'I’m not naming names, but here’s what I’m sick and tired of: anarchy, serial dishonesty, sloth, high drama, bar-room brawls even when they are called work, dogma and off-the-hoof populism.'
You’d think I might be embarrassed to write about truthfulness. And, if not embarrassed, I’d at least feel a little shameful. The truth is, where I come from, the clean-as-a-bone truth is never appreciated as much as a good story that provides an extra crackle to the beat of life. Southerners can lie with the sincerity of angels. Here on this ancient patch of land in Suffolk where the fields are as flat as the Delta, it’s called The Mississippi Truth.
I could wander further down this road and tell you the reason that there are so many Southern writers is because we love telling stories (regrettably now called ‘the oral tradition’). There are a lot of theories about this: it’s because we lost the war; because we are born with a sense of ‘place’; because we never replaced our King James Version of the Bible.
All these theories feel shop worn nowadays and I side with the writer Roy Blount Jr on this. Born and raised in Georgia, Roy blames the heat. He reckons that it gets so hot in the South you can’t breathe and writing is a job you can do in the shade. He also believes that writing is a way of resting from our favourite oral traditions: eatin’ and drinkin’ and talkin’.
“Lies told by politicians are like drinking punch made with Southern Comfort: a glass goes down easily enough, but two helpings and you end up sick as a dog”
You can probably guess where I’m going with this. Yep: much as we love a good story, there’s a heap of difference between a good story and a bad lie. As William Faulkner or John Grisham might put it: telling good old stories on the screen porch is not the same as wilful, vicious, pernicious, crafty, self-serving, pusillanimous, bizarre and horrendous lying.
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I grew up with good old stories and bad lies and I honestly can’t remember when I could tell the difference. I’d like to say it was when I noticed that the white schools had grass lawns, boxwood hedges and shiny yellow school buses and the black schools were surrounded by patches of mud and dirt and hand-me-down buses that were no longer considered good enough for the backsides of white children. Did I suddenly know in my heart that ‘Separate but Equal’ was a lie? Probably not. When you live in the Land of Lies, you tend to miss the obvious.
Somewhere along life’s highway, I began to find the lies told by politicians and their enablers were like drinking punch made with Southern Comfort: a glass goes down easily enough, but two helpings and you end up sick as a dog. It hurts to think of all the big lies I’ve witnessed: the revelations of the Pentagon Papers about the lies told about the war in Vietnam; the fetid swamp of Watergate lies; Saddam’s ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, now classified as a ‘failure of intelligence’. That lie ripped the world apart in our lifetime and for the lifetime of our children’s children. Proof — in case we needed it — that a single lie can undo a lifetime of peace.
It’s humiliating for politicians to be accused of lying, but it’s the word-shuffling denials that are degrading. Remember how, when he was first running for President, Bill Clinton was asked if he’d ever used drugs? He admitted he’d tried marijuana when a student at Oxford. He should have stopped right there, yet he went on to say he smoked, but he ‘didn’t inhale’. Perhaps that reflective use of language should have prepared us for his response when asked if he’d had sex in the White House with a 22-year-old intern: ‘I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me… I did not have sexual relations with that woman. Miss Lewinsky.’
“Since time began, I reckon folks have been pretty tolerant of scamps. Mostly, they preferred ignorance. “
This linguistic tap dance was worthy of Fred Astaire: ‘sexual relations’ — shuffle-shuffle-wing-step — are not the same as ‘sexual encounters’ — shuffle-shuffle-ball change. Looking mournful and ashamed, he admitted that what he’d done was wrong, inappropriate and blameworthy and he truly felt real bad about it. But, he insisted, then and evermore, that he did not lie. At least, not according to the dictionary definition of ‘sexual relations’. He survived his impeachment and, if you were a Democrat, you thought Kenneth Starr was a whole lot nastier than the President who always was a hard dog to keep on the porch.
Since time began, I reckon folks have been pretty tolerant of scamps. Mostly, they preferred ignorance. My grandmother was glad FDR had a ‘loving companion’ because she thought Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t wifely. I’m glad I didn’t know about JFK’s scampering until years afterward and, even now, I wish I could unknow it. Actually, I have a long list of ‘what I wish I didn’t know’, because what I hold fast to now, what I yearn for, is thoughtfulness, intelligence, depth, truthfulness. I might add: kindness, an ability to use words, gracefulness — and probably good hair and teeth. A mix of Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Carter and Tom Hanks.
I’m not naming names, but here’s what I’m sick and tired of: anarchy, serial dishonesty, sloth, high drama, bar-room brawls even when they are called work, dogma and off-the-hoof populism. I’ve lived long enough to know that life’s not worth living if we don’t hold fast to truth. Truth is a rock. Chip away at it enough and you end up with gravel, then sand.
I’m Southern-born and I write about my late-in-life conversion to the hard truth with some nervousness. It is hard to relinquish the creed bestowed at birth, ‘never let the truth interfere with a good story’, and, even now, I can’t resist ending with a good story. It sure sounds true to me. When Barbara Bush was asked what she thought about Clinton’s nimble approach to language, she didn’t even bat an eye. ‘Clinton lied. A man might forget where he parks his car or where he lives, but he never forgets oral sex, no matter how bad it is.’
Long live truth and the oral tradition — eatin’, drinkin’ and talkin’.
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