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Archive for September, 2019

Joe Biden and Telling The Truth: Does it Matter?
Fr. Larry

All truth is true, but all truth is not equal. It’s true that eating fast food, or whatever that stuff is, and ingesting copious amounts of alcohol on a daily basis are both bad for your health, but their consequences are not equally immediate or deadly. The same sort of thing applies, of course, in the realm of mendacity. All falsehoods are false, but all falsehoods are not equal. For example, George W. Bush’s lies about his National Guard service were by definition false, but nowhere near as consequential as his lies about Weapons of Mass Destruction or inflicting torture. So when Joe Biden, or the news media, suggests that his ventures into deception or mental stumbling are really no big deal, once you compare them to the quantitative and qualitative magnitude of Donald Trump’s lying or cognitive malfunctions, it has a certain logic to it. I mean, my parish shouldn’t be nearly as upset over the fact that I momentarily mix-up whether we worship in the town of Oceanside or Seaside as it should be over my confusing the Epistle of Jude with Cloud Atlas. The question, then, is do gaffes matter? Does truth matter?

Everything is Diagnostic

One of my favorite graduate professors was Charles Swenson. His course in the tools and techniques of projective testing was, I thought, fun and one of the most enjoyable classes I took. So much so that I have been amazed at how much serious stuff I have retained from that class. One of the things I have retained and continue to find useful is his oft repeated assertion that everything, absolutely everything, is diagnostic. Before laughing off Biden’s many gaffes because, well that’s just one of lovable Ole Uncle Joe’s foibles, we need to ask what the gaffes may tell us. In the hectic whir of a campaign, confusing Burlington Vermont with Burlington Iowa when you have just gone from one to the other may not say much other than that you need to catch your breath. But when mix-ups become a repetitive pattern questions need to be asked. And when campaign statements have to be sorted out and rearranged to make sense, or when their meaning has to be guessed at, then if nothing else the ability to provide clear and effective leadership becomes an issue. For example, what did Joe mean when he said that immigrant kids “become American before a lot of Americans become Americans?” You don’t have to be a political consultant to know Trump should use that in his campaign ads. But I think Joe meant the dreamers in their hard work and positive values demonstrate the American spirit more than a lot of kids born in the United States. However, that I have to work at construing his words in this positive way is worrisome. Joe needs to be able, as a leader, to say what he means clearly without my having to guess.

Not All Gaffes are Gaffes

Sometimes the media gives Joe a pass by referring to something he has said as a gaffe when it is not a gaffe, but a perfectly clear remark which he either needs to defend or take back. For instance, echoing a Republican slogan, he said in the last debate that undocumented immigrants need to “get in line.” That statement was a gaffe only in the sense that it proved embarrassing to Joe and created problems for him with the Latino community, but not necessarily in the sense that he did not mean what he said. And there is a difference between the two. Likewise, when Joe stated: “We prefer truth over facts,” it was written off as just another of his head-scratching verbal blunders. However, in light of subsequent events it makes perfect sense. He has now repeatedly asserted that it is not the facts of an event or a story that matter, but whether its point, its moral, or essence is true. How Trumpian of him. And how dangerous, because it leads to the sort of autocratic thinking that says, “Things mean whatever I explain to you they mean.” This all leads to the further notation that when caught in either a dissimulation or a serious “gaffe,” Biden’s immediate reaction is to become defensive and combative or to go into “damage control.” He seems incapable of saying he was wrong. This is not reassuring.

But what do Joe Biden’s genuine gaffes indicate? I don’t know, but I can name some possibilities: Some may be slips indicating nothing of significance. Some may suggest a person who is not highly articulate. Others may be rather “Freudian;” that is they may suggest true inner thoughts. Saying, for instance, that “poor kids are just as smart and talented as white kids,” may indicate that deep down he doubts that is really the case. They may indicate that he simply does not get the subtilties and nuances of the postmodern world. Or, they may suggest slippage in cognitive functioning.

