Thursday, September 8, 2011

Truth, Sacrifice and Collective Action

Then Jesus said to those who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
John 8:31-32

The truth may set you free, but it will not make you popular.

My colleague Stacey Lanier writes a blog called, “The Truth Shall Make You Odd,” which she takes from Flannery O’Connor’s revision of the Gospel line: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

The Gospel will make you odd. At least it will put you at odds with the popular culture. You could, for example, discover that you are the only person in the room who isn’t clapping after a governor tells the audience how many people his state has executed during his tenure.

Knowing the truth (and let’s admit that there is a certain amount of arrogance in believing that one really does know the truth) will make you feel odd. Speaking the truth (as best one can) is never popular.

To quote Colonel Jessup (take a minute to imagine the scene and picture Jack Nicholson), “The truth? You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

Thomas Friedman’s recent column in the New York Times is titled, “The Whole Truth and Nothing But.” In it he writes about an essay by Kishore Mahbubani, which asserts that dictators are falling and democracies are failing for the same reason, they have not been telling truth.

Moral equivalence is always a slippery slope. In this case, it’s a cliff. Do we really want to equate the big lies of Gaddafi and Mubarak with the failure of the European Union to fully disclose the possible drawbacks to monetary union and fiscal independence? And to be fair, Friedman acknowledges the differences.

Focusing specifically on the United States, Friedman quotes Mahbubani’s observation: “No U.S. leaders dare to tell the truth to the people. All their pronouncements rest on a mythical assumption that ‘recovery’ is around the corner. Implicitly, they say this is a normal recession. But this is no normal recession. There will be no painless solution. ‘Sacrifice’ will be needed, and the American people know this. But no American politician dares utter the word ‘sacrifice.’ Painful truths cannot be told.”

That’s actually not true. Several politicians have called for sacrifice. What they mean is that they want someone else to sacrifice. The most common conclusion is that we can no longer afford programs that benefit our most vulnerable citizens and those programs must be cut back.

But Friedman and Mahbubani are right in saying that no one has really called for shared sacrifice. And my guess is that no one really will. Not really.

For a case study is why that is not a likely political strategy we can go back to Jimmy Carter’s famous energy speech on July 15, 1979. He told the truth about the energy crisis and he called for shared sacrifice. And the initial response was very positive. But it was not long before the call for sacrifice had been re-named “The Malaise Speech,” though he never used that word. Carter was accused of “blaming the American people.” If you read the speech, you will be amazed at how wise and measured and totally non-political it sounds. And if you review the history of the political fallout it precipitated, you will know why no one is likely to go that way again.

Friedman concludes by focusing on President Obama’s jobs speech, which is scheduled for this evening: “My fervent hope is that on Thursday Mr. Obama will set an example and tell the cold, hard truth — to parents and kids. I know. Honesty, we are told, is suicidal in politics. But as long as every solution that is hard is off the table, then our slow national decline will remain on the table. . . . For once, Mr. President, let’s start a debate with the truth. Tell us what you really think will be required to get us out of this stagnation, what kind of collective action and shared sacrifice will be needed and why that can lead not just to muddling through, not just to being O.K., but to restoring American greatness.”

That would be great. Our infrastructure is crumbling and millions of people are out of work. And that might give us a clue about what we need to be doing. But I am not expecting the Hoover Dam, or the Interstate Highway System. Maybe we could fix the I-95 bridge in Pawtucket.

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