I just saw a stage performance of "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof." The scene where Big Daddy smells out mendacity is rich with metaphor for this time in our America. Because, everywhere, it seems, there is the stench of mendacity. A back-of-the-envelope listing might include the likes of Enron, Iraq's WMD, Tiger Woods John Edwards, Hurricane Katrina, Bernie Madoff, Lehman Brothers' accounting methods, death panels, and, of course, pending Armageddon.
It's not that we present-day Americans are more dishonest or devious than other cultures or previous generations. Scandals, crooks, thievery, falsehood are part of the deal with humans. What makes our mendacity so smelly? There are lies that we Americans constantly tell ourselves and sadly believe. Worse still, we act on those lies as if they were truth.
Some of Our Lies
We're the Greatest Nation on Earth
Huh? By what measure? Longevity? Then we're 38th, behind two other American territories. Wealth? We're in hock, borrowing billions every month to keep our party going. Railroad infrastructure? This nation practically invented long-distance railroads but now has zero high-speed trains. Our cell phone system lags behind many nations. One area where we're doing splendidly is incarceration. We boast one-fourth of all the world's prisoners, despite comprising only 5% of the global population.
Our military can level any target. But our experience in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan has proved that military might doesn't necessarily insure a welcome reception from the local population. We can't even count on Israel, a close ally, doing what we want. Sure, we can kill anybody we choose (except Bin Laden), but we can't always make people behave as we wish. This leads to the second lie.
Everybody wants to be American, or destroy us
Here's the long-standing myth of American exceptionalism. We find ourselves too wonderful to behold. Some of us claim that we're God's chosen people. Let's wake up and take a clearer look.
Switzerland has an older democracy. Denmark's been a stable nation for a millennium while France has more vacation and offers its citizens better medical care. Most nations, even Russia, rank higher in living sustainably.
In many parts of the world the U.S. is totally irrelevant to hundreds of millions of people. They live without Wal-Mart or Starbucks. (And I'm sure they'd find another service if Google disappeared tomorrow.) Sure, some would like to see our military and borrowing power destroyed. But to most humans we're only a source of movies and other software.
We have the greatest system on earth
De-regulation of corporations is based on this lie. So is money-rich lobbying. No system is infallible.
"Greatest system" excuses government incompetence, political dishonesty, corporate mendacity and bonus-mongering. See what similar self-anointing has done to the Catholic Church? It's doing the same thing to American government, corporations, and our other institutions where self-preservation is paramount.
Some politicians claimed during the recent political battle that the U.S. has the world's best medical "system." There's no objective measurement supporting that. We pay more for less than any other post-industrial nation. 38th in longevity.
No group with great power or enormous wealth will always act in the interest of others, whether shareholders, voters or patients. Greed's real. It's pathological optimism to expect any system to naturally protect the many from the few at the top. Eternal vigilance, remember?
We Americans are God's chosen people
How many times in history has nation, king, empire, shaman, or tribe claimed to be at one with their chosen deity? And where did it get them? When some fellow human begins to describe God's will, beware. Sniff for mendacity.
Must we persist on a fallacious and foolhardy self-image based on the above and corollary lies? From the Iraq invasion to adjustable rate mortgages, we have repeatedly acted on our lies and self-delusion. Now there's much that needs doing. Right now we're getting a heavy dose of reality therapy here in America. What's unclear is how many of us will face reality rather than cling to these persistent, cosmetic pipedreams?
By Harry Fuller
Special to CBSNews.com