Trying to change the world with lies

Trying to change the world with lies March 19, 2012

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.

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