Telling the Truth about Ourselves (with some help from Mitt Romney)

I promised this post over a week ago, and I cannot believe I have let it languish this long, but here goes…

I was fascinated by William Saletan’s extended article at Slate (linked in last week’s Nightstand) on Mitt Romney’s evolution on abortion.  The first time I read it, I was most interested in that subject specifically– Mitt Romney’s views on abortion.  As I reflected further on it, something more important seemed to emerge.  (Plus, I cannot really add anything to Saletan’s reporting on the subject itself)  I realize I am not saying anything new or ground-breaking here, but Saletan’s article seemed to draw it out in a unique way.

Here is an early paragraph in Saletan’s piece:

When you see the story in its full context, three things become clear. First, this was no flip-flop. Romney is a man with many facets, groping his way through a series of fluid positions on an array of difficult issues. His journey isn’t complete. It never will be. Second, for Romney, abortion was never really a policy question. He didn’t want to change the law. What he wanted to change was his identity. And third, the malleability at Romney’s core is as much about his past as about his future. Again and again, he has struggled to make sense not just of what he should do, but of who he has been. The problem with Romney isn’t that he keeps changing his mind. The problem is that he keeps changing his story.

The italics are all mine.  If nothing else, Romney’s political career has bequeathed to us this truth about telling the truth…about ourselves– we can’t, or maybe we just barely can, or rather we can tell many truths (as well as many untruths) but not the truth.  Our ability to tell accurate and meaningful stories about our own history is seriously impaired, if not lacking completely.  These two caveats are important.  I can tell you that, for breakfast this morning, I ate two pieces of wheat toast with butter and strawberry jam and a glass of orange juice.  This is totally accurate, but without any sort of significance.  Second, to be more precise, we speak of accuracy, rather than truth.  Accuracy reflects correspondence to things as they really were.  Truth is a distinct, if sometimes overlapping, category.  What may not be a accurate narrative is perfectly capable of being true, which gets us to Mitt Romney– he is telling stories about himself that are not accurate (and may be blatantly dishonest), but can be true nonetheless, because they are not about events on a timeline, but about an identity.

Without getting into the serious doubts that we ought to entertain about our own abilities of perception and the integrity of memory (all of which would make a much longer post all to themselves), this kind of “truth-telling” appears to be universal to humanity.  All of our stories about ourselves are calculated to justify ourselves, not our past actions, not who we were, but who have become now.  We can remember and reflect on the past, but cannot separate our motivations and intentions at the time from the consequences of those actions and the identity shaped by this, myriads of other choices and an almost innumerable series of circumstances.  And at the heart of this inconsistency is the “struggle to make sense” referenced by Saletan in the quote above– more damning than how we tell true stories to others is how (and if) we can tell them to ourselves.

Newt Gingrich infamously claimed some months ago that perhaps his various infidelities and moral foibles made him a more relatable candidate than the apparently squeaky-clean Romney.  Of course, this remark ignores the fact that relatively few people have cheated on (and abandoned) a spouse, much less two.  But Romney’s consistent molding of his own personal history to shape the identity he has (and furthermore, the identity he would like to have) is the truly universal experience.  The kind of rock-ribbed certainty you see in someone like Rick Santorum is not more “true” or honest than the seemingly mercurial narrative that swirls around Romney.   No one experiences life like that  Self-assured certainty is an image, a projection, and a bulwark against doubt and fear kept just at the door.  That rigid persona is just as much a mask as the one(s) that Mitt Romney wears.

The Nightstand

I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave (Mac McClelland, Mother Jones)– Speechless.  Just speechless.

Luv and War at 30,000 Feet (S.C. Gwynne, Texas Monthly)– My family does not generally fly Southwest (flies primarily out of the Houston airport that is not 5 minutes from our house) and I have not always been a fan of the no-frills approach, but if half the stuff reported in this article is true, they have a deeply admirable corporate culture and have placed commitments right where they should (employees, customers, and shareholders, in that order).

2012 or Never (Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine) alternatively titled “Why 2012 is the Republican’s Last Chance”

The Incomplete Media Debate on Iran (Glenn Greenwald, Salon)

Santorum’s Arrested Development (Garry Willis, NYRBlog)- Angry and right on the money.

Middle-Class Welfare State is Invisible by Design (Ezra Klein, Bloomberg View)

A Civil Right to Unionize (Richard Kahlenberg, Moshe Marvit, NYT)

The Genesis of a Church’s Stand on Race (Jason Horowitz, WaPo)– I do not know who could have missed this by now, unless you are simply the kind of person who does not follow these things, but here is the big “BYU professor makes racist remark as explanation for former racist LDS Church policy” article from this week.  BCC’s numerous contributions to the debate, including this, have been invaluable.  (As a bonus, for an alternative look at the Cain/Abel story, see The Mormon Worker)

Religious Organizations and “Public Witness” (Janine Giordano Drake, Religion in American History group blog)

The Economist Magazine Offers an Illogical, Factually Incorrect Assault on Regulation (Laurie Johnson, Climate Progress)– The article is good, but should also win an award for “Clearest, Yet Least Elegant Title.”

We read so you don’t have to: Tax policy lessons from the OECD (Ezra Klein, Wonkblog)

Which is the Best Language to Learn? (Robert Lane Greene, Intelligent Life)– Spoiler: The answer is not Chinese.  Why?  It’s too hard.  I have often thought about trying to pick up some Chinese in my copious (cough) spare time, but I am doubtful of the efficacy of that strategy.

The Big Reveal (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker)– Wow.  Needless to say, this is quite the revisionist take on the Book of Revelation.

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