Those of you who like a certain old-fashioned style of mystery writing will be familiar with the words cui bono, the Latin for “to whom the good?” or, more colloquially, “to whose benefit?” It’s an old expression, going all the way back to Cicero who once praised a contemporary judge for insisting that all the evidence adduced in his court be focused through the prism of those two words, basing himself on the assumption—as true then as now—that when people break the law it is always because they perceive some benefit for themselves in doing so. And thus should it logically also be reasonable to travel that path in the opposite direction by considering the crime and asking who exactly benefited from it because, at least in most cases, the benefitted party will almost always be the instigator of the crime…and possibly even its actual perpetrator.
When applied to crime, the idea seems simple enough. Thieves steal things because they wish to possess those things and presumably have no other way to acquire them. Murderers murder, even, because they perceive some advantage that will accrue to them upon the deaths of their victims and are willing—at least in some jurisdictions—to risk the death penalty to derive that benefit. And the same feels as though it should be true about lying, that people tell lies because they see themselves profiting in some way by doing so. It’s certainly true of perjury: there are very grave penalties for willfully lying in court while under oath and it only seems reasonable to imagine that a citizen would risk those penalties solely because of some huge potential benefit imagined likely to come from passing off some lie as the truth. Why else would anyone risk huge fines and years of incarceration by lying in court? Surely not because they don’t see any advantage in doing so!
Often, applying this principle of cui bono (the first word is pronounced in one syllable to rhyme with “twee”) to lying outside of court is a no-brainer as well. Between 2009 and 2015, for example, the Volkswagen Group in effect lied to the world by programming the diesel engines featured in many models of its cars to detect when they were being tested and to change the performance read-out regarding the actual level of emissions being given off. Who stood to benefit is too obvious a question even to ask out loud—they themselves did, of course, managing to sell eleven million of such cars worldwide, including half a million in the U.S., by giving the false impression that those vehicles met standards that they in fact did not meet…and did not meet by staggering amounts. (In some cases, the vehicles in question actually emitted forty times the amount of nitrogen oxide than the test indicated.) In a different context entirely, one could say the same thing about the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who went on Israeli television just last week to insist that neither Solomon’s Temple nor the Second Temple ever stood atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He may have overplayed his hand just a bit by insisting that there has been a mosque on the site since “the creation of the world,” but the lie itself—a theory supported, contra the New York Times, by no legitimate historians, scholars, or archeologists, and with no exceptions at all—clearly responds well to the cui bono test: by insisting that there never was a Temple on the Temple Mount, the whole concept of Jerusalem being the holiest of holy cities for Jews becomes a meaningless concept founded on self-serving myth rather than on historical reality…and it doesn’t take much insight into Middle Eastern politics to know whom that lie benefits. Why the mufti imagines anyone would have built the Western Wall if there was nothing atop the mount for its massive stones to support is hard to say. Perhaps the Kotel doesn’t exist either!
I could give lots more examples, but I’m actually more interested in the kind of lie that specifically does not respond well to the cui bono test. These lies do not seem to work to the advantage of those who tell them, but rather bring their tellers into disrepute and thus impact upon them solely negatively. So why would anyone tell them? That’s the question I’d like to write about this week.
I can think of lots of examples. In his autobiography, Gifted Hands, presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson writes as follows:
At the end of my twelfth grade I marched at the head of the Memorial Day parade. I felt so proud, my chest bursting with ribbons and braids of every kind. To make it more wonderful, we had important visitors that day. Two soldiers who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Viet Nam were present. More exciting to me, General William Westmoreland (very prominent in the Viet Nam war) attended with an impressive entourage. Afterward, Sgt. Hunt introduced me to General Westmoreland, and I had dinner with him and the Congressional Medal winners. Later I was offered a full scholarship to West Point. I didn’t refuse the scholarship outright, but I let them know that a military career wasn’t where I saw myself going.
