My favorite op-ed columnist, James Carroll, has hit the spot again. Memorializing the death of Vaclav Havel, Carroll writes about Havel’s signature accomplishment, pointing out that people have to live in truth or lose their freedom (my words about his work). I thought for a moment that he must have been eavesdropping on my conversation with my wife during and after the previous Saturday night “debate” in New Hampshire. I was expressing my concerns and consternation at the virtually complete absence of truth from the proceedings. Not only was the truth gone, but the participants appeared almost gleeful about speaking freed from the constraints that truth-telling creates. Carroll noted that Havel, “[t]he anti-Soviet dissident, who went from prison to the presidential palace, made truth his theme. He boldly condemned Moscow’s tyranny as ‘a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality . . . Human beings are compelled to live within a lie.’”
Earlier in the campaign, I recall an interview with Eric Fehrnstrom, Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, who said, in response to a question about the untruths being uttered by Romney, that this was none of his concern; it was up to the media to provide the facts. This is not a direct quote but my recollection of what he said. I remember it, even as my memory is getting worse, because it just leaped out of the TV screen.
Much of the political dialog revolves about what Havel called “ritual signs.” These are utterances that are ties to the underlying ideology of the speaker. Carroll writes further:
The citizen was forced to accept falsehood as the ground of existence. And beyond denouncing the regime, Havel showed, without being judgmental, how the inertia of citizens was essential to Soviet dominance. . . Grave social dysfunction follows when “ritual signs’’ take on more importance than hard facts, and “pseudo-reality’’ begins to rule. It’s an intriguing coincidence that the Czech truth-teller’s funeral occurred on the day Republicans voted in Iowa. Lies are at issue as the GOP contest moves to New Hampshire tomorrow, with Newt Gingrich openly calling Mitt Romney a liar. But the entire Republican campaign gyres around ritual signs that are at odds with reality. Marginal extremists have forced the Republican mainstream to live within lies (blatant climate denial, the baseless assertions that the budget can be balanced without taxes, blind hatred of government, and so on). This represents a new low standard for political pseudo-reality. If Newt Gingrich is the guardian of truth, the nation is in real trouble.
Reading his column and watching as much of the campaigning as I can stomach, I find myself full of sadness and a sense of loss. We have found our way in this country for more than 300 years bouncing back and forth between the ends of the political spectrum, recovering from the dumps of one or the other as we stagger along. This will be the 59th or 60th election I will have voted in. That’s lots listening to political rhetoric, better political bullshit, but this time is palpably the most unreal and scary.
Truth, as Havel, says is essential to our existence as a free people at all times, but perhaps even more now as we become ever more aware of the complexity of the world we live in. Ideologies are the epitome of denial of the interconnectedness of this world, where ties grow more in number and strength everyday. Actions here have effect in places and times we do not expect or ignore. Are we really going to bomb away the so-called threat of Iranian nuclear weapons with no other consequences? Will freeing the market from all government oversight and restraints create wealth for everybody when the results of the last few decades show us the exact opposite? Ideologies, either from the left or right, are all dangerous, but our two-party system and the means their leaders communicate with us pushes themes into ideological positions frequently compressed into tiny sound bites or political ads. Carroll mentions a few of such positions above.
There are many, many truths out there that are getting clobbered. If any of these men (no women left) are elected, they will be expected to act in accordance to these statements, ignoring what they find. Obama was faced with a financial crisis and its fallout on the economy as he moved in. He certainly was not the creator of these problems. It is interesting and ironic that the name Bush, on whose watch these problems started to arise, has been barely mentioned during this campaign, and not at all during these recent “debates.” I continue to put quotes around this word as real debates require some depth in discussing issues and solutions. Truthfulness would require putting the current messes into context, a least attempting to do so. I admit that would be difficult because the big messes are all a result of our failures to recognize complexity and act accordingly.
And so Carroll ends with this:
American politics seems newly energized by such judgmentalism, and, yes, the Republicans have that high-horse saddle to themselves this week. The memory of Vaclav Havel points us in a different direction, however — toward the recognition that in the human condition lies and truth are always intermingled. To be moral is to acknowledge that complexity and struggle with it. Our elections put our imperfections on full display because, finally, that is what it means to live within the truth.