'White Lies' Add Up to Demoralize America 'Public Intellectual' Says Many Wrongs Still Don't Make Right

Article excerpt


By Stephen Carter

Basic Books, 241 pp., $22

'Integrity" is a word Americans voice often as an ideal.

But in practice, Americans have lost touch with the real meaning of the term, argues Stephen Carter, a condition he feels is poisoning the body politic. Cheating and dissimulation come too easily, writes the Yale law professor, author of the acclaimed "Culture of Disbelief."

Whether it is the "expedient lie" on the witness stand, the football player who artfully hides the dropped pass, or the political "spin," a lack of integrity has slowly become "built into" American institutions and behavior.

Not only are lies now easily excused, he argues, but they so befog daily life that people no longer even think of them as lies.

What's needed, Carter writes in this searching work, is a restoration of basic "uprightness" - the capacity to discern right and wrong in a complicated era, and the courage to act and speak on that basis. Carter calls this "integrity."

Political leaders with integrity would "shun our national habit of engaging in misdirection and instead simply tell us what they mean."

Part sermon, part seminar, Carter spices his argument in "Integrity" with a stream of anecdotes, allegories, Biblical proverbs - and draws heavily from the news: the O.J. Simpson trial, major -league baseball, Supreme Court decisions, Iran-Contra, and Whitewater. He explores the meaning of integrity; shows its role in media, law, marriage, and sports; and marks some avenues to reassert its importance.

It is refreshing to find a sustained, intelligent discourse on a subject some writers might find too moralizing or parochial. Carter's nuanced approach shows it is neither. Rather he is trying, in his emerging role as a "public intellectual," to start a conversation about right and wrong that transcends specialized categories or expertise. This is not an in-house treatise for the academy, but a work for the everyday thinking person.

"The Culture of Disbelief" earned Carter accolades as a message to those in law, politics, and the university about how secular attitudes in those professions create an atmosphere of hostility toward spiritual faith that harms civic culture.

In "Integrity," Carter backs off a "religious" focus. He takes as a given that Protestant codes girding previous American cultures of belief have been washed out; moral language now substitutes for honest behavior. …


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