Sam: Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. That’s the first thing they teach you.
Vincent: Who taught you?
Sam: I don’t remember. That’s the second thing they teach you.
— Ronin (1998)
If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, guess what? For all intents and purposes, it’s a duck. Constructively, it should be treated like one. We don’t have to ask if something’s really going on or if someone’s really behaving a certain way or if some horrific event is really happening according to plan and it’s all fine so just relax. We don’t have to probe for sincerity and reasonability. We only have to accept one truth: people hide, lie, and attempt to cover their horrific mistakes.
The truth gets obscured behind spin. Sometimes, people get killed. Sometimes, they disappear. Sometimes, Jimmy Hoffa gets buried under the 18th hole of a Florida golf course. It comes out years later, but by then, everybody just shrugs. Some things are so well concealed that we’ll never figure them out. And sometimes it’s better not to know.
We don’t have to waste time and energy speculating and trying to sift truth from falsity. All we have to do is look at intended and actual outcomes. If your partner comes home smelling like a strange cologne, you don’t have to ask whether she’s cheating or whether some bizarre twist of fate led to her getting sprayed with random eau de toilette on her way to the metro. You only need to note the instance and keep your eyes (and nostrils) open. If it happens a second time, it’s a case of “fool me twice, shame on me.” But let’s be honest: you already knew from the beginning.
It’s the same with political events. If it looks like someone’s lying or prevaricating or taking some other sort of evasive action, you don’t need to engage with the reasonability of their countermeasures. You only need to ask two questions: what does it look like on the surface? And who stands to benefit? Note the instance. Keep your eyes (and nostrils) open.
If you do this, fake news has no power over you. Fake news is momentary lying and you don’t care about the lies of the moment. You only care about what you see over and over, which fake news cannot affect as easily or as consistently. Note that the accusation of “Fake news!” is also a form of media gaslighting and damage control. Whenever you notice people screaming that, look at them more critically than before.
But we don’t need to dwell on the concept of fake news. We only need “news” and a bit of critical thinking. Here’s an example from the Vietnam era (since Saigon just fell all over again): “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” a statement most commonly attributed to journalist, Peter Arnett.
What you should take away from this statement: the village is (probably) destroyed.
What you should disregard: “We had to” (abdication of responsibility for the decision) and “in order to save it” (moral justification).
Don’t you believe it. Read the news, but read for that nugget of information embedded in the spin. Just remember: ask what it looks like on the surface and ask who stands to benefit from it. Then disregard everything but what might be the facts. You don’t have to be a detective. You merely have to see the duck flapping away.
Today, after all the Covidy Trump ups and downs, the questions about Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation, and the hard questions about whether there should even be a VP presidential debate, I’m thinking again about Chris Beck’s excellent piece in Splice Today, “The Media Reports Narratives, Not Facts.”
We all live online now. We look at the world through electrified windows. All we see in our non-digital lives is our homes and immediate neighborhoods. Maybe we travel some, but we don’t get much of an overview of what’s going on unless we use digital media. This is good and bad.
The Good: we live in an information society where communication, news, and knowledge can be produced instantaneously.
The Bad: we live in an information society where communication, news, and knowledge can be produced instantaneously.
He / She / It who controls the location and size of the digital window (and do take a moment to learn about the “Overton Window” as well) controls what is seen. Is it true that the United States is collapsing? What does the New York Times say about it? More importantly, how, when, and to what end does the NYT cover the “decline of America”? You can’t just think about the content; you have to think about how it’s framed and marketed to you.
All media is a product. This is capitalism. And the truth (often much more complex than how it is presented in one “window” or another) is out there, but it is always, always beholden to the bottom line for any media platform. Of course, they all say they’re dedicated to the truth.
Is Fox News a legitimate news source? Sure. It’s about as legit as CNN. But it will seem more or less reliable depending on your assumptions about the world, your values, your community, and your culture. How about the Daily Wire? Take a look at it (especially if you consider yourself a liberal) and you won’t see a whole lot of variation between what’s in there and what’s showing on the Wall Street Journal on a given news day.
You might notice that certain stories are emphasized more than others or are framed to imply certain conclusions (the “secret message” in a news story that used to be called “slant” or “an angle” but which is now called “news bias”). But the Daily Wire is considered to be much farther to the political right on the American spectrum than the WSJ. Why? Probably because conservative pundit, Ben Shapiro, founded and until recently ran DW. But that really isn’t a good reason. It’s just perceptual media bias.
