- What health is to the body, honesty is to the soul. [Amit Kalantri, “Wealth of Words”.]
Time has come for some heavy lifting. We have identified our goals and addressed the fundamentals. Now we turn our attention to challenges that many people never master or even address. Honesty is prime among them. The human animal has a remarkable capacity for deception and self-deception. If you dare to point out that someone is not being honest, you are likely to be dismissed as a crank. In politics, people often are inclined to support the candidate who tells them what they wish to hear at the price of the truth. This state of affairs is not conducive to human well-being in the long term and may not even be compatible with the survival of most of the human race.
In a vision of an ideal future, children would be trained in a sound system of values from an early age, based on a commitment to the worth and dignity of all persons. Until now, the domination of religion by theology has made this unattainable. Perhaps one day that will change.
[Harriet Jacobs offered this droll observation about the dishonesty of American slave owners.]
Not far from this time Nat Turner's insurrection broke out; and the news threw our town into great commotion. Strange that they should be alarmed when their slaves were so "contented and happy"! But so it was. [Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Chapter XII, Fear of Insurrection.]
Narratives in book form:
- Janet Malcolm, Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial (Yale University Press, 2011): the murder trial of Mazoltuv Vorukhova.
- Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (Knopf, 1990): the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial, a journalist and betrayal
- Stuart E. Eisenstat, President Carter: The White House Years (Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press, 2018): Jimmy Carter told the truth about many things, especially our dependence on oil for engery. It was not what people wanted to hear.
- Jonathan Alter, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life (Simon & Schuster, 2020): “It exposes Carter’s weaknesses as well as his undervalued strengths, his reverberating failures as well as his unsung triumphs. Above all, it shows how the qualities that propelled Carter to the pinnacle of American politics also kept him from rising to his historical moment.”
- Kai Bird, The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter (Crown Publishing, 2021): “Bird blames Carter’s basic honesty for the fact that most Americans missed (the hard work and accomplishments) about his presidency.” [Blaming the messenger was easier than addressing the problems.]
- David Maraniss, A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father (Simon & Schuster, 2019): “ . . . Maraniss has used his prodigious research skills to produce a story that leaves one aching with its poignancy, its finely wrought sense of what was lost, both in his home and in our nation. It is at the same time a book that, like his family, never gives in to self-pity but remains remarkably balanced, forthright and unwavering in its search for the truth.”
- Philip Rucker and Carol Lennig, A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (Penguin Press, 2020): “They’re meticulous journalists, and this taut and terrifying book is among the most closely observed accounts of Donald J. Trump’s shambolic tenure in office to date.”
- Lacy Crawford, Notes on a Silencing: A Memoir (Little, Brown, 2020): “a purposefully named, brutal and brilliant retort to the asinine question of ‘Why now?’ What Crawford experiences at the hands of an esteemed institution with the money, power and connections to operate as a 'minor nation' is downright crippling.”
- Michael Gorra, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War (Liveright, 2020): “We need a prophet — a voice to call up the nation’s oldest stories, a reckoning with what was so that we might understand what is.”
Some honest histories:
- Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (Harper, 2003).
- Jill LePore, These Truths: A History of the United States (W. W. Norton & Company, 2018s): “We need this book. Its reach is long, its narrative fresh and the arc of its account sobering to say the least.”
A free press as an indispensable part of an honest and open society:
- David E. McCraw, Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts (All Point Books, 2019): “McCraw is rightly proud of his role in defending The Times in so many controversies.”
When dishonesty is or may be desirable, and ethical
- Matti Friedman, Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (Algonquin Books, 2019): “At times, these first-person jaunts feel awkward, but others achieve their intent, to evoke a scene or individual more vividly. It’s a fine line, but over all Friedman succeeds in portraying the ‘stories beneath the stories’ that acted as bedrock to the rise of the Mossad and serve still as a window into Israel’s troubled soul.”
- John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner, eds., The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison (Random House, 2019) “ . . . presents this writer in all his candor, seriousness, outrage and wit. Nearly all of these letters are previously unpublished. What brings them alive is that while they brood on the largest of issues — identity, alienation, the political responsibilities of the artist — they’re earthy and squirming with all the vital things of everyday experience.”
- Javier Cercas, The Imposter: A True Story (Knopf, 2018): when is lying ethical?
On the dark side:
- Mary V. Dearborn, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017). “His final failing . . . was his inability ‘to tell the truth, even to himself.’”
Documentary and Educational Films
- Street Fight, an exposé of Sharpe James’ corrupt and abusive political machine in Newark, and his electoral defeat
- The War Tapes: three U.S. soldiers record their tours of duty in the second Iraq war
- When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts: a documentary critique of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Eric G. Wilson, Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015): on the value and limits of honesty
From the dark side:
Film and Stage
- Say Anything: Honesty, which is at the heart of a teenage girl’s world view, draws her to a geeky boy who would not otherwise have a chance; she also believes that it informs her relationship with her father.
- The Great Man, about a man who learns the truth about an unscrupulous person, and reveals it
- Almost Famous, exploring the dark side and the bright side of honesty, with a story of a rock band, its female groupies and a fifteen-year-old reporter who has no business being there, except for his talent
From the dark side:
- Anastasia, about an intended deception
- Elmer Gantry, an examination of hypocrisy
- Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn: like most shock-films, this one succeeds by manipulating the audience; here, it’s expertly done
- Wise Blood: John Huston’s film adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel is among the most peculiar of high-quality films.
- American Hustle: this fictionalized account of the Abscam scandal explores deception from many angles – how we deceive ourselves and others.
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Bob Dylan, icon of honesty? In his music and especially his lyrics, yes.
- “The Times They Are a-Changin’” album
- debut album (1962)
- “Nashville Skyline” album
- “Blonde On Blonde” album
- “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album
- “Highway 61 Revisited” album
- “Bringing It All Back Home” album
- “Rough and Rowdy Ways” album
- “Blood On the Tracks” album
- “Desire” album
- Hollywood Sportatorium concert, 1974, with The Band
- “Blowin’ In the Wind”
- “ Tambourine Man”
- greatest hits compilation
- “January 15, 1974, in Landover, Md.”
- “American poet: a discussion of Dylan’s lyrical poetry
- Bowen, Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 11 (1903)
From the dark side:
- Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro: a story about deception, with links to performances conducted by Böhm and Kalagin
- Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude: A Novel (1967): “A mother learns that her son is dead. José Arcadio’s lifeblood can and must go on living until it can bring Úrsula the sad news. The real, by the addition of the magical, actually gains in dramatic and emotional force. It becomes more real, not less.”
From the dark side: