“Lying she knew was a sin.”
– Tom Lehrer, An Irish Ballad
When confronted by the need to make significant moral decisions, it can be useful to refer to those of greater wisdom than oneself. That can, we now know, sometimes introduce confusion into what many might have thought was a question that had an easy answer. That was the recent case when considering whether it is OK to lie.
The question is one that all readers of this piece have at one time or another encountered in their lives. It would have seemed, under the circumstances, that the answer in this case would have been easy and not subject to much argument. If for example, a child is confronted with a question from a parent as to the whereabouts of a missing ice cream bar, a child’s untrue response that the child does not know is clearly a lie. But it is not the sort of lie that has grave moral consequences even though a lie, and any follow up would involve minor punishment.
The lie that gave rise to the current dilemma was a lie told not to the parent by the consumer of a purloined ice cream bar, but a lie told to an entity known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And whether or not it is all right to lie to an agency with such an august name and well-deserved reputation for integrity we now know, depends not on what values were instilled in the respondent by a parent, but by which of the two leading newspapers in the country one happens to read.
To make it easier for the reader to juxtapose their quite different answers, and to help the reader arrive at his or her own conclusion, each publication addressed the question on May 8, 2020. That was the day after William Barr, the sycophantic attorney general and trump loyalist, set a new standard for when it is OK to lie and absolved Michael Flynn of any consequences from the twice told lies to the FBI.
On May 8, 2020, the lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal announced the new standard. In an editorial cheerily titled: “The Vindication of Michael Flynn” the editorial page editors proclaimed that the absolution of Michael Flynn by the Barr, was “a brave decision that will not be popular with some prosecutors and certainly not with the Democratic media.” What the WSJ happily overlooked in its eagerness to applaud what it viewed as the vindication of a self-admitted felon, was that the felon, twice in open court, admitted that he had lied to the FBI. At his sentencing, and before it occurred to him that the trump or a trump fawning attorney general might come to his rescue, Michael Flynn expressed his remorse for having lied and acknowledged the error of his ways by expressing his hope for redemption, saying: “Through my faith in God I am working to make things right.”
What we now know is that even though God works in mysterious ways, it was not God who helped “make things right.” And making things right did not involve what is commonly known as a “come to Jesus meeting.” All that was needed was a trump-appointed, Attorney General whose eagerness to please his master was more important to him than observing the niceties of the rule of law. God was essentially put in the back seat.
As the trump (whose last encounter with the truth was probably before he even entered the first grade) explained, the Flynn lies were the fault of the Justice Department of the United States and not the fault of the man who lied. As the trump explained, the reason for the exoneration of a convicted liar was not because the liar had not lied but because he was prompted to lie because of the actions of the prosecutors. As the trump explained: “Dirty Cops and Crooked Politicians do not go well together!” He was not indulging in a moment of self-reflection. He was referring to the Justice Department before the advent of the Barr and explaining why the felon Flynn’s forgiveness was justified.
For the reader hoping for somewhat different guidance when addressing the question of lying, it was only necessary to open the editorial page of the New York Times on that same day. Its headline had a slightly different slant from that which appeared in the WSJ. It appealed to those who think words matter. It said: “”Don’t Forget. He pleaded Guilty. Twice.” He not only admitted to lying twice but, as the trump observed at the time he fired the Flynn: “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the vice president and the F.B.I.”
Commenting further on Mr. Barr’s action, the Times’ editorial observed that in its filing with the court asking that all charges be dropped, the Justice Department said that it could not prove that Mr. Flynn had in fact made false statements. Apparently, the Justice Department was not privy to the transcript of the hearings that led to Mr. Flynn’s guilty plea in which he acknowledged that he had lied and expressed hope that the real God would help him in the future.
Readers can decide for themselves which editorial sets the standard by which our elected officials should conduct themselves. While deciding I’m sure we all hope that Flynn enjoyed the ice cream bar.