Illustration by Keith Brown
When No One Is Looking
George Washington's famous line "I cannot tell a lie" comes to mind when considering honesty in society today.
Thoughts on integrity...
In the year 1789, just four weeks before he assumed the role of first President of the United States, George Washington sent a letter to Secretary of War Henry Knox. One of many heartfelt missives penned by Washington, the letter read in part: “Integrity and firmness are all I can promise. These, be the voyage long or short, shall never forsake me, although I may be detested by all men; for all of the consolations, which are to be derived from these, under any circumstances, the world cannot deprive me.”
Few people are aware of Washington’s eloquence; it’s not surprising because the study of American history is presently relegated to a status beneath celebrity news, nifty phone apps, and social-networking fads. His surviving writings display both a mastery of language and a desire to share passionate beliefs. Washington hid neither his values nor actions under a bushel basket.
I thought of the Knox letter on the recent Fourth of July while smoking some pig ribs and assailing the Ozark sky with the occasional shotgun blast, for it speaks of traits and lifestyles no longer common. Let’s face it; integrity just ain’t what it used to be. It is a rare day when we do not see, hear, or read of corruption, disgrace, and dishonesty amongst public officials, sports figures, and the endless parade of feckless Hollywood thespians that populate the national stage. As a people, we seem to have become desensitized to faithlessness and treachery. We hardly blink at falsehood and obfuscation, accepting these and many more offenses as par for the course.
Really, I’m not as concerned with the actions of the famous and infamous as I am with the actions of the individual on the street. If you look around, probity and an adherence to firm convictions are not exactly en vogue. Many of our fellow citizens are at ease with expounding their virtues in public and disregarding them in private.
An erosion of conscience has taken place. If we can get away with something, if nobody catches us in the act, then all is well. Holding oneself accountable when no one is looking is considered laughable. The never-ending onslaught of egocentric news and views is the root cause of desensitization. The talk show hosts, news anchors, politicians, and “beautiful people” of stage, screen, and government have attempted, with great success, to make us believe that bad behavior isn’t really all that bad. I’ve noticed that adulterous affairs and ethical scandals are frequently downplayed by media-created luminaries— but only after more and more of them have been caught in adulterous affairs and ethical scandals. Those who report upon such things, not wishing to lose their A-list invites on the party circuit, present the depravities and transgressions of public figures as little more than quirky, cute, and amusing infractions.
On the other hand, the pompous and vainglorious national media have educated us in what they consider to be inappropriate conduct. Though it’s utter lunacy, our culture exists in some sort of bizarro, backward land. It is considered a horrific crime to speak against “accepted” conventional wisdom, but matters of character, excellence, and merit have been excised as critical elements in the human equation. For instance, failing to wax self-indulgent as a member of the “green” movement is to paint one’s self a pathetic miscreant. Speaking in anything but the dainty lilt of political correctness garners the label of insensitive boor. Stating a belief in the enforcement of existing laws, such as those that regularly go unenforced in regard to illegal aliens, leads to categorization as an unfeeling monster. Remark that the endless labyrinth of government bureaucracy infringes upon individual liberty, and you will be branded as either a seditionist loon or conspiracy theorist.
All of this nonsense is of our own making. Our collective denial stems from the fact that we have lost our grip on, and our pride in, an unwavering integrity, the single quality that George Washington knew could never be taken from him. When your integrity is intact, when it is your greatest source of dignity and self-respect, you do not fall prey to misdirection and deception. You do not accept things that are patently false and blatantly specious just to “fit in.” You point them out, drag them kicking and screaming into the light, and laugh at them with reckless abandon.
These days, few people are laughing. For our own good, we better start.