Sunday, June 20, 2010
Such a Lonely Word
Honesty ought not to be served up in half measures. The only honesty that has value is hardcore honesty, the kind of truth-saying that makes people flinch, that puts the speaker on the spot, that forces everybody's hand, that says, "Deal with this."
Tell the truth about yourself and you are naked.
I'm not sure, then, that "honest" and "politics" belong together. Politics has to be pragmatic. Sure, the confrontation and contention that truth demands play a part in politics sometimes, but only when they serve a purpose. In politics, truth is a strategy, to be used sparingly and cautiously. (Ask Machiavelli.) Without buffers, honesty is going to upset the apple cart.
I would like to see more honest politicians, yes, but I am not sure the nation is ready for it. It is, after all, the "American dream," not the "American actuality." For the foreseeable future, successful politicians here will have to serve up that dream--as sugar-coated reverie or as panic-inducing nightmare--to gain the people's votes and to hold on to power. (Assuming that power is the name of the game in politics.)
Honesty is essential to argument. But politics is drifting away from logical argument, towards image making, branding, talking points, and damage control.
Honesty is in the service of truth, make that capital-T Truth, the kind that may not even exist, almost certainly cannot be grasped, but acts as a constant (if intangible) pole star of intellectual, social, and artistic effort. It's not so much that the truth will make you free as that it will make you squirm, thus making it harder to pin you down, which entails a sort of freedom, I guess. The truth is a tough motherfucker.
The shocker is that dishonesty, too, serves truth. Dishonesty may even serve as high a concept of truth as honesty does. No less than an honest opinion, a lie goes through the tests of definition, evidence, good will, and probability. It tries to look like truth, if nothing else. As Harry G. Frankfurt put it, lying shows a "concern for the truth"--the effort is made to make the lie exact, plausible, testable--unlike bullshit which ignores truth and its conditions entirely and aims only to amuse, sway, stall, and cajole. A lie respects the importance of the truth even while violating it. Bullshit simply tries to put its speaker in a good light and the listeners in the palm of his hand. So calling a politician "dishonest" may be gilding the lily a bit, since most politicians are just bullshitters.
Great liars are almost as ballsy as great truth-sayers. If you have to lie, at least lie with vigor and gusto. To hell with half measures here, too. Make the lie hard to believe and then make everybody believe it. Also at least don't lie to yourself. And lie, if you must, in the interest of higher principles. If I perjure myself in court for the sake of a friend, it's because I honestly believe my friend should not be punished for holding up that liquor store. (See how I snuck the word "honestly" in there? You can't do that with bullshit.)
Bullshit is shaving five years off your actual age just to fit somebody else's idea of attractiveness. Bullshit is speaking on behalf of the American people--as if the American people have ever spoken in one voice. Bullshit is rationalization--"I'm not a racist but--," "I have many gay friends but--," "I care about the environment but--." Bullshit is more about being "right" (or just perceivable as right) than about being (or even just seeming) "true." Bullshit is evasive. Bullshit relies on imprecision, vagueness, generalization, equivocation, and begging the question.
Bullshit is too good to be true.
I'll take a liar over a bullshitter any day of the week. You can argue with a liar. A bullshitter will backpedal, explain away, change the subject, blow his top, go for a laugh, or start weeping, anything to avoid having to deal with unpleasant, unpopular, unattractive, or inconvenient reality.
Truth is not nice. Truth is messy, frustrating, infuriating, and ultimately unaccommodating. And getting to the truth is slow going. Even a lifetime may not get you there. Truth is inefficient. Truth is unprofessional, even unbusinesslike. Truth will not fit on your schedule or meet your deadlines.
"A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it," as Oscar Wilde observed. The test of truth is not martyrdom, or sincerity, or good will, or need, or feelings, or values, or even intelligence. Hard reality is the only test of truth. And the only thing that can be said with confidence and conviction about hard reality is that it is indeed hard.
Posted by Joe at 9:47 AM