Friday, February 19, 2010

tyranny of knowing

"'s as if they become tyrannized by what they learn..."

This from a customer at the front register just now, near the end of our conversation about Gary Wills' newest, Bomb Power, in which he examines how the birth and evolution of the nuclear bomb has changed our government, and the office of the Presidency in particular, forever. The discussion began when he asked me enthusiastically whether I had read The Politician, which examines the train-wreck of John Edwards' life (and the lives of all those close to him).

I had high hopes for Edwards. I've kept that book at well more than arm's length, not just because of my basic distaste for tell-alls, but because he was the politician who stood up and stated repeatedly that poverty is the greatest threat to America, a belief that I too have held for most of my life. Since moving to Boston as an undergrad I've felt a mounting swell of disgust at the casual dismissal that most city-dwellers display to the homeless.

And I'm not sure that, despite everything we now know, despite every last sordid and spectacular detail, he wouldn't still have made a good President, even with all of this hidden in his closet. The question of "why do we want to know?", indeed demand to know, these awful things is moot. We will always want to know.

"The only thing I really learned from the book is that people are really complex." That's the other thing this astute customer said to me. People are really complex. People are really complex, and then we get them ironed flat for election day, and then we outrage ourselves over their surprise! humanity.

Not knowing is a blessing, or a curse. The truth might set you free if your aim is to better understand reality, but for those whose worldview is already fixed, the truth is a tyrant destined for the guillotine. Hence the agonizing over an America that "just isn't the same one I grew up in", over gay marriage, over Don't Ask/Don't Tell, chastity pledges, global warming, on and on and on.

John Edwards' laundry list of betrayals to those closest to him, I don't need to open those pages. The nuclear bomb, though...there's a book we all need to read.

No comments: