'White Lies' Add Up To Demoralize America

'Public intellectual' says many wrongs still don't make right


By Stephen Carter

Basic Books, 241 pp., $22

'Integrity" is a word Americans voice often as an ideal.

But in practice, Americans have lost touch with the real meaning of the term, argues Stephen Carter, a condition he feels is poisoning the body politic. Cheating and dissimulation come too easily, writes the Yale law professor, author of the acclaimed "Culture of Disbelief."

Whether it is the "expedient lie" on the witness stand, the football player who artfully hides the dropped pass, or the political "spin," a lack of integrity has slowly become "built into" American institutions and behavior.

Not only are lies now easily excused, he argues, but they so befog daily life that people no longer even think of them as lies.

What's needed, Carter writes in this searching work, is a restoration of basic "uprightness" - the capacity to discern right and wrong in a complicated era, and the courage to act and speak on that basis. Carter calls this "integrity."

Political leaders with integrity would "shun our national habit of engaging in misdirection and instead simply tell us what they mean."

Part sermon, part seminar, Carter spices his argument in "Integrity" with a stream of anecdotes, allegories, Biblical proverbs - and draws heavily from the news: the O.J. Simpson trial, major -league baseball, Supreme Court decisions, Iran-Contra, and Whitewater. He explores the meaning of integrity; shows its role in media, law, marriage, and sports; and marks some avenues to reassert its importance.

It is refreshing to find a sustained, intelligent discourse on a subject some writers might find too moralizing or parochial. Carter's nuanced approach shows it is neither. Rather he is trying, in his emerging role as a "public intellectual," to start a conversation about right and wrong that transcends specialized categories or expertise. This is not an in-house treatise for the academy, but a work for the everyday thinking person.

"The Culture of Disbelief" earned Carter accolades as a message to those in law, politics, and the university about how secular attitudes in those professions create an atmosphere of hostility toward spiritual faith that harms civic culture.

In "Integrity," Carter backs off a "religious" focus. He takes as a given that Protestant codes girding previous American cultures of belief have been washed out; moral language now substitutes for honest behavior.

Carter's argument, while illuminated by his Christian faith, is a secular one. He isn't defending his faith but is building bridges among all Americans with the message that integrity matters as a practical public necessity.

Carter balances an "optimism" that Americans can recognize their need to discern right and wrong -- with a realistic appraisal that society is not moving in that direction.

Language has lost integrity, he feels, is "puffed up" so that words don't reflect reality, and unless superlatives like "excellent" and "brilliant" are used, whether in commercials or a job recommendation, we suspect some flaw.

Legal habits include "the exculpatory no," allowing suspects to legally tell an untruth. The oath, swearing before God to tell the truth, is often viewed as "a silly little formality." Media bend complex truths to fit a simple story line, then hide behind the First Amendment. College sports flout NCAA rules that are themselves compromised.

Much of this is not news. Yet it is instructive if not startling to be reminded how widespread the habit of untruth has become. The biggest surprise Carter saves for the end, where he discusses "evil," a subject often shied from in public discourse.

The "problem of evil," raises a deeper and broader question about integrity for Americans. For example, Carter points to the lax American response to Bosnia, quoting Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, who asks: If the US won't help protect Bosnian Muslims from genocide, what was the 20th century about? He cites Czech president Vaclav Havel on the disintegration of civilization if the "absolute evil" of genocide is ignored.

Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson on slavery, Carter, an African-American, says, "I tremble for my country" when contemplating whether Americans will continue to believe in "principles that transcend our self-interest."

As in the final coda on evil, many of Carter's arguments are not followed through. Partly this is because of the book's broad sweep. Yet, as a reasonable challenge to the fractious angers and alienation found in America today, "Integrity" is on point. It is a book for the late 1990s; a book to take seriously, for our children's sake.

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