We have returned to the sultry swelter of Texas, retracing the route by which we had, but a week before, escaped over the dusty rolling plains. Traveling in the homeward direction, I was not so impressed by visible signs of Christian faith (although the many white crosses in the town of Memphis were something to ponder). I was impressed by visible signs of mendacity.
Mendacity is not the simple act of lying, or even lying habitually. It is living a lie because one believes in “the salutary nature of falsehoods.” The phrase is from the last of Carlyle’s Latter Day Pamphlets, in which the great man also describes mendacity as “the universe of cant.” What he means is not only that lies are so common as to be virtually universal, but that, in “the universe of cant,” reality is conceived to be of so indefinite, elastic and manipulable a nature as to conform to anything we might say that it is. As Carlyle explains, the spiritual ground and first cause of “the universe of cant” is a conviction that
“the universe makes no immediate objection to be conceived in any way.”
In the mouth of a modern savant, this principle would be expressed by the line,
“Reality is a social construct.”
When a liar lies, he knows his words are not true. The mendacious man does not care if words are true because truth has for him no value. If he has had the benefit of a university education, the mendacious man will say
“Everything is an interpretation.”
Because a liar knows that his falsehoods are untrue, he “lives by his lies” only insofar as he must to maintain his deception. But the mendacious man goes beyond this “voluntary spoken divergence from the fact as it stands” and assumes a voluntary “divergence in thought from what is the fact.” As Carlyle goes on to say,
“Alas, the palpable liar with his tongue does at least know that he is lying, and has or might have some faint vestige of remorse and chance of amendment; but the impalpable liar, whose tongue articulates mere accepted commonplaces, cants and babblement, which means only ‘Admire me . . .’ of him what hope is there?”
* * * * *
There are official signs along U.S. Highway 287 north of Amarillo indicating that this stretch of road is part of something called the “Plains to Ports Highway.” Reading these signs, an ingenuous motorist might form the belief that the enormous, thundering truck by which he is being crowded off the road is, at least, conveying the bounty of the plains to a saltwater port, from whence that bounty will be shipped across the sea. But in this belief the ingenuous motorist would be wrong, for, as you can see on this map, the “Plains to Ports Highway” is, in fact, a highway to Mexico.
Do not be deceived by the coastal town of Mazatlan, away down south by the mouth of the Gulf of California. Mazatlan is a tourist resort and port of call for cruise ships. If the farmers of the high plains actually wished to export their beefcakes to Australia or the Galapagos Islands, they would do so through, Manzanillo, the real port farther south.
The absence of any real ports on the “Plains to Ports Highway” may be a small thing in itself, but this false and misleading name is part of the pervasive mendacity that runs through all of our dealings Mexico.
We are not told the truth about Mexico and we do not wish to be told the truth.
* * * * *
If the “Plains to Ports Highway” was, in truth, a highway from the Plains to some Ports, it might have continued to follow Highway 287 southeast from Amarillo to its terminus, which happens to be a city called Port Arthur on the Gulf of Mexico. But as it is, the “Plains to Ports Highway” leaves Highway 287 at Amarillo and makes a beeline for the border.
Southeast of Amarillo, Highway 287 might be called the Colorado Trail, for it is by this route that thousands upon thousands of Texans make their annual hegira to the Rocky Mountains. Nowadays it might also be called the Cannabis Trail, for it is by this route that thousands upon thousands of pounds of marijuana are transported from the happy highlands to the great, sweltering, unhappy cities of Texas.
That this is so was evident in at least fifty large billboards along that highway, all hawking the services of lawyers who specialize in the defense of marijuana smugglers. “Got Pot?” read more than one of these.
Assuming that these lawyers know their market, quite a few of the drivers on that stretch of road nod their heads and answer, “you bet your sweet ass I do!”
Obviously, Colorado’s legalization of marijuana made Highway 287 into the Pot to Potheads Highway, but only lawyers specializing in the defense of marijuana smugglers act as if this is so. That the services of such lawyers are required suggests that the state occasionally manages to nab a car loaded with cannabis candy bars, but I nowhere saw evidence of any serious effort to curtail the Colorado cannabis trade.
Just as with our dealings with Mexico, our dealings with illegal drugs are shot through with mendacity. We are not told the truth about marijuana and we do not wish to be told the truth.
* * * * *
We left the Pot to Potheads Highway at Fort Worth, where the newspaper headlines blazoned the news that my employer is squirming in the face of awkward questions about its handling of sexual assaults by and of its students. I’ve written several posts about this problem, which is hardly unique to Texas A&M, and is probably insoluble without rolling back much of the sexual revolution.
The essential problem is how a university can prevent bad sex between its students without inconveniencing the students who wish to take a shot at good sex. That university students have a right to conveniently take a shot at good sex is never questioned. That the university has a responsibility to prevent this from going bad is, likewise, a foregone conclusion. Thus separation of good sex from bad sex is the Gordian knot that our president hopes to unravel with the help of a task force, panel of experts, firm of outside consultants, and, perhaps, Ouija board.
The big brains are being asked to furrow their brows and discover a way that Chad and Susie can lock themselves in Susie’s room, with no questions asked, notwithstanding that Chad and Susie are drunk and do not know each other’s names, and yet emerge the next morning with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts.
Furrow away, say I, because this is a puzzler that cannot be solved. And it cannot be solved because it drips with mendacity.
It cannot be solved because we are not told the truth about sex and we do not wish to be told the truth.
* * * * *
Mendacity is a resolution to permanently reside in a false and fictional world, in a pretend world of make-believe. It is a decision to take the plunge and really “live the lie.” We are, for instance, living the lie that Mexico is just a normal neighbor, and that our relations with that strange and unhappy country are not fundamentally different than our relations with, say, Canada or Italy.
We are living the lie that contraband will not cross an unregulated border, and that Colorado is not, therefore, supplying marijuana to all of the western states that are too uptight to supply themselves.
We are living the lie that Chad and Susie can always come out of Susie’s room smiling, if only Chad is sufficiently schooled, beforehand, in the precise protocols of prophylaxis and feminist sex, not to mention the fearsome penalties for sex crimes.
Or we could refuse to live by these lies and face the fact that countries, contraband, and young couples do have an “immediate objection to be conceived in any way.” We could accept the fact that they demand that we conceive them in just one way–and that is their way, not ours.
Because otherwise there will be pain!
* * * * *
In 1974 Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote a short and powerful essay called “Live Not By Lies.” He wrote the essay just before leaving the Soviet Union, and was, of course, writing in protest against the lies of the Soviet authorities and the mendacity of the Soviet citizens who lived by those lies (excusing themselves with the words, “It is all the same to me so long as I’m fed and warm”).
The dishonest authorities cared enough about the truth to suppress it. The mendacious citizens cared so little about the truth that they would not trouble themselves to demand it. And it was by their “daily participation in lies” that these mendacious citizens lost their souls.
At the heart of Solzhenitsyn’s great essay, there is a litany of the mendacities to which every one of us is prone, and of which almost every one of us is guilty. I suggest that this litany may make more suitable reading for Americans on this Independence Day than, say, the Declaration of Independence. And while you are at it, why not accept Solzhenitsyn’s challenge and commit yourself to “personal non-participation in lies.”
“Walk away,” he says, “from the gangrenous boundary.”