Confession time: At age six, I stole candy from my neighborhood 7-Eleven. In third grade, I cheated on a history test. In the ’90s, I kept schtum when the bank deposited too much money in my account (they eventually took it back) and when a cashier forgot to charge me for a pair of shoes. And just last week I walked away with a free seltzer from the Voice‘s soda machine.
My crimes look microscopic in an era when lying and sneakiness are more than just the norm—they’re hot. In Fox’s brand-new reality show, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé, a first-grade Catholic-school teacher lies to her family about being in love with a guy she’s never met—all for $500,000. Meanwhile, The Perfect Score opens in movie theaters this week, starring Scarlett Johansson as part of a high school gang out to steal answers to the SAT. From Shattered Glass to The Sopranos, it’s the cheats who get the movies and TV series these days.
David Callahan’s The Culture of Cheating presents a Technicolor panorama of shameful behavior: Wall Street analysts knowingly advising clients to buy bad stocks, doctors taking bribes from pharmaceutical companies, accountants engaging in mass fraud, parents paying consultants to classify their kids as learning disabled so they get extra time on the SAT, Little League coaches lying about players’ ages, average citizens opening offshore bank accounts. Collected en masse, the endless rogues’ gallery left me feeling like I’d emerged from a slime bath.
Callahan offers up the mid 20th century—roughly Pearl Harbor to Watergate—as an aberrant chunk of history during which the great majority of Americans were guided by their professed ideals. What startled me most in Cheating wasn’t any particular scandal but a statistic from a 1960s poll of incoming college freshmen. Back then less than half of college students “saw the goal of being well-off financially as either essential or very important.” Eighty percent cited “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as their most important goal. “A meaningful philosophy of life”—what planet were they living on?
Callahan compiles a meticulous mountain of data about our current state of disgrace. But his relentlessly earnest tone and repetitiousness can be infuriating. Endless examples of bad behavior won’t carry the reader through 300-plus pages. The problem isn’t that we don’t know this stuff, but that we’ve stopped feeling outraged because we’ve come to see it as normal. There’s also a strong argument that scamming is woven into our national mythology, what with all those land grabs and robber barons. As Jewish gangster Hyman Roth says in The Godfather: Part II, “I loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919.”
Cheating argues, though, that in the past there were stronger counterbalances to corruption—ideals of justice and virtue, community and civic duty. He pegs the rise of all-out cheating culture as an unfortunate side effect of the ’60s: “The individualism of the ’60s turned toxic as it was stripped of its initial liberating purposes and as positive ’60s values like social responsibility . . . lost traction in popular culture.” Ironically, he reserves his harshest lashes for those most dedicated to rolling back ’60s liberalism—the religious right. “For all their invocations of God,” he seethes, “it seemed that the right’s moral missionaries had only read every other page of the Bible—ignoring the incessant warnings . . . about the evils of becoming obsessed with riches and growing callous toward the less fortunate.” The God Squad obsesses over late-term abortions and same-sex marriage, but turns a blind eye to corporate corruption and greed. Callahan points out that a number of now infamous CEOs, including Worldcom’s Bernie Ebbers, were religious men. Ebbers was a deacon at his Baptist church and often invoked God in speeches, yet he also “presided over the largest fraud in U.S. history,” raining down financial misery on thousands of hardworking people.
Callahan has more sympathy for average Americans squeezed by financial pressures who resort to morally cloudy behavior: “What happens when you stop believing that the rules of life are fair? You just might make up your own moral code.” For working stiffs, stealing office supplies and fiddling expenses feel like petty acts of revenge against an exploitative system in which rich people wangle their way out of their proper share of the tax burden and corrupt CEOs get away with rap-on-the-knuckle fines. Stealing cable or downloading MP3s doesn’t feel like theft, either, if you justify it as reprisal against impersonal corporations with their overpriced wares.
Cheating claims that economic inequality is largely to blame for our sorry demoralization. Unfortunately, Callahan’s solutions read like a Democratic primary candidate’s wish list (raising the minimum wage, safeguarding health care and child care, re-igniting a sense of community), a fantasy overhaul of American society along the lines of It’s a Wonderful Life. He earnestly encourages readers to do our part and “be the chump”: “Be the chump who files an honest tax return. . . . Be the chump at work that doesn’t tell that endless blizzard of white lies that helps people get ahead.” Not only are these suggestions obvious, they’re also pitifully anticlimactic after the book has stoked our righteous wrath. How about bringing back good old-fashioned capitalist punishment? Lock up all those corrupt stock analysts in the stocks. Dose those crooked doctors with their own FDA-unapproved medicine. Create a reality show in which cutthroat competitors must keep to the straight and narrow in the face of countless shiny temptations in order to win themselves a million bucks. You could call it To Tell the Truth.