"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

That’s Entertainment! No Truth Required–Trump, Hollywood, And The Heart Of America

The movie Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford and starring Ralph Fiennes, is a fictionalized account of the quiz show scandals of the late 50s.  Quiz shows like Twenty-One and Tic-Tac Dough were among the top-rated on television, and despite the revelation that contestants were given the answers, the genre remained popular and continues so today. 

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When Charles Van Doren, an English professor at Columbia, is being interviewed by the show’s producer and told how contestants are given the answers, he balks.  That would be dishonest, he says; but the producer counters by saying the show is only entertainment.  Truth, lies, fact, fiction are irrelevant as long as viewers are entertained.  “What's dishonest?”, the Enright character says. “ When Gregory Peck parachutes behind enemy lines do you think that's really Gregory Peck? That book that Eisenhower wrote, a ghost writer wrote it. Nobody cares.“

When Enright is questioned by the chairman of the subcommittee investigating Twenty-One, he accepts no guilt.
ENRIGHT Well, sir, I don't know what else to say. Give the public what they want. It's like your business.
CHAIRMAN Uh, do you see a, a need for government regulation in this area?
ENRIGHT You know, it's not like the quiz shows are a public utility, sir. It's entertainment. We're not exactly hardened criminals here. We're, we're in show business.
The subcommittee does not agree, the show is cancelled, and subsequent investigations are launched into all other quiz shows.  The American people have been duped, they conclude, and  government under its mandate of guardian of the public trust must intervene.

While it is not surprising that Twenty-One was cancelled, it is surprising since Enright’s claims were exactly right that it caused such a furor.  Nobody cares.  Most people were disappointed not that the show was fixed, but that the truth came out, spoiled good fun, and disrupted what was a family affair.  The ethical questions raised were soon forgotten, and television returned to its stock and trade – romance, melodrama, action, adventure, and crime; all genres of impossible fantasy and uncomplicated by truth.  The only mistake television made during the quiz show era was getting caught - a calculated risk, one which could easily be borne, and one which would have few if any consequences.  What ethicists never realized was that when viewers looked back on Twenty-One they had good memories of the suspense, the drama, the excitement, the heroics.  They like most Americans were used to hucksterism, snake-oil salesmen, fraudulent preachers, corrupt businessmen, and fixed fights.  Cheating, chicanery, dishonesty, and manipulation were part of the American story of get-rich-quick.  There was no end to scheming, cutting corners, and skating around the legal and ethical edges of behavior.  It was expected; and in a caveat emptor society, the consumer bears as much responsibility as the trickster.

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Quiz Show was an important movie not because of its story of the exposé of television but because of its conclusion that for most Americans the truth does not matter.  We factor dishonesty into everything we do – what we watch, what we buy, and who we vote for.  Products are automatically discounted.  We filter out braggadocio and impossible claims.  We have over the many years of the Republic learned that everyone is out to make a buck.  No one really believes advertising claims or political promises; and we don’t hold it against those who make them.  In fact we pride ourselves on our individualism, street smarts, and personal integrity; and want no part of government regulation.

Donald Trump is no different and is perceived no differently by his supporters.  His partisans easily extract core messages from hyperbole, melodrama, and Las Vegas showmanship.  They have no interest in the ‘truth’ and could care less about statistical accuracy.  They want no carefully-worded statements of policy, no considered on-the-one-hand-on-the-other economic debate.  They want the meat and care little about the dressing. 

Trump supporters know that facts and figures might well get lost in the fireworks of a Trump rally.  Precision is only the tool of those who have no patriotic conviction, no passion, and most of all no understanding of the political, social, and cultural revolution that Trump represents.  Moreover and perhaps as importantly they love him, his stunning wife, his gorgeous daughter, and his grandchildren.  They wish they could live in Fifth Avenue penthouses, have homes in Mar-el-Lago, Biarritz, San Remo, and Gstaad.  They wish they had his private planes and yachts.

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He is the squire of beautiful women, magnate and owner of yachts, mansions, and things that we would like to be.  He is quintessentially American in his appetites, his braggadocio, and over-the-top personality.  If we confuse leadership with personal appeal and defer or dismiss reality in favor of fiction, we are simply being American – as American as can be.

Everyone knows that a man who has made his fortune in New York real estate and Hollywood has made it by bullying, shameless self-promotion, and bloated promises.  His is a world of posturing, intimidation, and playing loose with the facts.  He has never denied this, moved to the political center, or adopted the conciliatory, temperate, and manipulative behavior of Washington.  He, more than any of his 44 predecessors, is a President of the people.  They understand him; and he understands them.  Facts have no role to play whatsoever.  If one is out to indict Trump, one must indict the American public first.  Who can possibly judge Donald Trump who has ever been to Las Vegas or Hollywood; or who has ever set foot on Wall Street or the streets of New York?

How many women fall deeply in love with men who continually feed them a line about fidelity, respect, and intimacy?  How many daughters continue to idolize fathers who have done nothing to merit their love let alone respect? How many of us fall hook, line, and sinker, for outrageous advertising claims because we have been brought up on Campbell Soup or Heinz ketchup?

We are not a nation of disciplined, rigorous rationality, and we fall for lovers and politicians equally.  We are still a young, immature, and naïve nation, say the French.  Infidelity is taken for granted, afternoon liaisons de rigeur, and corruption in the quest for power commonplace.  What else could citizens of a nation with a 1500 year history of kings, civil wars, palace coups, insurrections, and autocracy believe?  To take anything on face vale, to assume truth and responsibility is laughable.
Not so in America where we are still sorting things out – adjusting and readjusting individualism and social democracy, populism and liberalism – squaring our hucksterism and Hollywood imagery with serious governance. 

Yet this very unschooled, bare-knuckled, entertainment society is what much of the rest of the world wants.  Better to live in a land of snake-oil salesmen than under the yoke of neo-feudalism, socialism, or caste.

From a more philosophical perspective, valuing entertainment and image over fact makes complete sense.  What is history if not a circular, repetitious reply of predictable events?  Civilizations and societies come and go regardless of political philosophy, hegemony, or resources; but they all are characteristically similar.  There is little difference between the powerful kings of Renaissance England, the mandarins of Imperial China, the tsars of Russia and today’s autocrats.  The struggle for power, geopolitical influence, respect, and resources is no different today than it was 1000 years ago.  We as a race are just as self-interested, aggressive, acquisitive, and ambitious as we ever were.  In such a world, does fact really and truly matter? And has there ever been such a thing?

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Of course not. And if all is subjective, then why should image, appearance, show, and posture be so suspect?  Americans have always been more right about philosophy than any academic exegete.  Our dismissal of fact and our love of glitz, glamour, and the fake – what makes us American – is as an important cultural signifier as any.

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