Do this comparison between The Washington Post and Mother Jones. How about The Daily Beast and Vox? How about any of these and Breitbart or The Drudge Report? Products. Marketing. Stoking controversy in targeted audiences. Know why I don’t watch Russia Today news? Google it and the reason should jump off the screen. Even search engines have slant, bias, implicit preferences that show the world a certain way. You can’t escape slant.
But you can do this: read conservative news if you’re a liberal along with your liberal stuff. Read liberal news if you’re a conservative along with your conservative stuff. Look at Media Bias Fact Check and search your favorite media sources there. Do this in order to see the world through more windows, even though you’ll never get a comprehensive view of anything.
Don’t let any media source trick you into thinking that what you’re seeing is the whole truth or the entire scope of something. You have to work to get that on your own. As Beck puts it in his Splice Today piece: “It’s no surprise that Americans’ trust in the media is minuscule. The New York Times can’t even recognize third-rate journalism. As a consumer of media, the only way to be well-informed is to remain skeptical about the media’s competence, understand that they’re reporting a narrative instead of the facts, and get your news from a variety of sources.”
Here are some questions to ponder for yourself:
Is there a problem with the stories on Zero Hedge? What might it be?
What makes The National Review a “libertarian” publication? Is it?
Why aren’t more writers for Quillette publishing in The New Yorker and The New York Times?
Is the NYT’s “1619 Project” history or speculative fiction? How can you tell?
What is the primary difference between Rachel Maddow’s and Ben Shapiro’s coverage? Why might this be a pointless question to ask?
I say above that “you can’t escape slant.” So why do all this thinking and reading about media? If bias is inevitable, why try to see past it?
Does believing a QAnon conspiracy theory indicate that you are intelligent, stupid, or just misinformed? How do you know? How about believing in the tenets of the religion of your choice? Smart? Stupid? How about believing that Critical Race Theory realistically depicts power relations in the world? Smart? Something else? What do these three belief systems have in common?
I look back at the stressed-out writing I did four years ago after Trump was elected and recall what my European friends were saying at the time. They were a bit blasé about the new administration, a bit cynical about whether anything had changed or would change in U.S. geopolitics.
They wanted to know why I was so upset. They saw Trump as a slightly more pungent embodiment of the same old repellent post-WWII American hubris. Yes, he lacked Obama’s varnish and capacity. But, in that sense, they seemed to think Trump was a little better—take the makeup off the beast and you can see it more clearly. Take off its camoflauge and you can more easily track its movements. America, they felt, is evil, uneducated, childish, and wrong. Let’s be honest. Let’s reveal its true nature. Why not accomplish this by letting Trump flail about and demonstrate American dysfunction on the international stage?
But the imperial, crass, clumsy, adventurist America that colored the perceptions of my friends abroad wasn’t what I was mourning. Countries, like the people that create and sustain them, are not simple. Reducing them to an exploitative foreign policy (which their people may not even fully understand or approve of) and the philistine values of their nastiest and most brutish citizens is disingenuous at best.
The America in which I grew up was liberally and tolerantly Democrat and Republican. People voted locally, believed in civil rights, valued humanistic education, and, incidentally, were not part of anything that could be considered “systemically racist.” Higher education and health care were expensive but were seen as inherently good and worth working for. My southern Californian neighborhood was diverse. My childhood friends were Hmong, Vietnamese, Italian, African-American, Polish, Mexican-American, and every other ethnicity you can imagine.
This is not to say that the country (including my small part of it) didn’t have serious problems or that there was no racism or crime. It’s to say that America was seen as a decent place in which to live, in spite of those things. And I grew up in a fairly poor neighborhood in a house with the roof always falling in. I wasn’t dirt poor, but I wasn’t “rolling like a hog in the fat house,” either. So, with deep reservations, I voted for Hilary in 2016. I was well aware of the evils in my country. But it was the good that I cared about and wanted to protect by voting Democrat. I suspect most who voted Republican felt the same way.
The reason I was upset four years ago, and why I disagreed with the pessimistic view of my European friends, was that Trump brought a vision of “American carnage”—a distorted view of failure and fallout that didn’t square with what I knew from firsthand experience as a citizen. He encouraged us to envision ourselves as a nigh-failed state. And I knew that what you envision eventually becomes real.
But none of us could foresee the damage that this would do to the political continuum in the United States and, by extension, to American society. The last four years have been tragic, convoluted, and intense to an almost unbelievable degree, such that the best analysts and political commentators now seem occupied with catching up or doomsaying instead of predicting what’s to come or offering solutions; though, one can admit that foreseeability is always an issue.
