Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Lies We Tell Ourselves

I've been more than a bit obsessed of late with the nature of deceit, likely because we live in a culture in which we find deceit omnipresent, so much so that we’ve come to expect it—in our politicians and government, in our corporations (in their actions, bookkeeping, and advertising), on our food labels, within the films and programs and books with which we like to entertain ourselves. I’m more than a guilty participant, and that is the larger reason for my obsession. I am a novelist. The word “fiction”, by which I make my living, comes to us from the Old French “ficcion” meaning “something invented” and originates in Latin, with roots meaning “to build, form or knead.” Moreover, I have written under a pseudonym for twenty-five years, so I guess that functions as a kind of lying inside of lying. So why should you trust me? You shouldn't.

But then you know that, don’t you? You know enough not to confuse the fabrications of a novel with reality. What troubles me, however, is that collectively we seem to have an increasingly difficult time separating out the lies we are told by those with substantial agendas requiring we accept such lies from the actual truth of facts. This, despite coming of age in a culture where we should know better, a culture where those trying to sell us things have been appealing to our vulnerabilities—our desires and our fears—all of our lives. As a teacher, I've worked hard to help students develop the critical thinking skills to differentiate truth from fiction in their everyday lives. Often, even among the brightest, it is an uphill battle.

At this moment, I am thinking of one student specifically. She was smart, scored well on tests, found acceptance into a good college, pulled in above average grades. Yet she aggressively claimed the position in a class discussion that there clearly was no harm caused to local communities by the presence of nearby large-scale oil and gas development. She had, after all, gone the extra mile most never do (or have the chance to do) and was a participant on a class field trip to a natural gas development site. She’d been shown around, had the process explained, saw completed drill sites, and was shown the public works facilities, such as a joint school district and community aquatic center that contributions from natural resource companies had helped finance, as had tax profits from oil and gas development. She refused, however, to see that the fact her tour had been led entirely by a public relations official from the company might have provided an incomplete picture of the impact, just as if seeing the neat, fenced pumping station told the whole picture of the process by how gas is brought to the surface. What she saw was real, after all. But she failed to talk to the police officers who had seen a 300% rise in domestic violence calls in the years during the most active gas field development, or the high school principal who lamented the spike in teen pregnancies in students who had briefly dated oil field workers, or the bank manager who made more money from her side job on Friday and Saturday nights than she did making now non-existent loans to locals, no more than she had investigated the warnings now frequently issued by the state for poor air quality conditions, something non-existent in a rural place prior to development. Now had she also had these conversations, she still might have reached her original conclusion (after, one hopes, some real investigation) and certainly she would have seen that taken alone, no one such piece of data offered irrefutable evidence, no more than her carefully controlled tour had. My concern as a teacher was not with the opinion she held but with the fact she had left so many questions unasked. When we fail to ask the questions critical thinking demands of us, we become guilty participants in propagating deception.

In imagining the story of Aaron Lugner in my novel In the Chameleon’s Shadow, I trace the actions of a man who has been living entirely by deceit for a decade, trying on entire false identities, profiting from the interest of women, and running scams that gain financial profit by appealing to the vulnerabilities and vanities of others. But I’m even more interested, in Aaron and in all the characters of the novel, in the nature of self-deceit, those ways in which we delude ourselves about our own natures. I’m interested in large part because I think we are all guilty participants. Indeed, I’m not certain any of us could quite make it through our individual difficult lives without a little self-deceit, for don’t we all, at the very least, possess rather selective memories? Ask three people who were all present at the same event twenty years ago for their recollections and tell me you won’t get three different stories. Cobbled together they may reflect some proximity of the truth. We can argue that this is merely a matter of differing perspectives and faulty, aging brain wiring, and that would be right, of course, but isn’t the way we remember also guided in part by how we wish to remember and shaped by psychological forces we don’t fully understand? I would argue that is partly a measure of self-deceit, though not necessarily an unhealthy one. I suspect it is difficult, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, not to be deceiving in one’s perception of oneself about such ordinary and inescapable things as the way we view our waistlines and our hairlines. Part of this is even a biological function. After all, how many women would face a second (or third or fourth…) round of childbirth if they weren’t able to shape selective memory about the pain of the first one, supplanting physical pain with the joy of new life?

The novel does not focus entirely on these normal measures of self-deceit but rather more extraordinary ones, for Aaron is a character that begins to believe he may be creating realities by the lies he tells. But then I would argue that America, collectively, is guilty of something similar, often too willing to accept the lies we have knowingly participated in creating. How else did we, with notable opposition from those who did not buy in, accept the self-delusion that our involvement in Vietnam was to protect Southeast Asia from communism, to keep the world safe for democracy?  How else do we continue to boast that we remain the most advanced nation in the world when a 2012 Pearson report ranks the US 17th in a global educational index based on student graduation rates, test performance, and pursuit of college admission; when our infant mortality rate of 5.9 deaths per 1,000 live births places us behind not just most of Europe but behind countries like Cuba, Taiwan, and Slovenia; and when we are ranked as the 18th most obese nation in the world? How else do we accept presenting ourselves as a model for democracy when our own Congress is barely functioning and represents the interests of lobbyists rather than those of their constituents (and we are certainly lying to ourselves if we believe differently)?

