But Honestly…

I am sorry to say that honesty appears to no longer be a valued virtue in our society.  Many of us stretch the truth to the breaking point or even make up outrageous stories to get what we want, whether it be some type of advantage or just to avoid the consequences of a previous misdeed.  The illegality of fraud seems to have been reduced to little more than a technicality.

I say that honesty is “no longer” valued because I believe that, at one time, honesty was standard operating procedure both in the business world and in our personal lives.  Perhaps I’m just being naïve and no such halcyon time ever existed.  Perhaps we just covered up our deviousness better way back when, while today dishonesty has become so prevalent that it can be practiced openly without fear of denunciation or derision.

Interestingly, parents still expect honesty among their children.  Lying, fibbing, telling whoppers and every other variety of prevarication is preached against, strictly prohibited and sternly punished when it rears its ugly head despite our best efforts.  I recently posted about parents requiring their kids to share, even though sharing is not at all valued among adults and is, at least to some extent, discouraged.  I believe that lying belongs to the same club as sharing.  We require such things of our kids not because they need to learn these values to be productive adults, but because sharing and honesty are convenient for parents.  How will we know who to punish if Sally blames Johnny for her own misdeeds?  We certainly don’t want to look foolish when we’re called into school to account for Jimmy’s behavior when he dishonestly swears up and down that he did not copy from his neighbor’s test paper.  The list could go on and on.  The fact is that dishonesty among kids makes the job of parenting a lot harder.

Ultimately, of course, kids tend to model their parents’ actions, not their words.  “Do as I say, not as I do” is a ridiculous pipe dream and a cop-out to boot.  Children who see their parents bending the truth more than just a little (“oh, it’s just a teensy white lie”) are likely to internalize the idea that dishonesty is a perfectly legitimate and convenient technique of getting from Point A to Point B.  They may have to wait until adulthood to exercise this prerogative, but then they have the rest of their lives to “do what they have to do” to “get mine.”

When I was a child, my father would tell me such instructive stories as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and, of course, the myth about George Washington refusing to lie about chopping down the cherry tree.  This is the time of year that every bakery and restaurant sells cherry pies in honor of this ridiculous story, designed to teach the virtues of taking the punishment we deserve.  The wolf story takes a different approach, warning kids that no one will believe a thing they say once they develop a reputation as a liar.  Based on the events of recent decades, I would hazard a guess that the boy who cried “wolf” now works on Wall Street.

As a whole, I believe that we have become a nation of liars.  Parents work at teaching their children the difference between fantasy and reality, no thanks to the barrage of Disney movies and animated TV shows.  Apparently, parental efforts are not working.  As adults, we seem to have lost the distinction between truth and falsehood.  We now live in a perverted utopia where the truth is whatever you want it to be.

In court, when a person takes the witness stand, the clerk requires that he or she take an oath to “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you, God.”  I am told that a person who refuses to take this oath is deemed ineligible to testify.  One who takes the oath and then knowingly testifies falsely is guilty of the crime of perjury.  I have no doubt that many witnesses perjure themselves for many reasons and often go unpunished.  Far more sinister, however, is the case of those who manage to convince themselves of the truth of whatever made-up story is most convenient at the time.  We don’t particularly expect young children to be able to distinguish between truth and fantasy, but today it seems that many adults are unable to tell the difference either.  The concept of our American judicial process is that many witnesses will be examined and cross-examined and that, in the end, the truth will emerge victorious.  Often, we depend on juries to determine just what the truth is.  This has the capacity to fail on a number of levels, including jurors whose votes express their opposition to the law as written (a phenomenon known as “jury nullification”) and jurors who are themselves so impervious to lying in everyday life that they no longer have the capacity to distinguish between a truth and a falsehood.  Then again, one could say that it works out in the end because all the Constitution guarantees is a jury of one’s peers, and it is likely that jurors are no more prone to truth telling than are the defendants or litigants.

My niece shares an apartment with a roommate who is experiencing difficulty in passing his college engineering classes.  I am told that he is a foreign student whose wealthy parents send him whatever funds he needs from abroad.  However, he is required to account for all of his expenses.  Among those expenses was hiring tutors to help him get through.  More recently, his parents’ money allowed him to incur the expense of paying others to take his tests for him.  If he can’t pass the exams himself, no worries.  If you have enough money, you can always take care of whatever little inconvenience comes your away.  The fact that this violates the school’s honor code appears to be of no consequence.  If his dishonesty were ever discovered, I wonder whether throwing thousands of dollars at the college would prevent him from being expelled.  My guess is that, should his luck run out, the family money would bankroll a cadre of lawyers dedicated to the art of obfuscation who would tie the case up in litigation until long after he graduated and returned to his home country.

But who can blame the guy?  He’s learned a lot during his short time in the United States.  After all, dishonesty is the American way.

Ferguson, America Stands with You

Last night, I sat in the living room with my wife, my mother-in-law and my nephew.  Secure in the bosom of my family, we turned on the television and watched the reaction of Ferguson, Missouri following a grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer responsible for the death of Mike Brown.  We watched President Obama’s brief remarks, after which my wife commented that our commander in chief didn’t seem very pleased with the events of the day.

She was clearly correct.  Not only was the president fearful of the violence likely to erupt in the wake of the grand jury decision, but one could read in his face disappointment over the outcome.

I believe that President Obama got a lot of things right last night.  He was right to appeal for calm in a volatile situation.  He was right to suggest that peaceful protest, not violence, is a reasonable response to public dissatisfaction.  And he was right to state that America was built upon the foundation of the rule of law.  Like so many things, the rule of law is a lot more appealing when it yields the results we’d like to see than when it does not.  But the rule of law is part of who we are, and it belongs to us, for better or for worse.  In tough times, we need to embrace the rule of law, not cast it aside in a fit of pique.

