Truth, Justice, and the Lost American Way

Growing up, mom taught me that honesty was the most important quality a person could have. We may not be able to have a lot of things, those things could be taken away, but no one could take away our integrity or ability to be honest. I had to learn degrees of honesty. It wasn’t culturally acceptable to tell a neighbor that he or she looked fat today. Santa Claus is real, even if he’s more of a concept than a person, and the truth doesn’t always beat being kind. Overall, it was important to be truthful, and mom wasn’t the only one delivering that message.

As a Baptist going to a Baptist Elementary School, I learned the 10 commandments. “Thou shalt not lie” was probably the most relevant to those of us in the first to fourth grade. At that time, it wasn’t likely that a student would murder someone else or commit adultery. Stealing and coveting could happen, especially at lunch time, but lying could happen any time. I was also taught that in the eyes of God all sins are the same. Who wants to be known as the murderer of truth?

As a Disney fan, I learned from “Pinocchio” (affiliate link) that a lie would grow until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.” I didn’t need a bigger nose; mine was plenty large. Plus, I didn’t want to have to keep track of all those lies that would grow from the first.

In history class, I learned about George Washington and the cherry tree. He chopped it down. When his father confronted him, he said, “I cannot tell a lie; I chopped down the cherry tree with my little hatchet.” His father appreciated his honesty and anger at the loss of the cherry tree was turned to pride in his son’s honesty. Even if this is an apocryphal story, it illustrates the importance of truth as cultural staple in American life. Lincoln was reputed to be so truthful he earned the moniker “Honest Abe.” His face was all over the coins that I would pick up. If he was so honest and printed on a penny, maybe it was an important trait to cultivate.

Davy Crockett (affiliate link), in Disney form, said that he always made sure he was right and then he went ahead. In order to be right, you have to know the truth. Other Westerns emphasized that all a man really had was his reputation and a man’s word was his bond. If a man gained a reputation as a liar, he would be ostracized from town.

In comic books and the Justice League of America, Superman stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Superman always did the right thing, even when it involved super villains. Christopher Reeves’ seminal performance (affiliate link) of the Man of Steel created a character that we could admire for his selfless acts and his selfish ones. His first tenet? Truth.

Truth and honesty form the rudder that has kept America on track until recently. There have been times when we could have gone off the rails, but much of the population highly valued honesty – an honest exchange of ideas, the truth about a situation and what needed to be done, and living in a way that best personified those values.

That no longer appears to be the case. Now, people lie and seek out others who will back up those lies. They are so self-involved that the truth doesn’t matter even if they become directly affected by it. The truth lies like a tattered flag on the graves of all those who died to protect the American flag, and I fear we will never get it back.