Truth or dare

by Yule Heibel on August 9, 2003

Thinking about those last two entries (re. Pierson & Dean) made me wish for a national — no, international — poll with the following question: What’s more important: being a winner or telling the truth?

Further questions. Is it dangerous not to be a winner (i.e., to be a loser)? Does one have to be a winner to have material security in the world? Does one die sooner if one is a loser? At what stage would you avoid telling the truth to stay a winner? In winner-oriented America, does calling someone a loser amount to talismanic dismissal and outright censorship? Have the terms become supernaturally charged with the ability to protect or damn, and has truth-telling, the foundation of the US, become another configuration, tolerated if it facilitates winning, but avoided in the face of loss? Many more questions follow, but think of the Hollywood described by Pierson: who is going to tell the truth there if it means financial ruin and getting run out of town? Is telling the truth more possible in countries with a stronger social safety net, where being a loser doesn’t raise the threat of going begging on the streets (Europe) or do truth-tellers go to jail (totalitarian states)? Does the notion that winners can’t tell the truth without risking loss of status help account for the boring sameness of US culture (movies, tv, pulp fiction), and is there greater variety of perspectives in some other countries, or not?

If truth is sacrificed to success, what’s the point of success?


Joel August 9, 2003 at 6:01 pm

I like your take on America as a “winner-oriented” society. And I like Pierson’s piece.

I meet the kind of attitude in my writing group that he describes, of artists giving up on art because they’re afraid that what they write won’t sell out there in corporate America. For example, I was the only person who stood up for a woman who included a few Yiddish words in a historical piece she wrote. I suggested that for the sake of her readers she include a glossary, the others said get rid of the words.

I believe that any good work of art will make it. In times like this, however, we must work harder to make it happen, put in our own labor or have a dedicated fan promoting it for us. Vincent Van Gogh sold one painting in his life. After he died, his brother and his sister-in-law made his name.

My advice to my friend who wrote Yiddish was to stick to her vision, preserve the sound and sense that she intended for her work. I believe that if she does, she will find a triumph.

Yule Heibel August 9, 2003 at 6:39 pm

In grad school I had a friend who made a fortune as an investment banker in Toronto and then went to Harvard to get a PhD in art history. He said that you shouldn’t expect to make money in humanities/ art/ culture, and that it’s better to make your pile first in some other field. Well, he was smart with finances, so he did, which isn’t an option for everyone, but like it or not, getting rich can’t be the first thing on your mind when you think art/ culture.

But the “tell the truth”/ “be a winner” dichotomy struck me (re. Pierson, re. Dean) because I think it used to be the case that one quite naturally could do both in America, at least once upon a time, in an age of innocence, and that we’ve left that behind. At the same time, we need to think about how we continue to valorize winning, that we’re demonizing “losing,” and that we’re doing it all too often at the expense of truth. If Dean is a truth-teller — and can stay one — I hope he wins the presidency. It would be a really good thing.

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