Essays, latest, United States
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Showtime in America: Idiots’ Delight – A Quasi Review

Edward Curtin

Image source here.

The making of a journalist: no ideas and the ability to express them.”
Karl Kraus, Half-Truths & One-and-a-Half Truths

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
Mark Twain

All cats die. Socrates is dead. Socrates is a cat.”
Eugene Ionesco, Rhinoceros

If believability is your gauge for discerning truth, you are living in a fantasy world. But that is the reality of life in the United States today. This is the land of make-believe in which actors and audiences are engaged in a vast folie à deux full of sound and fury signifying a nothingness that passes for intelligence. Assertions made convincingly enough are the new facts for a population hypnotized by a stage-managed reality show.

The recently closed Kavanaugh/Blasey Ford Show that mercifully had a short run at the National Comedic Congressional Theater is the latest case in point. The believability of the actors was said to be the key issue. In other words, who seemed to be telling the truth. Demeanor was determinative. Facial expressions evidence.

The mass media, those paragons of truth-telling, entertained their audiences for a few weeks by marching out their puerile pundits to tell audiences who of the two primary actors was more believable, while the politicians, not willing to allow their media accomplices to outdo them in truthfulness, donned their masks and performed their usual public service of moral outrage and did the same in their unbiased ways.

There was no child to yell and tell the world that all the king’s sycophants, like the king, were naked – naked liars whose jobs depended on disinformation and deceptions meant to amuse an entertainment-besotted and bored public hungry for a bit of truth in a society drowning in agitprop and propaganda. A public watching the wrong show.

The words the real Frank Serpico, the honest and brave cop, not the actor, Al Pacino, who played him in the movie Serpico, come to my mind. He told me that when he was lying in a pool of his own blood on the night of February 3, 1971, having been shot in the face in a set-up carried out by fellow cops, he heard a voice that said, “It’s all a lie.”
“It’s all a lie.”

Those words sum up the spectacle that is American society today. And while lies are nothing new – didn’t Aletheia, the Greek goddess of truth, flee into the wilderness just last week and say to a wandering searcher, “Among the people of old, lies were found among only a few, but now they have spread throughout all of human society”? – we are living in a time of unprecedented technological media mind manipulation difficult to penetrate.

Harold Pinter called it “a tapestry of lies” in which facts don’t matter. What happened never happened; what never happened, happened. It’s all about believability in the national media’s hypnotic show, whose purpose Russell Baker described 25 years ago as being to “provide a manageably small cast for a national sitcom, or soap opera, or docudrama, making it easy for media people to persuade themselves they are covering the news while mostly just entertaining us.”

I know something about believability. When I was a young teenager I appeared on a famous game show called “To Tell the Truth.” Of course I lied, since lying was the name of the game then, as now. I was not who I said I was. When I walked out in front of millions of television viewers and the celebrities who would question my veracity, I knew (although I was an impostor and not the real Robert McGee – son of a U.S. Senator, by the way) how to put on a face to fool the faces that would scrutinize my smallest expressions for any sign of feigning.

Although these celebrities knew the game well, I beat them at the believability game, I am sorry to say. My demeanor or mien (facial expression) was in sync with my words, an ability to act that I didn’t know I had. I was an all-American boy – a student at an elite Jesuit boys’ prep school, the captain of the basketball team, my father (Edward) a lawyer – learning the national pastime of seemingly being “perfectly honest” as I lied. And it worked, and the $250 that I won – I almost said earned – set me on a path that led to a fork in the road that I took. When I picked this fork up, it hissed and tried to bite me with its poisonous forked tongue. So I quickly threw it down. It was then I realized that my thirty pieces of silver ($250) were a betrayal that would haunt me forever if I didn’t try to become a genuine actor.

Soon I would come to realize that my Jesuit schooling was preparing me to be “a man for all seasons.” It had nothing to do with beer and girls. It was all about becoming a member of the ruling class. In other words, a man with a forked tongue who could speak out of both sides of his mouth to suit the occasion. Learning this skill would lead me to the social heights where I could smoothly move among Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, elites and regular people, defense attorneys and prosecutors, actors and audiences, alleged victims and alleged victimizers, etc. Nothing would be foreign to me, except myself, for I could become a perfect hypocrite, a double-man, my own doppelganger without a shadow.

