February 26, 2011:
Do you ever wonder what the incessant din of spin, half-truths, and outright lies is doing to us? This din is everywhere, not just on cable but on Fox News (the most blatant example in our time), in countless magazine and newspaper pieces, in political speeches and news conferences, in advertisements for just about everything (ads specialize in it), in blogs of every imaginable kind, on countless web sites selling one idea or another, and even in interpersonal relationships, all of us trying to present our best faces to those who know us.
Most of my friends are pretty smart and most of us discount the bulk of what we see and hear. I cannot remember ever buying anything but a book because I saw it advertised. But the unending slaughter of the truth does affect us. For one thing it's depressing and disheartening; for another it makes us cynical. Is there anyone at all we can take seriously? Certainly not the religious types, after we have seen time and time again people who claim the moral high ground based on their faith and their devotion to service fail not only to live up to their ideals but then to lie about their behavior, or try to cover it up. My wife, who was raised Catholic, accuses me of being anti-Catholic, but it's not that simple. It's hard not to have some respect for an institution that has lasted for two millenia and done a fair amount of good in its charitable work. At the same time, how can one not detest the behavior of child-molesting priests, of whom there seem to be a myriad? And then what is one to think about the behavior of the Church in covering up this crime, a crime, may I add, against the most vulnerable among us, a crime that has devastating lifelong effects on its victims? It's sickening. And the whole business of the Church--any church--trying to take abortion rights away from women, or interfere in political life in any way, which their tax exempt status forbids them to do, burns me up. Keep your religious beliefs to yourself, whatever they are, whoever you are. Don't try to impose them on the rest of us.
Our culture assaults us on all levels, all the time, and it is thick with mendacity. It's one thing in politics; we have come to expect it there, and it's not clear that an honest politics is possible, given the self-contradictions built into public opinion and public demands. But one hopes for something better out of the best of the press, and we don't get it. I learned this years ago when I was writing my first book, which was about the mental health system, and paid close attention to the NYTimes's reporting on the subject, and watched them slant their reporting according to their interests. Mental patients have always gotten a raw deal, and nobody really cares. And it's not just the press; it's memoirs purporting to be true that are in fact lies, it's the numerous attempts to clean up history so it smells better, it's apologists for the South ignoring slavery, it's the unwillingness to face scientific facts. It's the din, the relentless nature of the lying, the fact that nobody ever runs an ad that says something like, "The truth is, Gelusil works better than Tums but it costs more, so the choice is up to you." Nobody ever gives a speech in Congress that says, "Yes, we're Republicans, and we do cater to the rich, for the following reasons."
It makes us cynical and we back off from our own politics, from our culture. Or if we're stupid or innocent we believe what we hear, and that's probably worse. I raised my kids to be ironic and skeptical, and in many ways they lost their innocence pretty quickly. But isn't that enormously sad, to have to do that in order to protect them? What is there to believe in? Is there a major American institution we can trust? Can we believe in America itself, which takes us into war and becomes responsible for the deaths of many many thousands on the basis of outright, deliberate lies? And the powerful people who do this, do they go to jail once exposed? Did Richard Nixon go to jail? Will Donald Rumsfeld?
Not a chance.
My advice to my countrymen? Be skeptical, learn irony. Educate yourselves about how the world actually works. Read Machiavelli; he's enlightening. And then own up inside yourselves to your own delusions, your own hypocrisy, so that you know hypocrisy when you see it. On a personal level, face to face, practise kindness and compassion. You're going to need it yourself some day. But most of all, educate yourself. Lionel Trilling once wrote an essay called "The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent." Exactly. Otherwise you become a dupe, part of the problem, easily fooled by the din, the ads, the lies, all designed to make you blind to your own interests and dead to nuance, complexity, and the genuine nobility and beauty that sometimes appears in human life.