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Satire, Reality & a Return to the Dark Ages

Posted by Rick · November 26th, 2004 · 2 Comments

One reason I usually write about ideas instead of events is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know when a report of an event is real and when it’s a hoax. Some real events are so outrageous that you virtually have to see them yourself to believe them. And some hoaxes these days are difficult to recognize as hoaxes even for people like me who long ago became jaded by hoaxes passed around the Internet.

For example, there’s the real-life happening of Dick Cheney, running for Vice-President on a platform of “moral values,” while constantly repeating lies on national television such as that he never met John Edwards until the night he walked onstage for their first debate, or that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Al Queda and had massive stores of weapons of mass destruction. Who could believe he really did this and it didn’t make the headlines? And then there’s the hoax I mentioned yesterday, ironically, while writing about a scam.

Usually, I try to avoid becoming entrapped in a hoax myself by two routes, neither of which is really as reliable these days as it used to be.

Legal Precedent Doesn’t Let Facts Stand in the Way

In a recent landmark Supreme Court ruling, it was held that testimonial evidence could not be admitted at trial if there was no opportunity to cross-examine the person who made the testimonial statements. The reason is that pesky little thing quaintly known as “the Bill of Rights.” Seems it contains a guarantee — the Sixth Amendment — that when someone has been accused of criminal activity, the person being accused has a right to face and question the person making the accusations in court. (U.S. Const. amend. VI; see also Crawford v. Washington.) As I said, quaint.

At any rate, since Crawford re-established the sanctity of the Confrontation Clause, prosecutors have been fervently seeking new ways around it, to replace those Crawford eliminated. Justice Ethan Greenberg, a judge of a criminal court in the Bronx (read that how you will), established that 911 calls are not testimonial and thus when someone accuses someone of a crime during a 911 call, there is no right to cross-examination. That the call was later determined to have been made by a neighbor (not the victim) and was made nine hours after the alleged attack (so not an emergency) and although the case itself later fell apart, has not dissuaded other prosecutors, around the country, from using it as precedent. As Whisman put it, that the facts were wrong is “just an interesting historical footnote.”

So maybe the truth doesn’t matter anymore in America.

First, if I’m going to write about real events, I try desperately to cite only news sources that — while they may spin like hell &#8212 usually don’t outrightly lie about whether or not something actually happened. This is becoming increasingly difficult, though, as shows like CNN, Fox, MSNBC and others — you’ll note I quit calling them “news” a long time ago — increasingly jettison reporting in favor of ideology. Similar to the way George Bush turns increasingly to preachers and other ideologues, rather than to scientists when he ponders issues involving global warming. (Virtually all actual scientists consider it a reality; Bush doesn’t believe it exists and is purging the government of scientists who say it does.) Besides, since all the shows “report” basically the same handful of stories ad infinitum, most of the events transpiring in the world would never get talked about if one only relied upon those sources. And, additionally, some of them in their rush to be first — note CBS’ alleged Bush documents debacle — fall victim to hoaxes themselves.

Second, as I said, I try to write more about ideas and ideals than about actual events. So, for example, most of my articles are about things like freedom, the principles behind the founding documents of the United States and even, occasionally, articles about what it seems to me is taught in the religious texts carried to churches and synagogues weekly, but seldom actually read and even less often enacted. Increasingly, Jesus’ “light of the world” (see Matthew 5:14) is a political bonfire; Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill” is a military base camp. But I’ll read the old documents everyone loves to cite as support and talk about the ideas and ideals those documents actually discuss — admittedly and unabashedly focusing on those I wish to see survive.

The problem with this approach is that ideas and ideals do not exist within vacuums. On the one hand, they produce and find their lives in events. On the other, those events condition the development of other ideas and ideals, whether in furtherance of, reaction against, or via intellectual, social and cultural evolution. You cannot talk about ideas and ideals without discussing real events.

But to discuss real events, you must somehow be able to determine that they are, indeed, real. Unlike the Kings County (Washington) prosecutor, James Whisman, commenting upon an opinion written by Judge Greenberg in People v. Moscat, if the facts turn out to be wrong, it’s often more than just an interesting historical footnote. [See story in sidebar.] It actually changes things.

Yet, increasingly, the “facts” we tell others about are increasingly not just ideological “spin” on real events, they are not even real events! Who wants to write about the billboards supposedly popping up to remind Floridians that George W. Bush is “Our Leader” — a tactic reminiscent of totalitarian regimes and a phrase reminiscent of Nazi Germany — unless one sees the billboards themselves? After all, Forrest Gump never really shook Kennedy’s hand because, for one thing, Forrest Gump is a fictional character! And there are people — I’m one of them — who enjoy playing with Photoshop to create pictures that look incredibly realistic, but don’t depict real events!

When this sort of thing spreads to “the news,” there are real implications that should concern us all.

What good is freedom of speech, for example, if we can never know that what is being spoken is true? On the other hand, if we decide, as someone surely will, that this problem is so insurmountable that there needs to be a limitation placed upon freedom of speech, then who decides what gets to be reported and what doesn’t? Rupert Murdoch? (Oh, uh, hmmm…wait….)

If we cannot know when some event has really happened, how can we know whether we should be reigning in “our leaders,” or giving them a green light?

Holocaust deniers daily make a mockery of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II. How will future generations differentiate between the reality of those events and the incredibly sophisticated hoaxes perpetrated today by, for example, Republicans intent on killing off the Left? (A move, incidentally, that mirrors Nazi Germany’s first goosesteps towards fascism.) How will we embrace progressive ideas when the Progressives and Liberals muddy their message by jumping aboard the Republican Bandwagon and similarly trashing, via lies and falsehoods, their opponents?

I don’t have an answer for these questions. But it’s more than just a potentially serious problem. And we should all start thinking about it. In an age where the Rupert Murdochs of the world have increasingly eliminated ethics from journalism, we may find ourselves once again in the Dark Ages, where villagers could be certain only of what they saw themselves, making virtually everything outside their own village part of the Great Unknown.

Categories: Social Issues


2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jim Whisman // Oct 3, 2005 at 9:15 pm

    Dear Sir,

    I happened upon your site this evening and note that you have commented on my quote to the N.Y. Times last fall about the case where the N.Y. judge was apparently wrong about the facts of a case he ruled upon. The quote from the Times article doesn’t delve into the details of the judge’s legal ruling — it focuses more on the fact that the judge got the facts wrong.

    Regarding my quote (“As Whisman put it, that the facts were wrong is ‘just an interesting historical footnote.'”) you quip, “So maybe the truth doesn’t matter anymore in America.”

    Well, not really (at least not based on this quote). In fact, it is interesting that your comment appears on the same webpage where you say, “One reason I usually write about ideas instead of events is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know when a report of an event is real and when it’s a hoax.” In other words, if I understand you correctly, our grasp of actual events may be faulty, so its much safer to simply speak about ideas, rather than facts.

    I agree. Which is basically what I was saying in my quote. The actual facts of the N.Y. case were not as important to lawyers across the country as was the judge’s application of those facts (real or not) to the new legal framework. In other words, we are interested in his ideas more than what actually occurred. What matters to we lawyers watching the development of this issue from afar, is how a court has applied the reasoning of Crawford to its perception of the facts. So, in that limited sense, the judge being wrong about the facts isn’t the point, its simply an interesting historical footnote.

    For what its worth…

  • 2 Just the Facts, Ma’am // Sep 3, 2008 at 11:10 am

    […] by James Whisman, the prosecutor from Kings County, Washington, who was mentioned in my article, “Satire, Reality & a Return to the Dark Ages” back in November […]

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