Trying to change the world with lies

The Jimmy McNulty Gambit” is a fascinating post from Aaron Bady that ties together several disparate things while also provoking thought in several different directions. I’m going to quote from it quite a bit here, but you really should go read the whole thing.

Here’s the beginning:

In season five of The Wire, Jimmy McNulty invents a serial killer and tries to use the press to spur a systemic reaction to an irritant that doesn’t really exist, but also sort of does exist. Marlo, after all, is actually a serial killer, just not the kind that anyone really wants to actually try to stop. So [McNulty] invents one that the system really does dislike, the kind of sensational killer that gets people excited. …

McNulty’s problem is not only that he’s an unscrupulous narcissist, but that he combines that quality with a streak of good intentions, a kind of idealism and desire to do some version of the right thing. Cynics and fatalists wouldn’t fall into this trap, because they’ve never expected the world to be different, or never imagined that they could change it.

… But McNulty’s problem was that dangerous coupling of his belief that he could change the world with the idea that he should. And because the world he lived in didn’t allow him that possibility … he rejects the reality he inhabits, the true stories it would be possible to tell, and decides to invent a new story, to imagine the kind of reality that will provoke the system into taking the kind of action he wants it to take.

Bady goes on to discuss several recent real-life examples of those who have taken this path — of telling lies in the hopes that they will point others toward a larger truth. He mentions Mike Daisey, who fabricated details in his account of abuses at iPhone factories in China, and Tom McMaster, creator of the hoax site “Gay Girl in Damascus,” and Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea infamy. And he ties in the Kony 2012 campaign, not for lying, per se, but for taking “a massively complicated political-economic-military problem and [reducing] it to the narrative of a great white savior.”

Behind all of these examples of dishonesty or exaggeration, Bady notes, there is:

… a broad field of objective accuracy: Foxconn is a terrible place to work, Joseph Kony really is a nightmare, building schools in Afghanistan is a good thing to do, and Syrian repression is no joke. Marlo really was a serial killer.

Bady warns against “easy moralizing,” about their failure to stick to the pure truth, because these folks were all in the same situation as Jimmy McNulty. Telling the truth wouldn’t change anything. Sticking to just the facts wouldn’t work. It is their McNulty-like obsessive urgency to do whatever it takes to produce the needed change that leads them into their McNulty-like fabrications:

Beyond the narcissism, this is where the lies come from, and where the belief comes from that a lie is true, must be. The truth is not enough, these people think; I have to tell the story that will get results, results that will testify to their deeper truth.

But the deeper problem, I think, is that telling stories is the only way these people can conceptualize getting results. And because appealing to the public sphere to be scandalized and to demand reforms is the only kind of result they can envision – because this is how they imagine justice works – the story will inevitably become what it needs to be to appeal to that kind of conscience, whatever will appeal to that sense of the public’s fickle taste.

And here Bady’s analysis echoes Rob Tisinai’s discussion of Bayard Rustin: “Your means will shape your end.” Bady says something very similar, but he puts it this way:

… Because such stories are derived from their audience — and its imaginative capabilities — they will for that reason demand and privilege reactions to the problem that are maddeningly simplistic in their very imaginable practicality.

The core idea here of resorting to lies “derived from their audience and its imaginative capabilities” because “the truth is not enough,” arises in our politics and religion and culture far more than just with the famous examples Bady discusses of those attempting “Jimmy McNulty’s Gambit.” I want to return to this topic again after I’ve chewed it over a bit more.

For now, though, just go read the whole thing.

  • Matthias

    In Germany we have thanks to Bertold Brecht a nice aphorism that fits this dilemma perfectly: “Not the end sanctifies the means,  the means desecrate the end.”

  • http://jdm314.livejournal.com/ Mad Latinist

    Just last night Joe Frank (“In The Dark (part 2)”) was discussing this in terms of Buddhism and the Fire Sutra. I’d post a link, but I can’t find a particularly useful one.

  • JessicaR

    I think a lot of the current examples of this stem from the depressing fact that most white, western audiences Just Don’t Care, not without a sob story with juicy, lurid details, and especially not without a white identification figure/hero.

    Take Kony 2012, it’s shady as hell, the guy who got arrested this weekend is a hardcore evangelical who’s spoken at Liberty University and the organization has recieved funding from anti-gay hate groups. And the current goverment in Uganda is no prize, guilty of its own human rights abuses. But nobody wants to think about that,  and nobody wants to think about the actual Ugandan groups on the ground, organizations started and run by the people actually affected.

    It’s tough, I’m no isolationist but so much these kinds of things smack of Neo Colonialism. It guess it’s depressing because it can get better, but it takes hard work, strike one, it takes actually listening to people and their stories, strike two, and it takes recognizing that the west doesn’t always no best and change can take a long ass time, strike three.

