Le Quin’s “Lying It All Away”

Ursula K Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters deserves a lot more attention than I’m going to give it, but since  “Lying It All Away” does a better  job of clarifying some of my current attitudes toward society than I can do myself, I couldn’t leave the book without one more blog entry.

Although I was old enough to have heard the speech by President Truman that Le Guin cites at the beginning of her essay, I didn’t hear it because we were too poor to have a TV and I was far too busy playing in the yard with my Fort Apache set to listen to any presidential speech.

I’m fascinated by this historical snippet from the New York Times’s “On This Day” feature: On October 5, 1947, in the first televised White House address, President Truman asked Americans to refrain from eating meat on Tuesdays and poultry on Thursdays to help stockpile grain for starving people in Europe.

I have no memory of going without meat on Tuesdays and poultry on Thursdays as a kid, but that might have been because we were already eating salmon that we had caught two or three nights a week.  Just because I didn’t hear Truman’s speech doesn’t mean my family didn’t share Truman’s concern for those less fortunate than us.  My parents had both lived through the Depression and my mother would tell us how her father would put food out in the alley behind the garage to feed his neighbors who didn’t have a steady job like he hadd. Although we had very little money when I was young mom contributed to the Salvation Army regularly. In other words, we were always conscious of those who didn’t have as much as we did — and we certainly didn’t have much ourselves by today’s living standards. 

Le Guin contrasts Truman’s speech with the current state of America:

At the time, the request was laughed or sneered at by some and ignored by most. But still: can you imagine any president, now, asking the American people to deprive themselves of meat once or twice a week in order to stockpile grain to ship to hungry foreigners on another continent, some of them no doubt terrorists? Or asking us to refrain from meat now and then to provide more grain to programs and food banks for the 20,000,000 Americans living in “extreme poverty” (which means malnutrition and hunger) right now? Or, actually, asking us to do without anything for any reason?

As far as I can tell, the only thing politicians demand of us today is that we sacrifice our kids’ and grandkids’ future so that our ECONOMY can continue to expand — and they can be re-elected.  

According to Le Guin this unwillingness to sacrifice anything for our fellow human beings is part of a larger moral problem:

I have watched my country accept, mostly quite complacently, along with a lower living standard for more and more people, a lower moral standard. A moral standard based on advertising. That hard-minded man Saul Bellow wrote that democracy is propaganda. It gets harder to deny that when, for instance, during a campaign, not only aspirants to the presidency but the president himself hides or misrepresents known facts, lies deliberately and repeatedly. And only the opposition objects.

I suspect you could easily substitute “lying” for the word advertising, at least considering how closely she ties it to the lies told by Romney and Obama.  It used to be that being caught telling a lie could lose you an election, today, even more than when Le Guin wrote this, lying, particularly  repeated lying, may get you elected.

I’m not sure Le Guin is correct when she argues that Obama didn’t have to provide false figures and make fake promises to get elected:

What was appalling to me about Obama’s false figures and false promises in the first debate was that they were unnecessary. If he’d told the truth, he would have supported his candidacy better, as well as putting Romney’s faked figures and evasive vagueness to shame. He would have given us a moral choice instead of a fudge-throwing match. Can America go on living on spin and illusion, hot air and hogwash, and still be my country? I don’t know.

It’s pretty clear that “spin, illusion, hot air and hogwash” have carried the day in recent elections. I’d like to think that will change in the future, but after Trump’s election I have my doubts.  I’ll have to admit that I haven’t listened to a single presidential debate, but that’s because I really put very little credence in what  candidates promise. I trust commercials even less.  Instead, I look at what they’ve done in the past, because that’s the only realistic way to judge what they will do in the future.  It’s hard not to be disappointed in the leaders we elect when they are unable to fulfill the promises they made while running.  On the other hand, how many products we buy every live up to the advertisements that convinced us to buy them in the first place?

Businesses have mastered the art of advertising, the art of convincing people that they need products they didn’t know they wanted and assuredly don’t need.  Small wonder that they’ve found ways to use the techniques they’ve perfected over the years to influence our elections. As Le Guin notes: 

What if some president asked those of us who can afford to eat chicken not to eat chicken on Thursdays so the government could distribute more food to those 20,000,000 hungry members of our community? Come off it. Goody-goody stuff. Anyhow, no president could get that past the corporations of which Congress is an almost wholly owned subsidiary.

Our politicians are so beholding to those who help them attain office that they are afraid to stand up to them even if it’s obviously in the nations’s best long-term interest.

Le Guin believes this unwillingness to sacrifice to help others is tied in with our country’s resistance to taxation.

When did it become impossible for our government to ask its citizens to refrain from short-term gratification in order to serve a greater good? Was it around the time we first began hearing about how no red-blooded freedom-loving American should have to pay taxes?

Those who have the most to lose from high taxes, businessmen who earn astronomical salaries compared to their employees,  have tried for years to convince voters that taxes are un-American, a means of stealing from those who deserve what they’ve earned in order to give it to those less deserving.  They’ve obviously done a good job of convincing voters because those most likely to benefit from tax changes are often the greatest opponents.

Le Guin feels that these changes have taken place because citizens have become short-sighted and are unwilling to think about the consequences of their actions:

It appears that we’ve given up on the long-range view. That we’ve decided not to think about consequences—about cause and effect. Maybe that’s why I feel that I live in exile. I used to live in a country that had a future.

Le Guin’s essay made me  suspect that I have lived in exile even longer than she did.  After serving in Vietnam and later working as a caseworker, I began to question almost everything I had learned before I became an adult. Perhaps simply growing old in a rapidly changing world is a form of alienation. 

4 thoughts on “Le Quin’s “Lying It All Away””

  1. The current immigration crisis is fueled by violence and poverty in Central America. It would be nice if the argument was about how best to help these people.

    But it isn’t.

  2. It appalls me to see how easily we have accepted as normal all the lies and petty cruelties that have been made to seem so normal, in politics, in advertising, in a lot of daily relationships. We are bombarded on every type of media with what seems like the lowest common denominator of human behavior. Things that would hardly be spoken of in the bedroom are exposed to everyone. What we lack is a little more kindness and politeness and just fundamental decency. It seems to be a sin to be polite these days, or kind in this Era of not only America first, but me first. We also seem to lack an earlier times sense of shame. People on TV shows have no qualm about confessing to anything at all, and a lot of TV just seems designed to bring out the worst in human beings. People in power lie about things that can easily be proved to be a lie, and there is very little outrage, especially among people who are beholden to that power. I don’t see it changing much no matter who is elected. I do think it might make some difference to the natural world who gets elected, but even that might only last as long as it is expedient. Not such a rosy view but one that keeps winning in spite of so many well-meaning people.

What do you think?

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