Globe and Mail

It's been the week of the liar. Plus ça change

HEATHER MALLICK
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, March 31, 2001

The liars' club has finally burst its seams, most entertainingly, and in an extravagant fashion not seen since Hitler's generals told him that it was just a dusting of snow on the way to Moscow and it would melt by noon, 3 p.m. at the latest.

Liberal MP Hedy Fry apologized for fantasizing aloud about crosses burning on the lawns of Prince George and Kamloops, B.C. Canadian Alliance MP Rahim Jaffer made a tangled and dubious apology for an episode of impersonation. ("It's radio! They can't see me!" Pure Frasier.) Richard Li, son of the richest man in Hong Kong, just offered a semi-apology for pretending he had a computer engineering degree from Stanford University, a crucial "error" that was probably worth billions during the tech boom.

Add to this: Eight years of sex lies by American politicians of all persuasions; Bre-X and the Indonesian government lying in each other's arms as they boasted of spectacular gold deposits; that repellent Koval couple who cheated investors out of $90-million with the most altruistic motives.

Then there are the freakish lies, like Prince Charles pretending throughout his marriage that he wasn't sleeping with a snaggle-toothed, unemployed, saggy, leathery-faced female impersonator.

Or funny lies such as Princess Caroline's husband, Prince Ernst August of Hanover, denying having urinated against the Turkish pavilion at Expo 2000, even though he was caught on film, and calling a journalist who asked him about it a "fat arse."

Are Rahim Jaffer and Hedy Fry laughable or loathsome? In other words, to use an old Peter Cook joke, are they frog à la pêche or pêche à la frog? It depends on which newspaper you write for.

But I refuse to turn into a curmudgeon. Morals are not deteriorating. People are not lying more than they used to. As proof, test your sword of truth and trusty shield of fair play, as they say. Go to http://www.globeandmail.com and take the special lie detector test. It will prove my point that we're as honest as ever. We just categorize lies differently now.

First of all, sexual honesty used to be prime. No longer. Disease matters, but who you are pleasuring does not.

Second, favouritism reigns. I don't think Jean Chrétien is dishonest, but even if I did, I would be more likely to forgive him than I would Brian Mulroney whose very face, fingers, smirk and shoes were an affront to Canadians. At some level, I will always like Chrétien, partly because I like his wife. (Yes, I judge men by their wives. I don't judge women by their husbands. So shoot me.)

People saw Margaret Thatcher as a bit of a Boadicea, and that's why she got away with what, in retrospect, were patent lies. Alan Clark wrote in his diaries that he couldn't keep a straight face reading the text of her whoppers about the 1986 Westland scandal. He watched her deliver them in Parliament.

"How can she say these things without faltering?" he wrote. "But she did. Kept her nerve beautifully. I was sitting close by, and could see her riffling her notes. Her hand did not shake at all. It was almost as if the House, half horrified, half dumb with admiration, was cowed."

Third, the institutionalization of lies is an American phenomenon, not a Canadian one. This may be because Canadians and their courts are sweet-natured and do not appear to recognize the existence of Evil even when Evil has a previous record so animated and substantial it has grown fingernails. Canadians don't expect lawyers, or indeed anyone, to lie.

But if I may quote from The Larry Sanders Show,"This is America, goddammit. Nobody pleads guilty." Lying is part of the system. The apotheosis of this was the pardoning of money launderer Marc Rich, who had never been formally charged, a pre-emptive unnecessary exculpation of the anticipatory innocent.

It has always puzzled me that people convicted of crimes are never charged with perjury. They're found guilty, and perhaps 90 per cent of them are. Even though they have been shown to have lied so strenuously under oath that they fractured their tongues, the matter is taken no further. I suppose the government has good practical reasons, but it does put a spanner in the logic of the process.

Back to our heroine, Dr. Fry. She first began complaining about imaginary combustion in 1997. Furthermore, during the 1993 election campaign, she admitted that she had sometimes written prescriptions to allow lesbians to benefit from their partner's health insurance. I don't doubt that Fry believes Canada is pitted with racism and that gays are unfairly denied benefits (which they are). But she tells cruel lies and she cheats insurers.

For her, the end justifies the means, as it did for Prince Charles, the incontinent Hanoverian (well, he had to go somewhere), the prancing Jaffer and Superboy Li, as he is nicknamed.

This is the fourth way in which the categorization of lies has changed. The arrival, not the journey, matters. It's a function of one of the genuine revolutionary changes of our lifetime. Everything has speeded up.

You see, we didn't mean to lie. We ourselves have not changed for the worse. But we were in a terrible hurry, officer. We'll take the ticket, okay?

The penalty's negligible, anyway.

Copyright © 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.