I could become another judge-penitent like Albert Camus’ Jean-Baptiste Clamence in his novel, The Fall, and take up a double profession, become double-faced and rich in the process. Perhaps I could join the CIA and “sincerely” follow its motto:

And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”(John 8:32)

I could become a professor with nothing to profess but my innocence. I could become a psychologist and specialize in lie detector tests. I could learn how to lie while sincerely telling the truth while hooked up to one. I could be confused and act confused and not know the difference.

I could denounce torture while justifying it. I could pretend impartiality while being partial. I could claim independence while playing the puppet. I could remember to forget and forget to remember and remember that I forgot the details of what I remembered.

And no matter how I acted or what I did I could always remain a “nice guy.”

I could even say with Clamence that I am 100% innocent, my case is exceptional, as I played the parts of victim and victimizer; could say:

As I told you, it’s a matter of dodging judgment. Since it is hard to dodge it, tricky to get one’s nature simultaneously admired and excused, they [we] all strive to be rich. Why? Did you ever ask yourself? For power, of course. But especially because wealth shields from immediate judgment, takes you out of the subway crowd to enclose you in a chromium-platted automobile, isolates you in huge protected lawns, Pullmans, first-class cabins. Wealth, cher ami, is not quite acquittal, but reprieve, and that’s always worth taking.

I could become such a celebrated actor that I could make you believe my believability when I put on a tearful face or a devastated face or a confused face or an angry face. I could confess my vulnerability and make you my ally, and I could plead with you in a halting way to sympathize with how I was victimized so long ago or yesterday. But even if you didn’t believe me, I could feel justified in knowing that I was playing my part in ShowTime in America, keeping you amused, and doing my part to advance the interests of those who accepted me for the role. And I could always deny that I had been selected, and could always maintain I entered center stage of my own volition because I wished to fulfill my civic duty to see justice done.

But I promise, like Clamence, I would never reveal who stole the painting of “The Just Judges” that I keep hidden in my cupboard. Some things must remain hidden. After all, who wants to know the truth?

But I digress. I’ll be quiet, and stop with the what-could-have-beens. The show must go on. We both know that. It is what is. I look forward to reading what will no doubt be a best-selling and most truthful exposé of the Kavanaugh/Blasey Ford Show. I imagine contracts have been signed, and the mini-series shouldn’t be far behind.

In the meantime, I would like to leave you laughing with a quote that has been disturbing me since I first read it after writing it:

Until we see through the charade of social life and realize the masked performers are not just the politicians and celebrities, not only the professional actors and the corporate media performers, but us, we won’t grasp the problem. Lying is the leading cause of living death in the United States. We live in a society built of lies; lying and dishonesty are the norm. They are built into the fabric of all our institutions, into our psyches. In America, there’s no business but show business, and we are sham actors, amusing ourselves to death while we spread death and destruction in our war theaters all around the world. Theaters in which the tragic plays we direct hold no interest for us. We prefer our Idiots’ Delight.

“It’s All a Lie.” Maybe that should be the title of the next show.

Edward Curtin teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His writing on varied topics has appeared widely over many years. He writes as a public intellectual for the general public, not as a specialist for a narrow readership. He believes a non-committal sociology is an impossibility and therefore sees all his work as an effort to enhance human freedom through understanding. His website is edwardcurtin.com

11 Comments

  1. BigB says

    I’m piqued by this essay. Does the current author identify with Clamence as a contemporary judge-penitent? Isn’t that a morally dubious position to take?

    Do we accept the world as it is, and attempt to live within the parameters of self-deception without becoming too self-deceived …or do we choose for all (as an Existential Humanist choosing) and attempt to consciously change the world? What if the world does not want to change? How then, do we consciously interact with patterns of Machine-Becoming that are repetitive to the point of an automatism of stasis and determinism …that form a quasi-philosophical fatalist nexus – the anti-Existential? Que sera, sera …but with a near static equilibrium of determinative patterns of anti-Existential action and re-action – the future IS ours to see. And it is not a pretty sight looming into view …casting its eschatological shadow over the everyday.

    In wishing to avoid such a totalitarian shadow-future: the righteous futurist that assumes a position of moral authority becomes the current totalitarian …at least in the eyes of the Other. It does not matter how anti-totalitarian their judge-penitent view might be: everyone present reserves the autonomous right to form an opinion and the free-will right to choose. Even if that autonomy feeds back into stasis and inaction …that looping which reinforces the anti-autonomous stasis and inaction and feeds historic power to the voracious status quo ante bellum …the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). This becomes the autonomous self-determination of a violent determininism and flux of decay. Who would dare set themselves as judge-penitent to highlight this? Who would dare point out this falling into recursive inaction: even to themselves …let alone the Other?

