by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – “Never spend your principal, my boy. Never! It’s like suicide: a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” I can’t remember, for the life of me, who gave me that Micawberish bit of advice. But he was dead right. Faced with problems that I considered otherwise insurmountable, I twice liquidated principal, to my subsequent (and continuing) regret.
It took years, but an awareness slowly seeped through my consciousness that the financial advice I got was relevant to other aspects of life, as well. Once I managed to get my business expansion under control and began to prosper a bit, I learned the value of reputation. It was principal, as well, to be nourished often and guarded jealously.
Shakespeare, of course, reached that conclusion long ago: “Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls: Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”
But here in the heat of July in an election year, with the Bunsen burners of the mass media exacerbating the oppression we older folks especially feel, the notion of rational debate, the importance of truth, and the ideal of integrity all seem to have been forgotten. Some owners of the Internet have removed paid content because of “inaccuracies,” a polite name for lies; and some businesses, threatened with boycott by large numbers of customers, have withdrawn advertising from media talking heads who now and then represent opinion and innuendo as fact. Is the notion of “a good name” no longer important?
In this age of instant information, with incalculable amounts of human knowledge and experience at our fingertips (as long as the power doesn’t go out), you’d think we would be more nearly united in our perceptions of reality. Yet nothing would be farther from the truth; and the truth itself seems lately to be increasingly elusive. Every day I read fervent testimony about the dark powers that, like the humbug wizard behind the curtain in the Emerald City, control our lives. Just as any historian can calculate from many Americans’ claims of ancestry, that the Mayflower carried over 400,000 passengers, it’s clear that the shadowy billionaire George Soros, for all his suspected involvement in “liberal” causes, must be worth trillions, which he’s using to “destroy America.” (He should save his money; we’re doing a pretty good job of it ourselves.) Did you know that the flexible metal band in some anti-virus masks, designed to make them a better fit around the nose, is actually an electronic device that receives signals calculated to transform children into Communists? Or that the COVID-19 vaccine, if and when it’s available, will contain a “chip” to enable the government to track the poor fools who get the injection? Thousands of people, presumably at least minimally educated, appear to believe these “proven facts.” As my favorite Irishman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan said some years ago, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Lest we begin to blame modern educators, we should remember that one hundred years ago the poet William Butler Yeats noticed the same phenomenon: “…the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Nothing we possess on this earth is as valuable as our integrity, or more precious than our word. Sadly, lying is a uniquely human trait, currently as pervasive, and at least as deadly, as the other airborne virus. Remember Brutus’ response to being asked to swear an oath: “…every drop of blood that every Roman bears…is guilty of a several bastardy if he do break the smallest particle of any promise that hath passed from him.”
We’ve come a long way since then, eh? The agency monitoring the spread of what’s now become “the American virus” reports truly alarming increases in the number of infections, while our political leaders blandly assure us that everything is looking up; and our Secretary of Education, interviewed Sunday by Dana Bash, responded to specific questions about the safety of opening schools for the fall with such vapid grandiloquence that, in another day, I’d have recommended her as a speechwriter for P.T. Barnum.
Like Brutus, we shouldn’t have to swear to tell the truth in order actually to do it. I’m reminded of the Cree elder who, when asked to swear, said, “I don’t know this ‘truth.’ I will tell you only what I know.” In the face of the almost criminal complicity of a Congressional majority, we must nurture the embers of what we know to be true and, when the time comes, relight the fire. Hold responsible every leader who knows better, or ought to, and remember Mark Twain’s opinion of the citizens who long ago opposed slavery, but didn’t have the gumption to speak up: The silent lie requires no art, but it’s as big a lie as slavery.