Francine Prose, in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, discusses the peculiar tendency of the American public to become apoplectic when an author passes off fiction as fact, a la James Frey and Margaret B. Jones, but shrugs its collective shoulders when our President does the same thing. The question is one that we should all be considering, especially now in the run-up to the Presidential election.
I doubt that a single writer of fiction believed George W. Bush’s lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Since we write fiction, we recognize it when we hear it. But that doesn’t explain why, when they knew better, the media didn’t jump on his dishonesty with the same approbriation they used for fiction writers who claimed their novels were autobiographical.
When Bill Clinton was President, he was excoriated by the press for lying about fooling around in the Oval Office with an intern, and the public got itself worked into a lather over it. But when George W. Bush lied about his reasons for sending troops into Iraq, and continues to lie every time he opens his mouth, the press and public just stare at him with hang-dog jaws and glazed eyes and let the lies pass. Bill Clinton broke the nation’s heart with his lie about sex, but George W. has broken the world’s heart, caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, and sent this country into a depression both financial and emotional with his lies about a threat to national security.
Perhaps it’s because as a collective body of people, we don’t have a lot of sophisticated knowledge about affairs of state. We find it difficult to protest when a President’s lies require more information than we have. But we understand lies about sex. We can wrap our minds around a husband’s lie about an affair, and we can condemn him for it, but responding to a lie with international implications is apparently beyond our capability.
The Republicans will meet next week to officially nominate John McCain as their Presidential candidate. There will be a lot of speeches about “the sanctity of life,” by which they mean they want women to lose their right to choose whether or not to terminate unwanted pregnancies, and about “the sanctity of marriage,” by which they mean they want to prohibit couples of the same sex from having the same civil rights of inheritance and property ownership as couples of opposite sex. And every time those phrases are used, delegates will jump to their feet and applaud. You will not hear anybody talk about the sanctity of truth.
Truth is so demanding and complicated that the only people who truly appreciate it may be authors who write fiction.