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Alan M. Webber
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Alan M. Webber

Alan Webber, a founding editor of Fast Company magazine, is an award-winning editor, author, and columnist. His most recent book is Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.

We Can't Handle the Truth

Remember the exciting climax of the courtroom drama "A Few Good Men"?

Tom Cruise is pitted against Jack Nicholson in a contest of wits and wills, a young idealist versus a battle-tested, tough-minded veteran. "You want the truth!" Nicholson challenges Cruise. "I think I deserve the truth!" Cruise shoots back. "You can't handle the truth!" Nicholson snorts at him.

Cruise wins, and the audience cheers. But what if Nicholson is right?

What if Americans actually can't handle the truth and at the same time cling to the story we've always told ourselves about the kind of country we are, the kind of people we tell ourselves we are?

We believe in democracy, so we don't go around using covert operations to overthrow democratically elected governments, even if we disagree with their economics or their politics. Tell that to the citizens of Iran and Chile, just to name two countries that come quickly to mind.

We believe in the rule of law, so we don't use hired assassins to take out the heads of governments that we happen to disagree with on political or economic grounds. Or, in the case of Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba, perhaps we do.

We believe in honesty in government and the public's right to know, so we would never sanction a government that lied to the Congress or the American people about the conduct of war, or cover up military operations that flagrantly violate the law of the land. Unless it involves fake attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin or operations in Cambodia or Laos that clearly exceed Congressional authority.

It seems to be a political fact of life about the appetite of the American public for the truth: for the most part the American public simply doesn't want to hear or believe anything that creates cognitive dissonance with our time-honored views of ourselves.

The truth has an unpleasant taste. It has a way of upsetting our comfortable pre-conceived notions of the nation we live in and the way the game works here -- and evidence that contradicts that image is not admitted into the court of public opinion. Not only that, but anyone who insists on introducing it is labeled as unpatriotic and is punished politically for violating the spirit of America.

But there may be a catch: Right now we are at a moment of reflection. The economic meltdown has given us a chance to ask fundamental questions about how the economy works and what America's path forward will look like at home and in the world. The legacy of the war in Iraq is offering a chance to ask fundamental questions about America's relations in the world, and most especially with the Islamic world.

There is a brief window of opportunity, a chance to keep it real, if only briefly and only partially. There is a momentary invitation to glimpse reality and make some adjustments to our national sense of our selves. Right now, even as events gingerly move forward, much is still in suspension, while America and Americans wait for the pieces of the domestic and global economy and the world political and military landscape to settle into their new arrangements. For the moment, things are up in the air -- making now a moment when the nation could take at least a careful look at its own conduct and accept some new self-examination.

But even that must be done with great care. Perhaps we can handle the truth -- but not all of the truth. Perhaps we can handle a review of past conduct -- but it would have to be done with a decent regard for the opinions of mankind, including the opinions of Americans who may feel that their lives and the lives of their families have been seriously distressed by the policies of the recent past.

How would that be done? Could it be managed as a commission, not unlike the 9/11 commission? Could we have a clearing of the air without a settling of old scores? How real is real enough -- and how much truth can Americans handle? Perhaps we will learn to look at the truth the way we look at the sun: indirectly and only for short periods of time. We look, and then we look away.

By Alan M. Webber

 |  July 14, 2009; 3:35 PM ET
Category:  Ethics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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What a bunch of crap. Jack Nicholson was right. We need to have an organization that operates in the shadows outside of the system of rules used for the rest of us. The job of the Congressional overseers isn't to stamp out such programs, it's to cover for them while at the same time preventing them from getting too big and getting out of control.

If I worked for the CIA I would go on strike to protest the way these politicians are acting.

Posted by: ZZim | July 16, 2009 8:57 AM
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The truth has been substituted with spin/lies and photo-ops for corporate greed.
There isn't enough water on earth to wash clean the blood on the hands Cheney, Halliburton and KBR.
Yes, an investigation of possible abuse by the bush/cheney administration is imperative.
The apparent abuse by the former vp must be investigated.torture,cronyism and contracts,secret energy meeting abuse,refusal to abide by checks and balances.
bush/cheney greatest power-least accountable.

