Archive for December 16th, 2011
WC doesn’t consciously model his writing after anyone’s, except possibly the late, great Dom LaRusso. But if WC were to select a writer to emulate, it would have been Christopher Hitchens.
In the early 1980s, it must have been, WC was a frequent customer of Baker & Baker Booksellers when they were still in Northgate Square here in Fairbanks. It was a great stop after supper at the adjoining Moveable Feast. One evening, a particularly lurid cover of Nation magazine caught WC’s eye, featuring a headline attacking Henry Kissinger. WC picked up the magazine and glanced at an article by a guy named Christopher Hitchens. An hour and a half later, after reading the entire article, WC walked out with everything he could find by Hitch. And WC has never looked back. Christopher Hitchens, like John MacPhee, Stephen Jay Gould and Terry Pratchett, has the distinction of filling an entire shelf with books in WC’s library.
It wasn’t that WC agreed with everything Hitch had to say; far from it. His support of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, for example, was infuriating. But that the man wrote with a ludicity, style and passion that kept you reading even when you strongly disagreed with him. Afterwards you’d wonder how he could have things so hopelessly wrong, but struggle how to refute his arguments.
And, except in one area, it was okay to disagree with Hitch. If you had a reasoned, rational basis for disagreement, and could articulate it, Hitch was fine with your contrary views. Except in matters of religion. And that was because religion requires you to turn off your rationality, in Hitch’s view, to revert to faith. And faith was, if you will pardon WC’s phrase, anathema to Hitch. And his view of shamans was even harsher. He famously said of the late Jerry Falwell, “If you gave the man an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox.”
Hitch will probably be mostly remembered for his anti-religious screed, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Amazon link). But if you think of Hitch as just an articulate atheist, you are selling him short. His writings reflected a world view of which atheism was only a small part. His harsh and unrelenting criticism of Islamofascism was another aspect of that world view. While you should read Hitch’s works yourselves, WC would inelegantly and inadequately characterize that world view this way: What sets humans apart from animals is their ability to reason. Anything that subverts that critical trait, whether it is subservience of reason to faith, lying in the service of a greater good or torture (he voluntarily submitted to waterboarding); that compromised the ability to reason and was not to be tolerated.
As always, Hitch can put it better than WC:
I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do.
The quote is from what was probably Hitch’s final interview, given, appropriately enough, to Sir Richard Dawkins. Portions of the interview are on-line at The New Statesman here.
It didn’t hurt that Hitch was also a brilliant debater, quick, articulate and not above the vicious put down. When Sean Hannity of Fox News attempted to persuade Hitch there was an all-seeing God, Hitch dismissed the idea elegantly and contemptuously: “It would be like living in North Korea” His ability with one-liners made him popular on talk shows. And there’s something about a plummy, Oxbridge accent that seems to command a kind of fawning respect. But Hitch’s writing was much better than his speaking.
So thank you for the wonderful writing, the articulate world view and the courage of your example, Hitch. To the rest of the world: we have lost one of the great ones.
The New York Times has a nice obituary if you are looking for something a bit less enthusiastic than WC’s admiration.
The late Robert Heinlein, writing in Time Enough for Love, said that there were three kinds of lies: (1) the simple statement of an untruth, by far the most common lie; (2) telling part of the truth and stopping, creating a lie by omission, and (3) the most difficult and least common, telling the truth but doing so unconvincingly so that people think you are lying. Heinlein also lamented the increase in clumsy, stupid lies.
It’s against that background that WC wants to visit the role of truth and the lost art of lying in current politics. This will be a series of blog posts. The specific triggers for this series are
- Mark Hemingway’s article in The Weekly Standard in which he calls fact-checking – discovering lies – “the liberal media’s latest attempt to control the discourse.”
- WC recently completed reading James Stewart’s excellent Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff.
- WC probably made a mistake and listened to one of the recent Republican presidential wannabe “debates,” where apparently the statements of the debaters are “not intended to be factual.”
WC has some pretty strong feelings about these three aspects of lying. This third and last post examines the Republican presidential wannabes and their colleagues and the reckless disregard for the truth they show in their debates and campaigning.
What WC Expects in a Politician: Don’t Lie
Mitt Romney ran an anti-Obama advertisement, taking an Obama quote completely out of context, inverting and distorting its meaning in an effort to gain votes. Newt Gingrich claimed the ethics scandal which led to his resignation and a $300,000 fine was a Democratic witch hunt, even though the vote was 395-28 and he admitted the charges in 1997. Gingrich worked to impeach President Clinton for lying under oath about extramarital sex while Gingrich himself was having an affair with a Congressional staffer some 23 years younger than him. Michelle Bachman, based on one alleged anecdote, claimed a thoroughly studied vaccine that can save lives can cause “mental retardation.” In April of this year, Senator Jon Kyl (R, AZ) claimed on the Senate floor:
KYL: Everybody goes to clinics, to doctors, to hospitals, so on. Some people go to Planned Parenthood. But you don’t have to go to Planned Parenthood to get your cholesterol or your blood pressure checked. If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that’s well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.
And then had one of his aides say that ’his remark was not intended to be a factual statement.” Planned Parenthood has demonstrated abortions constitute about 3% of its activities.
WC thinks he has realistically low expectations of politicians. Yes, they lie like rugs. Yes, they’ll attempt to impeach their colleagues while they themselves do the very things for which they seek to impeach their colleagues. And yes, Bill Clinton did his share of lying, contributing to the current state of national mendacity.
But when a presidential wannabe like Michelle Bachman claims vaccinations for a cancer-causing sexually transmitted disease causes mental retardation, the claim is so ill-informed, so reckless and so dangerous that the lie endangers the health of our children and the safety of our country. When Gingrich is having an affair with a staffer while seeing to impeach the president for the same conduct, he’s reinforcing every stereotype, and undermining the credibility of the U.S. Senate as a whole. At a time when Planned Parenthood clinics are attacked, firebombed and their professional staff assassinated it’s a near-criminal act to falsely characterize them as abortion mills.
Every prince should desire to be accounted merciful, not cruel; but a new prince cannot escape a name for cruelty, for he who quells disorder by a few signal examples will, in the end, be the more merciful.
It’s been generalized to “The ends justify the means.” More plainly, that morally or legally wrong actions are sometimes necessary to achieve morally right outcomes; actions can only be considered morally right or wrong by virtue of the morality of the outcome. Assuming that Machiavelli’s precept had any application in the Italian city-states like Florence, it is contemptible in a nation of laws.
In their zeal for power, in their attempts to defeat President Obama, get themselves elected President or prevail in a decades-old controversy like abortion, these political hacks, consciously or unconsciously, have decided that the end justifies the means. That the glory of their presidency or the holy grail of an anti-abortion amendment justifies any means, however despicable, to obtain it.
WC utterly rejects the thesis. There are practical reasons – if you can’t trust them not to lie now how can you trust them when they are elected? There are moral reasons – there is that Commandment, after all. But for WC it’s mostly because we are a nation of laws, a nation that honors the truth, that rewards those who speak the truth.
As citizens of the United States, WC believes it is our duty to call out lies by those who want to lead us. However painful. However tedious. However Sisyphean.
 WC is aware of the aphorism about omlettes and eggs. But doesn’t think it applies here. In any event, this cast of clowns seems more intent on changing the saying to “You can’t make an omelette without ruthlessly crushing dozens of eggs beneath your steel boot and then publicly disemboweling the chickens that laid them as a warning to others.” And the subject is the government of the most powerful nation on the planet.