Results tagged “Senate” from critical difference

In the stories we tell about ourselves, the temptation to lie -- to ourselves, to each other -- triumphs more often than it ought to. It happens in public life (see John Edwards), in pulp fiction masquerading as memoir (see James Frey), and in the cultural myths we accept as true (see New Yorkers' entrenched and baseless insistence that they're tougher than the average bear). This is nothing new.

And yet: Is it getting worse? Is a devolution in our use of language helping to blur the distinction between truth and untruth?

"Reality itself is a term that is rapidly being devalued," Daniel Mendelsohn writes in The New Yorker. Pondering the mendacity that has long been entrenched in the memoir genre, he points to the dominance of reality TV as emblematic of this cultural moment, when the degree of "blurring between reality and fiction" seems especially high.

Reality's root, too, is taking a beating. A lot of us don't even know what "real" means anymore, and the confusion is polluting our politics. The 2008 presidential campaign pitted a place called "real America," populated by "real Americans," against ... well, against a bunch of fake Americans living in fake America, apparently. Who knew that the simple act of opposing a Republican could invalidate a passport, a birth certificate, the results of a citizenship test?

Last Sunday, when President Obama flew to Massachusetts to try to salvage Martha Coakley's Senate run, Scott Brown's supporters flocked to a rally of their own. "The president may be in Boston," read a block-lettered sign in the crowd, "but the real people of Mass. are here with Scott Brown in Worcester." The phrase "real people" was, predictably, written in red.

The sign laid out a clear dichotomy, and a false one, casting Obama and his supporters as fake people (cyborgs? foreigners? carpetbaggers? all of the above?) and those on Brown's side -- the Right's side -- as authentic.

"Authentic": another word whose meaning seems now to elude us.

A few years ago, a young artist I know put up a website to sell the clothes she'd designed. Outlining her personal narrative in her bio, she strained to establish blue-collar cred: not an easy task, given her upper-middle-class upbringing, but reality didn't make as good a story. So, instead of crediting her love of design to her mother's creative passion for sewing, she twisted the truth to suggest that her mom (who was, in fact, a doctor's wife) was a seamstress. It sounded, you know, more authentic, what with the struggle and all.

When the drama that makes a compelling story is missing from lived experience, we're only too eager to fabricate it, or have it fabricated for us. But, as Mendelsohn writes, "an immoderate yearning for stories that end satisfyingly -- what William Dean Howells once described to Edith Wharton as the American taste for 'a tragedy with a happy ending' -- makes us vulnerable to frauds and con men peddling pat uplift."

Here's the thing: We can tell whatever tales we want to, but make-believe is still make-believe, illusions are still illusions, and lies are still lies. In failing to insist on those distinctions, we engineer our own continuing gullibility.

When we lose control of a simple word like "real," when we accept its widespread dishonest misuse, we lose sight of what's genuine. If there's no true north, how are we supposed to find our way?

January 23, 2010 1:39 PM |
Bizarre though it was to see all the headlines this week touting Al Franken's seriousness about his new job (he spends nearly eight months post-Election Day litigating the results of the vote, and there's any doubt about his seriousness?), Victor Navasky offers Minnesota's junior senator some good advice in a New York Times op-ed today: "Satire -- which has a long and refreshingly subversive history as a form of truth-telling and effective social commentary -- is Mr. Franken's comparative advantage in his new job and he should exploit this blessing, not deny it."

Navasky continues:

The Senate, let's not forget, is already filled with blowhards, policy wonks and, if you will, lying liars. It's a mistake to assume that if he puts his comic talents to work in the Senate, like Rodney Dangerfield, Mr. Franken will automatically lose its respect.

It's understandable that Franken wants to be both respected as a legislator and respectful of the institution he's finally joined. It's only natural that he'd be wary of being cast, and marginalized, as the class clown. But Franken isn't just a comedian; he isn't just a freshman senator. He's also an author who did an extraordinary job, in "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," of harnessing humor to make a case built on painstaking research (conducted with a team of students while he was on a fellowship at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government) and broad knowledge of the political landscape. The guy knows the subversive power of making people laugh in order to make them think.

And, let's face it, he's not exactly Sonny Bono or Fred Grandy. Unlike Cher's ex, who became a representative from California, or Grandy, the actor who played Gopher on "The Love Boat" before he was elected to the House from Iowa, Franken is well known as an egghead. He already has intellectual and policy cred.

"Fools are my theme, let satire be my song," Lord Byron wrote. From Aristophanes to Jon Stewart, humor has been one of the most potent of rhetorical tools, and Franken has been employing it to talk about politics for decades. Smart, politically acute comedy is even experiencing something of a heyday right now; witness Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the parade of politicians eager to be their guests. And Washington is not without legislators, like Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, who make serious points with lacerating humor.

Though Franken's job isn't comedy anymore, he honed some undeniably transferable skills as an entertainer. Opponents may be waiting to pounce on him for any display of jocularity, but it's a mistake for them, and for him, to view his ability to deploy precision ridicule as anything but a strength. As Barney Frank has said, "Ridicule doesn't work unless the subject is ridiculous."
July 10, 2009 12:30 PM | | Comments (1)
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