Third Rail With OZY: Is the Truth Overrated?

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Why you should care

Because it’s hard to know what to believe nowadays.

Join us for Third Rail With OZY, a terrific new TV show presented by OZY and WGBH, to debate provocative hot topics with experts and celebrities every Friday night. The subject of this week’s show — “Is the Truth Overrated? Is Lying the American Way?” — features special guests Malcolm Gladwell, Roxane Gay, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and Seth Weathers. Tune in Friday at 8:30/7:30c on PBS, or online, and please be sure to weigh in on social media (#ThirdRailPBS) and/or email us at thirdrail@ozy.com with your take!

Lies, lies, lies — they’re all lies.

Skepticism is an intrinsic part of the American experience. Just ask the founding fathers, who once raised their eyebrow to a king and dumped chests of tea into the sea to make their point. What’s transpired since has only worked to confirm public suspicion. From the propaganda of Vietnam and the Clintonian question of what “is” really is to the denied pervy tweets of Rep. Anthony Weiner, some lies on the national stage have been silly, while others have been tragic.

It’s no surprise that many of these lies have been political in nature — after all, the line-blurring reality is a tremendous bludgeon for the powerful. In such eyes, a wrong or a lie can make a right: When Obama promised you could keep your doctor, it was one giant step toward his ultimate goal of an Affordable Care Act, even if it wasn’t true. When Trump talks of the “three to five million” illegal voters who cost him the popular vote, he advances the nativism that has been a staple of his support since the beginning.

To those bombarded by reports filled with misinformation that is sometimes accidental but often intentional, the effect can be dizzying. Yet it’s exhilarating for others, and today Stephen Colbert’s truthiness may in fact be a coin far richer than actual truth — you need look no further than the populist success of both Trump and Bernie Sanders by way of proof. If their words lead to successful implementation of policy, supporters may not worry about any hyperbole, fibs or outright lies used to cross the finish line.

The truth is, untruths are all around us and have been for quite some time. Here are just a few articles to get you thinking.

The Origin of Fake News — From the Prussian Charles Dickens

Theodor Fontane was a famous novelist, perhaps the most important German realist of the 19th century. He was also a foreign correspondent who spent time in London — and on his return to Deutschland, he continued reporting as if he were still in Britain, engaging in a newly emerging practice called unechte correspondence: “a fake correspondent’s letter.” This was how he reported on the greatest events of the age, proving that the economization of falsities was around long before yellow journalism or the internet.

Keep Politicians Honest: Treat Them Like Cops

When American leaders are on the clock, shouldn’t they act like it? Body cameras for cops are now en vogue, thanks to the backlash against policing double standards in administering justice to minorities. What if we had not just cameras but also Fitbits to track the actions of the elite? Perhaps then we would feel their heartbeat quicken as they’re caught in a major fib — or watch while they check into that ritzy hotel on the taxpayers’ dime. Another possibility? Rather than debates, ask our politicians to engage in Survivor-like reality TV shows: What we learn when they’re under duress could be more real than any canned lines from the podium.

How Honest Is Your Homeland?

According to this study, China, South Korea and India are the least honest nations on earth. Researchers at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, landed on that conclusion after interviewing 1,500 participants from 15 nations. The only problem? Using a survey to question liars is, well, questionable. And some believe that cultural norms, not dishonesty, may contribute to how willing a person is to stretch the truth, which makes us think that one person’s belief could be another’s alternative facts.

What do you think? Is fibbing as American as apple pie? Let us know by emailing thirdrail@ozy.com or answering in the comments below.

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