In the years when I kept files of newspaper articles and magazine essays—the world before Google search –the largest file was one I called “the politics of self-deception.” Drawn in by the insights of John Owen, the 17th-century Oxford University vice-chancellor and theologian, and Stanley Hauerwas, the contemporary Duke University theologian, I began to see the world through the lens of our predisposition to self-deception. We lie to ourselves about ourselves.
It is not a modern problem, or even a premodern or postmodern problem. It is not a conservative problem or a liberal problem. It is not capitalist problem, nor is it a communist problem. It is not a Northern hemisphere problem or a Southern hemisphere problem. It is a human problem.
At the end of every semester I would give a lecture on the political costs of self-deception, looking back at history as well as examining the current debates of the city of Washington and the world. Though the parameters of the problem were perennial in character, the particulars were always new. Year by year, human beings as we are—glories and ruins as we are –we offer to ourselves one more good reason to deceive ourselves about ourselves, and there are political consequences.
The examples are legion, and they are from all over the world.
Reading an op-ed in the Washington Post today, I remembered my file, and the lecture that grew out of it. Robert Samuelson is one of the Post’s writers who cannot be put into a partisan box; he is neither notably liberal nor is he notably conservative. The focus of his writing is always on business and economic life, and he does not write on other issues. Provocatively titled, “Where’s the Clinton-Bush apology tour?” Samuelson, some tongue-in-cheek, suggests that our former presidents take up a truth tour over the next year, both confessing their culpability in our present economic distress, but also requiring of the upcoming presidential campaign that it not live in an economic fantasy-land.
These are his final words. “Our political system prefers rhetorical fairy tales to unpleasant budget realities.” The politics of self-deception—yes, we lie to ourselves about ourselves.