The Unbearable Lightness of Lying: Renaming What We Value, Fear

“Who is more to be pitied,” muses artist and main character Rabo Karabekian in Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, “a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?”

As in most of Vonnegut’s fiction, there is a tension of tone between the narration and the weight of the circumstances—a tug-of-war between light and dark, or better phrased Light and Dark.

Karabekian’s failed autobiography is an adventure in What is art? with the specters of Nazi Germany, fascism, and World War II as well as the rise and fall of the U.S.S.R. (the novel was published in 1987) lurking forever in the background.

“The history of writers working under tyranny or in exile is long, and each example involves its own particular cruelties,” writes Nathan Scott McNamara, adding:

From 1968 until 1989, Czech writers like Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal were put in a particularly impossible position. They spoke and wrote in Czech, a language limited to a very small part of Central Europe—and a language that had fallen under the control of a sensitive and authoritarian government….

One of the major successes of the Soviet regime’s control of Czechoslovakia was the creation of a generalized fear, making the Czech people suspicious of each other. Kundera has been largely disavowed by his native land, and in 2008, he was dubiously accused of once working with the Communist Police. Toward the end of his life, Hrabal came to see himself as a coward. At the age of 82, he jumped from the fifth story window of a hospital and died.

In the very real world, Kundera and Hrabal represent what Vonnegut fictionalizes, but struggled against in some ways himself as a writer.

Also as McNamara recognizes, the terrors found in Vonnegut’s novel as well as Kundera and Hrabal’s lives and careers are not something of history:

The survival of the writer under an unpredictable government is no less a serious concern today….

Warning flares are going up in the United States, too, where our President-elect threatens his competitors, intimidates private citizens, and warns that he’ll alter libel laws so journalists can be “sued like they’ve never been sued before.” This past week brought us another painful parallel between the 2016 US Presidential Election and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia: the role of Russia. We don’t have tanks rolling through our streets, but a digital hack and a manipulated election nonetheless feel like a kind of 21st-century echo. It’s almost Hrabalesque in its absurdity. It’s almost darkly comic.

Yes, in some ways, Trumplandia feels too much like a black comedy penned by Vonnegut, even more absurd than the political theater and political-religious propaganda in Cat’s Cradle.

2016 in the U.S. has become not just reality TV as politics but a thin and distracting public debate about fake news and post-truth America—as Sarah Kendzior explains:

“Fake news” is a term that entered the vernacular following the election of Donald Trump. Allegedly coined to bemoan the terrible reporting that helped facilitate Mr. Trump’s rise, it actually serves to stabilize his rule. “Fake news” poses a false binary, blurring the distinction between political propaganda, intentional disinformation, attention-seeking click-bait, conspiracy theories, and sloppy reporting.

When the United States elects a man who peddles falsehoods, obfuscates critical information about his business transactions and foreign relationships, and relies on both mass media outlets and untraditional venues like conspiracy websites to maintain his power, the manifold ways he lies are as important as the lies themselves.

Kendzior recognizes, however, that naming fake news and post-truth actual works—as McNamara notes (“the creation of a generalized fear, making the Czech people suspicious of each other”)—to further solidify Trump:

However, Mr. Trump’s most powerful lies contain a grain of truth that plays to the preconceptions of his audience. When Mr. Trump lies about the conditions of inner cities, about the economy, or about Hillary Clinton, he exploits the vulnerability of some citizens while telling others what they want to hear. These lies are propaganda: false information with a political purpose, tailored to incite.

The mostly unspoken problems facing the U.S. include the fact that the country has always been post-truth, mostly mythology and narrative bluster, and has always mis-named what we value and what we fear.

For example, considered the jumbled responses to healthcare in the U.S., as unpacked by Robert H. Frank:

The same logic explains why private/government hybrid programs — like Obamacare, and its predecessor in Massachusetts, Romneycare — include an individual mandate. Opponents of the mandate argue that it limits individual freedom, which of course it does. But traffic lights and homicide laws also limit individual freedom; everyone celebrates liberty, but sometimes we must choose among competing freedoms. Failure to include a mandate would eliminate the freedom of citizens to purchase affordable health insurance. In such cases, we must decide which of the competing freedoms is more important.

If we frame the overly simplistic embracing of “individual freedom” that is central to the American Myth against McNamara’s consideration of Soviet communism as totalitarianism, there appears to be a powerful space for renaming what we value and what we fear.

And our fears, in fact, have little to do with communism or socialism—but everything to do with totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and fascism. The Soviet labeled their totalitarianism “communism,” but as critical educators know, institutions of a free people (such as formal education and the judicial system) “can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.”

Like “communism” and “socialism,” “democracy” and “capitalism” can be veneers for totalitarianism and oppression; and in the U.S., that “can be” often proves to be “is.”

The nastiness of “Make America Great Again” reflects and then seeps into the fabric of a people without real moral grounding, and with a superficial faith in freedom tinted with a cartoonish fear of the Other.

Renaming, we must call for making America great for everyone, finally.

Renaming, we must reject totalitarianism and authoritarianism.

If we return to Vonnegut-as-Karabekian, we in the U.S. are confronted with neither a formal police state nor “perfect freedom,” but none the less, we are unwilling and unable to say unvarnished what we value and what we fear so that we can gain the former and cast out the latter.

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