Friday, June 11, 2010

The Virtues of Mendacity : On Lying in Politics - Martin Jay

Summary: When Michael Dukakis accused George H. W. Bush of being the "Joe Isuzu of American politics" during the 1988 presidential campaign, he asserted in a particularly American tenor the near-ancient idea that lying and politics (and perhaps advertising, too) are inseparable, or at least intertwined. Our response to this phenomenon, writes the renowned intellectual historian Martin Jay, tends to vacillate--often impotently--between moral outrage and amoral realism. In The Virtues of Mendacity, Jay resolves to avoid this conventional framing of the debate over lying and politics by examining what has been said in support of, and opposition to, political lying from Plato and St. Augustine to Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. Jay proceeds to show that each philosopher's argument corresponds to a particular conception of the political realm, which decisively shapes his or her attitude toward political mendacity. He then applies this insight to a variety of contexts and questions about lying and politics. Surprisingly, he concludes by asking if lying in politics is really all that bad. The political hypocrisy that Americans in particular periodically decry may be, in Jay's view, the best alternative to the violence justified by those who claim to know the truth. (Summary from book - cover image and review copy courtesy of University of Virginia Press)

My Review: A teacher whom I greatly respect once told me that if you can't explain something in plain English, without technical terms and jargon, you don't really understand it. This is true of whether you're writing about particle physics, crocheting, or, as in the case of The Virtues of Mendacity, philosophy. While I don't want to imply that Martin Jay doesn't know his stuff--he certainly does, perhaps better than anyone else--I do wish that he had made it a little easier for us to share in his knowledge.

Jay's understanding is comprehensive, his exposition strong, his analysis insightful, and his conclusions sensible and well-justified. In many respects, this is a perfect book of its sort--cultured, intelligent, and obviously the result of deep and prolonged thought. But it has one drawback--it trusts too much in its readers. Certainly, there are those for whom words like deontological, cryptonormative, instauration, and metaindividuals need no explanation,* and names like Habermas, Arendt, and Derrida no introduction. Indeed, among the students of philosophy who will likely be this book's primary audience, such matters are par for the course. But this book deserves a wider audience than that.

The Virtues of Mendacity was, for me, a welcome--if turgid--change from the polarizing, sensationalized, and demagogic shouting match that makes up so much of current American political discussion, even among the intellectuals who ought to know better. Jay's restraint and avoidance of easy answers provide an excellent model, and his conclusions sound advice, for those who study politics, those who practice it, and those who merely follow it. Unfortunately, only the former are likely ever to get the message.

*Though nobody should use heteroclite or irenic. Ever.

Star Rating: 4 stars.

Sum it up: Excellent--and important--reading, if you don't mind keeping a dictionary and an encyclopedia of philosophy at hand while you read. If you find that you don't need the reference books, it's time to put the book down and go spend some time outside.


Sweet Em said...

Dan -


I'm just sayin'...

Sheila Deeth said...

Sounds interesting, but perhaps one of the those books that I'd read slowly, requiring time. (Ah time...)

MindySue said...

I agree with Emily. Just like Dan needs a dictionary to read Martin Jay, I need a dictionary to read Daniel Nighting. I prefer to just nod along and pretend like I understand. It's a lot less hassle. It's just such a shock to me that he's actually "dumbing it down" for the rest of us...and I STILL don't understand. Turgid? Demagogic?

Rebecca Rose said...

Any time he uses a word that I don't understand I just mentally replace it with whatever word I find appealing.
But come on--turgid? Demagogic? Those words aren't THAT difficult. Or maybe I'm just getting used to his gibberish.

MindySue said...

Sorry Becca,I think you've been unwittingly implanted with a Daniel to Plain English translator. I'd look for unexplained scars and bumps if I were you.


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