    Camus’ ‘The Fall’ is an extended soliloquy on the consequences of such inaction. These are some of the Existential themes the novel evokes …for me anyway.

    When is self-deception self-deceiving? One has to be conscious of the consequences of ones actions in order to enter into mauvaise-foi. Otherwise one is unconsciously being culturally enacted: a dramatis personae with little or no conscious agency outside the dictates of binary culture. What cognitive will to meaning do we have in such an alienating world? Are we really abandoned within a quantum of aloneness? How do we respond to the Absurd?

    “If believability is your gauge for discerning truth, you are living in a fantasy world. But that is the reality of life in the United States today. ”

    This is as true a proposition as anyone could write: it is apodeictic (self-evidently true) everywhere – not just the US. Without enumerating them, there are a number of these apodeictic truths that constitute the global propositional array that the world is in dire need of reform. I very much doubt if that is in dispute. Yet what is at fault, what needs to be done and how it needs to be enacted become sectarianisms in and of themselves. Cherished opinions jealously guarded which become the antimonies of activism …which feeds the power of stasis …which feeds the war of all against all …which becomes an aporia of unconscious bad-faith and inaction.

    In the face of such inactivism: the war goes on. Inaction implies a tacit consent. The progressive decries the war as a daily Eternal Return: all viewpoints in impartial principal being of equal value. To repudiate a viewpoint (or even to ask for its validation or empiricism) is a totalitarianism akin to that of the status quo ante power elite. But the miasma of the infinite freedom of binary views cancel out into static equilibrium …to the processes of life: stasis is near-death.

    If only there were an alternative, where I could be right without declaring all opponents wrong (even the linguistic metaphors declare war)? Can a right and its negation affirm each other? Do two rights cancel out logic and declare each other wrong? Only to the Aristotelian ‘Organon’ of binary logic that we have encultured and inherited from the status quo ante. For the cultural resistance to form (pre-supposing that there are those who want to act and not just talk) we need our own values contra the binary dictatorship and quantitative (stochastic-mechanistic) status quo ante bellum.

    For those not grounded in Buddhism: welcome to Catuskoki and Pramana (Buddhist epistemo-logic). In the encultured binary logic of the status quo: if proposition A is right or true – its negation A’ (A’ being the proposition of a contradistinct antithesis of A) is necessarily wrong or false. There is no third option. This produces limited scope for activism. Entrenched and inured in culture: we all have to agree contra the cultural principium individuationis (to agree contra the individuation of self-validating opinion). That can never happen: for the atomised and fragmented to coalesce around an anti-cultural cause they would have to drop their self-identity. We are bound to the status quo by a cultural binary logic that manufactures identity as it fractures dissent.

    In brief: if I am right, you are wrong and the argument (a minor delaying skirmish in the war of all on all) goes on …no change is allowed. Our opinions are mutually exclusive and auto-negational. This is true not only for the antithesis – but for all values of A’ …even minor differentials. There can be only one true POV: and that is mine …according to the power structure as it is: built on Aristotelian logical foundations. We are individuated into self-actuated and performative binary powerlessness.

    This is a dictatorship: which one cannot seek to change without seeking the role of a dictator …according to the rules of engagement we have set ourselves. To move on we need a cultural reset with rules and values contradistinct from the ruling caste. Without going into the minutiae: Catuskoki is a quaternary logical form that solves propositions indeterminately …there is no absolute right nor absolute wrong – nor ultimate differentiating opinions to cherish . No pure objectivity or pure subjectivity. Nor absolutisms or relativisms. The “viscous hierarchy” of polar nihilisms are avoided.

    Coupled with Pramana (lit: Proof): it is a qualitative, not quantitative approach. All empirical propositions are equally ‘true’ and ‘valid’ depending on context, expediency and causal efficacy. In other words, there is a certain leeway to employ empirical purposive propostions to expedite a particular goal (teleogenesis). This could be a non-Being proposition to expedite a liberational praxis from the status quo of binary Being – without actually affirming such an entity as ‘non-Being’ nor necessarily negating individual Being. Nothing is either confirmed or denied: both sets of values are indeterminate, valid and equal relative to the relevant paradigm. It is an empirical realism. Determinacy is efficacy and empiricism. Language retains its coherence and conventional usage …change comes from its non-rigid (metaphoric) application and non-binary (nondual) interpretation.

