Truth or Bullshit: A Look at the Movie “Vice”

When I saw the movie “Vice”, about Vice President Dick Cheney, it was a few hours before the Golden Globe Awards in which Christian Bale, who played Cheney, won the award for best male actor in a musical or comedy. Aside from the misguided nomenclature (“Vice” being neither a real comedy or a musical), what happened after the award included fits of rage and righteousness indignation by voices of the right, related mostly to Bale thanking Satan for his inspiration for the role. The knee jerk conservative reaction was to be offended, defensive and hardly interested in whether Cheney had done as much damage to America, Iraqi civilians and detainees as the film suggested.

While I was watching the movie, I felt sickened by the rampant manipulation of data and information shown by the George W. Bush Administration, though Dick Cheney seemed in the film as he seemed in real life to be calling the shots at the Capitol. The film, while not telling me much that was new, did reinforce what I had known. And I say this, not as a liberal in any kind of vendetta, but rather as someone who was reading about torture since Abu Grahib, about the role of the American Psychological Association in America’s torture policies, as well as about the decimation of any regard or trust for America in much of the region of the Middle East.

A major issue for anyone who sees “Vice” has to do with whether the viewer has real interest in the truth of what happened during Cheney’s reign as Vice President and his political life before that. In other words I’m raising the question of whether we have in fact an ethical obligation to revisit history in general and the years of the Iraq War, even if what we find makes us uncomfortable. There is of course an alternative, one that would simply declare the innocence of any chosen American, just because that person is American; or declare a given policy above suspicion just because it is American. In one example of the latter phenomenon, Dick Cheney, with help from his buddy Donald Rumsfeld, stated that there was no torture done by America, because America doesn’t torture. No criminal investigation was deemed necessary regarding continued abuses of Iraqi detainees; after all they were suspected terrorists, right? Geneva Convention standards didn’t apply because Cheney said they didn’t, case closed. To me this sounds like the distraction of a huge part of the American public. In fact it kind of sounds like bullshit.

 

There is a very small book by Harry G. Frankfurt called Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005). He explores the differences between truth, lies and bullshit and also between a truth teller, a liar and a bullshitter. One of his points is that while the honest person says what she/he believes to be true, for the liar it is important to consider statements as untrue. Frankfurt continues: “For the bullshitter, however, all bets are off; he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all…except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose. “(p. 56)

Now, when psychology is used against us–either by politicians or business people—or lovers and friends– or anyone looking for influence and not honesty– we are under the sway of bullshit. And one of my own concerns is that we may be so manipulated by those who love the polarization that exists among us, so as to have this constant tension exacerbated, without some of us even knowing.

I have been trying to question the assumptions of my own liberal self-identification. In my work on the shadows—the parts where we unconsciously bury feelings and thoughts unacceptable to our conscious minds—I have felt increasingly obligated to question my own bouts of moral superiority—if mostly imagined ones. I have found my capacity to identify with acts of violence, with people who are much tougher than me. And I have been exploring my own prejudices, whether they are racially or politically inspired.

It would be such a challenge to see the movie “Vice” and discuss it from the point of view of sharing experiences of the movie, and experiences and memories of the days in which they take place.

It would need so much discipline, but my main question is not about the discipline but rather about how much we can conjure up genuine motivation for knowing the truth. I am assuming not everything about the period—like whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or whether torturing prisoners is both illegal and ineffective—is merely subjective.

What would happen if we let down our quasi-addictive appetite for judging and assuming we are right, and agree to learn from whatever truth we find? What a concept! I think it could be fascinating. We might even decide to question the easy truths—really the easy assumptions and accusations that bombard us. With increased empathy for one another, something that can only come with the desire to hear each other’s stories and walk in each other’s shoes, we might substitute increasing trust for automatic antagonism.

What I Want for President

So I’m reading about Elizabeth Warren and how she shouldn’t be underestimated. She’s as tough as nails, really, and to prove it there are quotes of her demolishing the one and only Donald Trump. He is small, she has said, and obviously there is more where that comes from.

So the competition is starting, but we know it had already started before the beginning of 2019. I think of Hillary Clinton’s gaffe in 2016 when she called Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables”. I was sitting in Italy on my computer reading the news—the American news that would be—and I stood up, so much was my disbelief. I said out loud, “This is cuckoo and so bad. She is talking about people she wants to vote for her.”

It might seem silly to worry about tone of politicians in our country that is so used to polarization. And at the same time I feel that if we don’t find ways to know each other better as human beings, we will continue to demonize—not only people of different colors and continents, but also our neighbors at home. Not that the demonization of people who seem strange and/or exotic is okay. It is just that we may be oblivious to the price we pay in general for demonization of anyone at all.

We may have gotten used to the politics of violence and exploitation so that we limit our focus early on to watching where the major Super Pacs will put their money. And oh yes, where will Russia be situated? Since that too has become something so many seem unconcerned about, that a foreign state should influence our elections.

