George Santos lied about some things in his past. Okay, about everything in his past.
He lied about where he attended high school (Horace Mann) and college (Baruch) and graduate school (NYU). He claimed he starred on the Baruch volleyball team that beat Harvard and Yale. Baruch did beat Harvard in 2010, but Santos wasn’t on the Baruch team, largely because Santos wasn’t at Baruch at all. As for beating Yale, that would’ve been tough because Yale didn’t have a volleyball team.
He said he worked at Goldman Sachs and at Citigroup; both claim otherwise. He said his grandparents were Ukrainian Jewish refugees from Belgium who survived the Holocaust. But he also said he was Catholic, which lines up more with his genealogical records. He said that four coworkers were lost in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub shooting. He said his mother became ill because of debris from 9/11, since she worked in the South Tower—even though she lived in Brazil at the time. To say his story has more holes than Swiss cheese would be an insult to the cheese, which actually has substance between the holes.
But we do know a few truths about his current success. He won his congressional race by a significant margin in a reliably liberal district of Queens-Long Island as a Trump-supporter who claimed to have been in attendance on January 6th and insisted that the 2020 election was stolen. So for whatever reason, voters in his district clung to whatever part of the elephant (or donkey?) that appealed to their social and political sensibilities and momentarily ignored the fact that the entirety of the elephant was a pastiche of half-truths, fibs, exaggerations, and outright lies.
But we should pay attention; there are some lies about us behind the truth about George Santos.
At the exact moment that we have the ability to know every detail of another person’s life, many of us choose to know the least. People use Snopes to fact-check whether gum really lasts seven years in the body (False) or if the lyrics of “In the Air Tonight” are autobiographical reflections from Phil Collins’s childhood summer camp (False), or if President John Tyler (1790-1862) actually has a living grandson (True). But somehow nobody took the time to interrogate the outlandish details of Santos’s life. The information was out there, but we didn’t care. Because we had an election to win, and win at all costs. Our politics have blinded our eyes; our tribalism has shrunk our brains. Santos gave everyone something they wanted to hear, which gave them permission to ignore everything else.
Santos’s lies could only have prevailed in our current moment. Sure, people have always embellished their accomplishments and fancified their resumes (is turf engineer really the best way to say you mowed lawns in high school?). This is nothing new. But people have not always embellished what might be perceived as liabilities.
The remarkable side of Santos’s resume is not the way he has falsified his successes, but instead the way that he co-opted the hardships of others. He fabricated a bingo card of liberal sympathies and hoped that no one was courageous enough to risk their own progressive bona fides to question his. In doing so, Santos showed that there are two clear choices when seeking public office: play the hero or play the victim. Commit to running as one or the other; regular people need not apply.
First, try to be a big deal. If that fails, try being the biggest loser. Victory is sweet, but victimization can be lucrative as well. If people failed to give you your recognition the first time, they might be willing to impart their sympathy the next.
This creates a culture where the only stories that matter are those of heroes and victims. It suggests that people should only be worshiped or wept with, hero or horror story, triumph or tearjerker.
It’s so dramatic, so climactic, and so false.
Few of us play heroes or victims. Our lives are a mix—historically known as being normal. Normality is a condition experienced by 99% of humans and is characterized by a mixed bag of success and failure, of privilege and disadvantage, of luck and misfortune. This is not to say that we all experience life similarly (some certainly have it better than others and some have had disproportionate suffering), but instead that few of us are absolute heroes or victims.
We are ordinary people.
We have struggles: divorce, dyslexia, job loss, two left feet, unkempt yards, short stature, slow metabolism, mild depression, racial prejudice, miscarriage, high cholesterol, PTSD, DUI, ABD, imperfect parents, checkered employment, awkward childhood, and a foreclosed house.
We also enjoy moments of success: athletic prowess, good looks, nice head of hair, happy marriage, healthy kids, peace of mind, steady work, 4.0, 401k, two-parent home, photographic memory, job promotion, friends who check on us, dumb luck, a few nice vacations, and respect in the community.
It means we can share joy in the success of others because we know what it feels like to fail.
It also means we can have empathy for the plight of others, because we know that we wouldn’t want to trade places.
It is greedy to lie about our successes, since most of us experience plenty of wins. And it is calloused to fabricate wrongs against us, since the world has enough injustice without our own exaggerations.
May every day give us humility to know that we aren’t a hero and gratitude to recognize that we aren’t always the victim. If we can’t see the good and the bad, we are being dishonest. Good luck finding the next truth told by George Santos if we can’t identify the lies we tell ourselves.
Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:4-10)