Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may seem at first blush to share only the use of “cat” in their titles, but both works are masterful examinations of something central to the human condition: the lie.
But Vonnegut’s foma at the heart of Bokononism and Big Daddy’s railing against mendacity present contrasting dramatizations of “lying and liars,” as Brick and Big Daddy wrestle with “one of them five dollar words” :
Mendacity is the darkest of lies because it corrupts and ultimately destroys relationships and even lives. For Big Daddy, mendacity is inevitable, central to the human condition: “I’ve lived with mendacity!—Why can’t you live with it? Hell, you got to live with it, there’s nothing else to live with except mendacity, is there?”
While Vonnegut’s novel is also dark—and typically satirical—foma is offered as harmless lies, as Julian Castle explains to the narrator:
“Well, when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.” (p. 172)
Although different consequences result from the mendacity of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the foma of Cat’s Cradle, all lies share one important characteristic: They are almost impossible to confront, and once confronted, they create a great deal of pain.
As a parent, I came face to face with letting the cat out of the bag when my daughter first unmasked the foma of the Tooth Fairy, and then connected that realization with Santa Claus. After I confessed to the truth—trying as I did to make a case about “harmless lies”—my daughter cut right to the heart of the matter, asking, “Why did y’all lie to me?”
The thinnest margins between mendacity and foma, I think, are found in our cultural myths—the fatal flaw of confusing the ideals we aspire to as a people with conditions already achieved. Many of those aspirations have tipped into mendacity, poisoning the possibility of those ideals—especially in the foundational promises of public institutions.
Here, then, are those ideals that could have served us well as aspiration, but now work as mendacity and thus against our best intensions:
- Capitalism and choice. The realization is now becoming hard to ignore, that capitalism (the free market) is incompatible with equity (see, for example, Thomas Piketty). As well, choice as a concept central to freedom is far more complicated than expressed in our public discourse. Both capitalism and choice have worked against cultural aspirations for equity, but those failures may be better explained by the reason they have failed: idealizing capitalism and choice while failing to commit fully to the power of the Commons to establish the context within which capitalism and choice could serve equity well.
- Meritocracy. In the U.S., possibly the greatest lie that results from confusing an aspiration with an achieved condition is the argument that we live in a meritocracy. The evidence suggests that we currently do not have a meritocracy (see how being born rich and not attending college trumps being born poor but completing college), and even more disturbing, we are unlikely to achieve a meritocracy (see why “[e]qual opportunity cannot actually be achieved”).
- Education as Key to Equity. As misleading as claims about the U.S. being a meritocracy (or that we are a post-racial country) are assertions that education is the one true way to overcome social ills and how any individual can lift her/himself out of poverty. However, education has not and does not, in fact, change society, rarely lifts people out of the circumstances of their births, and serves as a marker for privilege (thus creates the illusion that education is a force for change)—as Reardon explains:
Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion.
Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to verify the answer.
What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially….
Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.
- Education Must Be Reformed. One key to seeing the mendacity of cultural claims is recognizing how often those claims are contradictory. Many who champion the idealized and misleading belief that education is central to social and personal achievement also have historically and currently declared education a failure, concluding that education must be reformed. That reform is monolithic: Greater and greater accountability built on new standards and new testing. The concept of “having high standards,” however, proves to be as misleading as claims of the U.S. being a meritocracy because thirty years of standards-based education reform have revealed there is no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and student achievement. As well, throughout more than 60 years of lamenting international test score rankings of the U.S., we also have no evidence of a correlation between those international rankings and any country’s economic robustness or competitiveness.
When my daughter allowed the evidence to lead her to a conclusion that made her at least uncomfortable if not disillusioned, she had to begin to re-evaluating her perception of the world, a perception that included the nature of truth and the role of her parents in her navigating that world.
That may sound dramatic about a conversation including the Tooth Fairy, but for a child, the intentions of foma have the same stinging consequences as the cynicism of mendacity. For adults, it seems, burying ourselves in the opiate of foma (Aldous Huxley’s soma) allows us to ignore the bitter pill of mendacity.
As aspirations, the bulleted concepts above remain important for a free people, but as mendacity, they have and will continue to insure that inequity cannot be achieved.
Many readers miss the powerful theme of optimism that runs through Vonnegut’s works; he maintains a genuine and compelling hope among the ruins for the capacity of humans to be kind. The bitterness and fatalism of Big Daddy, however, seem for now a more accurate assessment of the human condition in 2014.
More difficult to confront than either mendacity or foma, it appears, is the hard truth that the human pursuit of equity must come before merit can matter and that in order to achieve that possibility, the human condition must commit to a spirit of community and collaboration, not competition.
Regretfully, most in power are apt to continue to not let that cat out of the bag.
 The film adaptation of the play has some shifts in the wording and transposing of character’s lines, but the film is iconic as pop culture so I include a clip from that although I use lines from the play in the quotes.