06/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Truth About Miss USA, American Idol -- and Our Embrace of Illusion

Are you surprised when a politician stretches the truth? Most of us have witnessed this so often that we've become numb to it. But what about a starry-eyed contestant on "American Idol?" You've just heard him or her sing about as good as a cat in heat, and yet when asked about the performance, this same contestant says he believes he did a great job. Apparently, my ears are better at detecting truth than his. Or what about a beauty pageant contestant who claims she was denied the winning crown because of her personal opinion on gay marriage? Is she telling the truth? Or could it be that she lost because her response revealed, at worst, a disregard for accuracy and intellectual precision or, at best, an unfortunate case of nerves?

My mother always raised me to tell the truth, and while I do lapse now and then, I do strive to be a truthful person. That's why I'm disturbed by what I see in our culture as a growing disregard for truth. But this isn't garden-variety lying; it's lying with a twist so subtle that you don't even recognize it as lying. And more and more people are using this trick to justify all manner of delusions.

Back to the politician. Last week, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina shocked many when speaking out against passage of federal hate crimes legislation. She claimed that sexual orientation had nothing to do with the murder of Matthew Shepard, for whom the bill is named, even calling it "a hoax." This surprised many close to the Shepard murder case. Where did Foxx get her revelatory information? Turns out, she had cherrypicked a handful of interviews and comments about the case which are generally considered to be faulty and unreliable.

Foxx obviously chose those sources because they supported her political opinions. It was the "truth" that she and her supporters wanted to hear. So they searched until they found something that sounded good, sounded "true enough." This isn't anything new for politicians, but this habit is trickling down to the rest of us. And I fear we soon won't be able to tell truth from "true enough."

Take those hopeful "American Idol" contestants. We've all watched and listened in disbelief to contestant after contestant butcher a song only to insist, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that he or she can really sing. We don't recognize talent! The judges are morons! After viewing several seasons of the show, I'm beginning to think that most of America is delusional, at least about their ability to carry a tune. Do these contestants have a hearing disability, by chance? On the contrary, the problem is that they are unable to recognize truth.

Perhaps their parents were afraid of damaging their child's fragile self-esteem, and so they lied and praised the child's singing ability. No wonder these same individuals break down in tears when sharp-tongued judge Simon Cowell delivers the cold, hard truth. They've never heard truth before.

Why can't they simply admit they cannot sing? For the record, I can't sing--and that's ok. It's simply the truth. I'm not even going to fall back on other excuses "Idol" contestants use, such as "I gave it my all" and "I just had fun." That's admirable, I suppose, but effort alone or how you feel about something doesn't make it exceptional, true or pleasant for the rest of us.

As another example, consider the recent outcome of the Miss USA pageant. Contestant Miss California was asked a question about gay marriage, and now she claims that her politically incorrect answer cost her the crown. I disagree. Have you actually listened to Carrie Prejean's answer? I don't think many people have, and yet she's now being touted by conservatives as a role model for young women and a champion of family values. Sadly, I think Prejean believes this is true.

If you set the politics aside, Prejean simply gave a poor answer. She spoke as if gay couples can choose to get married anywhere in America, which is false; it certainly is in Prejean's home state of California. Then, rather than talk about how the controversial issue has affected her life or how this country might come together in spite of this political hot potato, Prejean simply fell back on the worn-out and flimsy argument that she believes as she does because of her upbringing.

How uninspiring. In subsequent interviews, Prejean has been unable to articulate anything more about her political opinions; she's just "speaking from the heart" and she "believes strongly."

Seriously, is this the best we can do? Prejean lost because she gave a poor performance, and yet she and her supporters are attempting to turn it into something more profound by sheer force of will. It's only a beauty contest, but the sad part is Prejean's poor performance has worked to her advantage. She's eclipsed the pageant's actual winner in media attention and fame. And now her supporters have a sexy new spokesperson to reinvigorate a particular political issue--and it's all based on illusion. It's simply not true.

Television shows and beauty pageants are rather inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but they reflect broad, underlying trends back to us. Our growing inability to recognize or admit the truth can be seen elsewhere. You see it in the refusal by some to recognize the validity of species evolution or climate change. How many more viruses have to mutate or how many more chunks of Antarctica will we lose before everyone comes around? For years, the American public was told our government did not torture, and we now know that to be false. Everyone has their reasons for lying, but that doesn't change a lie into truth--no matter how sincerely you speak from your heart nor how stubbornly you believe that your actions are right nor how desperately you want your lie to appear true.