Michael D. Moberly July 10, 2012 ‘A blog where attention span really matters’!
The Stolen Valor Act made it a crime for someone to falsely claim receipt of military decorations or medals. Upon conviction, the Act imposed enhanced penalties, if the Congressional Medal of Honor was falsely claimed. On February 22, 2012 a ‘stolen valor’ case (U.S. v. Alvarez) was argued before SCOTUS and decided on June 28, 2012.
In 2007, the court records show, Alvarez attended his first (public) meeting as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board, a governmental entity headquartered in Claremont, California. Alverez introduced himself as follows: “I’m a retired Marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy.” (SCOTUS in its June 28th ruling, described this statement as ‘a pathetic attempt to gain respect’.) Mr. Alvarez subsequently pleaded guilty to a charge of falsely claiming that he had received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Court records stipulate that Alvarez’ deception did not seem to have been made to secure employment, financial benefits, or admission to privileges reserved for only those who had legitimately earned and been awarded the Medal.
Lower court testimony revealed that lying had become a habit of Mr. Alvarez, as evidenced by his lying about playing hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico. But when Alverez lied by announcing he held the Congressional Medal of Honor, he ventured onto new ground; because, that lie violates a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, (8 USC. §§704 (b), (c).
Even though Alvarez admitted guilt, through his counsel, the right to appeal was reserved, claiming that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court decision ruling the Act invalid under the First Amendment which SCOTUS then affirmed on June 28th, i.e., the Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment.
So, wherever one believes they reside on the lie, deception, white lie, truth continuum, Dr. Dan Ariely suggests there is a larger potential cost of (continued) deception which he and his colleagues research consistently demonstrate in his newly published book, ‘The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves’.
That is, when an individual engages in dishonest and/or deceptive acts, it frequently influences them to assume (suspect) others are also engaged in similar acts of dishonesty and deception. This is manifested as an absence of trust in one’s friends, colleagues, coworkers, and acquaintances and becomes a contributing factor in making our lives more stressful and difficult.
Being a wounded airborne infantry combat veteran of Vietnam myself, serving with the 173d Airborne Brigade, and the recipient of commendations, but certainly not the CMH, my initial interpretation of the SCOTUS ruling was that wow!, the First Amendment is now sanctioning lying.
Content-based restrictions on speech (as described in the Stolen Valor Act, i.e., a person’s false utterance of being awarded war – combat related commendations) have been permitted only for a few historic categories of speech in which the Government is granted power to prevent, e.g., incitement, obscenity, defamation, speech integral to criminal conduct, so-called “fighting words,” child pornography, fraud, true threats, and speech presenting some grave and imminent threat. Noticeably absent, from these ‘historic categories’, is any exception for falsely stating one is the recipient of a war – combat related commendation, including the CMH.
Fundamental constitutional principles, SCOTUS ruled, ‘require that laws enacted to honor war – military combat veterans must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought, even though its speech that can disparage, or attempts to steal honor that belongs to those who fought for this Nation in battle, falsity alone, SCOTUS said, may not suffice to bring the speech outside the First Amendment.
SCOTUS went on to rule, ‘should the Court have permitted the Government to decree Alvarez’ speech to be a criminal offense, it would have endorsed government’s authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable and thereby allowing the government to have power with no clear limiting principle’. Now that makes it difficult for me, and I presume other veterans, to rationally frame an opposing view.
I remain puzzled and even angry however, about the motives of people who engage in ‘valor theft’. This prompted me to seek the expertise found in Dr. Dan Ariely’s newly published book ‘The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves’.
Could it be, Ariely asks, that when people lie publicly (and repeatedly), their lie acts as an achievement marker, which in turn becomes a reminder of their false achievement. But, somewhat counter intuitively, it helps cement that fiction as part of their life. In other words, repeated expressions of a false achievement can contribute to further internalizing one’s self-deception. After all, many of us know people who actually believe their own exaggerated stories.
A reverse illustration of this is found in a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry has agreed to a polygraph examination to determine whether he is a regular viewer of a particular primetime TV program, which he had adamantly denied. In preparation for the polygraph, George, known for his ability to misrepresent the truth, informed Jerry that ‘it’s not a lie if you believe it’!
So, as Dr. Ariely reveals in his research, wherever one senses they reside on the lie – truth continuum, there is a larger potential cost of (continued, persistent) deception. That is, when one practices dishonesty and deception they start suspecting others of being dishonest and deceptive. Without trust, Ariely says, relationships and interactions become more difficult and stressful.
That begs the question; are some of us more prone to believe our own fibs than others? To that, I say sure, and we don’t have to look much further than last week as Barclay’s CEO engaged in, at least in my view, ex post facto rationalization for his banks’ alleged participation in manipulating the London Inter-Bank Exchange Rate. Or, the previous weeks when Chases’ CEO, accepted responsibility, but in doing so, used the now infamous code words ‘we were using products so complicated only a few of our employees actually understood them’. Or, we can look no further than MLB players who have admitted to steroid use, but some of whom now ask, with a straight face, was my exceptional ball playing experience due to the steroids, or would I have been an exceptional ball player anyway?
I respectfully repeat, whether its stolen valor, stolen trust, or new MLB records likely aided by steroid use, each is, in its own right, a powerful, influential, and valuable intangible asset! Once that assets’ value has been stolen, eroded, or undermined, not once, but consistently and repeatedly, it becomes increasingly difficult to retrieve…