When a friend of mine recently opined that there is more lying in the world today than in the 1950s or 1960s, when we were both growing up, I wasn't sure how to respond. Is it possible that we both are simply more aware these days of the corporate and government lies that have had tragic consequences in everything from national security (the Iraq war) to the environment (the current BP disaster in the Gulf)?
My friend's observation reminds me of asking my students, Is there more evil today than in the past? Many said yes automatically; others reflected a bit and concluded that there are just more people doing awful things. Others said we are more aware of the crimes and horrors perpetrated by one person against others because of media technology. (My question was intended to stir more questions, not to be answered in a definitive sense.)
Anyone who has read George Orwell, writing just after World War II, or even classic authors from 700 years ago like Dante knows how deep-seated greed and corruption are in public life--and how universal in private life.
Although people surely were not less selfish in earlier times, I am tempted to say that there seems to be more cheating today both in schools and in the public sphere. There is more plagiarism, I suspect, because of the ever-greater pressures to get ahead at any cost in difficult times.
Just yesterday I learned of a congressional candidate from Idaho, one Vaughan Barnes, who had the audacity to deliver a speech copied almost verbatim from Barack Obama. Mr. Barnes, a Republican, has no shame and no brains but will probably get elected anyway; he is part of a culture of deception wherein politicians lie about taking bribes from lobbyists when they are not lying to their wives about affairs or to the voters about policies they often misunderstand or misrepresent.
This is not cynicism but realism. It is also realistic to say that human nature, being essentially selfish, will continue to produce amusing and horrifying examples of good old mendacity.