"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Why The Truth Is Overrated

Everyone knows that truth is a valued commodity, especially because it is so hard to find. We all fib, exaggerate, embellish, invent, and out-and-out lie; and today more than ever we get away with our deceit.  Politicians lie through their teeth and deny wrongdoing.  Preachers philander and filch until they are caught.  Husbands look their wives straight in the eye and tell the most outrageous, outlandish, barefaced lies. Children lie about their whereabouts, CEO’s lie about mergers, buy-outs, and downsizing.

Donald Trump, his opponents claim,  is an inveterate liar, a shameless huckster with no respect for the truth.  He tells barefaced lies, distortions, and exaggerations but, to his critics' surprise, his partisans are unconcerned.  They can easily extract the main messages from his hyperbole, melodrama, and Las Vegas showmanship.  They have no interest in the ‘truth’ and could care less about statistical accuracy.  They want no more carefully-worded statements of policy, no considered on-the-one-hand-on-the-other economic wishy-washiness.  They want the meat and care little about the dressing.  

Image result for images donald trump
Richard Nixon would baldly lie to hide is crimes and political dirty tricks, never flinch before the cameras, and never admit to any wrongdoing.

Bill Clinton used his particularly gifted intelligence to do everything to admit the truth but never actually lie.  His testimonies during the Monica Lewinsky scandal were examples of linguistic parsing, philosophical needle-threading, and balletic moves, all devised to hide the truth.

Politicians, preachers, and priests all seem to be in the business of hiding the truth for personal gain or to cover up moral failings.

The rest of us, common American citizens, are no different.  We like, fib, distort the truth to suit our needs, and do anything to conceal our infidelity, waywardness, or financial irresponsibility.  The truth is there when it is unavoidable and absolutely necessary, but not before.

Eyewitnesses think they are telling the truth, but they are so deceived by their own perceptual apparatus that they swear up and down that they saw X do Y to Z, all of which has nothing whatever to do with what really happened.

The Internet is an ideal breeding ground for deceit and deception. The easier it is to click-and-share, the more immediately sensational and compelling the graphic images, the easier it is to assume the truth.

In fact, the more complex and interactive the worldwide web becomes, the more truth loses value yearly.  A number of ‘quotes’ by Pope Francis have been circulating on the web, the most popular of which is one in which he says that belief in God is a nice amenity but not necessary to be a good or moral person. Invented scripts attributed to Obama, the Dalai Lama, Eisenhower, and the Buddha are everywhere. When called out, those who have ‘shared’ these quotes and sent them spinning through cyberspace only reply that it is the sentiment that counts.

Pope Francis

The thing of it is, we are all so used to ignoring the truth and getting away with lies and deceit that it has become our go-to option. Gender equality has leveled the marital playing field.  No one splits because of tomcatting or night prowling.  Marriages of convenience can withstand a lot of distortion; idealistic couples prefer to ignore the truth; and dependent wives choose the lesser of two evils.

There is plenty of residual guilt to go around.  Men do indeed have their moments after crawling into bed, showered, powdered, and mint-fresh beside their sleeping wives. They look over at their wives and watch their sweet, untroubled, and innocent sleep; and feel pangs of inconsolable guilt.
“How was your business meeting, darling”, the wife asks, stretching and putting her arms around her husband’s neck, kissing him on the cheek.

“What have I done?”, the husband thinks to himself. “How could I have been such a deceitful cad?”; but of course, having gotten away with his adultery, and surprised at how easy it was, any resolve made at first light dissipates at the first martini and goes entirely after the third.

One of the reasons why anti-smoking campaigns were so patently unsuccessful was because they never acknowledged how pleasurable the habit was. Let alone the addictive nature of nicotine, the sheer oral pleasure, the sensuous delight in being enveloped by the smoke of the first cigarette, the first rich taste of unfiltered tobacco on the tongue, are hard to beat.  There are good, positively rewarding, even delightful reasons why people smoke, and tightly-wound and committed reformers refuse to admit it.

Image result for images the pleasure of smoking
The same is true with lying.  The truth pales in comparison with the ingenuity, balletic moves, and pure theatricality of invention, fantasy, and clever deceit. Ivan’s Devil in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a vaudevillian who tells Ivan that the world would be a very dull place without him. Goodness, truth, and morality are very overrated, and if we had to hew to the righteous road every day, we would be bored stiff. “Loosen up”, he admonishes Ivan. There is a time and place for moral rectitude and principle, but Lord knows, not always.

