The Best and the Brightest Lies

          Take the books about our authoritiesElying that have come out recently: 

Clyde Prestowitz’s Rogue Nation, Greg Palast’s The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Paul Krugman’s The Great Unraveling, Jim Highland’s Thieves in High Places, Molly Ivins’s Bushwhacked, Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God, Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush, Joe Conason’s Big Lies, Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country, & Robert Scheer et al’s The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us about Iraq

Take them all, add them up, and in all their reach and power they still fall short of the level set thirty years earlier with David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. 

          Halberstam did more than recount the facts as to how we got lied into Vietnam back in the 1950s and E0s.  He showed how the lying pervaded the highest levels of our government Eas our newest crop of  books similarly traces webs of deception still entangling us in foreign wars, dictatorships, and other imperial adventurism.  Halberstam then had the same story, but without the “shocked, shockedEnote in many of today’s books.  He never treated our leaders as if they inhabited some moral zone unusually below our own.  Our “best and brightestElied, but they did so out of a climate of fear all official America lived in then.  And they lied more importantly, Halberstam says, for the sake of a careerist culture that they developed.  This same careerism shaped his own profession, journalism, he adds, and began informing America’s university culture, too. 

The cultural climate preceding the Vietnam era today seems unique Ethose two decades between our terror bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and our commitment of U.S. combat forces to southeast Asia in 1965:  twenty years of growing fears gnawing in Cold War and the fall of China, defeats in Korea, McCarthyism, the E6 crushing of Hungary, the Bay of Pigs, and the rise of the Berlin Wall.  In our contemporary militarism in the Middle East and Central Asia we didn’t have any such years of national malaise requiring the lies eventually coming from Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rove, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, and Bush.  We’d had, instead, years of prosperity.  In our shopping malls, sprawl landscape, and celebrity culture, we’d been able to pretend virtually no roles in the international scene right up till September 11, 2001.  And when the World Trade Center and Pentagon exploded, our leaders soon postured their best masculine firmness, with all convenient lies of omission, white lies, half lies, and full blown whoppers, exactly as Halberstam had chronicled in the generation of Rostow, McNamara, the Bundys, Rusk, Taylor, Harkins, Westmoreland, and Johnson. 

Those Cold War masterminds EHalberstam’s “best and brightestEEhad learned  masculinity as young men in WWII.  But they’d learned something else:  the unprecedented power of American industrial, technological, and organizational resources.  No one in the world had foreseen it, that incredible output of highest quality ordinance, trucks, bombers, jeeps, landing craft, cruisers, battleships, tanks, pipelines, engineering works, and all their logistics and support systems.  Halberstam’s characters hadn’t learned love of war as young men under Patton, Stilwell, Eisenhower, and Marshall.   They’d learned, more importantly, love of the mass systems that could engage fullest rationality. 

Halberstam called it careerism Eif there were but one word to sum up the way all joined a singular corporate imagination.  In government, the military, journalism, and higher education in its increasingly seamless web from junior colleges to research universities, efficiency wedded rational systems at all levels.  Hierarchies of experts divided themselves by strictly separate departments.  Amid their flow chart divisions, subdivisions, and other subset units of schooling, advertising, accounting, polling, marketing Eeverywhere Ethey adorned themselves with what David Riesman called “niche differentiationEjargon.  For ethics they measured goodness by quantification.  All loved numbers, statistics, scores, graphs, and more numbers, more experts speaking acronyms and buzzwords in turf hierarchies kept in parallel but strictly separate from each other.  (All loved it, but Halberstam didn’t discuss dropouts like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lenny Bruce, or other nonconformists like Brando, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe, or blues musicians, or the painters who met at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village; he didn’t discuss the guilty Elia Kazan, nor the elderly John Ford raging through John Wayne.)  In institutional America, careerism added up by corporate channels to aphrodisiac, narcotic effect.  Our Gross National Product and its massive, multi-tracked delivery system contrasted with the commie system not because the latter uniquely had evils (we murdered, too, we had our thug dictators), but because the empire of the red star had but simpleton top-down organization.  Our way of life sported so many more measurable ways of movement within rational systems:  school tracking, columns of multiple-choice testing, textbooks by modular schematics, highway lanes, television channels, industrial conveyor belts, shopping check-out lines, top forty play lists, corporate corridors, and millions of fans with index fingers in the air celebrating alternative routes to #1. 

