Convention speech — John de Lancie: The revolutionary act of telling the truth
Here is Margaret Downey’s introduction of John de Lancie at FFRF’s 41st annual convention in San Francisco on Nov. 2, days before the 2018 midterm elections. Downey, an FFRF state representative from California, is an atheist and state-church separation activist. She is also a past board member of the American Humanist Association.
Thank you for giving me the honor of introducing John de Lancie.
John is an actor, director and producer, but many of you in this audience know him best for portraying “Q” in the television series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
John has appeared in numerous television shows apart from “Star Trek,” including “The Librarians,” “Torchwood,” “Breaking Bad” and “West Wing,” just to name a few.
John’s many film credits are vast. Some of the films you probably have enjoyed are “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “The Fisher King,” “The Onion Field,” “Taking Care of Business,” “Fearless,” “The Big Time” and “Pathology.”
He has been a member of the American Shakespeare Company, the Seattle Repertory Company, the South Coast Repertory and, most recently, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation as an Afterlife Member!
In the world of music, John has performed with most of the major symphony orchestras in America, Canada and Australia. John has directed a number of operas, including Puccini’s “Tosca.”
He was the host of the Los Angeles Philharmonic “Symphonies for Youth,” as well as writer/director of “First Nights,” which is a concert series at Disney Hall.
John is the co-owner of Alien Voices. The other owner was Leonard Nimoy. Alien Voices is not affiliated with the SETI search for extraterrestrial intelligence, even though the name sounds like it could be a similar project. No, Alien Voices is a production company devoted to the dramatization of classic science fiction.
But John has an interest in real life and the many social concerns that confront us. Combining his talents with an interest in evolution and science, John is embarking on a project to convey Darwin’s theory of evolution to children and many other scientific themes through a new cartoon endeavor. Watch for that in the near future, folks.
John’s interest in science and the law has him examining the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover School District trial. We may see a dramatic portrayal of the characters soon, thanks to John’s talents as a writer, director, actor and producer.
John is the very first recipient of FFRF’s Clarence Darrow Award. It is so fitting that it is being awarded to him because, in 2005, John actually portrayed Clarence Darrow in a stage production called “The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial.” John’s dear friend, Ed Asner, played William Jennings Bryan, so you can imagine what a wonderful production that must have been.
John lent his celebrity and memorable remarks to the dedication of FFRF’s commissioned statue of Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tenn., in July 2017. The Rhea County Courthouse statue was created by sculptor, Zenos Frudakis who is in the audience tonight. Zenos, please join me on stage.
Now we are pleased that John is here to accept an award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Please welcome John de Lancie as the first recipient of the Clarence Darrow Award.
By John de Lancie
For those of you who don’t know your Catholic saints, and I have a feeling this is a crowd that probably doesn’t, St. Genesius is the patron saint of actors. He’s also the patron saint of thieves, epileptics and clowns. I’ve known this tidbit for years and counted myself blessed to be included. Recently, however, I discovered to my horror that St. Genesius also represents lawyers. Actors, clowns, stenographers and lawyers.
I petitioned the Vatican to get the lawyers thrown out. They could easily be transferred to St. Felix, who handles spiders. He should take care of them. Or St. Dominic of Silos, who handles rabid dogs. It’s a simple request, but I’m still waiting. The reason I’m eager for this transfer stems from an unfortunate conversation I had a few months ago with a lawyer, who said to me, “If I ever got you on the witness stand, I could easily destroy your credibility with the jury simply because actors are by their very nature professional liars.” What a staggering thing to say. And something that I took deeply to heart given that we are well into the 23rd month of our great national paroxysm of lying.
Actors are a lot of things, but lying is the antithesis of what we do professionally. The craft of acting has nothing to do with deception. We are not in search of lies; quite the contrary. Just as great plays reveal profound truths, acting at its best strives to hold those truths as a mirror up to nature. That is what makes great acting so compelling. That is what we strive to achieve. Actors who conceal the truth ring false. And we dismiss their performance as being untruthful, unwatchable. There’s nothing attractive to an audience about lying. Lying sullies both the liar and the one being lied to.
Spend five minutes watching Sarah Huckabee Sanders and tell me if her performance doesn’t make you cringe and want to turn away. Acting is truth-telling, and the audience knows it when they see it. If my lawyer friend had started the conversation like this: “You’ve played a lot of liars in your career, have you learned anything?” I would have replied, “Absolutely. I have learned the value of telling the truth.”
World of ‘what if’
During the rehearsal of a play, the actor forms an intimate relationship with the truth. The process is not just about learning your lines and avoiding the furniture. It is a period of intense examination of the character. To do it properly, you have to be honest with yourself and vulnerable to what you may uncover.
You have to be brave to enter the world of “what if.” What if I were handicapped? What if I only had a week to live? What if I were a killer?