The complexity of this moment in American history is as broad and deep as it is disturbing. And we might forgive the pundits for having a hard time with it. It’s hard to think of any moment in American history simple and clear enough that we can say it’s open and shut, that we can easily understand it without much discussion.
For example, it’s not enough to argue that Truman dropped the bomb in 1945 to curtail protracted war in the Pacific and ultimately save lives. It’s not enough to say that he was spineless and unduly influenced by hawkish generals and politicians looking for payback and glory. It’s not enough to say that the American public had grown hardened by the war to the extent that the mass-murder of Japanese civilians seemed like an acceptable trade-off for victory. If we’re in search of the broadest, clearest, most unvarnished view, we have to say all these things and more.
Such considerations and a hundred others like them, existing side by side, are what make American history so confounding and fascinating (and are what make the New York Times’ dubious “1619 Project” more race-oriented speculative fiction than history, on par with creationist textbooks and What If the Nazis Won the War fan fic). History is not simple because we are not simple. The breadth of a cultural, historical moment is always hard to grasp, even in retrospect. And, at the time, suffused as it is with emotion and rhetoric, it’s nearly impossible to fully and clearly understand what’s going on, even if we have a great deal of information.
Nevertheless, we all agree that it’s the job of journalists, philosophers, artists, historians (even politicians) to set aside the fear and make sense of things. When they succeed, we can arrive at maybe a partial understanding of what’s happening, maybe to the extent that we can act in accordance with best possible premises and mitigate the damage. But after four years of American carnage, we seem to have unambiguously failed in that respect. And we can’t pin it all on Trump. We’re the ones who fed him tequila and acid and took him off the leash. We’re the ones who burned our own neighborhoods. Political writers, in particular, share the blame.
What we unfortunately have now is vicious black-and-white thinking across the political spectrum, the sort of irrationality that greenlights violence, tribalism, feuding, and revenge and thinks it’s all for the best, the sort of illiberal extremism that forgets how to come together and resolve differences. And foreseeability remains a key problem—even the partial sort that sets aside the Huxlean herd poison in favor of the common good.
The vision of American carnage is coming to pass when we could have imagined and brought forth something far better. Such is the root of my discontent—what I felt in 2016 and what I feel now. It’s why I regard political conventions as rituals of death worship, paying homage to dead systems and broken ideologies, rigidly entrenched in old enmities and feuds, and enslaved to a partisanship so obsolete and toxic that it has become clownish and absurd.
Cynicism and black-and-white thinking are too easy in times like this. My deepest wish for the United States is that it will let go of those things and embrace classical liberalism—the radical notion that the left and the right can come together in the middle, take the best of what they are, and form a more perfect union. We’ve done it before. I don’t see why we can’t do it again.
Secrets that involve state actors or politically important individuals are frequently hidden in plain sight. Most people don’t have the time, energy, or research skills to see them, which is what keeps the issue unexamined and quiet. But those of us who are indefatigably curious often can’t help ourselves. And, like a black cat in Vietnam, poking our whiskers into the wrong place can get us into serious trouble, even if we are committed to writing about such things.
In general, state secrets seem to originate in very abstract, political (industrial, military, territorial), and bureaucratic forms of aggression, fear, and greed. These concerns inevitably trickle down to horrific policy decisions that have the potential to hurt people and create insecurity and some degree of social chaos if pointed out. Unfortunately, there is no country immune from this. It seems to come standard with the power of jurisdiction and geopolitical boundaries.
The only way to make diffuse information hidden in plain sight comprehensible is to pull together the disparate data and write a convincing story about how it all probably came into being. Stories are how we’re primarily conditioned to understand what’s going on. And a writer’s job is to facilitate the emergence of that truth for the public, even if it turns out to be just one of many “competing truths.” Even in explanatory journalism, exposing secrets is rarely open-and-shut.
State secrecy exists because it needs to—because the decisions being made are contemptible (though sometimes necessary) or because the truth would create serious vulnerability in certain influential groups and individuals. History is rife with examples. Current events are also full of them (implicitly, sometimes explicitly) if you know how to look.
I’m not talking about conspiracy theories that involve secret cabals and cartoon evils. I’ve never witnessed anything like that. Instead, I’ve discovered very mundane things, real life horrors, birthed from unethical entities making self-serving, highly ambitious choices and fortified with time, encouragement, and usually immense resources. Anyone with the inclination, research skills, and time can discover as much. But not everyone can write well enough to help people understand. More importantly, not everyone wants to or thinks they should.