Substituting Fiction for Truth

But more concerning than “gaffes” is the creative license Joe takes with the truth––as in his dramatic story of the hero who asked that Joe not pin the Silver Star on him. Joe, as is now widely known, combined elements of three real stories into one fictional story and embellished and honed it for dramatic effect. He was doing what movie producers do all the time––telling a story “based” on reality but altered and dramatized to achieve a certain emotional impact. This is, evidently, what it means to “prefer truth over facts.”

Now Joe says this is no big deal, because the essence of his story is true; that is, his portrayal of the beauty of heroism and the tragedy of the fallen is true even though his story is false. I think Joe Biden is wrong. I think the media is wrong. I think dishonesty matters for several reasons:

1) By making up a story of heroism and claiming it to be God’s truth (“on the word of a Biden”) rather than acknowledging it as an imaginative illustration of courage; Joe diminishes and tarnishes all the true stories of uncommon valor and devotion.

2) But Joe’s story is also false in another more serious way. The essence of his story is not about the extraordinary character of a courageous and humble Captain––it’s about Joe. The story is ultimately about Joe’s personal experience and the kind of compassionate, understanding, caring, and wise leader the story, and the way he tells it, shows him to be. But if it never happened, that’s not what it shows. What it shows is not who Joe is, but who Joe wants us to think he is.

3) That Joe Biden may not lie as often or as diabolically as Donald Trump should be of no comfort to anyone. A wife doesn’t want to think that her husband only lies occasionally; or, that usually the “essence” of what her husband tells her is true. She wants to know that when he tells her something it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. There is no relationship that is not diminished by falsehood. That Joe doesn’t get the need for rigorous honesty in this time of chaos, crisis, and anxiety is profoundly disturbing.

4) What makes Joe Biden’s falsehoods reprehensible is that like all falsehoods they are self-serving. The death of his first wife, Neilia, and year-old daughter, Naomi, in an automobile accident was a heartrending tragedy most of us can feel. But somewhere along the line Joe began to help perpetuate the story that the truck driver who struck his wife’s car was intoxicated. But the police exonerated the driver, Curtis Dunn, of any wrong doing. Neilia Biden had a stop sign that day but didn’t stop. Curtis who did not have a stop sign plowed into the side of her car. There is speculation that she was holding the baby as she drove and never saw Curtis. Pamela Hamill, Curtis’ daughter has, in the past, asked Joe Biden to help dispel the false claim her father was drunk. There is so much sorrow and suffering in Neilia and little Naomi’s death. Who can not feel it? Mourn it? And who cannot admire Joe as a father afterwards. But we don’t get to use the tragedies of life to serve or enhance our self-image––and to embellish them, especially at the expense of someone else’s reputation, is morally reprehensible.

Patterns

The problem is that for Joe it’s not simply a matter of an isolated event here and there, but that it is a pattern. To his long list of dissimulations Joe has just added false accounts of the why and how of his support for the Iraq War––that goes on and on and on. Apparently, his latest story is that George II made him do it, but Bush and friends say that is not true.

Fallacy of the Only One

That in comparison to Donald Trump Joe Biden looks really good does not necessarily mean that he should be president. That given the polling numbers of today he would win by a wide margin does not mean that he should be chosen as the Democratic nominee over others whose numbers show they also could win decisively; and who might, because they are more “with it” and more genuine, be the better choice. However, I readily acknowledge that if truth, integrity, cognitive functioning and intelligence mattered much to most voters, the United States of America would never have elected George W. Bush or Donald J. Trump. My personal conviction is that truth matters, and on that, to appropriate Joe’s language, we have “God’s word.”

Winning Matters But It’s Not All That Matters

Joe Biden is campaigning on the proposition that only he can defeat Donald Trump, and that is the only thing that matters, or that voters should consider. But he is wrong on both counts. He is not the only one who can defeat Trump. And after Trump is defeated whether there is someone in office who has the integrity, the requisite values, and competence to deal with the global existential (life and death) crisis we face, or is just another establishment lacky will matter immensely.

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