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.