HARDER THAN THE TRUTH: THE POWER OF OUR POWERLESSNESS 2
by Jeff Clark
Nothing but the truth
Common words in use
Hard to find excuse
Harder than the truth —Keith Reid
My most fond gratitude to the Keith Reid of Procol Harum and to Václav Havel that they both exist in the world we continue to share.
Occupying the Emperor’s Clothes: first fitting
Most of the time we live as tree-huggers in the forest. We’re Dirty Harry’s men living on limitations, but if we get to know these limits we go to rude dark places that harrow social politeness. Do not ask a woman’s age. Don’t ever ask salary when what you do is what you are and the question-and-its-answer can value you naked (assuming you still have employment at the moment). Just so, when we pursue our limits, the notion of “personal responsibility” can strip us with a vengeance—as I intend this column to explore.
So let me risk being tactless at the outset and ask the obvious:
Are the values we act upon the same ones we profess to believe? And no matter the answer, how does what we act on impact our collective life in society? To return to my opening metaphor, does the sort of tree hugging we do either sustain or stress the forest it’s part of? To wit: Are we forest rangers as well as tree-huggers?
The trees we hug are most often grounded—even mired—in the experience of daily life. Convictions with political dimension, and talking points that support but may not fully capture them, are trees in our little groves of sustenance, of pleasure and nuisance. We live with and amongst them, day in and day out. But a much larger forest is what they’re part of, and too often we devote simply too little effort to recognizing its nature, even its existence. We work hard on tending our clutch of trees, but not so smartly on our forest.
The forest is our vision of life as human beings belonging to a community, to a nation and also a world, and of how we form a society through values we want not just to hold but also to act upon. Seeing and cultivating this forest means reflecting upon exactly how our little tree-hugger groves compose it. That’s a tall order, often beyond the scope of daily life’s demands, and meeting this order can be not only hard work but distressing to sense of self.
But we must go there, if the collective social endeavor we live within is going to sustain itself in a better state than it knows right this moment.
Our opinions, behaviors and acts based upon them, all have consequences, and these can be rationally parsed in argument even when not one’s own. They are palpable as facts experienced in the course of daily life. My acts—including my ongoing words in this space—have consequences for you, and vice versa with yours. They are stamped upon an empirical world both inanimate and animate that has to accommodate them in one sense or another.
A clear vision of our trees and our forest requires common ground amongst us, and that requires some common sense in reaching it. H. L. Mencken put the latter’s essence thusly: “Common sense really involves making full use of all the demonstrable evidence—and of nothing but the demonstrable evidence.”
This is the ideal, surely. We’re human and ruled by passionate natures made of more than clinical and dispassionate thought, but “common sense” in Menken’s sense is the start of a toolkit toward vision.
To apply and extend common sense, we need devotion to scientific method. What we learn through empirical evidence is integrated into the most comprehensive and rationally persuasive explanation of how things work that we can formulate, and also try out on the physical world around us. Each explanation is testable by other people and always subject to future revision, but it starts out as sound and as complete as possible, to the edges of our ability to experience and know. These are the explanatory arguments most worth valuing. They earn their right to our attention, not just loudly assert it as a given.
A complementary tool is human sensitivity to what is beyond—a human apprehension of the intangible and spiritual, which are the groundwork (but not necessarily the same) as our codified religions. Our religiously oriented apprehension has its most suitable complementary sphere in addressing what empirical fact cannot touch, in us and in the physical world. The religious can’t ignore common palpable fact in that process. Still it has a vital role in coloring how we deal with facts, how we live with them and are compelled to modify their influence in order to make life better meet human needs. We can’t banish facts. But what we should be about is seeking the wisdom to master them or (when realizing we cannot) to adapt to them.
Between these poles, however—the empirical world subject to reason and science, and the non-empirical that we apprehend beyond, both of which our natures crave—is where we too often find ourselves mired: a relentless flux of empirical knowledge and religious apprehension. My favorite term for the bête noire fallout of this shifting middle ground turns out to come from Karl Marx. His concept of mystification is what I think we reach for in life, attacking and defending and convincing or else, all too often. It’s a magic act, mystification, in which things ready to be seen are masked by other phenomena seeming more real at the moment. The process makes simple what is complex and elusive, or dramatically complicates what is quite simple and near though perhaps less desirable to see. But mystification is not always intentional, either: it can even fool its magician, if you can add that implausible gambit to my magic act metaphor.
Mystification comes naturally to our routine behavior, both manipulative and defensive. It’s our comfortable and comforting enemy. Occupiers are a public disruption and do what they do because they don’t have jobs (why not get one, nuisance!): so I’ve got them pegged. A recent Congressional Research Service report’s evidentiary conclusion that tax breaks for the rich don’t generate jobs is unreliable because of subtle factors which, an ostensibly responsible critic assures you, are still in need of examination: the researcher’s own past political affiliation, the lack of a specific kind of peer review before publication, “etc.” (amorphous catchall). So nix the report. Simplify its existence. Complicate it beyond access. Mystify until it dissipates conveniently.
Some things in our world are genuinely ambiguous, uncertain—i.e., we can’t fully comprehend them even with our toolkit stretched out pole to pole. But that conclusion should be earned only after we honestly strive to reach as far as we can with the knowledge at hand, no matter how it confirms or disputes our existing view of things. Again, it’s a very tall order to ask ourselves to be that big, that magnanimous to a possible reality that may not reflect well on our sense of personal self.
But a man’s got to know his limitations, as Dirty Harry said (long before finding some of his own beside an empty chair).
Limitations, mystification. Brass tacks to be gotten down to, and suits of clothes to be tailor-made. The next installments here will try and conjure those clothes while addressing the emperor in all of us.