Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

Among the most fascinating things in Ralph Keyes's The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life (St. Martin's, $24.95) is his look at the ways in which morality and leadership converge. Keyes relates the results of studies by Caroline Keating of Colgate University showing that "an ability to lie was the single best predictor of male dominance. This led her to conclude that, among men at least, the same traits that make a good liar also make a good leader."

This exceptional book asks and answers a diverse series of questions. Do we have a biological predisposition to lie? (Probably.) Do we lie more than our ancestors did? (Maybe.) Do we have a higher tolerance for dishonesty than our ancestors? (Yes.) Can animals lie? (Koko the gorilla certainly did.) Have therapists, politicians, lawyers, postmodernists, Hollywood hustlers, journalists and others played a role in creating a culture of lying? (An extensive one.) Is there any hope for truthfulness? (Yes.)

Keyes also provides a brief history of philosophical and theological positions on lying, as well as anthropological data on the practice. He argues convincingly that groups have always found lies to outsiders acceptable but lies to in-group members contemptible. The more impersonal a society becomes, the greater the opportunities for lying, and the fewer the consequences for the individual liar. (This is particularly sobering in today's Internet-crazed and highly mobile America.) That Keyes can do all this without unleashing a jeremiad or throwing his hands up in despair is extraordinary.

Can one make a case for honesty? Keyes does so persuasively, largely because of his willingness to study every good argument -- not just the ones that he might support. He tells us that we "could accept every post-modern point about the elusiveness of truth (and even add some), yet still conclude that the attempt to be truthful is not only noble but essential for human well-being." What about the quotidian lies we tell to lubricate social interaction? We all say, "I'm fine" when we're not, or tell sick patients, "You look great." Aren't these easily justified? Keyes notes that they may do more to make the teller's life easier than the recipient's, adding that "any lie -- no matter how small -- is a vote of no confidence in the person to whom it's told." Perhaps his most convincing argument about why we should tell the truth is that, for social creatures, "telling the truth is a way of affirming human ties. . . . Just as lying degrades human connections, truthfulness invigorates them." Keyes's book deserves a wide readership.

The Secret of My Success and Failure

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, tells wonderful stories in Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End (Crown, $27.50). She has interviewed a daunting range of leaders, from the coach of the women's soccer team at the University of North Carolina to Gordon Bethune of Continental Airlines to former South African president Nelson Mandela.

Kanter is at her best when explaining how leaders shape and change the culture of an institution. The most interesting stories are those of partial and difficult successes -- reforming the BBC, say, or creating a post-apartheid South Africa. Through her careful analysis of Mandela's fundamental beliefs -- a commitment to dialogue, a respect for foes, accountability, a willingness to collaborate, an emphasis on shared values -- Kanter illustrates how leaders can change a nation. Confidence is a successful book on leadership that illuminates underlying principles applicable to teams and small businesses as well as schools, corporations and countries.

Sorry About That

Although many of us are commanded as children to "apologize to your sister [or brother]," as a rule we find it almost impossible to apologize. Aaron Lazare's On Apology (Oxford Univ., $23) argues that this is because we understand or intuit that an apology shifts the balance of power between giver and recipient.

Lazare, a gifted psychiatrist, distinguishes between genuine apologies and statements of sympathy ("I'm sorry for your loss") and pseudo-apologies of the kind often favored by politicians ("I'm sorry if you were offended by anything that was said"). For an apology to work, he argues, it must contain three elements: an acknowledgment of the offense, an expression of genuine remorse and an offer to make appropriate reparations.

Lazare is particularly astute when he addresses the queasiness that so many of us exhibit regarding public and collective apologies. One thinks, for instance, of whether white Americans today bear any guilt for slavery. His answer is two-pronged: "First, people are not guilty for actions in which they did not participate." But people also take pride in things that they are not responsible for, like the success of favorite sports teams, so they should "accept the shame (but not the guilt)" for things like the actions of their ancestors. "A second and related rationale for people apologizing for actions they did not directly commit," Lazare adds, "is that those people have profited from these actions."

The strength of this book rests in the stories of apologies that Lazare has collected from people, politics, literature and history. Its weakness is primarily stylistic; Lazare has a habit of announcing what he is doing that comes dangerously close to not trusting the reader to follow the argument.

Suffer the Children

In a witty "Simpsons" episode, Springfield Elementary School is taken over by a private corporation that turns out to be a toy company using kids for research. That episode seems more realistic after reading Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (Scribner, $25), by acclaimed economist Juliet B. Schor. She marshals mountains of data to argue that marketing to children threatens their health and safety. Marketers are growing bolder, advertising now permeates schools, and scientific evidence about the harmful effects of marketing to children is conclusive, albeit often ignored.

Almost anyone who has worked in a school during the past 20 years or so will tell you that kids are in some ways different. They tend to seem older faster, and they trust authority considerably less. Schor demonstrates that much of this is a direct result of kid-centric ads in which "adults are the bothersome, the nerdy, the embarrassing, and the repressive." Amazingly, Schor is often able to get marketers to go on record stating that they intend to pit parents and kids against one another (marketers call this "pester power") and to age kids faster.

One doubts that any help is on the way. Government regulation has eroded precipitously, and marketers defend themselves aggressively against any interference. They suggest that they are empowering kids, that their work is necessary for economic health, and that parents are the guilty parties since they should be able to regulate everything their children see or hear. Schor carefully rebuts the earlier arguments but notes that the last one "possesses an essential truth." But, as she also notes, parents can't protect their kids from Channel One and other advertisers who have gotten inside U.S. schools; as she puts it, "the undeniable fact of parental responsibility does not imply that it's only parents who should be held accountable." If our society does develop the political, economic or moral will to change things, it may be in large part because of this book.

Lessons from the Samaritan

If there is a way to change things, we will certainly need help. "Consumerism is a soft form of cruelty," writes Garret Keizer in Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95), an exceptional, moving, provocative and ultimately uplifting book. An ex-teacher and minister who now writes full time, Keizer looks at what it means to help someone and what it means to be helped. He ranges through world religions, literature, history and personal anecdotes. He argues, postures, begs, confronts, cajoles, leads, directs and rewards the reader. His chapter on the parable of the Good Samaritan, which I had always admired for its simplicity and clarity, showed me a story of great depth and complexity that I now admire even more.

What it means to help someone is not always clear. The debate rages in theology, philosophy and politics. "Liberals say that conservatives downplay the importance of compassion and the necessity of help," Keizer writes. "Liberals also point out that conservative espousals of self-reliance are frequently a sham. . . . For their part, conservatives argue that the liberal view paints the picture of a helpless humanity, subject to every whim of economic and social determinism, with no credit or blame given respectively for industriousness and sloth." Keizer's learned, wise, compassionate and occasionally angry book will help anyone who reads it. With any luck it will be read and discussed by book groups, in churches, in faculty lounges and, indeed, wherever people gather -- because we all need a little help sometimes. *

Daniel McMahon is the principal of DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., where he also teaches world literature.

"The Ass in a Lion's Skin," illustrated by Charles H. Bennett