    It is only restrictive, in the sense that all non-empirical POVs are excluded (the anti-epistemic Prasangika “Horns of a Rabbit” grammatical fictions); as is all a priori reasoning independent of experience (such as appeals to fundamental laws; universalisation; the noumenal; transcendentals or universals …including Pure Reason and objectivity). Experience (that is the First Person existential) is the arbiter of the Real …whether or not it is ultimately real becomes a linguistic irrelevance. In other words, it is a Universal Humanism and Embodied Existentialism.

    Catuskoki and pramana constitute the Mahadmayaka: the Middle Way alterity of language and memory. It is the activation, usage and enervation of the Aristotelian ‘excluded middle’ of language (the full axiological range of values between polar extremisms): which contradicts (but importantly, does not negate) all three classic laws of logic. The way forward favours the dialogical, not the dictatorial approach. It favours creating our own values that are not dictated by, or internalised from, the status quo ante power absolute. Those values can be orientated toward a praxis of liberation without the dictates of right and wrong. What is right and wrong is relative to the values we choose that may save us from a totalitarian shadow-future (that is, a right and wrong that have soteriological value and liberational meaning). That is if it can be agreed there is a soteric need.

    The point I wanted to make is that there is a way forward, out of the iterational morass of personal POVs. No one has to become the judge-penitent. We can agree to disagree and hold singular POVs, but without fracture and sectarianisms. All that has to be done is to agree that we need to consciously intervene to create an alternate future …rather than just accept the binary future that is forming today. Another future is possible with another logic.

    Unity is quaternary, not binary.

    Sapere aude.

    [Dare to know].

    • Edward Curtin says

      Let me, “the current author,” reply to your first two questions only since I read no further because such questions are so off-target that what follows could only be a waste of time. “Does the current author identify with Clamence as a contemporary judge-penitent? Isn’t that a morally dubious position to take?” you ask. It is very clear from the essay that I do not identify with Clamence, but do the opposite by emphatically rejecting his morality and associate it with the lessons of a certain form of education that produces such types and the sickness we are experiencing. You read too fast for your own good, perhaps to have your say and criticize what you didn’t understand or wanted to criticize with leading questions for reasons known only to you. The believability of anonymous commentators like you is always hard to believe anyway. Such hiddenness allows for much make-believe, and no one knows who is producing the script.

      • BigB says

        Thanks for making my point explicitly. You decontextualised what I said in order to have a contradistinct POV as a retort. The context of my comment was to ask how we get past such entrenched binary thinking. With a less determinate logic and a dialogical approach, without the assertion of ones own claim to truth and reason was my proscription …appeals to truth and reason being Cartesian quasi-divine hangovers as I attempt to show.

        Had you read the rest of my comment: you may or may not have got the subtlety that I was (unskillfully) adopting Camus’ own plot device. In which case I am the current author …but that was ambiguous in the original too.

        So sorry for any offence, as none was intended, as I was addressing my own current Existential dilemma through some of the themes of the Fall. Or if anyone is interested in Buddhist logic …that would be my current tetralemma: as my logic is four cornered.

        My conclusion was that no one need be a judge-penitent if our views weren’t so entrenched and personalized. Therefore communication becomes defensive and offensive: akin to metaphoric warfare (see Lakoff and Johnson: Philosophy in the Flesh or Metaphors We Live By.) Which becomes miscommunication and anti-dialogue. And so the disunity persists. How do we learn to communicate from our common humanity is the question I raise …the question is still open.

  2. Baron says

    In a world where everyone feels rather than thinks, lying trumps it all.

  3. Norcal says

    Excellent lesson Professor, and a great reminder of why great literature is great.

  4. DunGroanin says

    The bankers (and their politician henchfolk) have been trying to make life in the UK just like the US for many decades. They have nearly succeeded.

    The Groaniad with it’s forked tongue is their arse licker. The occasional journalist apart, which they use as a fig leaf, todays example:

    “Let us get it straight. Neoliberalism has ripped you off and robbed you blind. The evidence of that is mounting up – in your bills, in your services and in the finances of your country.
    • Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist and senior economics commentator”

    A measly handful like Chakraborrty, Collinson and cartoonists Bell/Rowson are the only genuine voices left there. It must be shear hell for them having to be asssociated and even in the same room as their editors and ‘senior’ colleagues.

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  5. Ain’t just America my friends.. ;> (recommend some Alan Watts reading / listening for perspective..’The Book’ is a good primer.. ;> )

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