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2020-04-07

Consequences and Truth

As children, we are taught sometimes hard lessons about actions and consequences. If our parents are wise, they structure these encounters to encourage a sense of responsibility in their children. A broken cup, causing a sibling to cry, or worse, present opportunities for growth---even when a parent is beyond their tolerance to consciously deliver such lessons. That is because actions have consequences and consequences are the responsibility of the actor. An exhausted and frenzied parent may not deliver a measured response, but they often do deliver the consequences to the offending child. Most of us grow up to understand that we are responsible for our actions.

Nations also learn such lessons. Sometime they are delivered in national myths. In a series of apocryphal stories about George Washington, the pastor Mason Locke Weems tried to establish moral lessons for the budding United States. His fable about young George who cut down his father's cherry tree was not just a lesson about telling the truth, it was a lesson in responsibility. George confessed his crime because his character, at least in fable, compelled him to do so. He accepted any punishment his father was to deliver. Instead, he received a different life lesson. His father was ecstatic that his son was compelled to take responsibility. He cried "in transports" of joy, "Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold."

One may groan at the ridiculous case of the Cherry Tree crime and lack of punishment. Few, if any, parents would be able to muster such a response to a grave transgression. Yet, the myth has stuck in our national imagination. It persists, too often in jest, but it lives with us today. Why?

Why did we ascribe to Abraham Lincoln the moniker "Honest Abe" and celebrate such a complex man with a single term---honest. Lincoln was skilled in the fine arts of cutting political deals and using the patronage system to get what he wanted. His guile was in full force as he cut backroom deals with lame duck Democrats to get support in the House for the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Yet, the myth of Honest Abe lives on.

Perhaps the reason is that we value both character and consequence in its purest form: responsibility. My mother once told me that she thought more highly of a man who admitted mistakes out loud. It was a not so subtle jab at my father, but the observation formed an enduring memory and a life-long practice of painfully admitting mistakes. At least more than once. But I digress.

We value leaders who can tell us the truth, even when they don't reflect reality. Franklin Roosevelt told us that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself". He uttered those words at his first inaugural when the heart of the American economy had stopped beating. In reality, there was plenty to fear: unemployment, loss of farms, eviction from homes, and ever-present hunger. Roosevelt was speaking to a truth in our hearts. We were all afraid. He was saying that was understood, but that we would deal with it.

Today, such leadership is lacking. Not just the divorce from facts by the chief executive. Not just the constant, voluminous, and repetitious lying. Not even the denial of reality. It's the evasion of responsibility.

Americans should consider evasion of responsibility as the lowest a person can go. There is nothing more odious. Unfortunately, it's an open question if enough of us do.

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