The politics of self-deception? In the long years that I taught at the American Studies Program on Capitol Hill, I gave a lecture towards the end of each semester on the political consequences of self-deception. Over time I kept a file of articles and essays that offered one more window into its reality, and eventually that file became two files, bulging with stories of people and polities the world over where lies had a public life.
Northern hemisphere, southern hemisphere, the West and the East, conservatives and liberals, together we were all implicated in our willingness to lie to ourselves about ourselves. There were economic lies, and political lies, and historical lies; lies of all shapes and sizes really. My argument was that this is a human problem, and we are most of all disposed to deceive ourselves about who we are and what we do, and what it all means—and that there were not only personal but political costs. The challenge was to set our hearts in a different direction.
I asked the students to read an essay by Stanley Hauerwas as grist for the mill. Taking on the Holocaust through the post-war memoir of its architect, Albert Speer, Hauerwas examined the conflicted nature of the human heart. We are, more than we might ever imagine, at war within ourselves. We do know, and yet we do not want to do. But rather than face the truth about ourselves, we choose to lie, deceiving ourselves and others about what we have done and why we have done it.
Hitler handpicked Speer to create the Third Reich, and over the years of the 1930s and early ‘40s he did just that. As the war grew, and Hitler’s malicious vision was pressed into the details of ordinary life for ordinary people, Speer made choice after choice to “not know” what was going on in the Reich that he was architecturally building. Eerily, soberingly, in the inner circle conversations about horrors like Auschwitz, Speer would not enter in—later admitting, “I didn’t want to know.” But of course he did know.
Knowledge always implies responsibility, which is why the most difficult question of all for human beings is this: what will you do with what you know? This is true for everyone everywhere.
Where is all this going? Reading the horrific account of the Philadelphia physician whose practice was an “Auschwitz” of its own—small in its own way, but emblematic of a widely-accepted social practice –I have thought about self-deception again. Not so much the doctor’s, though that is grievous in every way, but ours in the “of, for and by the people” nation that we are as America.
We lie to ourselves about ourselves, pretending that something is that it is not. Simply said, there is heartache on every side in the abortion morass. I understand that. But from our most senior public leaders to those who work is to tell the stories that are ours together—all the news that’s fit to print, after all –we choose to deceive, imagining to ourselves that abortion clinics are not what they in fact are. And then, we have surprising essays in The Atlantic and USA Today that finally cry out, because of course those whose lives are no more, cannot cry out.
If we have ears, we will hear. But hearing is always a matter of the heart. And the deeper question, and the more weighty question, is whether we want to hear.