Lies and (Self) Deception


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“The new movement must be, in part, exclusive and elite. It must not be afraid to pass along a body of knowledge that is not readily accessible to and understandable by everyone.” That’s from “The Integration of Theory and Practice: A Program for the New Traditionalist Movement” by Eric Heubeck, an acolyte of the late Paul Weyrich, a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and of the American Legislation Exchange Council (ALEC), the group most active in promoting the Koch Brothers’ agenda. In one line, Heubeck unconsciously highlights the dishonesty (certainly in a putative democracy) and elitism that has fueled at least a part of the radical right for more than a generation. Events, since this was first published in 2001, have shown the always likely result of such an attitude, an opening in politics for a conman like Donald Trump. Subtle dishonesty has been replaced by the rampant and obvious.

Heubeck has now retreated from politics to religion and to a crusade for what he claims is “honesty” and against the “lie.” Not surprisingly, he has implicitly turned against his earlier political philosophy, which was based on what he calls, in another context, “esoteric writing” which “can generally be defined as writing in which an author uses a word or words to mean one thing (namely, the ‘inner,’ or ‘secretly intended,’ or ‘esoteric’ meaning) in his own mind and perhaps also in the minds of close associates, while the general reading public, being unaware of the author’s secretly intended meaning, is left to assign a different meaning to that same word (namely, the ‘outer,’ or ‘ordinary,’ or ‘conventional,’ or ‘surface,’ or ‘exoteric’ meaning).  In other words, ‘esoteric communication,’ or ‘esotericism,’ is really just a fancy and euphemistic name for the practice of lying and deception.” Which, of course, is exactly what he was doing back in his days with the radical right. The quote from him that I opened with is an example of esoteric thinking at its most pronounced.

Having developed what is, as far as I can tell, a rather personal religious stance based on, he claims, an apocalyptic vision that maintains that only honesty can bring on the end times, Heubeck is trying to start a new movement. Now, I don’t care much for religion or religious disputation, so I am certainly mischaracterizing Heubeck’s beliefs, but the main point, that humankind must combat almost all lying, is accurate—I think–to his beliefs and his new movement.

Heubeck has one caveat in his opposition to lying: There is, it seems, ‘justifiable lying.’ This is the great weakness of his argument: If you can justify one lie, you can justify any lie. Nevertheless, he does try to outline what he calls “honesty culture”:

I propose that members of truth groups would make four pledges, the first three being the most important to stress.  First:  They will never lie, either to each other or to outsiders—not even to those who have lied to them.  (There would be a single exception to this blanket “never lie” rule:  a kind of “self-defense” or “self-protection” exception that would apply in cases in which an individual’s personal privacy or autonomy was being unreasonably threatened—for example, by being asked intrusive and impertinent questions.)  Second:  To the extent that they are reasonably able, they will never tolerate lying by others.  Third:  To the extent that they are reasonably able, they will never tolerate the condoning (or promoting, or endorsing, or enabling) by others of lying by others.  Fourth:  They will strive to reduce how much they lie to themselves (at least to the extent they are able to do so, given that some degree of self-deception in every person is inevitable, and one must fight a never-ending battle against it).

Unfortunately for Heubeck,  taken together, these four “pledges” undercut his purpose, allowing the justification of almost all lying, the self-defense option providing an out that even Trump could use and the recognition that self-deception is a universal human failing allowing one to deflect responsibility for almost any lie.

Growing up among the Society of Friends (Quakers), I saw any number of people twisting themselves into knots trying to live a stricter version of the pledges Heubeck suggests today. They were more severe than he, never condoning any sort of lying, even to oneself, recognizing that any “out” is morally unsustainable. But, they found, that was as impossible as the caveats were unacceptable. They ended up as wrapped in lies as much as anyone else and were anguished by their failure. With the caveats as a release valve, Heubeck doesn’t lead any followers he might have to the angst of the Quakers but he does, as the Quakers understood his exceptions would, and as I have said, open the door for justifying any lie.

That’s too bad.

Both Heubeck and these Quakers elide a key question: Just what is a lie? Suppose someone does not want to admit to living in the hovel she is sitting in front of. Someone asks, “Is this your home?” She replies, “Would anyone live in a place like this?” The questioner assumes that’s a “no,” as she had hoped they would. Has she lied? Making the argument that she has not, simply because there is no literal lie is, to my mind, also a lie. The deception is there, no matter the particular words.

It’s an easy slide from there into justifying any lie.

Living under the catastrophe of Donald Trump, quite a number of the more intellectually sensitive members of the political right are casting around for something new to latch their adrift beliefs to. Among these, the one with the highest profile is probably David Brooks. Though they may not admit it, each of them knows that Trump has trashed all rationale for the political practices they had once based their careers on. They also recognize that they have to move away from the vast number of their former Republican fellow travelers or be subsumed by the juggernaut of the Trumpian lie.

Unfortunately for them, neither of these writers, nor any of the others like them, is going to find his way forward until they start to honestly look back, recognizing and accepting responsibility for the deceptions they were part of, deceptions promulgated as part of the great rightwing lie machine that traces its roots back to Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn. They won’t move forward until they accept that our current political mess is partly their own responsibility.

It doesn’t even matter whether they believe they lied in self-defense or lied without knowing it.

Thing is, they lied.

Like the rest of us, they are living the consequences. Like a drunkard must face personal responsibility to start down the road to recovery, people like Brooks and Heubeck must do the same or live as the equivalent of a dry drunk–or fall back into lies.