George Santos’ moment of truth
The politician’s actions bring to mind a cautionary (and true) tale
When I read that federal prosecutors and a district attorney in New York are investigating Representative-elect George Santos, my first thought was, “I wonder if he’s ever watched the movie Shattered Glass?”
Santos is facing allegations of fabricating large parts of his experience and backstory. He has admitted to “embellishing” the truth. Whether he is guilty of something more remains to be seen. But his admission reminded me of Stephen Glass, the real-life New Republic writer whose rise and downfall—which nearly destroyed his employer—is depicted in the 2003 movie. Glass’s sensational reporting made him a young rockstar in Beltway journalism, until he was exposed as a serial fabulist who falsified key details and invented entire stories.
In both the film and Buzz Bissinger’s bombshell Vanity Fair essay (on which the screenplay is based), Glass never admits to himself or anyone else what he is doing. He explains away discrepancies with disarming confidence. When the walls start closing in, Glass attacks his editor for not supporting him more. In the scene where he is fired, Glass admits to being dishonest but not to being guilty. “There’s been so much pressure,” he says. “Surely you can understand that?” Shattered Glass is a compelling drama, but more than that, it is a jarring depiction of how easily untruths can coalesce together around a self-protective core.
In a polarized political age, where each side regularly accuses the other of willful deception, the truth can be a slippery concept. An overabundance of information and a crumbling moral center have combined to splinter the public’s mind into a thousand self-referential universes, as any perusal of social media can demonstrate; “embellishment” might as well be our new civic religion.
Yet the possibility and importance of genuine truthfulness is a reality never too far away. We’ve seen it in the fallout from COVID-19, as our own government and foreign ones have been exposed as fabricating the facts to engineer their preferred social behavior. We’ve seen it in the release of the so-called Twitter files that laid bare the calculated dishonesty of tech companies. Despite what you may have read, we really do not live in a post-truth age. Everyone believes in truth, especially (and maybe even only) when we discover we’ve been lied to.
As a post-Christian society loses touch with the transcendent, truth does not become relative so much as it becomes refracted. Truth-telling is valuable to the degree that it incriminates the out-group and is expendable to the degree that it may damage the in-group. A scene in Shattered Glass depicts Glass’s editor, Charles Lane, being pressured by a colleague to cover up his reporter’s misdeeds. “We may not have a magazine at the end of the day,” the colleague warns. The irony of journalists’ burying a scandal is not lost on the audience. But this utilitarian attitude toward truth is commonplace, whether it is political parties that refuse to acknowledge their mistakes or churches that refuse to hold leaders accountable.
Someone may object that surely embellishing one’s resume is of such little consequence as not to merit attention. This is, in fact, one of the chief ways that truth-telling is denigrated in polite society: by appealing to other people’s lies that are obviously so much worse. But, as Alan Jacobs has recently asked: “And then what?” When our default instinct is to deflect our responsibility for telling the truth and focus on the faults of others, what is the stopping point? When we finish rehearsing the way others have lied to us, what then?
Outsourcing our own virtue to others is habit-forming. Once we’ve embraced this way of (not) living, we will never see a reason to quit. This is precisely how dishonest people are often formed: not through explosively nefarious greed, but “link by link and yard by yard:” small compromise by small compromise, little deflection by little deflection. It does the common folk no good to complain about our untruthful elites if we baptize this way of living for ourselves and our own tribe.
The opening scenes of Shattered Glass show Stephen Glass addressing a group of students at his former high school. His teacher fawns over her best pupil in the room, and the starstruck teenagers listen eagerly to Glass’s tips on becoming a writer. The film’s final scene, however, reinterprets this one, and we, the audience, are reminded of how far ordinary people will sometimes go to preserve an image of themselves.
Christian viewers will see biblical wisdom here. Every time we set out to build our own personal Tower of Babel, eventually our words become confused. Losing touch with everyday reality is always downstream from losing touch with more ultimate reality.
I hope George Santos, whatever he is guilty of (and whoever he really is) will find time to watch the movie. It’s a true story—and one that gets truer every day. More than that, we can hope George Santos comes to know and tell the truth. That would be a good start.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.