I know, I know. Politics has always been dirty and you should have seen it back in the day, or the day before that. But the point may be that we need to evolve, to grow up, to grow beyond dirty fighting and winning based on tricking the public and humiliating the opponent.

I have recently thought a great deal about the war in Yemen, about America supporting and initiating much of the genocide going on there, and it being all too easy to detach from the toll of actual lives and in terms of our own humanity. At a time when there is so much danger to the physical climate and so much famine, war, inequality in our world, how can we expect to take any of it seriously when we are drawn against each other into the fray, feeding off of sheer adrenalin?

Psychology is but one tool that is terribly underused here. What I mean to say is that there are plenty of people who know how to use our proclivity to fear and distrust against us, to seduce us into warring against each other. And all the while, there is little mainstream attention to what forces are at play within us, forces that make us susceptible to hatred, to blame and to detachment.

When we are not in touch with our deepest emotions, we unconsciously relegate them into the nether land of the shadows. They can hurt us all the more the less we know about them. They can cause us to project onto others the hate and blame for what we in fact harbor inside. They, hidden from light, cannot be integrated; they cannot morph into the signals for anxiety and worry that are real warning signs of danger. As such we do not see the predator at times also because we are ignorant about the predator and predator potential inside of us. We do not know this part of us so we cannot spot it on the outside.

I have the notion that part of our job as people is to grow up the best we can. This would mean we don’t settle for the worst of human potential, but that we try to get to know the deepest parts of ourselves enough so we can formulate genuine discipline that is based on awareness and not on terror.

Cooperation, in anything close to a democracy, is obligatory and not merely an elective subject. Cooperation in a world that demands giving a damn is something we need to learn in order to survive constructively, with the capacity to care either intact or in the midst of growing.

For now I don’t want a President in my own country that can douse all the other candidates with gasoline and light a match to them. I want the candidate who has the integrity to get beneath the divisions between us and set up dialogue that is based on real understanding of the stories we all have that describe how we got to our present lot, politics and values in life. I want psychologists and people who have some awareness and who care, to help us figure out more about the power of knowing ourselves, so that we are not seduced by tyrants on either side.

And then I want a President who is a leader. And that would mean a President who can challenge and guide the public into decision-making and collaboration based on curiosity, learning and empathy. It would also mean a President who cares more about our well-being than about his/her own agenda—his/her own power.

I know, it’s asking a lot. But then again: why not?

“Fair Game”: Seeking Clear Memory and Truth

This piece was just made more relevant, perhaps worthy to more people of concern and attention due to the popularity of the film “Vice”, about Dick Cheney. It was first published in Huffington Post, 12/30/10, as

“Fair Game”: Seeking Clear Memory and Truth

We are creatures of habit, more than many of us would like to admit, and in the realm of the movies and theatre we can be scripted into our orientations sometimes more than we know. Rather than seeking exposure to new material by way of conversation, we often have our opinions dictated to us by the media rather than seek anything that would challenge our views or change our minds. Psychologically speaking, without permitting our emotions to be fluid enough to allow for a necessary jolt to our orientations, we stick pretty much to the same old same old.

 

When I found out about the movie “Fair Game“ dealt with the true story of Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame, the former CIA operative who was crushed and spitefully outed by Vice President Dick Cheney’s armies of unknown proportion, I thought it would be a repetition of what I already knew. I was wrong, and I was blown away. Until now, I have refrained from begging anyone in plain or virtual sight to see it, to meet and discuss it.

 

I must admit that “Fair Game” gave me back my memory of those events, but even more so, it reminded me of those things I had forgotten in spite of my assumptions. It reminded me of the famous Santayana warning that if we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. It also reminded me of the fact that our emotions play with our thoughts and cover them over whenever the memories are not only painful but controversial. This is the state of America today.

 

On the surface, this story is about a marriage, a family, a forceful and passionate man who couldn’t stay quiet after his wife was defamed and after her covert C.I.A. contacts were burned and even killed as a result of her outing after they had been promised a safe haven by our government if they assisted her on top secret American security information. To my mind, this movie is primarily the story of how we have all allowed a war in Iraq based on lies and the will and wants of one single man and his troops to allow the murder of the reputation of anyone in their path.

 

The film heads towards closing with a speech by the Ambassador to a group of students where he warns that war has to be the last resort in a democracy, that it is our right to have the truth. Wilson’s speech emphasizes our obligation to speak out, to participate.

In our America where a cacophony of causes claim to yell the truth out loud and are in competition with each other rather than collaboration, we remain as distracted by those who fight for justice as we are by those who would render us deaf and blind to any truth at all. And because many of the progressive forces have been led by people praising their own goodness, we are all so very ill equipped to begin to recognize the aggression in ourselves and to begin to tackle the resistance to being taken over, in this case, by the single-handed army of Dick Cheney who got his war, has had it largely forgotten and roams the earth smiling.

