Reign of Lies
What’s the major cause of the nation’s financial crisis? Lies; a river of lies emptied into a sea of mendacity, sucked up into the sky again by a great hurricane of deceit and rained back down upon us in a deluge of prevarication.
Lies are to democracy what Katrina was to New Orleans. They are not just incompatible with self rule, they destroy it. Our intuition of this obvious fact is why we get so frustrated at the repeated lies of George Bush, John McCain and Sarah Palin. It’s why we recoil against the untruths of TV commentators who lie again and again to advance their own ideologies. They lie and they know we know they’re lying. But lies are too often accepted as legitimate moves in our political game, which is not a game but a matter of life, death and freedom. Therein lies a tale.
It was a dry reference made Friday by economist Paul Krugman that reawakened this frog to the fact that the floodwaters of lies are heated up and near to boiling.
In his column, Krugman quoted bond trader and blogger John Jansen, who wrote Thursday that the economic meltdown is "the financial equivalent of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution." I hunted up Jansen’s blog, and here’s more of what he said:
Markets get overdone and revolutions end in excess. In my opinion, [trouble in the money market] is the financial equivalent of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Trust has been destroyed and devalued and it will take a very long time for it to revive itself.
Exactly what revolution is causing the excess today?
I want to say it is not only what Jansen seems to imply and what many others think: the radical anti-government rebellion spearheaded by the economic anarchists of the far right, people like John McCain’s economic advisor, Phil Gramm. Gramm, in 1999, successfully passed a deregulation bill that repealed legal protections in place since the Great Depression, protections intended to keep from happening what has just happened to the American economy.
Certainly, the unapologetically anti-social and greed-besotted Phil Gramms of the world deserve a large share of blame for our economic woes. But they could succeed only in a culture so permeated by lies that, as Herman Melville warned us, the Confidence Man is King.
It is the excesses of the Revolution of the Lie that we suffer from today.
This revolution inverts and perverts the purposes of the conventions of culture and society, from our simple shared rituals and rules of etiquette to macro political structures. Anthropologists and linguists tell us that the development of language greatly enhanced humans’ ability to deceive one another, an ability honed quite skillfully through the ages. Humans invent these social structures, in part, to minimize the impact of lies. They aren’t perfect or incorruptible, just more visible and a little more dependable than forked tongues.
We can see how these structures work by noticing the difference between, say, opening the car door for someone and telling someone over a drink that you always open car doors for others. The former is performed, like all rituals. It is enacted, not claimed. The U.S. Constitution’s system of checks and balances is, of course, a paradigmatic example on the macro scale.
But to the Revolutionaries of the Lie, these safeguards were the accoutrements of an Ancien Régime, interesting only because they are not inviolable, they can be twisted, exploited, or guillotined.
For instance, in the movie Goodfellas, the hit man kindly opens the car door for Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), whom he’s about to kill. But he pretends courtesy to keep Tommy from suspecting he’s about to get a bullet in the brain.
Or, in another example, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney place their hands on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution, pretending to defend what they will soon whack.
It is one thing for acquisitive, imperfect humans to lie sometimes to get what they want. Nothing new about that. It is quite another thing to build a culture of lies upon foundations of lies. And that’s what the Revolution of the Lie has tried to do.
The best recent declaration of independence from truth was authored by Bush’s unnamed aide in a quote made famous by journalist Ron Suskind:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." … "That’s not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality-judiciously, as you will-we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Thomas Jefferson, author of the nation’s true Declaration of Independence, said this about lying in a 1785 letter to his nephew, Peter Carr:
It is of great importance to set a resolution, not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so contemptible; and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.
Oh, that the nation had taken Jefferson’s advice.
Now, it also has to be acknowledged that not all social conventions are intended to innocently protect members of a community. Many can and often do oppress them, sometimes horribly. Southern blacks were once prohibited by convention from looking their white ‘betters’ in the eye, especially in ‘polite company’. A convention can be seen as a lie when viewed in the context of a greater truth, for instance, the lie of black inferiority seen in the context of Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all are created equal.
Contesting destructive conventions in the service of greater truths is far different from lying or subverting social conventions for malevolent ends.