The rest of the world wanted American goodness.  The rest of the world might not yet be on the receiving end of American blue jeans, baseball caps, refrigerators, washers, dryers, cars, cigarettes, soft drinks, fast food franchises, superhighways, and shopping malls Ebut good Americans could assume the great unwashed were waiting.  We could assume all “othersEas but pale, “undevelopedEversions of ourselves:  wannabees, future demographic units still to be plugged in.  Our “best and brightestEgoverning our system had no interest in the complications and nuances of foreign cultures and languages.  We all could overlook anomalies on the ground in southeast Asia:  those dope-smoking VC in the jungles, Buddhist monks incendiary in their monasteries, and villages of little yellow people oddly nationalistic in their rice paddies.  We could ignore them, deny them, or lie about them, and then kill hundreds of thousands of them Eall the same.  Rostow, the Bundys, McNamara, Rusk, Harkins, Taylor, and Westmoreland could have contempt for the slippery facts of Southeast Asia that did not fit their flow charts.  Individuals like John Paul Vann and George Ball might beg to differ, but they lost. 

          No one need be surprised that we Americans Eparticularly the best-educated of us Ehave difficulty seeing “others.Enbsp; We see culture as consumer goods Ethings to buy.  We inflate our entitlement to demographic choices by the stroking teasing we also enjoy from advertising, marketing, and celebrity media.  We can take cultural items for granted as so many relatively interchangeable identity props.  We own them, we discard them Ewe’re always free to buy new identity; it comes by consumer choices.   The individual clothing, music, food, film, landscape, transport, and architecture needn’t register for inhering qualities in them, not when as a flux of mere tools they all blend into each other for the larger purpose of validating us as owners, masters, in control.  Our roles as students, consumers, and careerists segue not so much into each other as into one larger empowerment mythology.  Thus our “best and brightestEmodel dedicated rationality and impersonal discipline in keeping the system going, all moving according to flow charts. Truly selfless (selves-less), our teachers mimic the same corporate impersonality, with “objectivityEand “coursesEadding up by more devices of quantification, more segmented information increments in specialization departments ever isolated from each other. 

Some escape.  We do this whenever we take seriously clothing, food, landscape,  films, books, or music as linked to a wider, less mechanized humanity also within us.  Cultural items may signal stories in us apart from Eor part of Ethe conventional lies around us.  We ourselves may be “others.Enbsp; It takes skills to sight, site, and cite the elusive threads between our values and the culture we inhabit Eand it takes many more skills to escape the illusory closure of any of us really being rational, efficient, tracked, and channeled.  Such purposive fictions simplify and lie to us about our humanity Eand that of “othersEEbut we inherit this flaw.  We buy into it as part of our deeply innate love of art, fabrication, fantasy, creativity, and everything in between “once upon a timeEand “in the end.Enbsp; Thus, amid the skein of recent books charting the current versions of lying, Paul Krugman notes a recent Pew survey.  It shows, he writes, how much even the best-educated of Americans mistake others as wannabees of ourselves. It shows how too many of us imagine others only as mirrors to our most banal conceits.  As Krugman says, even our best-educated “are notoriously bad at seeing ourselves as others see us.Enbsp; The Pew survey measured “opinion leadersEand “found that 52 percent of the Americans think that our country is liked because it ‘does a lot of good’”; it also found that “only 21 percent of foreigners, and 12 percent of Latin Americans, agreed.Enbsp;

          Essaying Differences posits a humanity apart from (and part of) everybody’s conventional, commercial, and corporate fictions.  We also inhabit other stories.  These may connect with “othersEall over the world Eand connect richly with some neighbors that some orthodoxies have taught some of us to ignore or hate.  We could see how much in every culture all differ and mesh by values, themes, and concerns in all our food, music, landscape, poetry, film, wall art, body art, clothing, transportation, and architecture.

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