We who witnessed Vietnam and did our protesting then were less than kind to recruits, to the voluntary soldiers who heard President John F. Kennedy’s cry to give to our country what it asked as a call to battle for our military. We had little respect, compassion or curiosity towards the veterans who came home with their own nightmares and passed those on to generations and remain unhealed. Who were we to protest the first Gulf War when yellow ribbons replaced peace protests? And then September 11th. After that how could we be so egregious as to say out loud that a democracy is compelled not just to “do something,” as so many people said. After all, we had to trust the words of John McCain on the Letterman Show (how does that even happen?) that the anthrax being used to kill and scare people, was likely made in Iraq which meant we might have to invade there. How many of us have even followed the anthrax thread to know that in August 2008 the one single suspect was a respected scientist employed by the U.S. military to develop an anti-anthrax vaccine? He was indicted and after eight long years committed suicide. The case quietly closed except for a few stubborn seekers who insist on loyalty to the truth.

 

Memory, when amputated, equates to odes to authority, nostalgia or fairy tales that become the fuel running most of our lives. We are all complicit, not just because Carl Jung said so when he spoke about The Shadow, but because when we agree by commission or omission to sit with lies, we blithely send our kids off to wars where we decimate countries and leave the scene of real crimes. “Fair Game” shows us Wilson’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, of July 3, 2003, called “What I didn’t Find in Africa“, where he spelled it all out, along with his warning about the dangers in Pakistan. Wilson’s points are made even more poignant when one realizes that it was published the week that we celebrated American independence.

 

I have no illusions about the ease of independence or of even its value in a society where we need the ecology of interdependence and collaboration. To seek for our own authenticity of opinion, we have a need for information. We can no longer afford traditions that tell us to if we dare to question the rule of our nation then we do not love our country, that to honor our parents or children or planet is not to question the accepted procedures.

 

This means getting off our high and low horses and loving our prejudices too tightly, and seeing a film with Sean Penn even if you are arrogant enough to hate his alleged arrogance. As we find ourselves mired in a decade-long war with no apparent end or design for victory, we don’t have the time or the luxury to tear down anyone who gives us a piece of real truth and the inspiration to re-connect with our memory and our sensitivity.

Don’t turn away from Yemen this holiday season

One of the inconvenient truths in the chaos that is Yemen today is that we, the United States of America, are supplying bombs and are backing government policies of a friendship with Saudi Arabia, no matter the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, no matter the destruction of innocent civilians.

As many Americans celebrate the joys of Christmas and Hanukkah and other holidays with wholehearted involvement and enthusiasm, it can be all too easy to detach from the gruesome horrors in Yemen, if we even know they exist..

The New York Times article by Jeffrey E. Stern — “From Arizona to Yemen: The Journey of an American Bomb” — has implications for all of us that are so profound and so clear.

“Together, the bombing campaign and blockade have spurred the worst continuing humanitarian crisis in the world. Eight million people are on the brink of famine; according to Save the Children, an international aid organization, 85,000 Yemenis under age 5 have already died of starvation. A cholera outbreak has spread to 21 of Yemen’s 22 provinces,” Stern wrote.

What flowed into my mind as I read those words last week was hearing about the multitude of deaf and disinterested eyes and ears during the Holocaust amidst the plight of millions of Jews and many other minorities. When I was younger hearing about that coldness, it was something that seemed unthinkable, almost unbelievable. But really is there anything different, in the deaf ears and eyes of today as related to these eight million people on the brink of famine?

When this happens, the genocide we are witnessing may induce a horror that makes us quickly turn away. Or it may provoke us to use the mechanisms that protect us from real compassion. The latter include our tendency to “otherize,” to see people in groups outside our own, or those in ethnic, religious or racial groups from whom we tend to detach and whom we thus tend to dehumanize. Once a person is in that “other” grouping, the cruelty attending them can seem inane, meaningless, beside the point. A lot of people may be thinking right now, “Yeah it’s too bad about those people in Yemen. But we need to keep the Middle East safe from Iran; we need to defend our military interests.”

I am convinced that the more we dehumanize others the more we become dehumanized ourselves. I understand that there are tactical and technical issues in foreign policy that may go beyond humanitarian concerns. However once we collude and ally with those who take the Nazi role in a given conflict, we risk not only making enemies of much of a region; we risk being further immune to functioning with any decency or dignity in the world. When we target nationalism as our key goal, we isolate not only from other human beings but also from our own humanity.

Christmas is around the corner, and along with odes to presents given and received, there is a tendency to sing many carols and other songs that fill the air with thoughts of peace and kindness — of tenderness.

This holiday season, I am seeing something more clearly. Yemen, in other words, is not a distant land on a distant planet with people or beings unknowable. For better and for worse, our technology allows us to see so much up close and personal. If in fact we are ready for the personal side of things, as political and as real, we have to be or become ready to pressure our government to stop aiding and abetting the genocide that is occurring.