Pollsters tell us that we voters are tired of personal-attack ads. More likely, we are exhausted by the practical impossibility of finding the time and the means to get at the truth of character issues in our culture of ubiquitous high-tech illusions.
If I say to myself, “It takes moral courage to admit that one has been had”—and if I keep repeating it—maybe I’ll stop smarting quite so much about the Discovery Channel’s mock-documentary, “Mermaid: The Body Found”.(1) I was had, duped, conned, played, and hoodwinked: lock, stock, and barrel. I trusted in the channel’s reputation (now forever sullied in my eyes) for presenting science rather than cheap entertainment. I was also won over by the considerable (and I will admit, even now, painstaking) degree of scientific detail and accuracy in the hoax. For instance, I believe it’s correct that humans really are the only species that perspires, and most of us know that the human embryo has gills at a certain stage. I don’t so much object to a clever producer’s packaging the mermaid hoax as fact, furthermore, as I do to the network’s offering the package without comment. Apparently there was one brief disclaimer at the outset of the show, which I missed. I can’t say, therefore, if it was flashed on the screen in small print for two seconds or read in an admonishing sermon by James Earl Jones. It certainly wasn’t repeated, in any form, between segments.(2)
This upsetting encounter with extreme gullibility has sent ripples through my thoughts. How much more of what we hear is theatrical claptrap? A documentary I saw about a year ago on the History Channel, I believe, concerning Extremely Low-Frequency (ELF) Waves… was that, too, a hoax intended as entertainment? Are those governments whose ambitions span the planet (Russia, China, and the US—the usual three elves) really toying with technology that could ruin another nation’s climate, plunging it either into drought or monsoon? It seems to me that knowing the truth about these four transmitter-stations (we were said to have one in Alaska and one in Nova Scotia) would be a matter of immense public importance. How much do they cost, who authorized their construction, why do they exist, what are they actually doing, and what have they lately done? But then… maybe all of that was made-up to compete with Jersey Shore and American Idol….
Of course, people have a long history of being traduced into error by advanced communications media. A 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, colored by the incomparably dramatic tones of Orson Welles, resulted in sometimes-tragic panic as listeners scrambled madly to escape the Martians. And the public was alerted regularly, in this case, that the events were fictional! In our own time, the evolution of “photo-shopping” has reached such sophisticated levels that vivid sightings of UFO’s or of Sasquatch seem to draw applause from viewers for their skill in fraudulence rather than alarm at “solid evidence” of threatening presences.
Why are we so insurmountably cynical about certain kinds of revelation, while about others we appear as gullible as toddlers on Christmas Eve? Any element of government cover-up, for one thing, has an instant aura of credibility for some of us—and I must include myself. As I continue to wade through Leon O’ Broin’s biography of nineteenth-century author and public servant Richard Robert O’ Madden (written in Irish Gaelic: O’ Broin’s vocabulary is mercilessly large), I am struck by how efficient the British government was at suppressing any shred of awkward information.(3) O’ Madden was a tireless crusader against the slave trade and, in an official capacity, often cried foul over the trafficking that proceeded openly in Havana. His integrity won him many permanent enemies. At his own expense, he became a star witness for the slaves aboard the Amistad, though he was advised by his government to stay out of the affair. Appointed to investigate in situ the rumors that British officials were similarly casual about policing the trade in West Africa, he named names so conscientiously to Lord Russell that he essentially lost his job. The fever he had contracted along the Gold Coast during his labors—virulent to the point of almost killing him—was alleged as having warped his perception of events! During a later appointment as a bank inspector, O’ Madden found his way onto a “don’t promote” list for the rest of his professional life. His infraction? Publishing anonymous articles that revealed the murderous ineptitude with which the British government addressed the Famine in western Ireland.
We call people like this “whistle-blowers”, and we know well that their honesty procures them the brand of “trouble-maker” or “Judas” rather than the kudos of “selfless humanitarian”. As a career academic, I’ve lived through enough such incidents myself to have memorized the procedure: remove dead bodies to empty storage closet, fumigate as prescribed under Faculty Handbook 14.2.d, direct all inquiries from off-campus to Public Relations by way of your departmental chair, and… above all, know that you speak out at grave professional peril. (These same intellects, mind you, grew up learning by rote the Progressive Church’s catechismic curse upon Watergate and Iran-Contra!) Unfortunately, even the skepticism which such episodes inspire in people like me about the achievements of the powerful can become naïve. I believe that Herman Cain fell prey to ungrounded, malicious slanders when he was “borked” by a convenient sequence of “wronged women”… but many were less trusting. The narrative archetype that has the defenseless innocent being bullied by an unscrupulous autocrat is compelling, but some of the stories it informs are mere fictions. The real cynics in these cases are the people who know how to play the role of the innocent to maximum advantage.
