When Roger Ebert was watching The Charlie Rose Show and saw director Tony Scott describe The Reader as another Holocaust movie, it set off a blog reverie on truth-telling. Ebert, who lost his voice after a protracted and heroic struggle with thyroid cancer and related complications, writes of keeping silent too often in past years. Now his words pour through the keyboard with startling ease:
I have devoted years to learning about the Theory of Evolution. I think Creationism is superstitious poppycock. I believe the problem with the literal interpretation of the Bible is that anyone can easily discover its support for the opinions they already hold. I believe Conservatism has proven itself disastrous every time it has been implemented in this country. I believe George W. Bush was not only the worst president we have ever had, but the first, as far as I know, guilty of being an accessory to murder and subverting the Constitution.
You see that I could be a problem at certain dinner parties. When I could speak, I was often invited to speaking engagements. Not so much now. The deal usually involved dinner with the Committee. Its members invariably included local luminaries who provided financial support but held grave reservations about the Sorts of People They’ve Been Inviting to Speak. These members make it a point to attack the points of view they fear you are about to express. For example, “They just don’t make good movies anymore,” or, “Ronald Reagan was the greatest president we’ve ever had.” As a donor, that is their privilege. They get to scare me and get my autograph for their daughter who is my biggest fan.
Having to endure the opinions of philanthropists who admired President Reagan? Oh, the indignity. Ebert objects to people who believe they know the Truth, you see, and “Since my lifelong occupation has been learning the Truth for myself, I find this insulting.”
But the Truth to which Ebert has devoted a lifetime of discovery reads as little more than a list of caricatures:
You may believe, as I do, that you know more actual facts that anybody else at the table. But what if “facts” are just one of the devil’s tools to defeat faith? What if they’re a smokescreen used by atheists, Satanists, liberals, intellectuals and the Elite to lead our young people, astray? Would it help to point out that one can believe in Evolution and God at the same time? No, because such people, like Catholics, Jews, mainstream Protestants, Hindus and Buddhists, have no religion at all if they have not been Born Again.
Ebert can even detect people’s true motives when they are so boorish as to pray in public — and he detects troubling authoritarian tendencies:
We have two kinds of prayer in this country, vertical and horizontal. I approve vertical prayer, which originates with the praying person and is directed straight up to heaven. It is private, as all privileged conversations should be. Horizontal prayer, on the other hand, radiates out from the praying person to all those within earshot. It translates as: I’m going through the motions of praying to God, but actually I’m praying for your benefit. I am expressing solidarity with those who believe as I do, and issuing an implied rebuke to those who don’t. I am an example of how everyone should believe and behave. I believe that Freedom of Speech covers religious expression. But it also covers dissent. Public prayer tends to discourage any differing opinions.
Ebert confesses to cheating a blind man at chess 40 years ago, and he expresses clear remorse about what he describes as the worst thing he has ever done. The rest of his reflection, however, reads like one of those faux confessions that emerge when members of small groups are supposed to talk about their sources of shame.
I’ve been in situations like that twice in the past decade. Both times, group members were told to describe times when they were guilty of racism. Both times, I confessed to being frightened by the sudden approach of two men who wanted nothing more from me than directions. Both times, others in the group began one-upping each other with confessions that said, in essence, “If I am guilty of anything, it’s of being too angry about the sins of racists.”
“I have been a coward, a liar, a hypocrite, because I have been unwilling to act as I believe,” Ebert writes. Here’s a different point: When you believe unkind and ill-founded things about your neighbors, it’s not hypocrisy to refrain from saying those things.