A while back, I played the character of Hans Biebow. Biebow was the chief Nazi administrator for the ghetto of Lodz. With the help of Mordecai Rumkowski, the Jewish mayor of the ghetto, Biebow transformed Lodz into a major manufacturing center for the German army. Both men worked feverishly to keep the ghetto producing. Rumkowski’s goal was to save his people, Biebow’s was to become the top war producer. Into this symbiotic relationship came the Final Solution; the central conflict of the play. The crushing inevitability of the Final Solution made for brutal dialogue as the two men negotiated the quotas for the trains, thereby sealing the fate of thousands. The infamous speech, “Mothers and fathers, give me your children under 10,” was delivered in the ghetto of Lodz.
At the start of rehearsals, I was having great difficulty finding the character. He felt so distant. He was a monster, yet he didn’t think of himself as a monster. How do I play that in such a way that the audience might see a part of themselves in Biebow? First, I had to find a part of Biebow in me.
My first clue came as I was standing in line to buy a soda. A man in front of me pulled out some money and a five-dollar bill fell to the floor. Automatically, I reached down, picked it up and gave it to him. But as I walked back to rehearsal, I realized I could have made another choice. I could have simply stepped forward and covered the five-dollar bill with my foot and it would have been mine. Nothing grand, just a momentary lapse known only to me. A little secret, easily rationalized. No big deal.
I realized then that my mistake had been in trying to swallow Biebow whole — when he was his most repulsive, when he was willing to do anything or say anything to get the sick and elderly on the train, get the children on the train, and finally, on the last train Rumkowski himself, who, when he stepped onto the platform in Auschwitz, was bludgeoned to death by the parents of the children he had sent before.
Easy first steps
In trying to portray the enormity of Biebow’s crime, I had assumed that his life journey started with the unimaginable, when actually it started years before with perhaps something as simple as stepping forward to conceal a five-dollar bill. One dishonest step repeated ten thousand times. By the time I met Biebow, morality had nothing to do with it. That struggle had ceased in him years earlier. His had been on a long journey to self-entrapment. A journey that begins with lying to others and ends with lying to yourself.
That was the key to my performance and a life lesson for me, as well. How easy those first steps towards self-deception, and how frightening the outcome. And, so, every night in the “what if” world of a ghetto, I watched without guilt or remorse as babies were snatched from their mother’s arms and fathers shot. I ordered the deportation of children with no shame, and the audience wept.
A year ago in Washington D.C., I played Donald Trump, or, to be exact, Trump 2.0: Articulate, charismatic, corrupt. Which is why I can stand before you tonight and tell you that you are witnessing the greatest speech, the most amazing dinner speech ever delivered in the history of humankind. And that includes the Sermon on the Mount, which a lot of people are saying took place in Utah. I don’t know, but a lot of people are saying it.
I fought long and hard about playing that character. Exercising the negative parts of oneself takes its toll, but in the end, I accepted the role and went in search of the Trump in me. I spent the next four months in the world of lying, bullying and gaslighting. And you know what? In a perverse way, it’s kind of fun. Trump is not that complicated. He doesn’t struggle with great philosophical or moral issues.
In the parlance of a type of theater called commedia dell’arte, Trump is pantalone: ego-driven, greedy. His motivation is winning. Grab the last cookie on the plate. Push to the head of the line. Get through the door first. I win, you lose. And since nothing really matters to him except his own skin, he is completely unencumbered by the truth. He is shameless. Once I got on that wavelength, it was disturbingly easy.
Every night I walked out on stage and poured a bucket of lies into a pool of clear water and the tendrils reached out and permeated everything until the audience couldn’t see the lies anymore because they were drowning in them. And if you’re drowning, I’m winning. One of the fascinating aspects of acting is that while your mind knows you are pretending, your body doesn’t. As I attacked and demeaned and scored even the most insignificant of wins, my body was experiencing it for real. The adrenaline and the cortisol were flowing. It was exciting. It was predatory.
My fellow actors, however, were going through very different emotions. As far as they were concerned, they were being battered with their sunken chests, rounded shoulders staring at the ground waiting for the abuse to pass them by. And what did I learn? If you allow yourself to be shameless — truly shameless — then everything is easy. The rage, the lack of empathy, the lying, the entitlement, the denials, the grandiosity — exhilarating. Being shameless is powerful.
I took a long, slow walk back to my apartment every night to shake it off. Only when I got past the Chick-fil-A on 14th Street, one of Trump’s favorite eateries, did I start to relax. So, my dear lawyer friend, no, actors are not professional liars. But, when we play them, we strive to portray them truthfully and insightfully so that you might see yourself; so that we all might see ourselves.
Emotions are real
And just to be clear, actors ask permission. Both the audience and the actor enter the imaginary world together. Where everyone is aware that what is happening on stage or on the screen is only real in the emotions it evokes. Real liars don’t ask permission. And today, you can find them in the tens of thousands in the public square doing untold damage to a population that’s so turned upside down by 22 years of Fox News, social media and a president who lies so shamelessly that many of us are drowning. We are entering the realm of the unimaginable.
Up until now, I have been describing characters in the extreme. Murderous, ruthless. But there was a world of dishonesty cloaked in righteousness that is just as perverse and just as dangerous. Three years ago, if the Christian fundamentalists of America had been told they would be voting en masse for a pathological liar, a serial philanderer, a man whose very name when placed in the same sentence with the phrase Christian values elicits laughter, they would have been insulted. As arbiters of all things moral and ethical, they would have been shocked. But that was then and this is now. And just like Biebow, when you’re told the solution comes from on high, you don’t want to get too caught up in the moral details. They just get in the way. Especially if you’ve been softened up since birth not to question, not to be curious, to simply believe.