Image result for images ivan's devil
Imagine a world where every statement was true; if  “I’m just going to pop out to get a quart of milk” was always exactly what the speaker intended? A world where ‘working late at the office’ meant just that?.  A world of absolute face value?

A close friend of mine only dated ‘theatrical’ women – women for whom face value did not matter. Embellishing the truth was no different than eye shadow, makeup, or a sequined dress.  For them music always had to be playing, for atmosphere, mood, and ambiance were all part of staging.  His women were all scrim, orchestra lighting, grand entrances, and death scenes.

This did not mean that they were unfounded, ships loosed from their moorings, or unpredictable, aimless emotional vagrants.  Amelia Santos, for example, lived well within the rules; but it was always difficult to fix her position.  She was, according to my friend, the female quark, a quantum particle whose coordinates were always and inevitably only probable.  She was a theatrical promoter, but whether or not she actually handled the visit of Eric Clapton to Lima in the late Seventies was unclear.  It certainly could have been true; or at least true to some extent; but my friend could never pin her down to dates, places, names, and times.  She had indeed been the manager of a radio station in Cuzco, but whether or not it was part of an extensive network of popular FM stations throughout Peru and beamed via shortwave to the entire continent was another story altogether.

She might have had two husbands or three.  The could have been from one of the most celebrated old families of Philadelphia, from New York, or Stuttgart.  The husbands might have settled for millions or not; and her children, of unusual mixed race, could have been fathered by Southern Italians, gypsies, or American Indians.

“Who cares?”, said my friend. “Who needs to know? It’s what they say, not what they do that counts”.  For him a woman’s personality was a function of her reconfiguring of reality, not her truthful account of it.  A woman was alluring in direct proportion to the ingenuity of her inventions.

Only once had he called a woman on the veracity of one of her stories. “It was early on in my sexual career”, he said, “when I didn’t know any better.”  Far from accepting the woman’s fanciful story of St. Petersburg and Vienna, he challenged her; and when he had boxed her into a corner, she left him. He had trespassed on hallowed ground.  He had crossed a line which never, ever should have been crossed.

Image result for images winter palace st petersburg
“From then on, it has been ‘live and let live’”, he said; “and I have been better off for it. “

A number of years ago an aged aunt had sunk into dementia. Fortunately she did not see demons as many demented people do, but simply altered the world to her own pleasant imaginings.  She told friends and family that the Pope had visited her convalescent home; that the manager had arranged a male strip show; and that she had been invited to the Copa by Tony Bennett.  Where she got these and other ideas was beyond anyone, but in any case she made no sense whatsoever.  Her sister insisted on trying to to bring her back from her impossible world; but no matter how she tried to retrieve her and stick her back in the here-and-now, the more fanciful became her flights of fancy.

Yet deep down the woman had not changed one bit.  She was the same irreverent, funny, ironic, and playful woman she had always been.  Her personality had not changed in this new invented world. Once in her fabulist, listeners could enjoy being with her in Europe, at the Vatican, or in Pink Flamingos.

In many ways her demented world was a far happier one than she actually led; which is why virtual reality has such promise.  Why be anchored to what is when you can travel in unlimited fantastical virtual worlds of your own choosing?  The aged aunt gave us all a glimpse of what that world might be like.  It wasn’t frightening at all.

There was a lot to be learned from the aged aunt.  After leaving her few were as rigidly logical in their assessment and appraisal of others as they were before. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy relied on logic and intellectual discipline to search for spiritual answers.  Both were disappointed; and both ended up in a half-way house of belief and rationality. “Love is the answer”, concluded Dostoevsky; and doing good was the essence of the final soliloquy of Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina – a paraphrase of Tolstoy’s own thoughts as written in A Confession. In other words,  he didn't care that much for the truth any more.

Trying to find the truth, on the other hand, is a good thing.  It is part of the drama. Pulling the curtain back a bit to see what is on stage, how the prima donna is dressed. Facts are not so important in and of themselves but in their elusiveness.  The thrill of the chase.

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