In Search of Better Fictions 

Americans can't live much longer in the world we've surrounded ourselves with

Americans can't live much longer in the world we've surrounded ourselves with

Say what you will about Michael Moore, but he was at least partly right in 2003. That's when, accepting the Oscar for best documentary, he soberly intoned, "We like non-fiction because we live in fictitious times." Moore went on to lament the fact that a fictitiously elected president led the nation into war on fictitious grounds, and that now Americans daily deal with the fictions of orange alerts and duct tape.

But Michael only got it half right. After all, as plenty of people pointed out, his subsequent film Fahrenheit 9/11 wasn't entirely non-fiction: cuts, splices, voice-overs and selective (some would say deceptive) editing were used by his able production team to paint a thoroughly negative picture of the American commander-in-chief. Big movie magicians—who specialize in creating convincing fictions—use sound effects and strategic lighting, computer tricks and camera angles to make Hollywood blockbusters that for a couple of hours invite us to suspend disbelief. The dangerous ones are the fictions that present themselves as realities.

Frank Rich said as much Wednesday evening in a speech—actually, an elaborated recitation of his upcoming column—at Vanderbilt University. Rich, a former theater critic, is an associate editor at the New York Times whose chief duty is to write a weekly cultural criticism column. He does it aptly. And though his insights appear on the front page of every Sunday's Arts and Leisure section, they could just as well run in the Week in Review section.

That's because in today's world of mass cultural production—not so much the "high art" as the boob-tube slop everyone sees daily—politics and entertainment, journalism and commercialism are joined at the hip. The news that bombards us 24 hours a day can't be separated from the commerce-driven media that present it. And as such, nothing is sacred: wars can be mined for cheap ratings, and by extension, ad revenues, as easily as Everybody Loves Raymond. If there's any doubt as to which takes precedence, news or entertainment, this should clear things up: just this week CBS actually issued an apology for barging into a CSI: New York episode to report a trifling matter—the death of Yasser Arafat.

On some levels, this is common knowledge, a fact of postmodern American life so obvious we take it for granted. But the social and political implications of a news media driven by ratings and dependent on sensation and titillation to get them are tremendous. And troubling.

The 2004 election—who am I kidding, the presidency of George W. Bush—has been a case study in what happens to democracy when it's guarded by a ratings-driven news media. Pvt. Jessica Lynch may have only been "rescued" from the humane care of Iraqi doctors, but why let the facts get in the way of a feel-good story that valorizes us while demonizing them? The Pentagon spun—OK, fabricated—the facts and the media spread the story, all competing to be the first to get the "exclusive" interview with the rescued hero. The interests of a PR-savvy government and a ratings-hungry press dovetailed nicely; it was, in the vernacular of the corporations that control that media, a "win-win." Then came the made-for-TV movies.

The campaign itself was the same way. The media felt at all times compelled to produce a simplified narrative that would sell to the short attention span public. We witnessed the media machine's creation of conventional wisdom. "Dean the populist insurgent" was an early theme in the primaries (and how we miss the days when the word "insurgency" was mere metaphor), then "Dean the angry Vermont liberal." In the general election, Kerry was too boring, then too indecisive, then too liberal (but always too craven). And there may have been a grain of truth to each characterization; but the point is we live in a sound bite world where there's only room enough for one label on each product for sale. People become caricatures. Associations, it turns out, drive the echo chamber.

They certainly drove the invasion of Iraq. A recently as three weeks ago, 42 percent of Americans said Saddam Hussein had a role in the attacks of Sept. 11. That's false. And in that same poll, fully 32 percent of respondents said Saddam planned them himself. That's because the Bush administration, led by mass-manipulation wizard Karl Rove and neoconservative foreign-policy hawks, so closely associated Iraq with Al-Qaeda that they became synonymous. (Even Rich, in his Vanderbilt lecture, mistakenly referred to "the Saddam tape" that surfaced before the election.)

A senior advisor to Bush—lots of folks assume Rove—was surprisingly straightforward about the fictitious state of these United States. Writer Ron Suskind describes a 2002 encounter with this person:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Democrats have gnashed their teeth and scratched their heads for over a week now trying to make sense of their deflating electoral defeat. They've reacted in a number of ways, sometimes in stages. There are the confused and introspective, who just want to figure things out and maybe take a month in Europe to straighten their heads. There are the palpably scared—those who ask why the red states hate them so much. And there are the angry, the scorned self-righteous who hate the South, hate Jesus and hate anyone with allegiances to either. (See for an example of this type of liberal.)

But they all miss the boat, and as Rich began to point out Wednesday night, it's because these spurned liberals buy into the post-election media and poll-spun fiction of "us" and "them"—the same simplistic fiction liberals decried when George W. Bush tried to peddle it. These days, the narrative comes from informed places like the New York Times and Slate. It's promulgated by anybody with something to sell, including David Brooks, a relatively recent arrival on the Times' op-ed page, who this week literally used his column to advertise his latest collection of oversimplified faux sociology. It's the kind of narrative that renders the world two-dimensional and easy to understand. It's used to boost profits at minimal cost. Red and blue.

The reality, I'm afraid, is more complex. People in those "red states"—most of which were split at the polls near 50/50 anyway—have the same concerns and the same fears as people in the so-called blue states. They may like Jesus but they like jobs, too. They may vote for war but it's because they want peace like the rest of us. They may oppose gay marriage but it's because they think it threatens families. (Besides, they don't know they know any gay people.) Rather than demonizing conservatives and making the red/blue prophecy come true, the left needs to challenge the systems of power that build fictions and then pass them as realities.

It will require us to dismantle institutions—including some that supposedly serve in the public interest. It will require us to build some new ones, suited to these times, to replace them. It will take more than four years. It will be messy. And it will start with the realization that our current fictions are tearing this country—and by extension, the world—apart.


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