You not only have to do your homework and be able to write about it, but you have to be mature enough to ask Cui bono? and consider the most quotidian possibilities, because that is usually where you discover useful threads. The story you tell needs to dramatize the subject matter enough that people can stick with it to the end. Dramatic tension is the delivery mechanism, even if the final impact of your writing proves too far-reaching and explosive. In most cases, it will be. The truth rarely sets people free. More often than not, it burns a wide swath through everyone involved.
The first step to being a good investigative writer is being fascinated with details and a good student of history and media. Read everything. Keep copious notes about anything that draws your attention. When you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about something, don’t just roll over and go back to sleep. Turn on your laptop and start writing those thoughts and insights down. Then keep writing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also encourage the use of a good research library in addition to the internet. Research libraries are invaluable. They contain a lot that isn’t retrievable online (microfiche, microfilm, archival data, FOIA queries, information stored only at state and federal levels or in restricted archives). When someone out in the world refuses to talk to you or send you information, chances are what they’re holding back can be found in a newspaper or magazine archive. And they don’t even know.
When a researcher draws the right conclusions and has an insight that makes a serious secret visible, it’s usually a life-defining moment. She can collect her findings and then write about it and attempt to expose it to the world, risking personal ruin (or murder). Or she can decide that being a martyr for exposing a secret—that may be subsequently covered up or otherwise made invisible anyway—is a bad outcome and that other very good work can be done without making herself so vulnerable.
States will always have their secrets. It’s a fair bet that most will seize any advantage, regardless of the ethical implications and will then need to cover up what they can’t bury. Key individuals may refuse to get involved in unethical projects and activities, acknowledging that simply following orders or following the funding is no excuse. But they can be side-lined or removed. One wonders whether it’s usually better not to know.
Personally, I take a moderate approach. Most things I discover, I write about, even if those pieces don’t always find a publisher. But my life is important to me. So there are a few items, uncovered through methodically correlating public domain, trade publication, and records searches, that I will not talk about. It’s better to live and write another day.
Reeling this morning from my all-Trump-all-the-time ulcer-inducing news feed of despair, I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. I’ve been a compulsive news reader since I learned how. And, for the last few months, my morning habit has evolved into a kind of shamanic pathworking. Not the startup-bro takes ayahuasca at Burning Man to dream up new apps sort of thing. More like: I drank the cobra venom and I might be having an aneurysm but, if I live, I’ll probably learn something. Because that’s why we read the news, right? To learn something?
My wife walked into the room, looked at me breathing in front off the laptop, and walked out. After living with me for close to two decades, she deserves a merit badge for humanitarian service. I accept this. Nevertheless, we can’t bring ourselves to compromise on certain things—when the enfant terrible will be impeached, for instance, or when certain GOP representatives will disrobe and start flinging fecal matter at Rand Paul live on CSPAN. You can’t agree on everything.
But one thing we do agree on is that, after reading political posts for an hour, one should not look at emails, blogs, or news about the academic job market or the entertainment industry. Doing so inevitably weaponizes the cobra venom to such an extent that instead of a golden journey to Ixtlan with Don Juan, one finds oneself slipping down to Xibalba with the Lord of the Smoking Mirror. Ghost jaguars. Shrieking bats. Night winds. Tentacles. The American Healthcare Act. Steve Bannon in a bone necklace gesticulating at the moon. A real bad trip.
I was just about to read some Penelope Trunk on why it’s better to marry for money and get therapy instead of going to graduate school for an MFA when my wife came back in and asked me if I’d lost all sense.
“I’m, uh, reading.”
“Why do you do this to yourself?”
“Because, um—what am I reading? Shit!”
I was still in a trance. Penelope had already led me partway down to Tezcatlipoca’s Place of Fear and Torment. I closed her blog and the five newspapers I had open in the browser before I could go any further, but the damage had been done. You never emerge from a news pathworking unscathed.
There’s something sickening there, like justice has nothing to do with any of it—just graft and lots of vigorous lying. How many gold-plated toilets do any of them need? I got a very unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach as I tried not to think that such things exist in the same world as the famine in Sudan or North Korean death camps or the East Chicago water supply so full of lead that 1000 residents are being asked to relocate. Don’t play in the dirt, kids. Just Netflix and chill.
