we will lie to our friends, lie to our mothers, lie to grand juries, fake a story, edit a video — anything it takes to hit more home runs or make the other side in politics look bad so our side gains an advantage. We lie so easily and in so many ways.
It’s why we call the devil the Father of Lies and see Original Sin as an obvious part of the human condition.
In politics, trimming the truth to fit a partisan agenda is part of the sales effort. We accept this as natural and seldom think about it. Last month a case of partisan trimming was exposed in the news, and we had much to think about as important people from the president of the United States to Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly and former Iowa governor, now U.S. agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack apologized to a once obscure black woman in Georgia.
It’s not clear whether Shirley Sherrod received an apology from the man who committed the lie itself. Those big names had to apologize for failing to be careful about the reputation of a person who didn’t have a big name. The real truth trimmer behind their embarrassment was Andrew Breitbart, who makes a living by digging up dirt on Democrats and their allies — or faking it on a slow day.
What did Breitbart do? He tried to make Sherrod into a flagrant racist using her position as an agriculture department worker to hurt white farmers. What she actually did was tell a story at an NAACP convention of being tempted to use her work in a former job for racial advantage, but then resisted that temptation. She not only helped some white farmers, but became a friend.
What did Breitbart do? He tried to make the NAACP look like a racist organization celebrating a “win” over whitey. The truth is that the people gathered for that meeting were recognizing and celebrating the story of transformation told by Sherrod.
What did Breitbart do? He allowed the lying video that he pushed into today’s gullible media environment to cost a good woman her job.
Why did President Obama call Sherrod to apologize? Because his administration was too ready to sacrifice her as a victim to its fear of the racism charge.
Why did Vilsack apologize publicly? Because his department feared a critical assault by commentators on Fox News and fired her.
Why did O’Reilly apologize? Because he accepted the distorted version of Sherrod’s story peddled by Breitbart without doing what he called “my homework:” checking further for the facts.
Andrew Breitbart could generate this mess because it takes only a blink today for a lie to spread around the world. He can put an edited piece of video on the world wide web and in minutes it is seen by thousands who push it on in an ever-expanding network of viewers who have no way to check the veracity of what they see and hear. Is it really the truth?
As recipients of this material we need personal virtues in defense against people who would mislead us with distortion and outright lying. Be aware of our own agenda, our own “enemies” and friends, and keep reminding ourselves that truth is more important, the purifier of every agenda.
Make the full truth as important as it was to Shirley Sherrod, who said in her talk to the NAACP, “When I made that commitment (to remain in Georgia and help people), I was making that commitment to black people, and black people only. But, you know, God will show you things and he’ll put things in your path so that — that you realize the struggle is really about poor people.” And she became a friend to all in need, regardless of color.
Keep the truth more important than winning small prizes. In the end it will be our only friend. We’d better be on good terms.