Juxtapositions: a friend’s sorrow stated ever so matter-of-factly, a Cherokee chief’s tribute to Will Rogers (the writer, performer and actor), and my re-reading one of Will Rogers’ books. These three links led me to think about the concept of honesty - of speaking truthfully - and how we in these modern times, for a multitude of reasons, seem to practice a less than honest, nuanced, version.
I won’t elaborate on my friend’s grief beyond its exceptional honesty.
Chief Keeler’s tribute to Will Rogers (1879-1935) enumerates his “towering traits (of virtue, honesty, courage and kindness) wrapped as surely in the beads of wisdom as they are painted in the rainbow of virtue.” For Chief Keeler, Will’s attributes were acquired from his family in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and from Will’s part-Cherokee heritage, something that was never far from his mind and often mentioned in his writings.
The book* I was re-reading was about Will Roger’s June 1926 journey into the heart of Revolutionary Russia. It’s a good example of how Rogers, regardless of situation or circumstance, never lost his bearings. He observes and notes – in his unique and rustic (honest) style. He admires the regular people but has less admiration for the new bosses, the several thousand communist mini-czars replacing the Czar. As for the communist ideology, unlike many contemporary visitors with a pre-determined agenda, he tells us what he sees and believes. He gives credit to the former peasants for their common sense; they saw through Marx’s theories, however elaborately and enthusiastically stated. Since they were expected to produce for the proletariat they wanted to know what they would be getting in return. Apparently nothing, beyond the glory of being good Marxists. Will agreed with the farmer’s desire to improve his life and to provide for his family. As we know, Mr. Stalin took care of any doubts, forcing the farmers at gunpoint to deliver their goods, year in and year out.
While Will said that much of the new Russia is “propaganda and blood”, he let us know WE in the USA have a ways to go: “There is as much class distinction in Russia today as there is in Charleston, South Carolina.”
As always, Will brought out the irony: he wondered why the communists were so avidly recruiting others to sign up …”if a thing is so good and working so fine for you, you would kind of want to keep it to yourself…. But the Communist has so many good things he just wants you to join in and help him use some of them.”
His criticism, if it can be called that, in this and other writings - was done in good humor and kindness, never as a rant, never with a mean-spirited word. The most riled up Will ever got was when people insinuated that he was somehow less than they were because of his publicly chewing gum or not tipping his soup bowl. He’d go after those critics with relish, but always with tongue in cheek, always knowing he might be just as foolish as the critic he was skewering. His humility rose above any meanness or umbrage he might be feeling.
There was nothing nuanced – unless humor itself is nuance - about Will’s writings. Our Western culture likes nuance. We admire people who can walk the tightrope of public speaking, shading their words without offending. It’s as if we think nuance is somehow better than direct and honest expression. Well, as Will might have said, it don’t stop there. We mealy-mouth performance evaluations, write disingenuous letters of recommendation, and hand out undeserved promotions and grades. We rationalize shading the truth, we claim, because we not want to damage any one’s self esteem. In truth we pull our punches because we do not want to deal with the uproar for telling it like it is; we do not want to take the kicks that are sure to come our way for being truthful. Nor, do we want to be perceived as un-nuanced, presumably a desirable social trait. Will would get a chuckle out of that.
*Will Rogers, There’s Not a Bathing Suit in Russia & Other Bare Facts. (Preface by W. W. Keeler, Principal Chief, Cherokee Nation.) Stillwater, Oklahoma: Oklahoma State University Press, (1927, original publication date) 1973.