Posted by: jama452 | July 15, 2009 11:19 AM
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Of course Americans cannot handle the truth but neither can anyone else. If anything Americans are more inclined to question themselves than any other nationality.
The truth is that we all, I think mistakenly, believe that we are not as capable of committing the most terrible things as others. That applies to us personally as well as nationally.
That is why we always need to question what we are told and our own personal motives but never forgetting that we are human and therefore fallible.

Posted by: Charles15 | July 15, 2009 8:56 AM
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As far as the truth, there's nothing too stupid or ridiculous that can't be made into a conspiracy theory. And if you emulate a real lunatic, you get your own cable show. Truth is only as important as it's entertainment value to most Americans.

But if Cheney gets away with violating the law and our constitution, then how dare we try to claim some superiority to other nations.

Posted by: obx2004 | July 15, 2009 8:40 AM
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I must admit, I find this opinion to be hilarious.

For years most Americans have taken the attitude that they are the "smartest and best" humans on the planet, Americans can do no wrong. Anyone who does not agree with them is a communist, socialist, fascist, or just jealous cuz' the dissenters are not "Americans". And then Dubya pushed that opinion that if you don't agree with him and his policies you are a communist, socialist, fascist, or you were an unpatriotic American. (How did it feel to be lumped with the rest of the world?)

As a citizen of a neighboring country who has traveled extensively I have always known the advantages of letting people know that I am Canadian, not American. The rest of the world has laughed at America as it has destroyed itself with its pure arrogance and hypocrisy.

Now the questions are: Can Americans handle the truth about how the rest of the world sees them? Is America willing to acknowledge the mistakes they have made? Will America hold itself to the same standards it holds the rest of the world to?

If any of the questions above are answered no then Americans must be ready for the rest of the world's continued contempt and laughter.

Posted by: alysheba_3 | July 14, 2009 9:20 PM
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How can anyone say that Americans can’t handle the truth when they have very rarely been given the truth when it matters? Do you not believe that “the truth will set you free”? Do you think that it is ever good to be lied to, and that facts should be ignored when making policy? That is why we have never fully corrected any major issue in my lifetime of fifty years. The big deceptions and illegal deeds are always swept under the table to protect the guilty elite. Improvements are not only difficult but near impossible and the fights go on and on based on deception. I have always felt that America is the “Land of Lies”. If the whole truth is revealed in this case, it will indeed be a ‘change’, and a hugh step toward a better and renewed America. Morale would dramatically improve across the board and ‘We the People’ will see hope for our country again.
The American people handle the sad truth every single day when it is directed at them, the common man (or woman). There is no average person in this country who does not believe that America is in a downhill and dangerous spiral. What kind of future are we leaving our children if we believe that hidden lies and deception are good for our nation and democracy? In my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that the whole truth should be made public does not understand how a real democracy works and is selfish... and part of ‘the’ biggest problem this country faces. Hiding the truth always breeds corruption and injustice. America has the largest prison population in the entire world, yet the ones who cause all the real problems are not included therein. We all need to take our medicine, no matter how bitter, if we want to be healthy again.

Posted by: leonardpa06 | July 14, 2009 6:47 PM
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"The economic meltdown has given us a chance to ask fundamental questions about how the economy works and what America's path forward will look like at home and in the world."

I wish.

The battle has already pretty much fractured along partisan lines, with neither side particularly willing to budge (the left has solid evidence that the Bush administration clearly violated the law in several areas; the right has... denial).

The only segment of the population who might be affected by an investigation, the vaunted middle, might search their souls a bit... or they may be disgusted by Congress' inevitable grandstanding and clown-car antics. Little from Column A, little from Column B. Investigations and trials are a human experience, subject to all the egos and foibles and what-have-you, magnified 1000-fold by the media circus and Congress' general uselessness.

But we don't do it for the audience.

We do it to uphold the rule of law.

Nice essay, anyway.

Posted by: alphahelix | July 14, 2009 4:47 PM
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