  • Michael Pullmann

    I guess that analogy makes sense if you’ve seen The Wire, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of a kind of serial killer nobody wants to try and stop.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    I heard parts of an interview with Mike Daisy on NPR while driving around running errands with my husband. I knew nothing about the story before we turned on the radio and we came in kind of in the middle, but apparently we were listening to the retraction episode of This American Life referenced in the linked article. It made fascinating listening. 

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    Part of the “McNulty gambit” is that there really is a serial killer; it assumes that there really is an issue/problem/crisis that needs to be addressed. What I liked about Tinisai’s piece is that he didn’t accept that premise.

    We recently heard a Republican presidental candidate relate a story that “the Dutch elderly wear bracelets to avoid euthanasia”. It was an outright lie, but it was what he believed “in his heart”. He was trying to lead us to a “higher truth”, but it wasn’t true at all, except in the sense that it might someday happen.

    These aren’t “lies in the service of a good cause”, they’re lies in the service of a cause.  If we’re lucky, we have enough evidence to decide about the cause (work conditions in China, health care allocations in the U.S.) but if the subject isn’t the sort that lends itself to evidence (is Satan behind the music industry?) then the only thing we can judge the cause on is how it’s proponents act.

  • Viliphied

    A serial killer who only kills poor black gangbangers and/or drug dealers. Who is also a banger/dealer himself.

  • http://apolarity.tumblr.com Adrenalin Tim

     You’ll want to listen to Slavoj Žižek talking about The Wire here. (He even mentions Left Behind for a minute or two.) He calls McNulty’s invention of a serial killer “very moral”.

  • Ursula L

     He was trying to lead us to a “higher truth”, but it wasn’t true at all, except in the sense that it might someday happen. 

    This is giving him far too much credit for the truth.  Why should we imagine even that it “might someday happen”?  

    I can’t think of any human society that has had a policy of routine murder/euthanasia of the elderly.  Some societies devote more resources to caring for the elderly, young and weak than others, but providing less support is very far from murder, a matter not just of degree but of kind.  

    And he wasn’t just saying that this had or might happen anywhere, he was saying it was happening in Holland.  A nation that devotes more attention and resources to the just provision of medical care to its population than the US does.  

    The proposed plans by the Republicans to dismantle Medicare and Medicaid are far more likely to lead to the premature death of the elderly (and the disabled, and people who just happen to be sick with something  treatable) than the Dutch system.  

    The fact that Santorum’s sick and perverted imagination can come up with the idea that providing health care is equivalent to murder is not a reason to credit the idea even the slight plausibility of “it might someday happen.”  

  • Lori

    The fact that Santorum’s sick and perverted imagination can come up with the idea that providing health care is equivalent to murder is not a reason to credit the idea even the slight plausibility of “it might someday happen.”  

    The same is true of Michele Bachmann’s statement that “Obamacare” is going to lead to the US enforcing a one child policy. She didn’t say that because there’s any good reason to think that it could happen. She said it because she conveniently believes whatever she thinks will score points with her target constituency.

  • Ian needs a nickname

    I can’t think of any human society that has had a policy of routine murder/euthanasia of the elderly.
    Senicide is often said to have been done in the legendary past or by barbarous foreigners (clog wearing savages!).  That’s suspicious.  There may be exceptions — apparently Thalaikoothal is still common enough in Tamil Nadu that a special police squad was established to deal with it — but well documented examples are so rare that I’m inclined to be skeptical that any given example is really a unique cultural practice.In another sense, I suspect that the murder/euthanasia of the elderly has been routine in every society.  The desire to end the suffering of someone in irremediable pain is not specific to any one culture.   As for murder, the combination of frailty and social isolation gives opportunity, while the chance for an early inheritance gives motive.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senicide http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thalaikoothal 

  • Anonymous

    Almost everything Daisey claimed to have seen has been documented; Daisey’s major lie was that he saw it personally. He didn’t need to lie; he still had a compelling story to tell. I think we have a choice of which issue is more important to us: Daisey’s sensationalism or Foxconn’s abuse of its employees. I know which one matters more to me.

    I knew someone involved with MacMaster: that was different and, really, a lot worse. MacMaster was and remains a person who manipulates for the love of manipulation. His activism was only a cover for that, as far as I can tell. And, by the way, he has been only lightly penalized and is still active.

