It all comes down to people and honesty.  Given the bald-faced lies that come from the White House these days, honesty is at a premium.  There are, however, always people involved.  And with people you never know.  This issue arises because I’ve been watching documentaries.  A documentary is classified as a nonfiction genre, but it will nevertheless have a point of view.  You need to question yourself about the motives of the writers and directors.  What are they trying to say?  Are they slanting the narrative a little too much in their own direction?  In cases like Ken Burns’ works, there’s little doubt everything is well researched and well funded.  They inspire confidence.  But I also watch more questionable films.

Recently I saw My Amityville Horror, a prolonged interview with Danny Lutz, the oldest child featured in the book and film.  In true documentary style, others are interviewed, some of them skeptics.  The film pointed notes that Lutz’s brother and sister declined to be part of it.  Lutz makes the case throughout that these things really did happen.  He’s obviously not a rich man—he drives truck for UPS—but he’s sincere.  Others interviewed cast doubts on the memories of over three decades’ fermentation.  The point of view here is one that seems to believe Lutz, who is a no-nonsense kind of guy.  At the very end when asked if he’d take a lie detector test, however, the subject seizes up.  It leaves the viewer wondering if we’ve all be taken down the garden path.  Is he an honest man or is he hoping to supplement his income?

A couple weeks later I watched Hostage to the Devil, a documentary on the life of Malachi Martin.  Martin was never a figure without controversy, and it seems that he enjoyed it.  Interviews with friends, and even the agent who did quite well from his book that shares the title of the documentary, argue for his sincerity.  The major players in the field, those who are still living, in any case, all make appearances.  The question that hangs in the air, although the documentary seems to lean towards his validation, is whether Martin was an honest man.  We always have to ask that question when money is involved.  Martin’s book, Hostage to the Devil, has sold over a million copies.  It made a living for an ex-Jesuit who then became part of the media circuit.  It leaves more questions than answers.  I wonder how Ken Burns would handle such topics.

WHO Knew 2?

According to Mark Twain’s taxonomy there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.  Right now about all we have are in the last of these categories under the most statistical administration in history.  Still, if we want to get out of the house once in a while we need to look for some facts.  I keep coming back to the World Health Organization daily situation report here.  That’s because I trust WHO.  It’s an ethical, international organization not in the rear pocket of the self-proclaimed genius that puts that pocket beneath his holy posterior in the Oval Office.  In fact, just this week said genius threatened to make the United States’ contributions to WHO disappear forever unless they met his demands.  China, on the other hand, upped their contribution by a couple billion.

I don’t have the time, or certainly the numerical capacity, to read the entire report daily.  Nor to internalize all the vast numbers of cases and deaths worldwide.  It’s too much.  Still, I stop to check the places I know, including the one in which I happen to live.  There may be a time delay here since I check the reports early, and since the data from which I’m drawing came from yesterday, but still I have to wonder.  According to the stats provided by our grand ole US of A, there were no new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday.  We went from 1,477,459 to zero in one day.  Actually, the day before (Tuesday) we reported 31,967 cases.  Don’t believe me?  Go ahead and check; I’ll wait.

Not born yesterday (not by a long shot), I know that numbers sometimes have to be adjusted.  I receive a salary, so I know that well.  At the same time, we have a statistician-in-chief that had only days before threatened—blackmail is what we used to call it, if the other party had actually done something wrong, which doesn’t really apply—to remove all funding in saecula saeculorum.  Can I get an amen?  Many of us, perhaps even most, learned early in life that you don’t get what you want by throwing a tantrum.  Of course, most of us didn’t grow up filthy rich.  Most of us can’t afford to buy the presidency.  Heck, most of us have trouble making the rent or mortgage.  So we have this great statistical anomaly whereby one spoiled kid says if you don’t play by my ruse, I’ll take my marbles and go home.  And I’m not lying.


I’m not lying when I say untruth has been on my mind a lot.  A few days ago I posted on freedom of speech and how it’s an ideal rather than an actuality.  What with lies being lobbed at us daily, I got to thinking about the ethical implications for honesty.  Integrity.  The freedom to state what we actually think is something a little different.  How often in daily life do we act authentically?  And when we’re with others we act differently than when we’re alone.  Which is truly us?  Someone pointed out to me recently that if you walk with someone your body language is different than if you walk alone.  Even walking alone your body language shows your interior frame of mind.  A sad walk isn’t the same as a happy walk.

