Lies and Truth and

October 14, 2003

Lies and Truth and the Meaning of Words

The previous two entries have both centered on speaking truth. That, in turn, got me thinking about Adlai Stevenson and Jim Steinman and the role of truth in popular culture. Stevenson famously defined a lie as "an abomination unto the lord and a very present help in time of trouble." Stevenson was notoriously witty. He was also a professional politician and a man very aware that it is not always in the best interests of a person or a community to speak the truth at all times. In part as a reaction to that expedient approach to truth telling, Jim Steinman has been celebrating a sort of compusive honesty in popular culture.

Steinman came of age during Vietnam, a war defined by flexible definitions of truth. He became famous writing music and lyrics for Meatloaf. A recurring motif, perhaps the strongest statement in the music, is his compulsive honesty:

I want you
I need you
But-there ain't no way I'm ever gonna love you
Now don't be sad
'Cause two out of three ain't bad

or more recently
I would do anything for love
I'll never lie to you and that's a fact.
This aversion to lying extends to a commitment to oathtaking
I swore that I would love you to the end of time!
So now I'm praying for the end of time
To hurry up and arrive
'Cause if I gotta spend another minute with you
I don't think that I can really survive
I'll never break my promise or forget my vow
But God only knows what I can do right now
I'm praying for the end of time
It's all that I can do
Praying for the end of time,
So I can end my time with you!!

It is worth quoting that at length because it emphasizes the extend to which Steinman takes the fulfillment of an oath as a binding duty. For him, lying and oathbreaking are the sin against the holy ghost which can never be forgiven. Steinman's lyrics are flamboyant and extreme; he pushes his points for rhetorical effect, and a pop song is not a philosophical treatise. A pop song is, however, a powerful meme. Andrew Fletcher once argued that he would not care who made the laws of a country so long as he could make the songs, and the principle holds true today. The assumptions and norms that we pick up through popular culture provide a lens through which we view our surroundings. At some level, we do judge our leaders against our bards and see if they measure up.

Compulsive honesty is at the forefront of Steinman's lyrics, but it appears elsewhere in popular culture and popular media as well. I do wonder to what extent the common adolescent distaste for "hypocrisy" is cause and consequence of the popular media's celebration of honesty. Holden Caulfield raged against phonies, and we all read Catcher in the Rye in high school, and his distaste for phonies resonates among Americans, just as it has resonated for generations since Salinger created the character. Adolescents, teenagers, are more likely to listen to music, read accessible fiction, and look for simple patterns to shape their world views. Part of becoming an adult is seeing and recognizing the urge to lie, temporize and spin; to see it in yourself and to understand its attractiveness to others. But is that a measure of adulthood that we want to encourage?

I admit that I still have a strong preference for truth telling and a strong preference for fulfilling a sworn oath. One of the things that I have discovered about myself is that I can not lie - a lie makes me so visibly uncomfortable that no one believes me. My dislike of lies is part of why I chose to give the little man the middle name Micajah, the man who spoke truth to power. (1 Kings, 22; 2 Chronicles 19) This compulsive honesty might mark me as a permanent adolescent, but I think a celebration of honesty does have important civic virtues. It is not such a bad thing to assume that others are speaking truth, and then to hold them to their statements.

I tend to accept what others tell me, once. If I find that they have lied or misled, I cut them dead - a fine 19th century tradition of social ostracism that we seem to have dropped. Salesmen, renters, people doing commercial business with me get one lie. Once I find it, I refuse to have any further to do with them. J and I walked out on renters when we were househunting when we caught them in a lie - in one case the man lied for no particular reason or benefit - and we turned and walked out of the house. I may have learned this habit from playing the board game Diplomacy, but it is a habit that suits me.

My approach to truthtelling extends to politics. When I teach the late twentieth century to my students I emphasize one essential similarity between the Clinton and Bush-43 administrations: both tend to use short-term rhetoric. Clinton was long notorious as a waffler and a "pander bear" because he consistently told whatever audience he was facing whatever it was he thought they wanted to hear. All public speakers do this to some extent, but Clinton went farther than most and consequently he regularly contradicted himself. Similarly, when lobbying for legislation on Capital Hill he tended to call Congressmen on the phone and tell them whatever they wanted to hear before they voted Clinton's way. He was good at it. But, each short-term victory came at the cost of long-term losses in credibility. By the time Kenneth Starr got rolling, many folks in Congress were perfectly willing to believe that the Clintons had lied about their financial history because they had all that experience at being pushed and prodded over the phone. As one Representative put it at the start of the impeachment trial: he did not care about Starr's evidence; he knew that Clinton had lied to him and so he was going to vote guilty.

George W. Bush is a similar short-term politician. He tends to tell people what he thinks they want to hear, and he tends to make political decisions for short term reasons. While Kevin Drum and others on the left argue that the Texas Republicans who currently dominate Capital Hill and the White House have a long-term plan for total domination based on hard-right ideology, I believe that most of their actions can be explained by short-term thinking and purely expedient rhetoric. Debts appear in the future, tax cuts come right now, so lets emphasize the present political value and not the future fiscal problems; tax cuts are the order of the day. Some workers might change their votes this month, so lets change tariff policy, and not worry about what it does to future trade policy, balance of trade, overall employment, or total voting patterns; selective protective tariffs are the order of the day. It is all short term thinking.

I think that much of the overblown rhetoric about the Iraq invasion grew out of this short-term political approach to language. The White House had a basis in international law for its intervention in Iraq, that is why they pushed so hard to get UN Resolution 1441 through. What they did not have was a political consensus at home stating that enforcing that resolution was a compelling state interest. So, they pushed and they puffed and they convinced enough people that Saddam Hussein was an immediate and real threat. Some of this rhetoric is coming back to haunt them, and regardless of whether dislodging Saddam Hussein was a good or a bad idea, and regardless of what we have actually found on the ground in Iraq, there is a gap between very specific claims made before the war and what we have actually found on the ground. Either we had a massive intelligence failure, or there was a planned and systematic lie.

I am using the same approach to the Bush administration that I use with my students when they tell me tales of woe and sickness. I believe them, at first. I then look to see what they do. The folks who are telling the truth tend to followup on their statements - I fully expect that the policewoman who forgot that the midterm was today and not Thursday will appear on time for the makeup, do her best, and recover from her goof. Some of the other students who told me stories will surprise me if they appear for the midterm, and will surprise me more if they do well on it. But, I will wait and let them tangle themselves up in their lies, or dig themselves out of their hole. I offer encouragement, this is not a cold and heartless professorius abscondus, but in the end the slackers will reveal themselves.

I have been watching the Bush administration to see if they will also reveal themselves as moral slackers. Anyone can lie once, if they do it again it is a pattern. And while I am willing to give a national politician a little more wiggle room than Jim Steinman gives his fictional characters, I can only go so far.

And so to bed.

Posted by Red Ted at October 14, 2003 10:41 AM | TrackBack

Hi from which album is the song"praying for the end of time"

Posted by: sam khan at March 28, 2006 09:13 AM

The lyrics are from "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", on Bat out of Hell.

Posted by: Ted K at March 29, 2006 10:00 PM
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