The grand jury agreed with Officer Darren Wilson’s assertions that his actions were in compliance with his training and with the law.  If his claims are factual, then we have our work cut for us:  We need to change police training and we need to change the law.  Those are two things that cannot be accomplished by means of violence.  They can only be accomplished by exercising our constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

The pink elephant in the room is, of course, race.  And as the president pointed out, this is a factor that cannot be ignored.  There are those who aver that Brown would not have been killed had he been white instead of black.  No one can say with certainty whether this is the case, but it is undeniable that the argument resonates with many.

Obama was correct in pointing out that the racial tensions of today were born of the racial discrimination of our recent past.  The president mentioned that he has personal experience with this, and I don’t doubt him a bit.  Every person with black skin in this country has encountered discrimination.

It is well known that there has long been an imbalance of power between blacks and whites in America.  For the most part, blacks have poorer childhood educational opportunities than white children do, graduate from college in far small numbers than their white agemates, have fewer job opportunities and are paid less than whites, have less access to health care and die earlier than whites.  I don’t think it is unreasonable to state that blacks have drawn the short end of the stick in this country.

Another type of imbalance of power exists between the citizenry and law enforcement.  Most of us do not carry weapons with us, but the police do.  The service weapon of a police officer is supposed to be a tool of law enforcement.  The officer’s gun is a symbol of power, a reminder of what he or she can do to us if we break the law.  Beyond that, however, it doesn’t take a brilliant scholar to know that when weapons are present, sooner or later they will be used.  The police have guns so that they can use them in certain circumstances, not just as window dressing for the cool blue uniform.  The prevailing argument is that the police receive extensive training and have it drilled into them that their weapons are to be used only as a last resort for protection of themselves or others.

Other than God, no one but Officer Wilson himself knows what was really going through his mind in the split second that he made the fateful decision to discharge his weapon.  But the already significant imbalance of power between police and public is doubled and redoubled when a white officer serving in a largely white police force has to make an immediate life or death decision regarding a black citizen of a largely black city.

Whites have been afraid of blacks for a long time.  When I was a kid growing up in the New York metropolitan area during the sixties, there was barely concealed panic about the riots in Newark as well as lots of whispers and knowing glances about which areas of town and which streets to stay away from after dark.  We shuddered at the Black Power graffiti and its raised fist logo.

Fear.  It’s a deadly thing, a destructive force of massive power.  More powerful that a policeman’s gun.  FDR knew whereof he spoke when he said that there is nothing to fear but fear itself.  Anytime there is an imbalance of power between two groups, the more powerful is going to use any means at its disposal to remain in power, while fearing the weaker group and what it might do should the balance of power shift.  So whites wield epithets at blacks while blacks yield epithets at whites, while each group fears the other and perpetuates unfounded generalizations that resound down the generations.  Stereotypes persist, even though political correctness has forced them behind thinly veiled cover.

In light of the above, the tragedy in Ferguson was inevitable, as was the decision of a grand jury composed of nine whites and three blacks.  What is not inevitable, however, is the senseless violence that continues to tear apart Ferguson and other cities.  We need to convert the cry of “burn this [epithet] down” to a cry of “vote, hold office, take back your community.”  Regardless of the depth of the tragedy in Ferguson, meaningful change will not occur unless we create it.  We have to be that change.

I went to work this morning, as I do every weekday, enjoying the opportunity of our commute to catch up with my wife.  We spoke of family goings-on, upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities, money, shopping and work.  Our conversations often roam all over the place, which is but one reason that they are so wonderful.  But neither of us mentioned anything about Mike Brown, the grand jury or Ferguson.

Today was particularly busy at work, and I was caught up in my duties immediately upon arriving.  It wasn’t until I took a break at noon to microwave my container of veggies that I remembered.  And that’s when it hit me:  With the hundreds of people working in my building, and with conversations conducted all around me throughout the morning, never once did I hear mention of Ferguson.  I quickly logged on to CNN to see what was going on, whereupon I learned that the businesses along West Florissant Avenue were in flames.  Store windows were smashed, looting had occurred, shops turned into fireballs faster than the fire department could extinguish the blazes.

I sought out the company of one of my coworkers and broached the topic of Ferguson and the grand jury decision not to indict Wilson.  I asked her whether she had seen the president’s remarks on TV last night.  She admitted that she hadn’t.  She tries not to watch the news, she told me, as it only makes her upset and angry.  My coworker, who is a devout Christian, pointed out that horrors like the situation in Ferguson are prophesized in the Book of Revelation.

“But it doesn’t have to be this way!” I cried out.  She agreed, reminding me that Revelation paints a picture of what will happen to all of us when society loses its mind, slips over the edge and willfully refuses to subject itself to God’s discipline.  It may not have to be this way, but it will continue to be this way, she pointed out, as long as we persist in our folly, persist in engaging in discrimination, in embracing stereotypes, in accepting imbalances of power.

I must admit that I can see how easily disaster can be chained upon disaster.  A black teen is killed by a white cop, a grand jury refuses to dispense justice, a city’s anger and its streets both burn.

Nevertheless, I refuse to give up.  Revelation notwithstanding, I stand firm in my belief that it doesn’t have to be this way.  The Bible teaches us that the Lord’s anger burns but for a little while, that His rebuke does not last forever, and that He eagerly awaits the day of our return to His ways so that we can once again enjoy the blessings of prosperity bestowed upon the compassionate and the just.

We can divest ourselves of the fear, we can take back our communities, we can update our laws, we can stand together and be the change we want to see rather than waiting for someone else to do it.

Because no one else is going to do it.

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