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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The “R” Word as Taboo in Twenty-First Century U.S.A.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a not-too-distant dystopia in which Atwood explores the rise of a theocracy as a sanctuary for the declining white race; the work is a tour-de-force confrontation of sexism and misogyny as well as dramatization of the relationship between power and language, including the power inherent in what humans name* and what humans taboo.

The central handmaid of the tale, June/Offred, narrates her own journey through hell that includes being assigned to a Commander who monthly is charged with attempting to impregnate his handmaid in what this new nation of Gilead calls the Ceremony, infusing the act with religious and official overtones.

However, June/Offred characterizes the Ceremony with a disturbing and clinical precision:

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. (p. 94)

Many aspects of this passage are worth emphasizing, but let’s focus on the importance and value in June/Offred naming accurately this awful thing happening—and not ignore the weight of taboo language (such as the word “fucking”).

“I have guarded my name as people/ in other times kept their own clipped hair,” opens Barbara Kingsolver’s poem, “Naming Myself,” “believing the soul could be scattered/ if they were careless.”

Here too are the intersections of naming, gender, and power: why must women abandon their names in the legal/religious act of marriage while men retain theirs?

Kingsolver’s speaker, like Atwood’s narrator, both uses and values language as power—guarding a name and naming.

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The election of Donald Trump as the president of the U.S. comes in the wake of Trump making inflammatory comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and women. Nonpartisan and measured assessments of Trump’s words rightly label them as racist, xenophobic, and sexist/misogynistic.

The rise of Trump as a political leader has exposed the lingering taboo in the U.S. for naming racism, even when there is direct evidence of racist language and behavior and especially when that racism is coded (getting tough on crime, building a wall, evoking the specter of terrorism).

Serious public debate has parsed making the distinction between Trump being a racist and Trump courting and/or attracting racists, such as being endorsed by the KKK, neo-Nazi organizations, and the white nationalist movement.

A perverse shift has occurred, in fact, from the mislabeling of Barack Obama’s being elected president as proof that the U.S. is a post-racial society to Trump’s rise asking the U.S. to reconsider what counts as racism.

Trump personifies the triple-Teflon of being white, male, and affluent, most notably in the power of those attributes to deflect the label “racist.” As Trump himself asserted defiantly:

I can never apologize for the truth. I don’t mind apologizing for things. But I can’t apologize for the truth. I said tremendous crime is coming across. Everybody knows that’s true. And it’s happening all the time. So, why, when I mention, all of a sudden I’m a racist. I’m not a racist. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.

Trump’s own strategy frames his words and behavior as “truth,” therefore not “racist.”

The election of Trump grounded significantly on white voter support, including a majority of white women, adds another layer of tension in that if Trump has voiced racism and/or practiced racism, how complicit are voters as racists themselves?

In short, are the approximately 25% of eligible voters who supported Trump racists? And if so, who can name that racism?

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A valued colleague who is a rhetorician posted on social media his argument that white liberal elites, especially, should stop naming people as racists—pointing to the overwhelming evidence that the approach is ineffective.

Faced with evidence of racism, whites tend to emphasize their own personal struggles, and many whites now believe racism toward whites trumps racism toward blacks.

Systemic racism (distinct from individual racists) tends to be much harder for many in the U.S. to name or confront. For example, the political and media perpetuation of black-on-black crime is enduring despite the fact that all crime is mostly intra-racial—the white-on-white crime rate is nearly identical to the black-on-black crime rate.

To approach this in Trump-logic: black-on-black crime rates are true; therefore, referring to them cannot be racist.

But even the racism that can be named in the U.S. is reduced to the most extreme and even cartoonish version that Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “oafish racist”:

Cliven Bundy is old, white, and male. He likes to wave an American flag while spurning the American government and pals around with the militia movement. He does not so much use the word “Negro”—which would be bad enough—but “nigra,” in the manner of villain from Mississippi Burning or A Time to Kill. In short, Cliven Bundy looks, and sounds, much like what white people take racism to be.

The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad.

What Trump represents, however, is more insidious:

The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

The racism of Trump and emboldened by Trump sullies the “elegant,” but it certainly meets Coates’s recognition of “plausible deniability.”

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Finally, let’s return to June/Offred, being fucked, but not raped because “[t]here wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some.”

In a free society, black and brown people find themselves in a parallel circumstance to June/Offred, the victims of racism even though “[t]here wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some.”

And as my colleague noted, victims of racism certainly find value in naming racism and racists.

The problem my colleague raises, however, is among white allies to those victims of racism; if it is ineffective for white allies to name racism, to name racists, what is our obligation as allies against racism and inequity?

To suggest that racism and racists do not exist until acknowledged by whites is a nasty dose of paternalistic racism. To tip-toe around racists for fear of offending them and entrenching racism further also seems like a slap in the face of black and brown people living the very real consequences of racism and the “rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”

As a very privileged ally to everyone marginalized by racism (as well as sexism/misogyny, xenophobia, and all sorts of bigotry), I believe I must listen to black and brown voices, but I also must use my privilege to amplify (not confirm) those voices—to stand beside and behind, but never to speak for.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when even the oafish racist was not called to account; therefore, I am convinced that a key step to erasing elegant racism, systemic racism, is to have the courage to call racists “racists” regardless of the evidence that those rightly labeled “racists” will not change.

I am taking this stand because I am not sure our goal is to change individual racists, but to change the greater capacity of the larger population who have yet to confront their culpability in elegant/systemic racism, and thus to create a critical mass in the name of equity that will eradicate racism over time.

In the most profound and bitter sort of appropriateness, the U.S. has elected the very worst and most perfect leader of, as Trump would say, the truth about the U.S.—which is that we are a racist, sexist/misogynist, and xenophobic people, drunk on consumerism and negligent in our humanity for each other.

With that before us and named, let us hope we can confess our sins, do our penance, and create a more perfect union.


* Dare we call fascism “fascism”? No, this isn’t the 1930s – but yes, this is fascism, James McDougall