the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2004 February 29


There is a psychic price to be paid for insincerity. There is nothing karmic to it, as far as I know, no reason to suppose that the consequences of insincerity will somehow be revisited on the insincere, measure for measure. The price is more complicated and personal. It is in the nature of insincerity to be against a large part of the individual’s own inclinations. The insincere person is selling its soul, and if the soul is not literal, the selling often is. Like all commercial transactions, the barter is between two things momentarily considered equivalent. We cannot get anything without giving up something of equal value. I celebrate the virtue of honesty; but at the same time, I have been parcelling out my soul in modest increments in exchange for psychological and material goods that seemed necessary at the time. These goods may in fact have value. The question is whether, when the capital is completely spent, I will have gotten my soul’s worth.

Last week I learned that an ignorant bore I had been humoring as a part of my job was the very person whose incredibly-demeaning behavior I had months ago advised a coworker not to tolerate. I myself did not witness the demeaning behavior, or have any clue that the two persons were the same. To me, his worst offense was a trivial lie, hardly worth mentioning in this world. The hardest thing I had to do was remain polite in the face of moronic discussions of history and language with someone who compared himself to me as a polymath, which naturally inclined me to dismantle him ― in the same way that some greater polymath obviously needs to dismantle me. I merely thought he was a blowhard, not a jerk; but that did not console me when I realized that I had been granting tolerance to someone I had previously declared unworthy of it. When all was known, I felt I should have known better. I felt I had betrayed my friend and I knew I had betrayed myself.

Clearly in this context there is a difference between honesty and sincerity; a liar who lies is therefore not being insincere. When Ari Fleischer opens his mouth and says something positively false, could he possibly be more true to himself? When, however, Ari Fleischer appears before me as a customer, which he has done, and I treat him like a valued customer, rather than the vile apologist of dominion that he is, I am clearly being untrue to myself, even though I say nothing that is technically false.

Though Fleischer has moved on, his position as White House press secretary has been filled by some other liar who has no shame and therefore is not being insincere when he deliberately misleads. This trait is not confined to Republican spokespersons, merely exemplified by them, since they are using their powers for nothing but ill, and are taking personal responsibility for lying about policies which they do not set and cannot even influence. They are complete political professionals; and most of their colleagues do the same thing, sacrificing body and soul for a cause, in total anonymity.

The amazing thing is that in professional politics, failure to be dishonest is considered scandalously unprofessional. It is naïve; it is foolish. It is unforgivably incompetent. The same holds in commerce, particularly the parts of commerce that deal with communication, like public relations and advertising. True professionals can and must discuss their dishonesty candidly if they are to produce the impressively-effective collaborations that boost their product. Some might argue that such professionals convince themselves of the truth of their assertions, but I am only willing to concede that they convince themselves of the righteousness of serving their causes with false assertions. So they are sincere, at least. On the other hand, there are those like me who barely convince themselves of the temporary necessity of serving their cause with some small compromise, feel no righteousness, and are aware of their own insincerity.

I have been there frequently. I spent two and a half years working for a political organization which, though mostly admirable, took a number of positions that I found not merely objectionable but loathsome. I spent about a year of that as the senior representative of the organization in two provinces, and in that capacity held press conferences on issues that I personally disagreed with ― was for brief moments the organization’s chief spokesperson for positions that I thought were simply wrong. Though lacking as a public speaker, I was competent as a political professional, so I knew which arguments to make and how to phrase them; and I carefully chose my language as well to avoid an actual lie. But I could not avoid an implied endorsement.

My chief responsibility for this organization was the door-to-door canvass, working in and running offices that recruited members and raised money from the citizenry. For me as for most former canvassers, ‘canvassing’ as a word has taken on a meaning beyond the original (namely, the thorough, item-by-item processing of something, in this case a neighborhood). ‘Canvassing’ for canvassers means asking for something, attempting to get something. I am not describing a disreputable activity, of course; we are all canvassing all the time in that sense, and must be. We all need things that others control. We are always at the mercy of those who have what we need or want.