In the Chameleon’s Shadow never enters the realms of deceit, self or otherwise, with a political eye. It is a story about people and about their individual decisions, not their political ones. But its writing was everywhere informed by the geopolitical arena of lying, for the bulk of the novel was written at the height of the most recent recession, at that time when, even as it was still unfolding, collectively American consciousness was rapidly forgetting the lies of the Bush administration that had carried us into war and those that had created tax policy and stripped regulation to ensure that the wealthiest in the society (and the biggest campaign contributors—though now, in the age of the Citizens United ruling such contributions not only flow directly through corporations but unchecked through interest groups in a purposeful, deceptive attempt to hide individuals) grew richer. Is it self-deceit to fail acknowledgment that since 1979 the incomes of the middle 60% of Americans have grown 38% while the incomes of those in the top1% of income brackets have seen 277% growth, as reported by the Congressional Budget Office? It is a useful reminder that the wealth gap between the very wealthiest Americans and the rest of us reached a peak in 2007 and mirrored, almost exactly, a peak recorded in 1928,the latter immediately followed of course by the Great Depression, the former triggering the recession from which we are still struggling to recover despite its technical end. By 2009 and 2010, the years during which most of my novel was written, we were fully aware of the consequences of the enormous, collaborative lie that generated the mortgage crisis. And what is it but a confluence of self-deceit and purposeful deceit to sell people homes they could not afford, financed by loans they could not pay and based on appraisals that were pure fictions for the purpose of packaging such loans to inflate a market that was, in itself, essentially a fiction.
As banks failed and the Bush administration initiated policies to bail them out, we watched CEOs line their pockets, something we have already clearly chosen to forget, which begs the question whether this habit is a symptom of cultural ADD or self-deceit or both. It is this myopia that troubles me most, for immediately the blame shifted to the Obama administration as we quickly and conveniently chose to forget the circumstances and policies that created the nightmare President Obama inherited. Instead we saw the rise of movements like the Tea Party, which steadfastly likes to believe—and I do accept that many, even a majority of its participants actually do believe—that it is a grassroots movement, quietly ignoring or choosing to remain ignorant of the fact that it has been bankrolled almost exclusively by members of the ruling class, most notably by David and Charles Koch through donations to groups such as “Americans for Prosperity”, “FreedomWorks” and others. Everyone has a right to his or her agenda, including the Koch brothers, but I can’t tolerate the kind of self-deceit masked either as simple ignorance or total lack of critical thinking ability that allows so many Tea Party members to view their agenda as one developed and funded by “the people” to represent hard-working, ordinary Americans.

Similarly, is it not likely that public figures with microphones are disproportionate to the larger population in their sham suggestions that climate change is a hoax? Consider this as illustrated by Congressman Steve Stockman’s (R-TX) words: “The new fad thing that’s going through America and around the world. It’s called global warming.”?  Or that they are completely off track in their understanding, like the fearless Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), explaining: “Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you've got more carbon dioxide.” How long will we allow a tiny minority of either the self-protective, profit-motivated or the entirely ignorant continue to deny the careful and well-documented research on climate change? Do they even understand the nature of scientific inquiry? Are those who continue to deny the science guilty of purposeful lying or of self-deception? Either way, the inaction promoted by such absurd claims only help to delay movement towards solutions, and either way, who pays?

It is a similar surreptitious methodology based in denial and lies that has helped form a near single point of focus by conservatives over the past election cycle and into the next on the deficit. Now no one in their right mind is going to suggest carrying huge deficits is any way to fund a great country and no one should deny that its presence must be addressed. That said, common sense also suggests that in a time of significant recession, high unemployment, two wars, and in the presence of a crumbling infrastructure that largely has not been addressed in over a half century is not the ideal moment to pitch an all or nothing battle on the deficit. Now this is all the more in evidence when so many actually appear to believe in the calculated deception of forgetting where most of the deficit came from. Isn't it convenient to forget that the last large deficit experienced in America had much of its root in Reagan tax policy and the folly of trickle-down economics and was erased in a time of prosperity and growth during the Clinton administration when deficit was transformed to surplus? And while I and others would be equally guilty of practicing deception if I did not acknowledge the significant growth in the deficit during the Obama administration, it is silly to remove such growth from the facts of the surrounding economics. This is equally true of the last acts of the Bush administration and the actions of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, for that occurred in a time of unprecedented economic freefall and to fail action would likely have exaggerated the problems. To view that and the current deficit growth outside the context of the very recent history is simply stupid. But it would be equally mindless to fail to recognize the policy decisions that helped create the terrain in which such catastrophes occurred, as it is inaccurate to falsely represent the impact of such spending when compared to the other choices that account for the bulk of the deficit. (And if you want to deal in those pesky little things called facts, when examining the years after 2008, it might be revealing to recognize that spending on TARP, Medicare Part D, and The Recovery Act COMBINED do not equal expenditures on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and pale when compared to the 2001 and 2003 Tax cuts.) There was an extremely readable and useful chart reprinted in The Atlantic (originally from the New York Times) that helps clarify a visual reminder of the truth about deficit growth and its sources, and to place it in the same context I attempt here, it is useful to quote from the accompanying article:

“It's based on data from the Congressional Budget Office and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Its significance is not partisan (who's "to blame" for the deficit) but intellectual. It demonstrates the utter incoherence of being very concerned about a structural federal deficit but ruling out of consideration the policy that was largest single contributor to that deficit, namely the Bush-era tax cuts.”

