Those painfully familiar with this column (I think that covers just about everyone) know of my penchant to lean, perhaps crutch-like, on movies, books, and songs to encapsulate or make more vivid an otherwise opaque or unapproachable part of Washington politics or policy. It seems to some, I am sure, a habit born of and dependent upon intellectual laziness. Perhaps. There are truly times when Washington leaves me baffled and bereft; a place where literature of another kind anchors and reveals. This mania, believe it or not, led me to link Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and sequestration. It’s not a long or absurd journey.
How can anyone look upon the sequester with anything but revulsion and venom — the kind of smoldering rage that spills out of Big Daddy Pollitt (played by Burl Ives in the 1958 movie) when he begins to peel back the slippery layers of deception that defined his seemingly respectable Mississippi Delta life. Big Daddy’s life and all those who spin around it are reduced, as if by the centripetal force of fakery, into one word: mendacity.
Williams was not speaking for the South or plantation owners, but everyone who can kid themselves into believing something that simply isn’t true. Acid drips from Big Daddy’s sweet-sounding and recurrent question: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?” After listening to all the varied finger-pointing and blame-shifting on our latest budget crisis, I will from now substitute the word “mendacity” for “sequester.”
I’ll get back to Big Daddy in a moment, but first a larger meditation on Williams and the time and place of the 1950s. America was a military powerhouse, rich, dominant, and, in theory, a cultural colossus. Nations may have aligned with the Soviets, but they did so largely under occupation and the tank’s gulag-heralding tread. And yet, our finest artists and visionaries worried and forced us to confront barbarities within our cultural norms — racism, sexism, homophobia, and, in Williams’s archly perfect peroration, mendacity. The untruths embedded within our understood truths and norms.
As a society, we no longer war over racism, sexism, or homophobia — at least not as we did, with one side consigning the other to the dungeon of silence, cruelty, and isolation. We debate their modern-day contours in a legal sense of access, acceptance, and tolerance—the recent moves to embrace gay marriage being the latest hard-fought achievement in this evolution. In these realms, we have traveled farther, faster, and with less societal disruption, dislocation, chaos, and violence than any society mankind has ever known.
As a child, some of my favorite cartoons were the Mr. Peabody and Sherman segments on Rocky and Bullwinkle, whereupon the characters venture back into time with a “way-back machine” to understand history. No trip in the way-back machine in America would be as jarring as one from now back to the year I was born — 1962.
Ask yourself: What was the cultural matrix of our beloved country on race, sex, and homosexuality then as compared to now? It would be hard for Stephen Hawking to accurately measure the distance traveled. Our modern peers the world over sit slack-jawed in amazement at our achievement. We have reason to be proud.
What, in God’s name, does this have to do with Tennessee Williams and sequester?
As I have written here before, the sequester is owned lock, stock, and barrel by Obama, congressional Republicans, and congressional Democrats. Congress passed it. Obama signed it. Yes, Obama’s top advisers suggested it first. But Republicans accepted it because they didn’t want to raise taxes. That means everyone owns it. All attempts to suggest otherwise stink with mendacity. Stink. But if you think I’ve suddenly just discovered mendacity in Washington, think again.
What the sequester is about is forcing America to confront its past—its spending past. We remember the glory but have difficulty dealing with the unhappy truths of our less glorified present. We are not in decline. We have to make choices. Choices require change. Change forces individuals and nations to confront hard and unpleasant truths. In budget terms, that means deciding if you produce enough, tax enough, spend too much, or have the wrong priorities.
Encapsulated within the confines of a tortured Mississippi family, Tennessee Williams captured in the 1950s a bit of the writhing, frustrating, and at times grotesque antics of modern American budget mendacity. In his immortal Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Daddy Pollitt and his son Brick — a high school football hero turned town drunk — argue over Brick’s refusal to see the consequences of his drinking, how his indolence breeds chaos in the lives of others. Earlier, Brick speaks mournfully of mendacity — the lies of his young life.
Big Daddy: “But it’s always there in the mornin’, ain’t it—the truth? And it’s here right now. You’re just feeling sorry for yourself; that’s all it is — self-pity.… Life ain’t no damn football game. Life ain’t just a buncha high spots. You’re a 30-year-old kid. Soon you’ll be a 50-year-old kid, pretendin’ you’re hearin’ cheers when there ain’t any. Dreamin’ and drinkin’ your life away. Heroes in the real world live 24 hours a day, not just two hours in a game. Mendacity, you won’t ... you won’t live with mendacity but you’re an expert at it. The truth is pain and sweat and payin’ bills.”
The truth. America is a 236-year-old kid, 226 years old if you date it to the ratification of the Constitution. We’re much older than Brick. We’ve lived with mendacities and larger truths more visibly than any country or people mankind has ever known. In fact, our constitutional truths (or aspirations) have led us to confront and topple the mendacities that undercut our original aims and meanings. It’s one of the great stories of humanity. It’s the reason nearly every nation on Earth still follows our lead and believes in our creed.
Our mendacities now are about dollars and cents. We hate ourselves, at some level, for being unable to produce enough to pay our bills. Our politics invites us to dream our life away. But the sequester and the fiscal cliff and the debt/default drama fractiously and dramatically remind us of our limits. We are frustrated. We don’t want to live with mendacity. But, sadly, we’ve become experts at it.
The truth is pain and sweat and payin’ bills. Most Americans do it as a matter of course. It is time our politics and politicians listen to Big Daddy. In all of its forms, mendacity is malevolent. Mendacity equals sequester. And fiscal cliff. And default. And government shutdown. We’re just feeling sorry for ourselves. That’s all it is. Self-pity.
Time to start payin’ bills.