Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Learning to speak the truth the hard way

Two weeks ago Hillary Clinton held a press conference in which she attempted to explain her decision to use a private email server located in her house for all of her email communications while she was Secretary of State. Because this decision had given Clinton complete control over what correspondence made it into the public record and what was destroyed, it raised serious questions about her activities while in office and about her respect for the kind of public transparency that is necessary for a democratic government to function. Unfortunately, the press conference itself was a sham because whatever explanations Clinton gave for squirreling away her correspondence, it was clear from the beginning that she would not discuss the actual truth. Her explanations would consist of strategically innocuous reasons that could possibly be true but in the larger context would make no sense at all (really, you were just scheduling yoga classes?). They would be the politician’s answer wherein the kernel of truth, the nugget of intent, is hidden away beneath layers of strategic denials, disingenuous phrasings, and winking ambiguities. They would contain the kind of language that works great when no one’s paying close attention and makes you look absolutely ridiculous when everyone is.
And no one comes away from that kind of farce unscathed.
            The best example of such damage comes from the impeachment trial of Clinton’s husband. For all the good Bill Clinton did as president – the Dayton accords, the Irish peace process, a sustained period of economic growth during which the federal government actually had a balanced budget - he will always be defined in so many minds by the verbal contortions he used to avoid admitting that he messed around with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. It was a shambles of idiotic proportion. He would have been much better off coming clean and moving on. People will forgive the doing of stupid things if one admits it. They will not forgive being treated as if they were too stupid to understand the meaning behind the contortions.
But that view of the world doesn’t fit the politician’s training, and they rarely can see the damage they do to themselves until it’s too late.
            This is certainly the case with Hillary Clinton and her emails. I was a solid Clinton voter. She has the experience and the skills to be an effective president (which is more than can be said about any other potential candidates out there in either party). I also appreciate the work she has done in the past with women’s and children’s issues. I would like to see what a person with such a background might do while in the White House. But, in the wake of this whole email debacle, my vote is less assured. I don’t know what she’s hiding – and I don’t really care - but the knowledge that she’s ducking and weaving to avoid talking about it is making me wonder if I should vote for her. It keeps reminding me that she’s just a politician and has me looking around more seriously to see who else is out there. I imagine many others are doing the same.


I've taken a particular interest in Hillary Clinton’s travails with her email because Pip has recently been trying out some disassembly of his own, altering the truth about his intentions or his actions when he realizes he’s stirred up some trouble. The most recent example of this dodging and evasion came a couple of mornings back as we rode our bikes down to school. Pip and Polly were jacked up after having fun at an Easter egg hunt the night before and just before we reached the final crosswalk, Pip diverted his bike from its usual path to run over a newspaper lying on the edge of the sidewalk. It was a little move and probably didn’t do any damage to the paper, but it felt destructively mischievous. Once we made it to school, I confronted Pip about this little shenanigan, asking him why he went out of his way to run over something that belonged to someone else. His stumbling reply was that he thought he would try to jump it. This answer, while not particularly good, seemed plausible enough in the moment, but as he wheeled his bike down to the bike rack I realized that he’d made no effort to actually bounce his bike in any way. This would not have been a big thing except he’d been bouncing his front tire a good deal over the past couple of weeks, and this move would have been the first thing to do in any effort to jump something. I had the distinct feeling that Pip had given me a line.
            In reality I imagine Pip didn’t know why he decided to run over that newspaper. He was flying along in the world and probably felt an impulse to see what would happen if he bumped over it. I doubt there was much thought involved and when pressed by me for an explanation, he didn’t really have one. So, he came up with something. Now if this had been the first time he’d come up with some half-truth to explain away something, I’d probably have let it pass without comment. Or, more likely, I wouldn’t have even noticed the ambiguous nature of the explanation at all. However, this wasn’t the first time. It was more like the third or fourth and as such Ava and I both were on the lookout.
            At the bike rack I made Pip go back through his explanation again and then told him I didn’t believe it. When he didn’t protest, I made him go back and try again. I told him how I felt about half-truths. I told him how such moments chip away at the foundations of any good relationship, how they undermine our future ability to trust and believe in what he is saying, and how without that trust, things quickly fall apart. Everything becomes uncertain. All answers come with an asterisk and our bonds of love get shredded and bulldozed by suspicion.
            This was a little thing – both the newspaper bump and the thoughtless evasion of responsibility – but, I told him, the little things are where we practice for when the big things come around. If you don’t do the little things right, it’s too late to change when the big challenges appear because in that moment your instincts will lead you astray. They can only tell you what worked in the past, not give you guidance on how best to handle the future. And then you’ll wind up like Hillary Clinton, doing something dumb and then only making it worse by trying to explain it away while no one in their right mind believes a word you say.

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