On the other hand, Operation Fast and Furious was deadly-real. (Watergate, remember, was essentially a matter of breaking into a file cabinet.) Are we going to dismiss that outrage as a minor gaffe hyped by accomplished political propagandists? Careerist Democrat blather-sphincters like Bob Beckel respond with knee-jerk spontaneity, “The other side does it, too”… and then an inevitable X% of the public admits that it didn’t see what it just saw. The deliberate and systematic distribution of hundreds of firearms to violent gangs, designed at the very highest levels of the Obama Administration as a means to undermine the Second Amendment, becomes the equivalent of a routine sting-operation. I am reminded of all the mass-shooting incidents (one of which—in the Wedgwood section of Fort Worth—occurred mere blocks from where I grew up) where survivors protest afterward that they thought the whole thing was being staged for a movie. When it really happens, we don’t see it; and when we see something for sure, it didn’t really happen.
In this slick new world of photons, the old epistemological problems of trees making or not making a noise when they fall in lonely forests is trumped by the presence—the abundance—of iTrees in e-forests. How can too many iTrees make you miss the e-forest when trees and forests are equally illusory? If a falling tree makes a noise, can you customize it with your drop-down “effects” menu? Of course you can—and the possible number of noises is limitless. That’s the truth, the new truth: i.e., that anyone can now groom innumerable lies. We are constantly lied to not just by the usual hacks and shysters, but by our favorite amusements. Our elected representatives are mere extensions of the entertainment industry—playing saxophones, singing the blues, horsing around with Jay Leno, tweeting and twittering all the livelong day; so why should we view them as credible independent realities? Whether or not they actually tell lies is almost irrelevant. Why should they, rather, be viewed as three-dimensional beings rather than holograms? How could their very existence not be an illusion? How could they not be mere customized morphs of the dozen or so paradigms that Madden (not O’ Madden, but the NFL game) or MLB the Show gives my son to construct new players?
The cardinal sin of the ingénue is to forget for an instant that all is illusion. We don’t want that to happen to us; and so we greet every outlandish charge with worldly-wise acceptance, as long as it follows the template. Romney may well have any foible consistent with the Thurston B. Howell Template. He may have tipped his caddy a thousand bucks… or, contrastively, he may have cut off a company’s resources so that he could buy its plunging stock and then turn the production spigot back on. But a drive-by shooting? Come on, man! Obama, on the other hand has sold himself through the Ghetto Template. Smoking weed and pimping for his Ivy League dorm? Sure—we’ve seen the movies built from those clichés. But Chris Rock as the Manchurian Candidate? Get real!(4)
Young people, naturally, are more enthralled to this kind of thought-suppression than older voters—but none of us really escapes the risks any more. We have reversed the poor sinner’s plea to Christ, and we cry, “I don’t believe—help me fight my belief!” We are constantly tricked by remnants of eye-witness testimony and “gut” feeling; so, with bruised egos, we swear that we will never believe anything again. Then, when some scoundrel is caught red-handed, we pig-headedly refuse to consider the evidence. Cozened by ourselves, once more—with a lot of help from expert handlers—we lose again.
Take the latest shootings: Colorado, Wisconsin… who doesn’t wince and cringe at the ensuing assault on the Second Amendment, as sure to follow as the aftershocks of an earthquake? It isn’t that we lack sympathy for the victims; but something in us cries, “Couldn’t just one of you be packing a gun and shoot the bastard before this became the latest pretext to disarm law-abiding Americans?” And we wince, as well, until we receive positive confirmation that the shooter was not a Tea Party/NRA/KKK member with a long history of right-wing activism (as was first reported—always). In the present atmosphere of toxic distrust, some of us—and I again include myself—wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Eric Holder promise some moron millions of taxpayer dollars to build up a ring-wing résumé and then go shoot up the NAACP convention—where, of course, several federal agents would just happen to be loitering who could ensure that the dupe made his exit in a body-bag.
I stopped listening to Michael Medved’s radio program even before he called people like me idiots for not supporting John McCain in 2008. As I dimly recall, Medved used to devote one day of his broadcast each week (Thursday, I believe) to deriding and debunking conspiracy-theories. This, it seemed to me, was something of a conspiracy in itself, insofar as it left the impression that every conspiracy-theory is a canard. What are routine office politics if not minor conspiracies? What are the quid-pro-quo deals in good-old-boy contract negotiations if not conspiracies? Occurrences under the table are almost always at least as numerous and active as those above the table—and the differential only increases as the stakes rise and we graduate to national or international parleys. Medved, I am convinced, was conspiring with the GOP to ease all of us backwoods, redneck rubes out of the notion that Republicans no longer care about devolution of power and promotion of states’ rights; either that, or he’s an idiot.
