Deception is the great white shark of human ethical dilemmas. It’s a compelling, scary, and misunderstood force of human nature. Though, ironically, the great white may be one of Mother nature's least deceptive creatures. No shape-sifting, no protective coloring, no puffing up, lying low, or playing dead. Like deception, the great white sneaks up on you only if you’re swimming in dangerous waters and not paying attention.
We can understand why evolution didn’t waste a lot of time fitting out the great white with deceptive traits. Not much out there in the way of predators. On the other hand, what’s with nature’s plan for the lowly rabbits that abound in my neighborhood with their fluffy white tails? I can understand the evolutionary benefit for the coyote to have its prime source of food so clearly labeled with a virtual target on its back. But what’s in it for the rabbit?
That white tail may make the rabbit the most transparent of nature’s creatures, possibly the most endangered by its own evolution (though there must be evolutionary compensation in being able to multiply like rabbits). The rabbit, which cannot get out from in front of its own tail, reminds me of the World War II pastor in David Nyberg’s excellent The Varnished Truth: Truth Telling and Deceiving in Ordinary Life. Nyberg tells of Trocmé, a French Protestant cleric who was central to hiding Jews from the Nazis. Deception was key to the entire enterprise—faked documents, secrets, hiding places--all those behaviors often necessary to heroism, yet overlooked by the naïve and righteous who proclaim with dead certainty that honesty is the best policy.
Trocmé, however, had a line he would not cross in his deception. He would not lie in the face of another human being, even a Nazi. He believed this is where the great unraveling would begin--what the lawyers like to call the slippery slope—the spiral down to a world of all-encompassing deception and the ultimate betrayal of mankind and God. When he was captured and faced interrogation from the Nazis, he knew, as he wrote in his autobiography, that he could not lie into the face of his captors even though it was going to cost him his life and that of his son. This white tail of his made him easy prey, but God—or luck—depending upon your point of view, intervened, and he escaped before he ever had to reveal his awful truth.
Which brings us to Andrew Breibart who died this week having largely gained fame through the art of deception. As Breitbart’s fellow Republican David Frum wrote on Breitbart’s passing, “When one of the leading media figures of the day achieves his success by his giddy disdain for truth and fairness…how to withhold a profoundly negative judgment on his life and career?” Breitbart became most well known to casual consumers of news as the evil genius behind the doctored video of a speech by Obama Agriculture Department functionary Shirley Sherrod, which portrayed her as a corrupt racist. That temporarily cost Ms. Sherrod her job until the actual unedited tape of her speech was released, exposing to what vile lengths Breitbart was willing to go to achieve his political ends. Breitbart was also the central figure in the downfall of one of my political heroes Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York. But alas, that deception was all on Anthony, not Andrew. Breitbart was merely guilty of incivility there, or at worse engaging in sleaze.
But of course this is a partisan view of Breitbart. On the other side of the sharp political divide in this country, Breitbart at his death was actually hailed as a hero for his boldness and courage in going after Democrats. There is conceivably a case to be made for that if you take the view that Democrats, certainly liberal Democrats, pose an existential threat to the US. In that state of self-deception, you envision yourself as a sorta, kinda brave Pastor Trocmé, fighting Nazis, or at least the pale facsimile of Nazis that history has dealt you in the persons of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.
They have yet to release the autopsy of Breitbart’s soul, but it’s all together possible that he really did see his nefarious activities driven by moral purpose. I don’t believe that can be said of every mischief-maker on the political right, certainly not the Palins, Becks, or the crew at Fox News who are all clearly in it for the money, constantly ginning up fear and anger among the rubes for fame and profit. But I’ve seen it in the eyes of those ordinary, everyday, non-professional conservatives who diligently stock guns, gold, and garbanzo beans in preparation for the coming clash of cultures…theirs against ours. Honestly share your political views with them, and the look you get back is one of sadness mixed with horror. They seem pretty genuine in their belief that you have fallen victim to the body snatchers and you’re out to get them and their children, so most anything goes to stop you.
If Breitbart was truly of that state of mind, one wonders if, like Pastor Trocmé, he had a line he wouldn’t cross. Was there a point where he would say to himself, “If I have to do that…sink that low…to save the United States of America, then the America I would be saving wouldn’t be worth it.” More importantly, was he able to be honest enough with himself to at least admit that his effort to save America from liberals resulted in behavior that was mean and destructive? I say more importantly because--unlike that line you won’t cross, which can be subjective and ephemeral--the act of being honest with yourself about your outlaw behavior can be crystallizing—it can clarify personal values and put guilt in proper perspective (“To live outside the law, you must be honest”).
We cannot keep on top of all our deceptions. Many are habitual and routine.You ask me how I’m feeling and I say fine, though I’m not. I don’t want to tell you that I just had a fight with my wife or the bill collectors are at my door or my hemorrhoids are acting up and I’m miserable. So I deceive you. I say, “I’m fine.”
But there are numerous, more deliberate deceptions in our lives that, if we pause to self-examine, can reveal essential “truths” about ourselves. For instance, if I hear one more liberal absolve Bill Clinton’s Monica episode as a “private” matter, I’m going to write a check to that whoring, diaper-wearing Republican fraud David Vitter. The “private matter” bullshit didn’t hold for liberals hounding Clarence Thomas or Bob Packwood. Liberals gave Clinton a pass because they valued his political power over his individual honesty. That should be a very edifying lesson to learn about oneself.
This week, the default position of liberals who chose to trash Breitbart on the day he died rather than respect the age-old adage against speaking ill of the dead is that Breitbart himself chose to trash Ted Kennedy on the day he died. The “Teacher, he did it, too,” or “Mom, he hit me first” defense, of course, is right out of grade school. But more than that is the fateful logic of it. If we can spit on Breitbart’s grave the day he dies, then by the same logic the day after he dies we can mash-up a video to make some hapless and innocent Republican Party functionary look like a complete fascist. Or we can engage a couple of doofuses to dress up like a pimp and a prostitute to ensnare Mitt Romney in a sex-for-hire scandal.
Liberals are supposed to be smarter than that. In fact liberals are smarter than that. Liberals are not wanting for smarts, but we are definitely lacking for toughness. If we merely mimic Breitbart’s sleaze, then we become sleazy. But if we mimic his alleged toughness, boldness, and daring, then we become tough, bold, and daring. It is quite conceivable, given what a street fighter he was, that if Breitbart had been running the US Department of Agriculture, Shirley Sherrod never would have been fired, even for a week. Indeed, it’s equally possible that if he had been head of the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives at the time, the strong, lucid voice of Anthony Weiner would still be heard in Congress to counter the David Vitters. In both cases, Liberalism failed to own up to the truth about itself as revealed by the Lewinsky scandal--that is, that it values political power over personal integrity.
The two political parties in the US can be divided into the party of the rabbits, with their “prey on me” white tails, and the party of the great whites, with their transparent fierceness. The party of rabbits may over time be able to multiply itself into a position of sufficient political power to restore sanity and fairness to the great land. But I have a better idea—model itself after the Jesus of rabbits, Bugs Bunny. Bugs consistently beats the superior strength of his foes through cunning, guile and witty moral dexterity. And though he's not at all above deception, he never cons himself. “Here I go with the timid little woodland creature bit again,” says Bugs. “It's shameful, but...ehhh, it's a living.”