“The president likes smart people who disagree with him.”

LyingLying by Sam Harris

So, the subtitle here could read “Things Your Mother Should Have Taught You.” As in

A wasteland of embarrassment and social upheaval can be neatly avoided by following a single precept in life: Do not lie.


A polite host might not acknowledge that one of her guests has said something so stupid as to slow the rotation of the earth.


It is simply astonishing how people destroy their marriages, careers, and reputations by saying one thing and doing another. Tiger Woods, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Wiener–these are men whose names now conjure images of the most public self-destruction. Of course, their transgressions weren’t merely a matter of lying. But deception was what prepared the ground for their humiliation. One can get divorced without having to issue a public apology.


Lying has precipitated or prolonged wars: The Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam*** and false reports of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were both instances in which lying (at some level) led to armed conflict that might otherwise not have occurred.

In conclusion, Harris writes

Lies are the social equivalent of toxic waste–everyone is potentially harmed by their spread.

I would mention also Watergate. It wasn’t the Watergate break-in that ultimately resulted in Nixon’s resignation, it was that he lied about it in trying to cover it up.

There is a sort of despairing quality to this work, as if Harris knows he’s just pissing into the wind. He also neglects to address the occasional consequences of telling the truth, like those two Morton Thiokol guys who desperately tried to get NASA to abort the launch of Challenger that morning. They were fired. The FBI SAIC in Minnesota who pointed out that her office had in fact reported students at a local flight school who were learning only how to take off, not to land? Forced to resign. There is a reason we have whistleblower laws, and it’s not because speaking truth to power is ever welcome.

My favorite line from The West Wing is when Leo hires Ainsley Hayes and she wants to know why on earth a Democratic president wants to hire a Republican counsel. Leo says, “The president likes smart people who disagree with him.” We could use a little of that in our public as well as our private lives. Unless and until we get it, I’m afraid Harris’ idealism is doomed to disappointment.

***I never miss an opportunity to point out that Alaska’s Senator Ernest Gruening was one of only two votes against LBJ’s Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Who promptly failed of re-election. Thank you. That is all.

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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. My children were 2 and 5 when Nixon resigned. The little one was too small to be aware of anything, but the 5-year-old knew there was such a person as the President, that he was in charge of our whole country, and she knew his name. Wanting to impress on her the significance of this historic event, but knowing she’d never understand all the details, what I boiled it down to was, “The President told lies, so he can’t be President any more.”

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