The Lies They Tell, by Tuvia Tenenbom
I liked this book a lot more than I thought would be the case at the start. Having started this book, I was concerned that the author would be another one of those strident political liberals who turn everything into an ideological mess, but in stark contrast to this, the author showed himself to be a person of considerable wit and humor, the sort of person who it would be enjoyable to talk to, and someone with considerable insight (albeit a great deal of criticism) about the United States and our present culture. The criticism delivered is not strident, and so one can see that the author is not interested in pushing his weight on one side or the other of the partisan divide, but pointing out some of the characteristic fissures and weaknesses of our culture and points out the threat that our shallow identities have when it comes to national unity or our ability to intervene effectively in the world as a whole. The author is somewhat of a pessimist, but also a wise and shrewd observer with his own interests in truth and justice, as well as in the well being of his people.
During the course of a trip to the United States in 2016, the author managed to visit 29 of the 50 states, which are recorded here. He did not, alas, visit Oregon, but I suppose he got enough of the flavor of American liberalism in Washington and California and Hawaii to feel it superfluous to visit here. Throughout the course of his travels he attempts to interview people about their thoughts and feelings and finds Americans to be far more informed about the Middle East than he would have thought. He also finds that many Americans are afraid to talk about their political opinions for a variety of reasons related to self-interest and concern over the hostility others may feel. This is certainly a sentiment I understand as someone whose political beliefs are very much out of step with the wider culture of where I live. Exploring “dangerous” neighborhoods, pondering white flight, searching in vain for the survival of German culture, looking for good food, talking with ordinary people, about whom he has a lot of positive things to say, and dealing adroitly with hypocrites of various kinds, the author manages to have a compelling experience in his travels. Overall, the author comes off as a raconteur that it would be enjoyable to spend time with, far more sympathetic than those of more narrowly partisan goals.
Part of the sympathy that the author draws is as a result of his self-effacing sense of humor, as he comments on being overweight and shows a delightful sense of opposition to the interests of institutions in preserving their place by shutting down free inquiry. The author shows himself adroit in managing a variety of different identities, as Jew as well as of German, as he explores the complexity of American culture while not laying down all the cards himself. He eats well, talks to the homeless, examines the problem of gang violence, discusses political activism, ponders the phenomenon of tribal casinos, visits prisons, finds it difficult to find political leaders from the city level on up willing to have an honest conversation, and finds that most people only want to talk about serious matters off the record. For all of this, though, the author manages to do a great job at capturing the fissures within American life and culture, the problems of illegal immigration, and even the appeal of Donald Trump to an electorate that feels afraid of the consequences of speaking honestly in our contemporary age. And that makes it worth reading, even at a hefty 400 pages of text.