In This Issue
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from Chel Avery
Thank Providence it’s over.
This morning I voted. Tomorrow this time I expect I will be either hugely disappointed or greatly relieved. But either way, I will be released from the relentless onslaught of campaign messages geared to make me like one candidate and distrust another. A great many of these messages are dishonest―only a few in the sense that they contain outright lies, but many more in the sense that they misdirect, imply, distort, take information out of context, tell less than the full story. And dishonesty makes me miserable and depressed. Doubly so when that dishonesty comes from “my side.”
I so desperately want to be part of a trustworthy and honorable people. It came as a kick in the gut when I first realized in my early adulthood that the voices I most agreed with, the ones I considered the “good guys,” were just as capable as the opposition of being cavalier with the truth, of treating words and information carelessly, giving more attention to information that pleases us than to where it comes from or how reliable or complete it is.
I am ready to be lied to. In fact, there are circumstances in which I expect to be lied to and hardly resent it at all, such as when I have some power or privilege in relation to a person who needs my sympathy and help. (Does it really matter what the reason is that the woman standing at the subway stairs needs me to give her two dollars?) But to be lied for breaks my heart.
My college degrees are in communications, which is a modern version of the ancient science of rhetoric. Rhetoric has come to bear a bad reputation; it is associated with manipulation. But there was a time, and there have been philosophers, for whom the practice of rhetoric was tied very closely to an effort to know and speak the truth effectively―so the information and opinions conveyed would do good service in the community. Can we even imagine such a discipline today?
This issue of Book Musings is dedicated to John Woolman, who sets a standard for personal honesty that inspires me every time I reread his Journal, which is often. I was surprised recently by the comment of a young man who sees Woolman as weak, because he keeps second guessing himself, checking his motives and the source of his words, waiting for certainty before speaking. I see Woolman as a courageous example of rigorous personal standards for inward as well as outward honesty. In my spiritual support group at my meeting, this is one of the things we ask of each other: “help me to test myself with the questions that John Woolman would have asked before speaking or acting.”
But there is only one John Woolman, so in honor of this election day, here are some very fine books about people who lied:
At a time when his peers were taking semesters abroad, Brown student Kevin Rose also pursued the experience of a different culture—one much closer to home, at least geographically. The son of liberal Quaker parents goes “underground” to spend a semester at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell. Unlikely Disciple is a well written book, much of which explores the issues that emerge as Rose develops relationships with people he is deceiving about his beliefs and about his reasons for living among them. What happens when you begin to care about people you are fooling? The book draws an intriguing portrait of evangelical culture, but woven into it are the questions of relationship and of integrity that emerge for Rose as a participant/observer anthropologist in disguise.
Notes from an Exhibition is an engrossing work of fiction, first brought to my attention by Graham Garner of the QuakerBooks staff. A deeply disturbed but talented artist has died. She leaves behind some extraordinary paintings that no one has seen and much mystery about who she really was. As her four adult children and her Quaker husband reconstruct their memories (in which Quakers play a part) disturbing secrets are uncovered and an identity revealed. Patrick Gale writes beautifully!
During his lifetime, Levi Coffin assisted more than three thousand fugitives escaping from slavery. The Reminiscences of Levi Coffin emphasize the stories of the escapees themselves. During the period of the Underground Railroad, when secrecy could mean life or death, many Quakers were troubled by the contradiction between the virtues of truthfulness and mercy. These are stories where the choice for mercy was made. Recommended by my colleague, Elaine Craudereuff.
Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed --This is the record of a deception by a whole community. During World War II, Le Chambon, a French village, conspired to hide Jewish children in full view of the Vichy government and Gestapo representatives. This book is an account of how it happened—the personalities, the events, and the ethical issues involved, such as teaching children to lie.
Two of these books -- Unlikely Disciple and Notes from an Exhibition -- are remaindered and are on sale for $5 each. Our bookstore has new hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, but you can order online anytime at www.quakerbooks.org or call us at 800-966-4556.
I wish you satisfaction from the outcome of today's elections.
Peace to you,