The Glorious Lie

No lie, of course, is really “glorious,” but some lies have glorious benefits. 

Imagine, for a moment, the world of a rising young movie star whose career is being propelled into the stratosphere by a pre-#MeToo Harvey Weinstein. This young star actually has some integrity. He was raised by a good family, and since he still has a conscience, what he knows about Weinstein fills him with a gut-sick revulsion. Still, on the other side of this dread is the Weinstein cool kids club—the glittering ranks of talented actors and directors who make films like “Shakespeare in Love” and “Chicago” and “The English Patient.” The ultraluminary, Meryl Streep, calls him “god,” and even if you detest the political messaging in some of these films, there is no questioning their polish. These films have a kind of Montblanc sheen—the sort of luster you imagine being sold in velvet-lined boxes. On top of that, they profess all the approved progressive causes, and this combined wealth of cinematic gravity and high-minded mission shines a blessing back on the ugly thug who created them. The chubby, ugly weirdo in the shower, exposing himself to starlets, is not just given a pass. He’s actually worshiped.

This was a cult, of course, and a very evil one at that, but most folks don’t recognize a cult until after its evil leader has fallen. While the cult still stands, while it is passing out goodies and spiritual approval, its members rationalize continued association by resting in the benefits of the glorious lie. They know something is wrong, but the party really is very lovely, isn’t it? If they say something, all the cocktails and the dancing and the music will stop. Besides, really horrible things happen to the first people who speak up, and some cult members might even join the stoning mob if someone threatens the party itself: This tribal drug really is that good.

Most people I know think themselves too smart to be taken in by a cult. They see a pudgy, self-promoting twit like NXIVM’s Keith Raneire or the dark pulpit-chatter of Jonestown’s Jim Jones and they imagine themselves cult-proof, but they forget something: These guys were amateurs. They got caught. The big, established cults sometimes achieve “too big to fail” status, and some of them last for generations. I maintain that we’re all in one cult or another. It’s just that some cults are more successful, and subtle, than others. Their best protection, of course, is that they don’t see themselves as cults. To this day, I doubt Meryl Streep would admit she was a member of a cult, but let’s face it: She was a virtual high-priestess. 

At one time in my life I would never have characterized Stanford University, or higher education in general, as being, even remotely, “cult-like.” Weren’t academics and scientists invested in crushing superstition and pursuing the cold, disinterested truth?  Well, years later, having studied at Stanford, I can see the cult parallels. I could tell many stories about how many lies are built right into the foundation of modern academics, but I’m thinking just now about a friend of mine who was lured up to a San Francisco apartment, by a Stanford faculty member, to explore the “glories” of man-to-young-man-sex. I was told nothing happened, but I can still remember my friend shaking his head and asking, “Can you even imagine a faculty member doing that to a freshman?” This was also the era of biologist Paul Ehrlich, who kept assuring the world there would be mass famines in the 1990s if we didn’t reduce population growth—a laughably bad prediction that never caused the false prophet any trouble, because “fewer people on earth” was an article of faith, like today’s “less carbon dioxide in the air.” Any sloppy paper, any false mathematical model, can be justified by virtue of cherished faith in the commonly adored lie. 

We live in a sea of deception and false assumptions—a fallen world full of wheat and tares. I participated in this just the other day by sharing as the truth a tweet from a parody account; it more or less confirmed my view of Planned Parenthood, and I bought the lie without even questioning the source. We absolutely swim in lies, both the ones that fool us, and the ones we defend. 

You would think—given the depressing nature of finding out how wrong we are on so many fronts—that when the shining truth reveals itself, we would all rush towards the brilliant light. Sure, some of us would be embarrassed by having been fooled, but knowing the truth, the absolute truth, would be something like a cleansing, right? We can move forward, can’t we, when we abandon a lie? Can’t we find more truth when armed with the truth? 

Not so fast. Imagine the potential price someone like Meryl Streep would pay had she gone to war with Harvey Weinstein and lost. Even without considering the personal consequences, the whole multi-billion dollar edifice of the industry itself might fall, and along with it, far worse, they would lose a shared myth, a glorious lie that gave them all heart. They were artists producing art, right? Don’t they endure a little evil, here and there, for the greater good? 

The truth isn’t always easy to embrace. Sometimes it costs you everything—homes, jobs, the affection of family. How many times have you heard the words, “please, just shut up, Dad. I know you’re telling the truth, but does our family have to pay the price for it?” 

So we shouldn’t be surprised by an FBI that has forsaken the truth and turned itself into an instrument of partisan terror. We shouldn’t be surprised when Hillary Clinton isn’t prosecuted for compromising state secrets and Donald Trump is terrorized for attempting to preserve the historical record. We shouldn’t be shocked when young doctors paying off student loans simply do what they’re told, and repeat the mantras about “vaccine safety,” even when all-cause mortality sky-rockets and young men are stricken with myocarditis. 

A lot of folks would lose their jobs, their power, and their standing if the lie wasn’t defended at all costs. Many of our once trusted institutions are now acting more like religions in the service of a central, glorious lie: “The FBI is about justice,” “We run fair elections,” “public education is about the children,” “these drugs are safe and effective.” 

Mike Pence and Liz Cheney, given this reality, seem something like stranded NXIVM handmaidens insisting on the legitimacy of cult members who really should be in prison.  What, after all, would an “honest” member of the FBI look like, Mike? Would he really be following orders to tyrannize a former president?  Would honest federal attorneys really prosecute January 6 grandmothers?  Even Republican members of Congress force themselves to believe they are not influenced by the Pharma dollars, but their behavior is a lot more like that of cultists, refusing to recognize the glorious lie from which they benefit.

In the instance of COVID policy, can you imagine—should the mRNA technology be proven to be dangerous—the horror of realizing you had counseled people right through death’s door? I’m guessing that even if the data proves incontrovertible, people will do just about anything to avoid that truth. Who wants to discover they have participated in negligent homicide? 

Ponder the power of group solidarity that is fixed to a fragile, but vital, lie. When you agreed to pitch the mNRA narrative, when you agreed (if you weren’t coerced) to jab your children, you were essentially choosing the more stylish of two religions. You were “science” and the other guys were hillbillies. Some of you even got a little emotional about your devotion to the collective demand—but very few of you have even read a medical study, much less critiqued one. 

In the real world, when the truth might cost you your pension, or your friends, you might find yourself not just capable of lying but being the best kind of liar: someone convinced a lie is the truth—a truth that can’t be questioned. In the strange case of rising all-cause mortality the medical elites have a strange defense these days: “We don’t know what’s causing it, but it definitely isn’t the vaccine.” When someone tells you election integrity, or COVID science, can’t even be questioned, I can’t help thinking of that defense some religions, throughout history, have used against truth-seekers: “There is something spiritually wrong with you if you are even asking these questions.” 

The advice to fellow high priests, defending their franchise rights: “Don’t answer the questions. Don’t even think about answering the questions. Attack the curious and insist on silence.” 

America was built by people who had the nagging sense that the very foundation of civilization was compromised. The building itself might need to come down, or the faithful might need to start over again in the wilderness. It would mean losing loved ones and crossing oceans and burying fellow disciples. It would mean abandoning old sweet lies and giving up on institutions they once thought defended the truth. It would be cold and lonely before the crop came in and the new village was built, but that new city on a hill really would be worth finding. 

It’s worth finding in the way that starting over is usually worth it. We make mistakes, friends. Let’s own them. We need to rebuild the village on better footing.

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About James Patrick Riley

James Riley is the owner and operator of Riley's Farm in Oak Glen, California and the creator of "Courage, New Hampshire," a television drama seen on PBS stations across the country. The father of six children, Riley performs "Patrick Henry" and supervises a living history program visited by hundreds of thousands of school children. He holds a degree in history from Stanford University.

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