“Trust me, I know what I’m doing,” the president seemed to plead as he leaned into the camera lens during his State of the Union address. And the few people watching stared impassively at the same TV that earlier promised we will lose serious weight if only we’ll send in $157, plus shipping and handling, for a bottle of pills.
When I read the opening chapter of the Oprah’s Book Club selection “A Million Little Pieces” I thought to myself how unlikely it was that a passenger with blood stained clothing could be carried unconscious onboard an American air carrier. I can’t get on a plane with my shoes. Yet I read blithely on, perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief, just like we all have to do when we read fiction. Frankly, it never occurred to me that the story was true so the uproar over the errant hyperbole came as something of a surprise. What struck me next was the realization that I was surprised that I was surprised.
Looking at the revelations of the last four years, and being witness to the parade of our culture in the decade before that, I realize I have suspected that all of it was fiction and that we all already knew that. When the government promised to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a plan to lower prescription costs of seniors, tax cuts that went to the average family, a plan to curb spending to save social security, and the assurance that it would deal efficiently with Katrina, I have to confess I never gave a thought to it being true . So when it was revealed that we tortured and killed detainees and prisoners, bombed birthday parties, paid off congressmen, falsified financial reports, bought favorable stories in the press, squandered tax money on insider contracts, and appointed drinking buddies to critical government posts, it wasn’t really a surprise as much as it was a sickening confirmation.
We really don’t expect that a bottle of pills will melt our fat, that congressmen pay no attention to lobbyists who give them golf trips and junkets, that those junkets are anything more than pay off by vacation, or that our tax dollars will be carefully spent. In fact, we expect the opposite. You’ll often hear the entreaty, “Where is the outrage?” We are capable of outrage only over things we believe in. We don’t believe anymore. What we have instead is cynicism, and as Lily Tomlin’s confesses for us, “I’d be more cynical but I can’t keep up.”
Our language has gone so far past Orwell’s worst imaginings that it has lost its ability to convey meaning. It is now merely figurative. Confirmation comes from all corners. Creationism is presented as “science”. A politician’s version of the truth is euphemistically called “spin”. Advertisements merely “exaggerate”, and our banks “give” us “introductory rates” to seduce their own teenagers into the consumption-orgy nightmare of 24% credit card interest. It used to be the huckster’s job to delude and defraud. Now it is America’s largest industry.
It takes a Potemkin village’s education system to raise children like we do. A system that teaches our kids just barely enough to understand the words but not enough to judge their veracity. They are, from the perspective of those who want to control them, the perfect consumer/citizen. In other words, the perfect dupe.
So now comes anxious hand-wringing from think tanks, churches, corporate headquarters, and halls of government, wondering how and why governments, institutions, corporations, even religious groups are not trusted by more than half of ordinary people. Powerful, ethics-bereft, arrogant authority figures and corporate leaders have taken the generations-earned credibility of their positions and have squandered it for temporary personal benefit and relief. These irresponsible charlatans have more than stolen the fruit of our hard labor, they have salted the earth then want to award the clean-up to cronies and charge us triple for it. Our bitter harvest is a society that trusts no one in authority and little of what it sees and hears.
The aftermath threatens a true catastrophe. What will we do when a real challenge confronts us that requires us to bind together to face it? If we don’t believe our government, can’t trust our leaders, can’t rely on the facts conveyed in simple language, what will be the glue? The most clear and present danger to these United States comes not from radical Islamic terrorists. It comes from our slide into this growing culture of acquiescence to propaganda.
Last week, though, a glimmer of hope. The author of “A thousand little pieces,” the non-fiction that has been revealed as fiction, was hosted by his primary cheerleader, Oprah Winfrey. She had at first stood behind him when the controversy flared. But suddenly, she said she realized that following the party line was an affirmation that the truth doesn’t really matter and she did not believe that. She could have had her epiphany offstage and out of sight. Instead she injected the only antidote that could work, she said no and confronted and excoriated the fellow before an audience of millions. We had a national min-lesson in ethics.
You would have hoped to see such on the Rev. Pat Robertson’s TV program, but he was busy calling for assassination in South America and revealing God’s vindictive reasoning for Ariel Sharon’s stroke…reasoning, he has told us for years, our non-taxable donations make it possible for him to know.
And the termites keep chewing.