For a stronger America, tell the truth

Hollywood, listen up. I've got a can't-miss idea for a box office bonanza. The plot is simple: A fleet of alien spaceships swoops over all 50 states, emitting beams of strange light that exert an irresistible force on every citizen. For the next 24 hours, the entire population of America is unable to tell a lie.

I know the concept of people struggling to become totally honest isn't original. In 1941, Bob Hope starred as a sneaky stockbroker trying to win a bet in "Nothing but the Truth." In 1997, Jim Carey portrayed the main character as a truth-challenged lawyer in "Liar Liar".

I'm not sure if my movie would be a comedy or a disaster flick. Why should the premise of telling the truth all the time be a set-up for laughs? Maybe I'll run some focus groups to see what the public thinks. As my litmus test, I'll show selected video clips of former US Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who recently pleaded guilty to receiving $2.4 million in bribes and resigned his seat in Congress.

Last July, when announcing he wouldn't seek reelection next year, Mr. Cunningham denied the allegations of wrongdoing and said he would fight the charges. I wonder if his conflicting sound bites will make my focus groups feel giddy or creepy?

It's too bad no scientist has come up with a formula to quantify human behavior. If you could add up all spoken and written communication in the entire United States, I wonder what percentage of our daily output consists of lies? Maybe we're better off not knowing the answer.

What alarms me these days is the notion of lying as a form of standard behavior under certain conditions. When you listen to media pundits discussing criminal investigations on talk shows, one phrase that keeps cropping up goes something like this: "Keep in mind that lying to a reporter or your friends is not against the law. We won't know all the facts until the key players are testifying under oath."

To me, lying is like rust on the social framework. Left unchecked, it will eventually corrode everything it touches until the structure collapses. I also see it as a gateway behavior. People who get comfortable with its use will be tempted to experiment with other nefarious habits such as fraud and bribery.

Sadly, I have no suggestions for a quick fix. This is not a situation that can be addressed with draconian laws or an amendment to the Constitution. But I do think the movie I've proposed would be hugely successful and thought provoking. My working title is, "The Day Duplicity Stood Still." If all lying took a collective national pause, what would be the long-term effect on political careers, financial markets, or US foreign policy?

My terms for any interested studio are simple. All I want is a bit part. I realize that some people in my position might demand a starring role. I could even claim that I have the acting talent and sex appeal to carry every scene in the film. But that would make me one of the most shameless, outrageous liars in world history.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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