The Gathering Twilight, Part the First

In a review of Elena Gorokhova’s memoir of childhood in the Soviet Union, there’s a quote of her youthful realization about Communism:

“The rules are simple…They lie to us, they know we know they’re lying, but they keep lying anyway, and we keep pretending to believe them.”

Here in the gathering twilight of 21st Century America, the situation is hardly much different, with one exception: we seem to want the lies, we compete to outdo the power elite with our own tall tales, we luxuriate in the drowning filth of our fabulistic excesses.

Frank Rich made the case a few weeks ago that Tiger Woods was the emblematic man of our moment not because of his sexual escapades but because of the total disconnect between the popularity of the iconography of his squeaky-clean professionalism and his actual life.

Rich suggests that there is a growing consensus on both left and right that virtually no public figure’s iconography is trustworthy, and that basing your political and social choices on those narratives is a fool’s errand.

That, I have to admit, seems true enough. I can remember thinking that John Edwards seemed like a decent enough candidate in his first run for the Presidency, but I can’t even begin to remember why I thought that: some vague impression of his electability, a few catch-phrases here and there that mimicked positions I could charitably imagine having a resemblance to what I’d like to see happen, and yes, some sense that he seemed like a capable, decent leader. In retrospect, obvious bullshit, all of it. I can remember telling a few friends in 2000 that Bush seemed to have some interest in governing towards the middle, because of a few little rhetorical flourishes, and I thought that again when he gestured in that direction right after 9/11. Again, bullshit.

I gave money to Joe Sestak in his race for Congress here in my district, and while virtually anybody was an improvement over the previous incumbent, Sestak’s actual voting record wasn’t anything like what I’d heard him talking about doing when I went to a fund-raiser and his lack of interest in setting up a real constituent-relations operation was palpable. We were just a way station on the road to something else, just a little resume-builder.

I didn’t buy the same bill of goods in voting for Obama, so I’m not as intensely disappointed by him as those that did. That said, he doesn’t even seem to be governing up to my more modest expectations, settling for “not aggressively bad like the last guys”.

If I’m setting out to buy a dishwasher or a video game, I feel pretty good that crowdsourcing is going to help me find a decent product, that the flow of information online will give me a peek at the actual experiences of users. I feel like I’m pretty experienced at spotting obvious shills, in part because they typically describe products or services in phony language or improbably complimentary terms. I get burned now and again, but not very often.

Politicians and public life, not so much, none of it, because almost all of us are engaged in one way or another in adorning the lies and tale tales of the political elite, in pushing a line or selling a product.

Just about every blogger I read and respect, and I include myself, has a politics that is an a la carte assemblage of positions and favored projects strung together loosely by attitude and affect. Most of the people I like are too smart and wary to be active, aggressive shills for any particular candidate, but there’s still a lot of qualified nods for some leaders and lip-curling disdain for others, based largely on whether they’re telling the lies that we like or the lies that we hate, whether they match up at some moment with some random item on our personal checklists of things-we-like. As Rich suggests, even people that like to imagine themselves as tough-minded independents and skeptics tend to invest in politics the way that audiences invest in the narrative of a contestant on Top Chef or The Amazing Race.

And then beyond that conversation is a vast domain of other readers and writers busy spinning and confabulating in a far less guarded way, a heaving ocean of shillery.

We lie to us, we know we’re lying, we know we know we’re lying, but we keep on lying anyway, and we keep on pretending to believe ourselves.

And yet there are also these moments where real understanding seems possible, where online discourse breaks through to expose our mutual authenticities, where YouTube shows us moments of genuine political life, where a real person is suddenly there speaking about hard choices. Times where the bedrock on which beliefs and politics really rests upon is exposed. I don’t think all my political desires, all my personal checklist, is just a collection of advertising slogans, and I don’t even think that’s true of many of the people I most disdain. Some of what I believe is a product of my self-interest, as it is for all of us, and some of it is a product of what I honestly know about the world and about what makes for best practices at this moment in human history.

For our own velvet revolution, for at least a possibility of moving the ball forward past this stagnant, curdled moment in American life, I think what we’ll all have to do is take the risk of authenticity, to develop a grown-up taste for the rough edges and honest imperfections of lives as they are lived. In our politicians, in our public figures, in ourselves. To stop carrying water for liars or telling simplified fabulisms because we think that will serve some end that we deem necessary. To drop our deflector shields. Living and speaking within a world of acknowledged ambiguity, uncertainty, and imperfection is an end in and of itself.

Otherwise, 21st Century American life is going to amount to just us, the online comments threads, and those wonderful people out there in the dark…a long slow fading as we dreamily revisit over and over again our old glories, waiting endlessly for our close-up.

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9 Responses to The Gathering Twilight, Part the First

  1. This is a careful and profound bit of thinking, Tim. I’m going to be my best to spread it around; it deserves to be read. Many, many thanks.