It’s a good story, but it’s at best sort of true. For one thing, General William Westmoreland, who had just completed his command of U.S. troops in Vietnam, was apparently not present in Detroit on Memorial Day in 1969. For another, there is no record of West Point offering Carson a full scholarship, or any sort of scholarship. It’s true that there is no tuition at the nation’s five military academies, and it really is easy to imagine someone using the term “scholarship” to describe what students “get” at schools with free tuition. (And it’s also true that West Point itself has occasionally used the word “scholarship” to describe its free tuition policy.) But the reference to not refusing the offer outright certainly implies that an actual offer was made…and that’s the part that seems not quite to be so. It is surely possible that young Ben Carson met General Westmoreland somewhere, perhaps on one of the general’s visits to Detroit earlier that year. And it surely sounds reasonable that the general might have touted aloud the value of a West Point education. But the story as told—and as repeated in others of the doctor’s books as well—seems at best to be true-ish, but not precisely accurate. But Dr. Carson is a very accomplished man—a highly respected neurosurgeon, for many years the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor. He hardly has to tell a fib about his acceptance to West Point to gain the respect of would-be voters…yet tell that story he apparently did. But why? Cui bono? He couldn’t possibly have imagined that a story that seemed so unlikely wouldn’t be checked and rechecked by investigative reporters eager to make their careers on the ashes of someone else’s reputation!
Nor is this a Republican issue per se. Hillary Clinton herself was caught in a lie back in April when she made the bogus claim that all of her grandparents were immigrants to the United States. She can’t not have known that that isn’t true—one of her grandparents, her paternal grandfather, was born in England, but the other three were born in this country, one in Pennsylvania and the others two in Illinois. She can’t not have known that, yet she said it in public, apparently not expecting anyone to notice. She thus joins Senator Rubio (whose oft-repeated story about his parents’ flight from Cuba when Castro came to power is apparently also not precisely true as repeatedly told) and Dr. Carson as candidates for our nation’s highest office whose fibs do not respond at all well to the cui bono test. Mrs. Clinton, with a life-long record of service to our nation, needs immigrant grandparents to make her appeal to voters? Senator Rubio, who has also devoted his entire career to public service and who surely has the Cuban vote sewed up anyway, needs to fib about his parents’ experiences leaving Cuba? Isn’t it enough that they fled life under communism to seek freedom here? And, as noted above, Dr. Carson needs to link himself to West Point to earn the respect of Americans? His many strange positions and bizarre theories about the universe will either make or break his campaign…but it’s hard to imagine anyone specifically not voting for him because he wasn’t accepted by West Point. For the record, in fact, only two of our presidents, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower, actually were graduates of West Point. (The sole president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was also a grad.) So it’s not like a connection to West Point is crucial for someone who would be president. So why the lie? What’s the point? And where’s the gain?
In a sense, we all write our own biographies. We remember what we remember of the past, fill in the blanks by listening to our parents’ stories, by looking at photographs taken by ourselves and others, by inspecting the various documents that bear witness to our histories…and then trying to piece it all together into a flowing, cogent narrative. What really happened as we grew through childhood into adolescence and then into adulthood, who can say with absolute certainty? And, speaking frankly, which of us truly knows his or her parents…as opposed to the mythic identity they take on in the larger context of family histories and individual relationships. So in a sense it’s all mythic, what we say we know of ourselves and how we conceptualize our families’ stories. But is it true? That’s a complicated question, one that most of us—thankfully—do not have phalanxes of reporters evaluating intensely scrupulously with an eye towards identifying the slightest inconsistency or deviation from actual reality. I imagine that Mrs. Clinton herself somehow stepped into a mythic version of her family’s history, then made the huge error of judgment by allowing others in as well. The same must be true of Senator Rubio and Dr. Carson—not that they told lies without understanding the harm that surely would (and did) come from getting caught with their pants on fire. These are not naïve people, and Mrs. Clinton perhaps least of all! I suppose I should self-righteously now be doubting their probity and wondering about their fitness for office based on their inability to distinguish reality from fantasy in their own backstories. But I can’t quite bring myself to think of it that way—without the cui bono test suggesting real benefit to the storyteller, statements about family that do not appear to correspond to actual historical reality are merely pieces of the great inner pageant of identity forged not in the crucible of verifiability, but in the mythic cauldron of self-awareness seasoned with just enough reality to make the myth believable and appealing…to ourselves and, when we lift the curtain—as we all occasionally do—and let others in, to the great world out there as well.