That brings us to the crux of an American dilemma. We invent ourselves from scratch – in a New World. We wrote our own founding myths. We, not a distant Theseus or Romulus, are the protagonists in these narratives, and we have the freedom not just of characters in folk tales but of authors who tell these tales. We can do and say what we want. Truth, in our heady experiment, can sometimes seem like little more than an impediment to freedom.
Mason "Parson" Weems made up the story about George Washington and the cherry tree. It was all part of a 19th Century strategy to create a nationalistic consciousness in the new nation.
Another way of looking at it: Weems was lying when he glorified Washington as a man who would not tell a lie. That, it seems to me, sums up our problematic relationship to the truth.
In 1776, the very year America declared its independence, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, the often misunderstood bible of capitalism. Smith invented the metaphor of the free market’s invisible hand, a homely little conceit that has become (against Smith’s intentions, I think) one of the biggest and most destructive lies in our culture.
Eleanor Courtemanche in her essay, "Invisible Hands and Visionary Narrators: Why the Free Market Is Like A Novel," points out the obvious contradictions inherent in the myth of the invisible hand. Her work can be used to make clear a parallel between the New World’s self-inventing myths and the story of the invisible hand.
Smith’s little metaphor became godlike in the hands of his successors. The invisible hand is the unmoved mover, creating moral ends out of immoral, greedy, self-interested behavior. But Smith says it only works if individuals pursue their self-interest without an interfering selfless thought of the greater good. And the State has only limited knowledge of individual self-interest and the mystery and magic of the invisible hand. It should just stay the hell out of the way. So where does the morality come from?
Courtemanche’s answer is it comes from our imaginations. We act as both omniscient narrators and characters in our own tales. We are our own Parson Weems, creating the lie that we cannot tell a lie. We are characters in and authors of the capitalist novel, and we reassure ourselves that this created capitalist universe of ours is, in the end, moral because we say it is. She writes:
Hence, the perpetual fetishisation of the invisible hand, for without it, the illusion of utopian moral order must be reinterpreted as mere anarchy and greed. In many ways, then, being a subject of capitalism is a lot like being a character in a novel. One feels that something or other is in control – the mysterious ‘they’ of market forces – but also that its authorial location is hard to pin down. At the same time, the message of the free market is that we have our own destiny in our hands, and can write our story ourselves.
The trouble, of course, is that the universe doesn’t lie. Real hurricanes destroy real cities, the globe heats up to the point that life is threatened, no matter what stories we tell ourselves. Unfettered greed can’t produce a moral, life-affirming outcome. The idea is preposterous.
These are the foundations of the Revolution of the Lie: a people disconnected from past traditions find themselves unencumbered by older truths in a new land where they can make up just any damn thing about themselves; an economic fantasy that pretends an ultimate, utopian morality and reinforces tall tales unconnected to the truths of the earth beneath our feet and other flesh-and-blood people with whom we share that earth.
It doesn’t take a lie to persuade us that open, accessible and fair market economies beat feudalism, mercantilism, communism etc. all to hell. But open and accessible doesn’t mean lawless anarchy like we’ve seen in the financial sectors in recent years. Economies need cops just like the streets do.
We can’t get to this simple truth, however, because of the storm of lies blowing in our faces. We brought the American Revolution of the Lie with us into the 20th Century, often called the American Century. In the 21st Century, it’s a global nightmare.
Our nation’s traditions of resistance have long recognized the dilemma. Emerson urged us to "pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things." In fact, it is this tradition of resistance to the lie that keeps open our possibilities of greatness.
It’s not an invisible hand that does the moral work in a human universe. It’s our hands, it’s mortal flesh and bone. Despite our fantasies, there can be no real freedom until we recognize that fact, until we escape our lies and begin to live in truth with one another.
Emerson’s friend Margaret Fuller said, "I accept the universe," to which a skeptical Thomas Carlyle said, "Gad! She’d better." But seen in the context of our problematic relationship with the truth, Fuller’s comment is profound. Carlyle’s response seems less caustic and more like an important prescription. In fact, we might say to ourselves, "Gad! We’d better."