  2. AndrewSshi says:

    It’s interesting that you mention Obama disappointment and political lying. Some of the greatest anger and disappointment from Obama supporters concerns his commitment to win in Afghanistan. The angriest people thought that Obama was going to pull out of Afghanistan and that his promise to commit to that war was only telling the rubes in flyover country what they needed to hear. These people thought that they were in on a big secret, and reacted with rage when they found out that they were not.

    Something more toxic than a blithe shrugging at a politician lying is the belief that of course lying is necessary because Those Other People can’t handle the hard truths. Especially because a lot of folks who think that they are in on the group of people who can see things no one else can see are nowhere near as perceptive as they imagine themselves.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, exactly, Andrew. It’s that kind of belief that concerns me most and it is the kind of practice that I think people in my own social worlds are most apt to endorse. Believing in a particular policy goal, sometimes for very good reasons, they’ll accept that the goal must be oversold through exaggeration and simplification because The Other People won’t accept it otherwise. Or that talking honestly about incremental improvement is a rube’s game, that it just invites the Bad Guys to come back at you with a big lie of some kind.

  4. jfruh says:

    One of the most amazing political speeches I’ve ever read was Vaclav Havel’s first New Year’s address to Czechoslovakia as president, just weeks after the Velvet Revolution. Key bits are here.

    “My dear fellow citizens: For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us. I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.

    “Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers’ state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available.

    “The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought.

    “We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all — though naturally to differing extents — responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.”

    Sorry to quote at such great length but it always just really blows me away. Havel could say this because he wasn’t (at the time, anyway) a politician, and because he represented a real and genuine break in his country’s politics, but there’s something amazing about how he implicated the whole country in its malaise and laid out the fact that the whole country had to act to fix it, rather than just laying everything at the feet of the deposed dictators.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, I agree, that’s an amazing moment and an amazing speech.

  6. Believing in a particular policy goal, sometimes for very good reasons, they??l accept that the goal must be oversold through exaggeration and simplification because The Other People won?? accept it otherwise. Or that talking honestly about incremental improvement is a rube?? game, that it just invites the Bad Guys to come back at you with a big lie of some kind.

    Interesting putting those two examples together, but I can see how they can both be understood as commenting on the same phenomenon. In the first, you’re basically taking a populist/radical democrat line, critiquing the political operative’s (or Schumpeterian) line that there can be no real engagement with the voters, and that they must be addressed through carefully calibrated advertising campaigns alone. In the second, you’re defending the legitimacy of talking about the practical (Weberian) realities of governance, something which many of those aforementioned populists and radical democrats (the Nader voters, like me!) are admittedly often frustrated by and view suspiciously. Either way, you can see a refusal to engage actual, ordinary, empirical, lived experience and knowledge. Definitely something worth thinking about.

  7. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    jfruh’s reference to Havel’s New Years Day speech is interesting, but Havel’s collection of essay’s “Living in Truth” especially “Letter to Dr. Husak,” and “The Power of the Powerless” seem more relevant to Tim Burke’s point.

    While we don’t live in a post totalitarian dictatorship, there is a profound disconnect between lives actually lived by human beings and the lives of the elite (our role models) depicted in public. Tiger Woods, John Edwards, the marketing of Obama, they are all forms of self delusion along the lines of Havel’s green grocer. We continue to mouth slogans we don’t believe and vote for candidates that will not change anything, because we know that is just what has to be done or said to get along in this world.

    We do not live under a dictatorship, as did most of Eastern Europe between 1945-1989. Most of us do not face police repression and arbitrary harassment by the state. But the cynicism and social disconnect is comparable. Tim is right in that we have to find some way to accommodate the rough edges of ourselves, otherwise we are destined to see the same sort of social fragmentation that irreparably harmed Eastern Europe under the communists, and that continues to this day.

  8. Doug says:

    So when the next Mondale comes along and tells the national electorate that taxes will have to go up to pay for what the people say they want, he or she will be elected? I have my doubts.

    Also, which particular “we” are you talking about? I sense pronoun trouble in this post.

    I further suspect that the people most likely to take this to heart are among those least likely to need it.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    I think most folks are investing in some kind of lie right now, Doug. If nothing else, magical thinking about how society or the government or institutions can do all the things that they believe ought to be done if only the right priorities were in place, while equally simply no longer doing the things that ought not to be done.

    But sure, folks who are in deepest in the biggest lies aren’t likely to hear this and think, “Yeah, I really need to stop slinging this shit around”. I doubt your average Tea Party zealot would be willing to own up in any respect to the many flavors of bullshit they’re peddling, or that any pundit of any kind on any side is gonna get the religion of honest curiosity any time soon.

    I do wonder, though, if a harsh old curmudgeonly bastard of the right kind came along in politics and said, “You’re the problem, America: it’s time to grow up”, whether they might not get some traction, if it didn’t look like they were just peddling some ordinary policy menu to go along with that message.

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