The truth will not set you free, regardless of how inspiringly that phrase is emblazoned in the stone face of the hellish high school visible from the Harlem River Drive. The truth is a slippery thing, and shape shifting, and notoriously amenable to conflicting interpretations. Nonetheless, my father clung to the central role truthfulness plays in having integrity and hated liars wherever he encountered them. One thing is equally true: a lie will not set you free either, even as it may get you off the immediate hook. Put me on the side of honesty, please. Tell me the truth and I won’t lie to you in return.
The truth may sometimes be hard to spot, but much of the time it is clear when a lie is a lie. So somebody who resorts to saying things they know to be untrue, with some other consideration taking precedence over being honest about the thing they know to be true? A moral weakling, a weasel, a contemptibly unskilled spinner of truth, a person without integrity. This was my father’s view. Although my view is a bit softer, I have a hard time with people who resort to lying to protect themselves or their beliefs. A lie is generally used to end the discussion, honesty invites conversation.
It is one thing to look at an ugly baby, at the mother’s expectant face, and gush “I love that hat! What an adorable baby hat!” That will get a smile from mom, as the baby regards you with a gas face, that disgusting expression an ugly baby will fix you with sometimes.
It will be good enough, no lie, truly a cute hat, no feelings hurt, and, to me, it’s far better than saying “Oh, what a cute little baby! Not ugly at all!!! Oh, God, I could just die from the cuteness! So cute!!!!”
OK, you will say, I am going way overboard to make my point. Fine. It’s a subtle point, though, because, to paraphrase war criminal Donald Rumsfeld, there are the lies we know we are lying about, the lies we lie to ourselves are not actually lies, the lies we don’t know are lies and the lies that don’t realize they themselves are actually lies. There are levels of this lying business. Sometimes it’s a good thing to tell a little white lie, little black child. It’s true. To avoid hurting someone’s feelings, lie a little, it’s not a bad thing.
“Do you like the succatash?” your hostess will ask expectantly, gesturing toward the foul smelling mass on your plate.
“My, what a beautiful plate and it goes so gorgeously with the place mat and the table cloth!” won’t help in this situation. Only a real lie will.
So you will say, seasoning your lie with a dash of truth “I don’t usually like succatash, but, as succatash goes, this is as good as any I’ve ever had. Bravo, brava, bravissima!” It’s a decent thing to do, to exert yourself a little bit to make someone serving you feel a little better about well-meaning, if shitty, service.
The lies I’m talking about are as troubling to me as they were to my father. You ask a straight question, you get a crooked answer that has all kinds of internal contradictions and ramifications it is often better not to even think about. “Were you there?” you ask.
“No, I wasn’t there, I didn’t get there until the following week,” comes the answer, the person looking down and to the right before speaking, to access the creative lying sector of the brain. (I know this tell because of an internet comment I read the other day, under a video of George W. Bush giving an ambiguous answer about events on 9/11).
“No, I wasn’t there until the following week,” will leave a deep chill in the room, if you had seen the person there the night in question. An even deeper chill if you saw the person see you see them there, at the place they now say they weren’t even present. You will move on, if you have decent people skills, filing away the important fact that the person you are talking to is capable of lying to your face.
After the liar left my father would turn to me and say “who you gonna believe, darling, me or your lying eyes?” and shake his head.
“Jokes that killed vaudeville,” I’d say and he’d shake his head some more.
My father instilled this quest for truth and honesty in his children. It’s an admirable thing and something I’m grateful for, regardless of any problems it may also have caused me. It is far easier, after all, to run along believing the common myths we all live according to, myths that form our view of what is true, and right, and decent.
Emotions, all successful politicians, advertisers and entrepreneurs know, are much stronger and more convincing than facts, no matter how indisputable those facts may seem to be, no matter how indisputable those facts may even actually be. And when it comes to emotions, things not based on logical analysis, who’s to say what’s really true and what isn’t? What’s true is what you feel, which is also true.
In the case of America in 2016, part of our truth is that a young man who makes a billion dollars now faces an even bigger challenge: how is the young genius going to monetize that move to make some real money and stay at the top? It seems a petty detail, and a perhaps grotesque example, but I can’t get it out of my head.
Young David Karp was once an intern to a bright, likable millionaire I talked to once about my student-run animation program. Karp built Tumblr, I think it was, and, on the day I was meeting with the art loving animation entrepreneur, had sent a car to pick up the man I was talking to. The limo was to take his former mentor to the press conference, where Karp would sit next to his smiling friend and take questions about selling his baby for a billion dollars. I recall googling Karp and reading how the business press was all wondering how Karp was going to keep his edge as a genius cutting-edge entrepreneur going forward.
Now, you can google Karp yourself (here you go, don’t exert yourself) and see that once again, I am distorting things for my own ends. Karp’s net worth is only 200 million or so. He didn’t actually make a billion as I claim. Who’s the lying distorter of the truth now?
This is prickly terrain, I’m telling you. I have taken on a mighty task: to tell the truth, in as sympathetic a way as I can, in giving you a portrait of the tragic, destructive, inspiring character that was my father. Irv was like Zelig in many ways, you can look back at his life which spanned much of the twentieth century and reflected so many of its important struggles: his youth of dire poverty, even by the standards of The Depression, the abuse he suffered at the hands of a probably psychotic mother, his army service in Germany after the Nazis were defeated, his college years and the powerful vision of Social Justice he carried forward for decades, his involvement in the Civil Rights struggle, integration, making peace between warring minorities, leading a youth movement devoted, in part, to justice in the Holy Land. His keen, dark sense of humor (very, very hard to conjure, I can tell you for sure), his great intelligence and capacity for empathy.
And then we turn the page and he is metaphorically flogging both of his young children with a live, hissing cobra. The daughter is terrified, phobic about even tiny, cute snakes, the son is filled with confused rage, what the fuck is my father whipping us with a live hissing cobra for, what the fuck? I mean, seriously, what the fucking fuck?
Now turn the page and we have him lovingly tending to one of the terriers, teaching his children to be compassionate, and merciful, and truthful. Cracking them both up with a line so darkly personal they could not even explain the humor of it to anyone raised without the ear for it.
I am taking my example from what Jane Leavy did so beautifully in her biography of the Mick, trying to give you both of these things at once. Why am I trying to do this? God help me, I am trying to get to the truth. I really am.