As social creatures, the ideal of being forthright all of the time would lead to chaos.  All of us lie, one way or another, at times.  That’s where integrity comes in.  Integrity, it seems to me, indicates someone who is honest, all things being equal.  I once noticed a politician who blinked every time he said the word “God.”  That blink, I believe, was a form of “scare quote.”  I don’t know, but I suspect said politician didn’t have any strong belief in a deity.  Some circumstances require that you pay lip service anyway.  Ethics dictates that we try to be honest, but even keeping secrets is a kind of lie of omission.  Our own personal wants—which are honest—often have to be suppressed for the sake of fairness.  Again, we live in a situation where the most powerful pursue their own desires while neglecting the needs of others.  Is this then integrity?

Often I ponder what it means to be social creatures.  Some of us are naturally introverts.  We nevertheless rely on others because society is too complex.  What any one person could build an iPhone single-handedly, and then set up the 3G, 4G, or 5G network on which to use it?  Could that same person grow their own food, manufacture their own automobile, and construct their own house?  The self-made rugged individualist is a myth we cherish, but it too is an untruth.  We rely heavily on others and we count on those closest to us to be honest.  When lying becomes a lifestyle integrity lies in tatters on the floor.  Just three years ago I wouldn’t have been having such thoughts, if I’m honest with myself.

The Boy on the Bus

GirlOnTrainCommuting by bus isn’t the most efficient way to do research. While mostly I read non-fiction related to my research interests, monographs are difficult because of the concentration required and the constant interruptions of the road. Journal articles are, still, jealously protected by university libraries so that you can’t access them without an account. So once in a great while I read a novel on the bus to forget it all. I’d heard people talking—literally—about Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. It is a story about a commuter, and my wife was kind enough to give me a copy for my birthday, so I recently climbed on board to read it. The problem with reading fiction on the commute is that it is difficult to clear your head to negotiate the streets of the city when you’re done. You’re in an imaginary world for a while after you put the book in your bag. The nice thing is you can’t wait to get back on the bus to read some more. It makes commuting bearable. Almost pleasant. Especially when the protagonist’s commute is worse than yours.

I won’t throw any spoilers into this post, but I think it’s fair to say that the story involves trying to find a murderer. It is also a story about adultery. In fact, without adultery there would be no story. I seldom turn to novelists for a course in morality, but The Girl on the Train does have an underlying message that rings true: honesty is crucial for a civil society. The small cast of characters in Hawkins’ book have difficulty being honest with others and with themselves. This makes for a gripping ride, of course, but I couldn’t help thinking throughout that if people were honest the situation would never have occurred. Of course, then there would be no story. And I would’ve had to read something else on my commute.

My reading over the past few years has intimated that something about civilization has put a tremendous strain on people. Whether it is the constant pressure to increase productivity while time off is being stolen by ease of access (cell phones work in the middle of the woods. You can get your email while on a plane), we are never really offline. Our relationships, once the defining factor of who we are, have now become diversions from the time off work. Morality has reverted to what you can get away with. I can recommend The Girl on the Train for those struggling with a long commute. Once in a while I’d look up, surprised to find how fast the trip had gone. It might also give the reader pause to consider the larger implications. Honesty is an undersold virtue. Without it, this civilization we’ve built, and continue to build, cannot long last.

Losing My Religion (Excuse)

I’ve always appreciated New Jersey inventiveness. This is a state where lottery winners register with the social security numbers of dead people to avoid taxes. Politicians and honest folk both seem to resort to inventive means of getting around the system. A recent article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger brought this home. An uproar has developed, it seems, over a more stringent regulation concerning religious exemptions for vaccines. If the bill passes, parents and guardians opting out of vaccines for their children will have to state their religion and the cause for the objection. Many have been suggesting this is government of the worst kind, because, well, it wasn’t really a religious reason that they used the religion waiver. Have you met my dead relative? He recently won the lottery.

A timeless problem that arises from a situation such as this is the issue of defining religion. We’re not really sure what it is, other than a reason for not preventing disease. Experts disagree about the essential components of religion. Since the concept of God is up for grabs, doing what pleases said deity (or not, depending on whether a religion has a deity) would seem to be part of it. Most religions, whatever they are, suggest honesty is a virtue. And honestly, most religions have no trouble with vaccines. The paper even had a helpful chart of religions, even indicating that Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have no issues, really, with vaccines. Clearly some churches do. One suspects other may have had such regulations, but they eventually died off.

Since we can’t bother to define religion, it becomes a most convenient excuse for just about any kind of deviant behavior. Many religions exist; more than most people even suspect. Sects of Christianity alone number around 40,000, and that’s leaving aside all other religious traditions and their many splinter groups. Truly held religion, as the media often underscores, can lead to extreme behaviors. The only way to come to grips with this is to try to understand what religion actually is. The most logical locus for such study would be universities. Many of them are run by states. States that are afraid of breeching that wall of separation. Even in the cause of public health. In my opinion, funding the study of religion could be a real shot in the arm. But then, so could winning the lottery.