Saturday, April 7, 2012

How To Talk To Liars

When the title character in Henry James' novel "The American" threatens the aristocratic interfering family of his bride-to-be with the promise to expose their crimes he learns an important lesson. People don't make money and don't keep their money by telling the truth. People who value money highly have no confidence in the ability of truth telling to do anything important. Acting on instinct and experience, the aristocrats defy the threat, and they get away with it.

The reason there are classes such as "the aristocrats" "the rich" "big business" is not because some demonic force of history wants to play a joke on us. Rather, such classes of people who don't tell the truth, don't listen to the truth exist only because almost no one else tells the truth either. Everyone has agreed to play the game of evaluating what is probable, what will likely be accepted, what the successful say to get the job, make the sale, seduce the mate. Truth has a very minor role to play in that game. Everyone has been convinced that it is the only game in town, and that they have a chance to win too, even if it is no better than a lottery. In the choice of public officials, people admire, feel much closer to, have more confidence in and understand better, not those who actually have ability to do the job, but rather those who are a great success at playing the game they themselves dream of succeeding at.

The billionaire former director of the internet company Ebay ran for governor of the state of California. She proposed in her campaign to make it a crime to knowingly hire an illegal immigrant. Soon it was reported that documents sent to her by the federal government made it virtually certain she knew for years that her long time house keeper was illegally in the country. When asked why after she finally fired the housekeeper she didn't try to help her, simply left her to the government's deportation process, she answered that, though previously she'd said the housekeeper was like a member of the family, in this situation turning her over to the authorities was the right thing to do.

I don't have to comment, except to say that this billionaire candidate might have won but it seems she went beyond some unknown limit of hypocrisy and didn't become our next governor of California.

"No one likes a hypocrite". Is that still true? No one likes a failure, and there is no failure as long as the hypocrite can keep on talking and hold onto power and money. Hypocrisy in fact is becoming itself a status symbol, a sign of wealth and success.

What are we to do then, those of us who still want to tell the truth and to hear the truth? It can't hurt to hope that there is a new class war about to begin. This one we imagine is not going to be about the rich and poor, liberal and conservative. It's not going to be about politics or economics, not about ideologies. It is going to be the truthful against the liars.

Sounds good. The problem is there doesn't seem to be enough honest people left to make much of a showing in this war.