Review (Guest): Tangled Webs: How False Statements are Undermining America — From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff
James B. Stewart
Bestselling author James B. Stewart’s newsbreaking investigation of our era’s most high-profile perjurers, revealing the alarming extent of this national epidemic.
Our system of justice rests on a simple proposition: that witnesses will raise their hands and tell the truth. In Tangled Webs, James B. Stewart reveals in vivid detail the consequences of the perjury epidemic that has swept our country, undermining the very foundation of our courts.
With many prosecutors, investigators, and participants speaking for the first time, Tangled Webs goes behind the scene of the trials of media and homemaking entrepreneur Martha Stewart; top White House political adviser Lewis “Scooter” Libby; home-run king Barry Bonds; and Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff.
Lying seems epidemic in American society. Stewart focuses his superb writing skills on the general problem of perjury and lying under oath by highlighting the cases of four celebrated liars: Martha Stewart (no apparent relation to the author), Scooter Libby, Barry Bonds, and Bernie Madoff. For each of these, he asks the same question: “Why would people with so much to lose put so much at risk by lying under oath?” Ultimately, the answer becomes obvious: “They thought they could get away with it.”
Stewart uses extensive sources for his own narration. Chief among these are notes from investigations, court proceedings, and personal interviews. Although the book is non-fiction, it’s a page-turner, because the machinations of the perpetrators and their victims are suspenseful, ensnaring, and powerfully emotional. Each of the perpetrators would ultimately explain their deceits as motivated by “loyalty,” but this seems mostly self-serving and devious. Whatever loyalty they had in mind was to themselves, as all were readily prepared to let underlings and associates take hard falls to cushion their own. In the end, most of the celebrity liars recovered reasonably, with the exception of Madoff who will be in prison for a long time and has lost the love of his family and seen one of his sons commit suicide pursuant to the shame he showered on them.
These continuing losses of Madoff as well as those of Bonds, recently convicted of obstruction of justice, aren’t covered in the book which was written in 2010 although published in 2011.
This book has several strengths, and perhaps just one weakness. The strengths are the readable and interesting writing, about larger-than-life “heroes” turned “villains.” As he points out, these villains “evidently expect to be admired for this behavior.” Meticulously researched and artfully written, the book provides considerable details, easily read and enjoyed. It also addresses a central problem “lying under oath [that] undermines civilization itself.”
If the book has a weakness, it would be its failure to look at the bigger picture in order to frame the problem more usefully, to bring it perhaps closer to an appropriate remedy. The bigger problem, in my opinion, is that lying is rampant throughout all of society, not just at the level of criminal investigations and judicial proceedings. While it’s true that celebrities routinely lie to protect their wealth and status, the problem seems far more extensive. We have in the US a system rigged for the rich and powerful, whether individuals or corporations, that rewards lying as “business as usual.” Why is that? Two reasons, primarily: (1) lying pays and (2) liars are not punished. That might sound hard to believe, if you’ve not actually investigated it. However, there are few laws against lying, they are usually not enforced, and in many cases–such as politics–the Supreme Court protects liars. The Court has ruled that politicians can routinely lie and broadcasters must be willing (if they are not already eager) to sell to the liars and their campaign organizations advertising time to carry those lies to as many people as they can possibly infect.
So, when Stewart suggests that fixing this problem “requires a capacity for moral outrage,” he’s right, but as a remedy that prescription falls far short. To bring the epidemic under control, we are going to need to invent and employ new solutions. For example, Snopes on the Web publicizes some lies (“urban myths”) and many people check Snopes before they pass lies along. PolitiFact and FactCheck, two other Web sites, investigate political lies and policy lies. New products such as Wolfram Alpha, StateOfTheUSA, and numerous regional indicators projects aim to provide curated and reliable answers to important questions. Wikipedia enables many people to edit and polish statements, hopefully bringing them rapidly to a state of truth. A new organization, TruthSeal.org, offers means for people and organizations to affix seals of truth to their vetted claims and to offer bounties for people to present falsifying evidence. In these and other ways, we might create stronger incentives for truth telling and stimulate social networks of people to ferret out lies in the public information commons. By changing the incentives, rewarding truth tellers and punishing liars, we could hope to begin to change the course of this rampant social disease.
Without some change to the rules of the game, we should continue to expect the same outcomes, over and over.
In fairness to Stewart, he wanted to tell a compelling story and get people thinking seriously about how our society encourages obviously sociopathic behavior. He does that extremely well. Another book will be required to look at the bigger, more general problem, consider the situation from a problem-solving point of view, and lay out the best courses of action for implementing remedies.