Observations: Where integrity lies

Published on: July 24, 2013

These days, there is a fine line between truth and bald-faced deception.  As such, public figures must be skilled tightrope walkers. Photo Mitch Traphagen

These days, there is a fine line between truth and bald-faced deception. As such, public figures must be skilled tightrope walkers. Photo Mitch Traphagen


Michelle and I watched a movie last week in which one character derogatorily referred to another character as “the kind of person who would ban the Internet to save libraries.”

I’ve been heavily into technology since I was a teenager, even before the age of mainstream personal computers.  In the late 80s, I was dialing into the Internet before there was a World Wide Web.  At that time, the Internet was almost exclusively made up of government agencies and universities around the world. I had to dial long-distance from my apartment in Minneapolis to the one free portal I could find in Washington, DC.  I then used a program from the University of Minnesota called Gopher to jump around to different universities. There wasn’t much there but I thought it was cool that I could browse through a database of jokes from a college in Australia.

For years I was a computer programmer, working on systems that involved thousands of retail stores, big mainframes and satellites circling the globe.  And now as a photojournalist, I am awash in computers and am constantly tied to the web for news and information about what is going on in the world.

But upon hearing that line in the movie, I realized that I am rapidly becoming the kind of person who, if I had the power, would very well ban the Internet to save libraries.  And also to save newspapers, local television stations, radio stations, photographers, writers, artists, musicians, travel agencies and, most importantly, to save civilization as we know it.

The Internet has given virtually everyone on earth a vast source of knowledge that is incomparable in human history.  Everyone now has their own podium. It is credited with kicking off the Arab Spring and so much more (of course, the former isn’t working out so well yet).  We now have the ability to communicate with anyone, virtually anywhere on earth.

All of that knowledge should have broadened our horizons, opened our minds to new things, to new ways of making change for the better. Unfortunately, what seems to be happening is that we are using it to watch funny cat videos, and to argue and spew venom upon people we don’t know from behind the anonymity of our keyboards. Instead of seeking new knowledge, we seem to seek out only what will reinforce our own paradigms and existing beliefs — and not just reinforce, but harden them into steel.  The Internet certainly makes that possible — no matter how insane the idea, somewhere on the web, there is a justification for it.

And that has turned integrity on its head.  Political parties have noticed that effect and they are working overtime to exploit it and to inflame it. Intended or not, it has become a strategy of divide and conquer, and it seems to be working.  This nation is divided, some people claim, as much as we’ve been since the Civil War.

The result is a 24-hour spin cycle, most visibly from political leaders and large corporations.  The truth has become relative — a half truth, even outright lies, have become the full truth when repeated often enough, and people, seeking to reinforce their own paradigms fall in as good soldiers to the cause of their choice, drawing battle lines and firing volleys with straw man arguments and hyperbole.

The Internet has made that possible. Now anyone can say anything and call it the truth.  There is so much deception and spinning that even when institutions, such as Politifact from the Tampa Bay Times, try to find the bottom line of truth versus deception, they are vilified by those who disagree and praised by those who do agree and in the end, the truth is lost to the puffery.

I am beginning to believe that rather than tying the world together, the Internet is tearing us apart.  Does anyone in the public eye tell the truth anymore?  I don’t know but I’m not sure they are entirely to blame. From the comfort of our own homes, we can now attack and condemn relentlessly and without mercy — and honesty and integrity are the victims.

I once worked for an honest politician.  He was the kind of man that you could trust with your home, your spouse, and your children, anything you hold dear.  He is a good man but is no longer in office.  He made the mistake of trusting others, people who didn’t necessarily share in his integrity.  The end result was a mixed message that cost him his office.  Perhaps if he’d gone all out with deceit, deception and spin, he’d still have it.  But I prefer to think that if he had simply been his upstanding and honest self, people would have seen that and rewarded him with another term.

Deep down I know that technology isn’t to blame — we are. We The People have let this happen, just as we allow elected officials to lie with integrity. And then we dive into the muck, stirring it up.  Regardless, maybe, if given the power, I might not ban the Internet (although, in all honesty, I’m not sure that is the truth).

But I am sure of one thing: we can do better and we can expect better from political leaders and public figures. We can start by rewarding honesty and integrity, even if it involves something that we disagree with. We also have to acknowledge that if we hope to keep the American Dream alive, we are going to have to re-learn how to work together. 

Last week former President Jimmy Carter reportedly told the German magazine, Der Spiegel, that in light of the recent revelations of NSA snooping on Americans, this nation is no longer a functioning democracy.  Did he really say that? In all honesty, I don’t know, but if he did, that’s a wake up call.  If you are okay sacrificing some of your constitutionally guaranteed privacy for a measure of safety, then that is your right and no one can tell you differently. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that our government knows more about the dangers in the world than we do.

On the other hand, if you think that our government is pushing things too far, then have the integrity to acknowledge that it was too far when it began in earnest under President Bush and it is too far as it continues and possibly expands under President Obama.  And then start writing letters. There is no court, not the Supreme Court, not a secret court, that can overcome the determined will of the American people. If we want what is described as a democracy, then we should act like it, rather than choosing sides and spewing inane venom on the Internet. The people and companies in power aren’t your guys or my guys; they have to be our guys. They need us more than we need them. It’s high time we work together as Americans to remind them of that.  If truth and integrity lies anywhere, its resurrection must begin with us, and the Internet gives each of us a podium. Use it wisely.