  • friendly reader

    Wait, you mean the only thing he made up were the bits about the children workers? Everything else is true?!?! Dude, Steve Jobs, part of the Eightfold Path is Right Livelihood…

    Anyway, I noticed that Bady failed to notice the other obvious foil in season 5 (beyond Carcetti – love that the same actor was cast as Littlefinger!): Scott Templeton, the newspaper reporter who makes up details for the articles he writes until he wins a Pulitzer. I mean, in a way, that is the most obvious parallel with some of these “reporters”: making up the little, personal details that get your story noticed, your charity money, your name made famous.

    He gets across the idea that sensationalism and personalism sells, but even if he doesn’t believe these “reporters” are as cynical as Templeton, you at least have to mention him as a counter-example.

  • friendly reader

    And when I say “only,” I don’t mean to downplay the badness of what he described, just that, when you hear somebody made up something about Foxxconn, my first thought was, “Oh please let the stuff about the suicide nets and the 30-hour shifts and the 20-strangers-in-a-room be made up!”

  • Anonymous

    In another sense, I suspect that the murder/euthanasia of the elderly has been routine in every society.  The desire to end the suffering of someone in irremediable pain is not specific to any one culture.

    The … I’m not even sure what you call it when you’re dealing with something that has been so heavily politicized and moralized against in our society. But assisting the death of the elderly is something that happened regularly even a few generations ago — Pratchett once mentioned a discussion he had decades ago with a retired nurse, who said that they called it “helping them to God” or some such. (Many people have justified it by saying that they didn’t have good painkillers back then. I’m not entirely sold on that argument: from what I’ve heard, doctors today are terrible about giving sufficient painkillers, even for people who are dying. But that’s anecdotal at best.)

    It hit me a few weeks back that most liberal approaches towards assisted suicide is something like policies towards abortion that were advocated by (mainstream!) organizations during the 1960s (see the fascinating documentary “Abortion and the Law” for details): current injustices mean that some form of assisted suicide needs to be legalized, but cases should first be reviewed by a panel of doctors in order to prevent abuse of the system.

    That being said — I suspect that (to be far more understanding than I think the situation deserves) assisted suicide may be the issue that Santorem is concerned with.

  • Anonymous

    “In fact, underage workers are sometimes caught working at Apple suppliers. Apple’s
    own audit says in 2010 when Daisey was in China, Apple found ten facilities where 91
    underage workers were hired … but it’s widely acknowledged that Apple has been
    aggressive about underage workers, and they’re rare. That’s 91 workers out of hundred
    of thousands”

    Is it more likely there are fewer underage workers than reported, or more?

  • Anonymous

    Here’s a New York Times article on the actual abuses at Apple:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/business/ieconomy-apples-ipad-and-the-human-costs-for-workers-in-china.html

    Here’s the This American Life report on the deception:
      http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction
    There is a complete transcript.

    From the TAL report:
    “[...] in factchecking, our main
    concern was whether the things Mike says about Apple and about its supplier Foxconn.
    which makes this stuff, were true. That stuff is true. It’s been corroborated by
    independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of
    it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.”

    But also, “[...] the most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.”

    Did the public have more or less of the truth of the matter before the original TAL report? In such cases, matters are usually worse than reported. It’s hard for anyone who is not bicultural and immune to reprisals from Apple, Foxconn, and the Chinese government–which means, hard for anyone–to get at the moments that are powerful, memorable, and _true_. People like Daisey make up their stories in part–only in part–because we don’t have access to powerful and factually accurate stories.

    I remember, back in the 1960s–ravens live a long time–I heard reports about FBI and CIA harassing activists. I dismissed them as false. Many were. Some were part true. Some were entirely accurate. The FBI and the CIA was in fact harassing activists. So if I had formed my opinion based partly on the false reports, I would have ended up with a more valid opinion than one based strictly on what I could verify.

    There are different kinds of truth. Strict factual accuracy is appropriate for judicial proceedings: who wants a legal system that convicts and punishes the innocent? But sometimes accepting some factual errors on the way to understanding can lead one closer to truth.

  • Anonymous

    Here, on the other hand, is China Labor Watch’s founder Li Qiang:
      http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/q-and-a-with-li-qiang-of-china-labor-watch/

  • Anonymous

    You should really hear Daisey’s talk from the other day at Georgetown, in which he explains how and why this happened and makes an accounting of himself. It’s one of the most adult things I’ve ever heard, and I think it provides a lot of insight — as a companion to the Bady post — into how this looks on the ground, when you’re partly conscious of it and partly not, and nobody’s memories agree, and it’s too late to go back, and you don’t know what you’re doing.

    http://mikedaisey.blogspot.com/2012/03/georgetown-talk.html

  • Tricksterson

    What is truth?
    Is truth unchanging Law?
    We both have truths
    Are mine the same as yours?


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