A few years ago, I toured the country performing “The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial.” This time, I played the good guy — Clarence Darrow. Many of our performances were in the Bible Belt, and at the end of every show there was a question-and-answer period. What an eye-opener! I began to realize I had entered the world of absolutes with no give-and-take and no room for doubt, a politicized world where the biblical stories were familiar, but the intentions behind their telling were very different. And yet the collective responses were always the same: “If science has produced a truth or a fact not contained in the bible, then destroy science and keep the bible.” No matter where we performed, that was the mantra.
On a personal note, I want to make clear that I think many of the tenets of religion are beneficial, especially when they stress charity, tolerance, forgiveness and love. But when one’s religious beliefs leave the privacy of the home and are brought into the public square, I stand as a sentinel, as do many of you, to keep the public square free of ignorance, superstition and bigotry.
In the words of Dudley Malone, defense counsel with Clarence Darrow: “Keep your bible. Keep it as your consolation, keep it as your guide, but keep it where it belongs — in the world of your conscience, in the world of theology.”
During these last few months, I have been working as a writer with the transcripts of the “Intelligent Design” trial that took place in 2005 in Dover, Pennsylvania. Fundamentalist Christians took over the school board and within weeks injected their religious beliefs into the teaching of science in their public school. Some of the parents pushed back and sued the school board.
It was the Scopes Monkey Trial all over again, but this time with a twist. The defendants felt emboldened and justified in their actions. Moments after taking the stand, their religious veneer, their piety fell to the wayside. Moments after swearing to their God that they would tell the truth, they lied with abandon. They were shameless. Their lying was so egregious that at one point the judge said: “This is a federal courtroom. If you continue, I’m going to charge you with perjury.”
Aided by their fundamentalist council, the Dover defendants charted a zigzag course of deception and dishonesty. Thankfully, the judge saw through it and identified Intelligent Design for the sham that it is — creationism, not science. And as for the defendants, he charged some of them with contempt. As you might expect, the defendants all left the courthouse feeling very misunderstood, very ill-used. They proclaimed themselves victims of an intolerant secular world. They didn’t feel shame or embarrassment by their behavior. They were lying for Jesus and they would do it again. They would say anything and do anything. I recognized the type.
I’ve often wondered what was their first step, their five-dollar bill. For many of them, I think it starts early and it’s very carefully orchestrated. I think it starts by telling the innocent kid, the curious kid who just wants to know what’s real, something as simple as, “Yes, he did. Jonah lived in the whale, he did. For three days he lived in a whale. It’s true.” That response is certainly easier than explaining what an allegory is to an 8-year-old, but it has its risks. In Kentucky, I watched a Ken Ham wannabe preach shamelessly to his target audience of children under 10. He was working really hard that morning — hand puppets and lollipops. And the parents loved it. I felt sorry for the kids. Their first steps were being made for them. The seeds of ignorance, prejudice and superstition were being planted.
A few days later at the University of Nebraska, I stood in a classroom of a hundred college kids as 80 of them raised their hands to bear witness that they believe the Earth was created on October 23rd, 4004 B.C., at 10 o’clock in the morning. “How do you know that?” I asked. Well, they didn’t exactly. Something about revealed truth and fossils and living in a whale. But mostly they didn’t know. Nor did they care to know.
I’m told that having faith is believing without proof, without reason. I think you can have faith and keep your reason. I’ll go a step further: You must keep your reason, otherwise, you will lose your soul to liars, manipulators, cheats and demagogues. I’m not a liar, but I play them, and I don’t think of gullible as charming or quaint. I see it for what it is — a target of opportunity. And so do a lot of others who troll our political landscape.
A young lady in West Virginia once told me that God was her bus driver. “What does that mean?” I asked. “It means I can sit at the back of my bus and party hardy because God is driving my bus.”
I have a feeling that on the eve one of the most important elections of our lifetime, unbeknownst to her, a lot of people are driving her bus. And while our young lady has not been paying attention to where she’s going for a very long time, the micro-lies have been piling up, and for her, they are indistinguishable from the big lies.
I fear that she is so ill-prepared to differentiate fact from fiction, truth from lies, that it’s but a few short steps to believing that separating children from their parents keeps us safe. That Central American mothers pushing strollers down a hot Mexican highway are a threat to our country. That freedom of religion somehow means you can discriminate against those who don’t share your beliefs. That telling the truth makes you an enemy of the people and that lying can’t be all that bad if your cause is good.
When so many are so willing to forsake reason in favor of faith, is it any wonder that our leaders embrace the unreasonable, the unimaginable? That’s why educating children to be curious is so important, why debunking the notion that morality is derived from a single book is so important, why speaking up when others remain silent is so important.
As George Orwell said, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” That’s why organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation are so important. Because the greatest, most fundamental service we can do in this world is to keep truth alive. Thanks.