Wednesday, May 10, 2006

We Can’t Handle the Truth

When Jack Nicholson yelled “You can’t handle the truth!” to a feckless attorney played by Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men,” he was essentially playing a straw man who represented everything wrong with the US military: it was run by a good ol’ boy posse intent on undermining the law, and it played by its own rules, which included torture and murder. Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessep was a man not in tune with modern notions of justice, and the consequence was a burst of his own truth that reflected what he had noticed for some time, but could never say. But what if Jessep, though no role model for morality, instinctively saw a weakness in the affluent American mentality, a weakness that could not handle, and would not accept the truth?

When I hear the way politicians pander to voters, I hear them coddling the soft underbelly of America that must live lives in avoidance of the truth. What are the truths politicians/the media can no longer talk about without fear of reprisal from a spoiled electorate/consumers? Here are the biggest:

1. War is messy. Victor Davis Hanson has already said what needs to be said on this. He points out that we expect a perfect War on Terror, a war without casualties, without bad decisions, without repercussions. This desire for a “clean” war flies in the face of both logic and history. Because we can’t handle the truth that war is messy, we are compromised in how we fight it, more as police action than war. If we can’t handle that war is messy, we will make it longer than necessary.

2. That our lifestyles may have to change as the world advances. The good news is that the world is advancing, that fewer people live in hunger and poverty, and the standard of living is generally on the rise throughout the world. The bad news is that there will be some temporary costs to the United States, mainly in the way of energy prices, but also in trade deficits to communist China. It is clearly possible that our standard of living can rise simultaneously as the world’s standard of living rises, but it may rise at a slower rate. That we can’t handle this truth is most easily seen in politician’s lame attempts to pander to our fears that gas prices are up for good. No amount of pandering will change supply and demand rules of economics, and it’s time we face that our lifestyles will likely change as the world advances.

3. That we are a sovereign nation, whose responsibilities lie to our citizens first and foremost. Because politicians spend all of their waking hours figuring out ways to secure votes, it is hard for them to admit that their first obligation is to citizens who already vote, not people who work here illegally who may vote in the future. So the admission that we are a sovereign nation that owns the right to tell people who is allowed in and who must leave immediately never seems to interest politicians. Yet, they are elected! The truth is that America has the right to defend itself from terrorists, from people working here illegally, even from a Martian invasion. Can Congress handle that?

4. That public charity doesn’t work doesn’t work as well as intended. It should be obvious that after billions (if not trillions) of dollars spent on public charity, the poverty rate is virtually unchanged since the mid-1970s. Worse, it has made dependence on public charity a way of life for too many. Yet, we seem incapable of handling that truth and changing the system. This Jessep guy is sounding more dead-on all the time.

5. That public education doesn’t work as well as intended. If it did, the rest of these truths would be easy to handle. We would know military history, so we wouldn’t expect our current war to be perfect. We would know basic economics and would understand why gas prices are high. We would understand fundamentally what a “right” is, and would be familiar enough with the constitution to know that we can defend our borders. And our ethics teaching would be good enough to teach us how dehumanizing public charity has become in America. But instead of reforming public education, we subsidize it even more. We can’t handle the truth about public education either.

Fortunately, the blogosphere is like mental barbells. Given the conservative backlash over President Bush’s and the “conservative” Congress’s political calculations, the conservative movement is showing itself more capable of handling the truth, much more so than its elected representatives. Maybe it’s time we consider that Colonel Jessep was right: we can’t handle the truth. But in time, with a little more education, we’ll be able to handle it, and even thrive living by it.

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