And consider this statement from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

"If not for the Bush tax cuts, the deficit-financed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the effects of the worst recession since the Great Depression (including the cost of policymakers’ actions to combat it), we would not be facing these huge deficits in the near term. By themselves, in fact, the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will account for almost half of the $20 trillion in debt that, under current policies, the nation will owe by 2019. The stimulus law and financial rescues will account for less than 10 percent of the debt at that time."

While not the largest single contributor to the deficit, consider these boggling numbers from an article from March 2013 in the Washington Post: “The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will cost taxpayers $4 trillion to $6 trillion, taking into account the medical care of wounded veterans and expensive repairs to a force depleted by more than a decade of fighting, according to a new study by a Harvard researcher.” And, remembering that the war in Iraq was based either on a complete absence of analytic logic or an outright lie, let’s ask the questions: what did American men and women give up their lives and limbs to accomplish? Is Iraq a more stable place today than it was prior to our invasion? Will we exit Afghanistan and leave it any less corrupt or any less tribal than have the countless foreign armies who have fought there before? Have we made more new enemies and created more future terrorists than we removed? Are the geopolitics of the larger region more or less stable today than they were before ten years of war? And who, overwhelmingly, serves our country in such wars, members of the top 1% of income brackets or those of the bottom 10%?

The answers to such questions, like the realities beneath who sets the Tea Party agenda and those who deny climate change suggest to me that, collectively, we are extremely adept at self-deception and easy marks for those who wish to deceive us with purpose.

And such is the larger domestic atmosphere prevalent in the years spent writing In the Chameleon’s Shadow. The book touches on none of these, but I hold by novelist Ishmael Reed’s belief that “writers cannot write outside of history.” Aaron Lugner, the protagonist of the novel, came entirely as a surprise to me. I don’t honestly know why I stumbled upon his story during this writing, for the book has its genesis only in a visual image that opens the novel. The rest of the writing, as it typically is for me, was simply trying to catch up to the people who populated the fringes of that image. But can any of us live outside the history of our times? In hindsight, it is not so terribly surprising to have found myself writing a novel preoccupied with the themes of deceit. So while the novel is not political, it is ideological, and one of the central questions the book ended up exploring is this: “Is not answering the question that has never been asked a kind of lying?”

I think it is an intriguing question in its own right, not only prevalent to the relationships within the novel but as a larger question for our lives. We all edit. Even in the age of social media and an overage of sharing, we pick and choose what we reveal, and honestly, it seems to me that increasingly people are so busy making such choices about what is revealed that by and large we are not very good at asking questions any more. This leaves a lot of room for non-disclosure or partial disclosure and comes in an age when we are extraordinarily aware of the images, public and otherwise, we wish to broadcast. If we fail to ask the question, can we ever expect an answer? And if we are carefully crafting a public face, how much of that portrait is rooted in truth and how much in a partial illusion guided by self-deception?

What I do feel strongly is that when we take such ideas back into the collective of the larger culture, our ability to be deceived, by the self or by others, is rooted in our lack of asking the difficult questions. We live in an age where we are skeptical of smart people yet fail to critically review the most omnipresent parts of our lives. We listen to pundits when we should be conversing with scientists. We watch fabricated television and call it “reality” and pretend to be shocked when its participants prove to have little relationship to the personalities (characters?) they portray. We allow the wealthy elite to set the country’s agenda and then pacify ourselves in the belief that they are looking out for our best interests. We accept the mission taglines of corporations as truth. We need to ask more questions. We need to question our representatives, our corporations, and ourselves. If we fail to ask the questions, we are guilty of passively accepting a camouflage of lies.

1 comment:

  1. I like your juxtaposition of the political lies with the personal lies that we tell. I agree that our collective environment affects us as individuals.
    I probably don't focus enough on politics, but I practice, in almost every interaction, interpreting, acknowledging, and responding to the communication that happens outside of language, because the truth is usually nestled in subtlety.
    Verbalizing or drawing attention to the hidden messages can seem culturally unacceptable. After lots of practice I find it refreshing. The more I do it the easier it is to push through that initial clenching in the gut. I'll admit, at this point, there's probably a little thrill involved.
    Habitually clarifying the "intentional murkiness" is the only way to change these dangerous cultural norms.
    I don't know if we should ALWAYS tell the truth. But it'd be cool to at least be CONCIOUS of the lies we tell.