I was, to step away from my usual humility, quite good at canvassing. I did not use the methods that I was taught, or that I taught my hires. My method was simply to argue the case for giving money as forcefully as possible, to undermine every excuse that was given until the person either agreed that it was a good idea to contribute, or knew its own real reason for wanting not to contribute. The latter group split about evenly between those who did not want to admit to the reason and thus contributed anyway, and those who, much to my genuine delight, did admit to the reason. This last group was perhaps less desirable than those who could state upfront their honest reasons for withholding support (“You guys are a bunch of wackos”, for example), but it was pleasant nonetheless to see the moment when people decided to stop dissembling and actually say what they meant.

Despite my disagreements with the organization, I did believe passionately in most of its causes, including most of what I was promoting as a canvasser. But even that did not limit the insincerity. To take a simple example, as in all sales and customer-service jobs, I was not allowed to have a bad day. Regardless of how anti-social I was feeling (and my baseline is more so than most), I was required to be pleasant, cheerful, and friendly. In the interests of the organization and myself, I could not afford to alienate a potential contributor. To take another example that applies commercially and politically, the person interacting with the public is expected to be knowledgeable on the subject, which naturally plays into one of my worst traits, a tendency to talk authoritatively about things on which I am almost completely ignorant.

The subject of complete ignorance leads us naturally to last week’s ‘Meet the press’, where the sideshow of the moment was Ralph and the Gubernator. Schwarzenegger claimed that in California, land of direct democracy, the people should not be blamed for the mistakes of politicians. He defended his repeal of the car tax as his first act in a fiscally-responsible solution to California’s problems, and claimed that the way to afford programs seemingly squeezed out by this tax cut would be to restrain spending; in other words, if California spends less of what it doesn’t have, it won’t have to spend less. Nader began by suggesting that his latest run for the presidency resulted from his desire to see George Bush defeated. Later, in addition to denouncing Al Gore as having had the secret intention to invade Iraq, he denounced the very policy of régime change even in its shapeless Clinton-era wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-it-happened-without-our-having-to-do-anything form. But he also spoke of the US military’s non-overthrow of Saddam in 1991 as an abrogation of responsibility which demanded that the US make every atonement except the military overthrow of Saddam. He wants us both to spend money to help Iraq, and not do so; he wants us to repeal Bush’s deficit-increasing tax cuts, and use the money for “a massive job-producing public works”, which presumably does not increase the deficit.

Schwarzenegger refused to answer a question about the legislative enactment of gay marriage on the grounds that it was “hypothetical” and he only deals with “reality”; he also refused to say whether he would raise taxes to balance the budget if his favored propositions did not pass, because he never looks at the ‘if’s. These issues are real prospects that he may well have to deal with. But even if they were hypothetical, someone who hasn’t thought through such important hypotheticals is ipso facto unqualified. This is precisely like the usual lie of the judicial confirmation process: a nominee who doesn’t know how it would rule on common issues is fundamentally unqualified regardless of any other factor. These judicial nominees are constitutional scholars, appellate judges, and law professors; can they really not have thought through Roe v. Wade? If not, should they not in fact be fired from their current positions, to say nothing of refused a lifetime appointment deciding matters of law? Nader, being far too cute, echoed Schwarzenegger’s refusal to deal with hypotheticals, which in his case meant refusal to say what he would do if the presidential race were close enough that his withdrawal could help defeat Bush. This is history, not hypothesis. He was asked if he still believed in a decision he has already made once, and his pretense of irrelevance only made him look thoughtless. Too clever by half.

In less than an hour, the bodybuilder and the consumer advocate who have posed as non-politicians did much to debunk the myth of the non-politician. The rule is simple: a person who campaigns for office, much less wins, is a politician. All politicians use the best of modern social technology to achieve their goals. But on this specific point, state-of-the-art is also ancient and proven. Schwarzenegger and Nader, more alike than the two of them care to acknowledge, are employing balderdash like a couple of pros; and in that way, as Nader himself might note, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them.

But then I display my political bias when I note that Schwarzenegger is an overstuffed suit, a cipher to begin with, and when he appears on television for the purpose of snowing his constituents, there is no insincerity because he is largely soulless anyway. Nader, on the other hand, has occasionally shown signs of genuine good intentions, which makes him more culpable in my eyes, every time he opens his mouth to dissemble and distort. And I am worse still, because without changing my daily behavior I can offer an analysis of my own and others’ insincerity with a straight face ― and mean it.



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