Scott Rasmussen now tells us that most voters want the two presidential candidates to stop their exchange of personal attacks and get on with debating the real issues. Time flies; it may well be almost twenty years since I started hearing about the American public’s being sick and tired of “negative advertising”. Or it may be more than that. I’ve always dismissed the sentiment before as the squeamishness of voters raised on Sesame Street and Mister Rogers. The relevant factor should not be whether or not a message’s content is “negative” (whatever that means: something that makes someone “feel bad”, perhaps?); it should be whether or not said content is true. Or if it is negative and true but also trivial, then the voter may usefully add to his mental notes the observation that Candidate A is evading the major issues by harping on his opponent’s adolescent speeding tickets. It would be important to know that Candidate B took a secret trip to Moscow during the Cold War, important to know that Candidate A completely lied about B’s taking such a trip, and important to know that A really did think B’s “disorderly conduct” arrest during a college fraternity initiation a matter of pressing national concern. Any responsible voter should be able to process all such data appropriately.
Yet we have now entered an era of political mermaids. Anything might be true—and everything might be false. Candidate A may have seduced a male intern, taken money from Castro, and lobbied for the overthrow of Zabumistan’s government so that the oil in Zimbabistan (a large part of his stock portfolio) would soar in price. Candidate B may have appointed his mistress’s uncle a federal judge, authored a bill whose grants richly profit his major donor, and reached a deal with a Mexican drug cartel to serve as his private “hit” squad. Practically anything is credible of practically anyone. There may just be a humanoid life-form on the ocean bottom that our secret experiments with sonar waves are destroying. There may also be extra-terrestrials involved in some kind of technology-for-resources swap with our government. Until we see indisputable evidence to the contrary, how can we afford fully to disbelieve any such story about these slithey toves we vote into office?
Yet what does indisputable evidence now look like? A person’s face can be convincingly inserted into virtually any framework. Recordings can be made that fool the most elite experts. DNA can be planted. Documents can be created. The very people who pride themselves in being most skeptical may be coyly manipulated to disbelieve the truth for fear of seeming naïve.
When people speak of being exhausted by “attack” ads nowadays, I understand them in a new sense. What they mean, I think, is not that they are too squeamish to handle harsh realities, but that they have neither the time nor the skill to ferret out the truth of all the incessant allegations. Every claim requires massive research. Obama’s minions can argue that the economy is actually improving; and people like me, though they smell a rat, would not really grasp the sort of “shell game” bookkeeping that generated the statement even if we had time to find an exposé of it online. One grows exhausted with it all, just as if, returned in a dream to one’s student days, one were assigned a major test and a homework exercise in a new chapter for the next period’s meeting. There isn’t time to do the homework; and even if there were, too many new concepts have not yet been explained.
I took Herman Cain’s protests of innocence at face value because the witnesses against him seemed too rehearsed and too easily produced from nowhere. I accepted Rick Santorum’s explanation at face value when he defended his liberal votes as concessions to President Bush’s leadership. I don’t really care if Romney has cut a few corners on his taxes or not, because I don’t crave another man’s money nor do I think that people who pay no income tax at all (i.e., the most vigorous Romney-haters) are in a position to whine. But hard evidence, one way or the other? Where do you find it? Tax documents are probably almost as easy to fake as birth certificates. Where is the human being within these holograms? Who can read these people’s souls? The ways of the soul, said Heraclitus, are an abyss—and in that abyss may dwell mermaids… or the Loch Ness monster. I’m tired of abysses.
Be as negative as you like, gentlemen—but confine it to your opponent’s economic and social vision. If I were only going to vote for someone I trusted personally, I would write in Joe the Plumber.
1) The “documentary” first aired on Discovery’s Animal Planet on May 25, 2012. See Neil Genzlinger’s review at http://tv.nytimes.com/2012/05/26/arts/television/mermaids-the-body-found-on-animal-planet.html.
2) As luck would have it, the show was aired again as I was putting the last touches to this piece. No disclaimer of any sort appeared at the beginning; and at the very end of the scrolling credits appeared a paragraph containing the word “fictional” in some context that only a master speed-reader could have supplied. It truly seems to me that the film’s creators and/or The Discovery Channel were suborning misinterpretation while keeping their vestigial tail fully covered within the letter of the law.
3) See Leon Ó Bróin, An Maidíneach (Baile Átha Cliath: Sáirséal agus Dill, 1971).
4) I think it entirely defensible to argue, by the way, that Mitt Romney would be better served by playing the Thurston Howell role (from the childishly cliché Gilligan’s Island series) to its blue-blooded, snobby hilt. Inasmuch as the alternative is a stereotype from Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, young voters, especially, might prefer a chairman-of-the-board figure in these hard times to a lovably bungling buffoon. At any rate, I strongly suspect that what young people find most off-putting about Romney is his very resistance to the Country Club template. They perceive it as disingenuous. I do not advocate his ceasing such resistance, I would stress. On the contrary, I think it bodes ill for our democratic republic that the way to win future elections is probably to manipulate dominant templates in the entertainment world. As Dobie Gillis would have said, we’re doomed.