Still, reading about Chappelle was a nice break from the moral Andrea Doria taking place on Capitol Hill, even if the obscene payout did make me a bit nauseated. I think Dave Chappelle is one of the funniest people on the planet. He’s brilliant. There is a very small cadre of extremely talented comedians in the world, of which he might be the foremost member. Very few entertainers are on his level and he definitely deserves to get paid for his work. There’s no question about that. But $60 million on top of all the millions he’s already made seems a bit excessive, no? How about that children’s hospital in Sudan where so many children need help that “the hospital has run out of beds”? I wonder what a quarter of a million could do there? I wonder what $1000 could do.
If anything, the article on Chappelle caused me to start thinking philosophically about what an amount of money like that really means in the life of any individual. I know you can buy a lot of bottles of Pernod-Ricard Perrier-Jouet. And I know you can reach a level where everything becomes relative. If you’re partying with the rich and famous all the time, $60 million might still be an important chunk of change, but maybe it’s not as much, relatively speaking, as one imagines at $50,000 a bottle.
I find myself thinking, what if Dave took 2 of those $60 million (he’d still come away with $58 million, which would be enough to purchase several small islands and a Bavarian castle) and devoted that fragment of his inconceivable wealth to changing someone’s life or the lives of several people who could would clearly and directly benefit? What could be done for someone who can’t afford a prosthesis, for example, or someone living in a shelter who doesn’t have the resources to get back into the workforce, or a family in the Rust Belt living in a transient hotel because they lost their house? Such people aren’t hard to find right at home in the great United States.
Moreover, it may be that someone with over $60 million in the bank could easily hire the right assistants (a whole team, a task force, an entire building’s worth of henchmen and secretaries) to make something like that happen ricky tick. We’ve seen far stranger things in the media lately. We’re bound to see stranger things in the months to come.
I know Dave has been involved in a lot of charitable events and donated his time to good causes—all of which is as admirable as his talent. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about direct action in the lives of people who would be forever changed. Is that naive? It’s certainly not as easy as giving a NGO a big tax-deductible donation or volunteering to participate in a charitable event. Then again, genius-level comedy isn’t easy, either. It takes guts, brilliance, a gift, and the determination to make it happen—just like anything good in life.
Someone in college once said to me, “Yeah, money can’t buy me love, but a certain amount of money will give me the power to make finding it more likely.” I thought about that for years before concluding that it was pure garbage. You can find love in a ghetto. You can find love in a refugee camp. You can find love after everything has been taken away and you think your life is over. As my wise grandmother used to say, “If someone loves you, they’ll come and spend time with you while you mop the floors in a slaughterhouse.”
That seems right. Quality is not quantity. And love, happiness, tranquility, and the satisfaction of doing good work are all priceless, being essentially internal achievements and therefore free to all human beings. But one thing money can do is create conditions for healing the world. And that matters, maybe more than anything. Why do I bring this up after too much Sean Spicer on a Wednesday afternoon? Because it’s been making me ask myself the same old question: What is good? And, once again, I must conclude that quality and quantity are mutually exclusive categories. Show me what you’re doing. Show me how you’re going to heal the world. Then I’ll tell you what’s good.
What is it like to be Dave Chappelle—to be a brilliant artist and to have so much money that it sets you apart from every other artist in your field, except for a very exclusive group of people who happen to be as fortunate and gifted as you are? I have no idea. I do know, like most people, I love his work. But, at the same time, I think of the dreams most people have of a little house with a dog and a garden somewhere quiet where they don’t have to live in fear, of no more crushing debts, of a dental plan, of their kids having reasonable chances to work for a decent future, and of some kind of profession that doesn’t produce night terrors. And I know what it isn’t like to be Chappelle.
These are very modest dreams, but they’re ones that most sincere people have. Most people don’t need half or a quarter of a million to realize such dreams. Most people don’t need or want a super yacht, don’t need to be on the board of the Bank of Cypress, don’t need a tower in midtown Manhattan with their names way up on top in gold. Shit, most people don’t even need tenure—even though the failed sideshow entertainer who passes for our President wants to destroy PBS and the NEA just for kicks; even though, for 30 years, the academic job market has been run by people who dress up in SS uniforms and burn offerings to Ronald Reagan in their secret masturbatoriums. But I know reading about such things is imprudent. It’s Paul Ryan’s Popul Vuh.
So I’ll be trying to detox from the news for the rest of the day. Maybe I’ll work on my novel while I wait for the next paid writing assignment to appear in my inbox like sweet life-sustaining mana from heaven. One thing I won’t be doing is reading any more about Dave Chappelle discovering El Dorado. Because I feel reasonably certain that today someone’s going to die because of money and it won’t be him.