Why Americans Facing the Crash of 2011 Need a Tell-the-Truth Fix Right Away

Aug 16, 2011 by

By Robert Oliphant

Call it a Problem or call it the Crash of 2011 (paralleling the Crash of 1929) Americans are once again headed for a bumpy economic ride, especially when it comes to ducking the endless lies, direct and indirect, their leaders keep throwing at them.

Robert Oliphant

Certainly President Obama displayed his own skill at indirect lying when he described the average American’s current life expectancy as “not very high,” thereby enabling Speaker Boehner to raise the ante by shouting that American health care is “the best in the world.” Nor did any of our journalists correct them by pointing out that our actual life-expectancy figure, 77.9 years, ties us for 40th place with Portugal and puts us well below Cuba and the United Arab Emirates.

Unfortunately, as indicated by our 1929 crash, nations in big economic trouble can’t lie their way out of trouble forever. Certainly our Great Depression produced an avalanche of quantitative truth-telling by John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and other academic scribblers.

Just as certainly this new climate of truth-telling made Franklin Roosevelt feel more comfortable using language like “a nation with one third ill housed, ill clothed, and ill fed” than with a blandly sanitized “some of our inner city youngsters now go to bed hungry.” And even English teachers began to feel at ease in citing hard ball General Semanticists like Alfred Korzybski and S.I Hayakawa in their classrooms.

Less ideas, more factually verifiable statements — from 1929 to 1960 this Intellectual emphasis characterized American schools and public discourse, including our journalism. After 1960, though, as America rested upon her laurels, its General Semantics respect for factual accuracy and intellectual honesty gave way to deceptiveness on high colored by boozy catchphrases like The New Frontier, The Peace Corps, the War on Poverty, No Child Left Behind, and other rhetorical balloons.

Let’s face it, friends: since 1960 American children have been growing up in an intellectual environment filled with direct and indirect lying, much of it shoveled down upon them by expensively dressed people in high places. Even worse, just like Cadillac Man, their leaders and many of their teachers are now able to deceive themselves just as persuasively as they shuck and jive the American public.

Nor should we exclude our journalists from this semantic confusion. As a case study, let’s look at how two major newspapers treated Francis Fukuyawa, whose “The End of History” achieved worldwide sales and professional recognition 20 years ago as a definitive argument supporting the efficacy of Reaganesque democratic capitalism and its permanent planetary triumph — forever and ever under Pax Americana.

But Fukuyama’s new book, “The Origins of Political Order,” sings a less optimistic turn, one that clearly has clearly offended both liberals and conservatives in identifying Tribalism (ethnic loyalties) and Patrimony (too many rich kids) as new and serious threats to democratic capitalism. By way of punishment, shockingly so, the book reviewers for the New York Times and the Washington Post both omitted any reference to these two key points in their reviews of Fukuyama’s book — thereby shaming their profession and misinforming their trusting readership.

My purpose here is not to bring Professor Grandgrind’s worship of facts into American education and public discourse. But I earnestly hope those who read this will be more suspicious of what they read and hear, along with respecting their own concern with verifiable accuracy. Given the importance of Reality Orientation in anti-Alzheimer’s therapy, Americans over fifty should certainly be careful about where their language may be taking them these days.

So why shouldn’t we each back off a little from indirect lying (call it hypocrisy if you wish) and the self-deception that often goes with it. Like children, our leaders probably need Good Examples from us more than Good Advice from their misguided advisors.
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Robert Oliphant (PhD Stanford 1962) is the author of The Harley Latin-Old English Glossary (Mouton) along with articles on linguistics and lexicography; his best known book is A Piano for Mrs. Cimino (Prentice Hall), the film version of which won a Monte Carlo award for Bette Davis. A columnist for www.educationviews.org, he lives in Thousand Oaks, is a WWII veteran (air corps) and an emeritus professor at California State University, Northridge.

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