T.F.: Tweaking Buck’s article

T.F.: Tweaking Buck’s article November 2, 2015

(Originally posted June 5, 2009. This got lost in the migration from TypePad to WordPress, recovered and reposted for the archives here thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.)

Tribulation Force, pp. 48-53

So Chloe isn’t sure if she should call Buck and Rayford’s all, like, “Just call him, don’t play games.” So then Chloe’s all, like, “You’re the one who told him I was asleep.” And Rayford’s all, like, “You liiike him,” and Chloe’s all, like, “Maybe, kind of.” And the whole time Buck is, like, at his house, having the same exact conversation with himself.

This scene plays out several more times in this chapter and in those that follow. It’s supposed to be, I guess, the circling dance of just-missed connections between two people meant for each other. I think it’s actually meant to be cute — that their self-inflicted anxiety is meant to be endearing.

I don’t find it endearing. At best, the three of them seem immature. At worst they come across like a blander version of Sam and Diane from Cheers. (The first few seasons of that sitcom, taken as a whole, form a kind of definitive treatise on love, control, vulnerability and selfishness every bit as insightful as something like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.)

Since all of this fretting and anxiety stems from phone calls never made or completed, it’s also possible that this is intended as a a kind of fable — a warning to readers of the kind of misery that befalls those who fail to use their telephones as often as they should.

In any case, we get a reprise of this scene every few pages throughout the first half of Tribulation Force and I think these are passages we can skim past. They’re awful, of course, but awful in a pedestrian way. I’m more interested in the more instructively awful passages of this book, such as the continuing discussion between Bruce and Buck of Buck’s pending trip back to New York.

“What do you think Carpathia wants?” Bruce asks Buck, apparently forgetting that what Carpathia wants is supposedly spelled out, in detail, in biblical prophecy and therefore shouldn’t be hard to ascertain.

Buck shook his head. “No idea.”

“Do you trust this Steve Plank?”

“Yeah, I trust him. I worked for Steve for years.”

Yes, Buck and Steve go way back, since way before Steve went to work for the Antichrist and became his brainwashed pawn. So why wouldn’t Buck trust him?

Note the double standard here between Steve and Hattie. “She went to New York on her own,” Bruce said. “It was her choice.” So her innocent decision to take a dream job with a man she thought was simply an idealistic politician makes her a slut, not worth risking oneself to rescue. She deserves to suffer. But Steve remains trustworthy, even though he’s a journalistic sell-out who knew his new boss was somehow involved in the murder of Eric Miller (the reporter tossed from the Staten Island Ferry).

The larger problem, though, is that Bruce and Buck think it’s still possible to trust anyone. What part of tyrannical evil global despot don’t they understand? When dealing with a massive conspiracy, Mr. X reminded Agent Mulder, the first rule is “Trust no one.”

That rule would seem doubly important in this case, considering Nicolae’s demonstrated brainwashing powers. Bruce and Buck aren’t sure what limits, if any, those powers have, so everyone they encounter should be presumed guilty until proven innocent.

The naivete here is remarkable considering the untold hours the authors seem to have spent fantasizing about being “persecuted” for their faith. Like many American evangelicals, they even seem to imagine that they are persecuted here and now. (Just look at what happened to Miss California — condemned to be first runner-up despite her top-dollar new rack. It’s persecution I tell you!) That same persecution fantasy is, of course, a big part of the appeal of these books for their evangelical readership.

Yet for all of that, the authors don’t seem to have the slightest notion of what real persecution would actually entail, of what it would feel like or how it would work. They can’t seem to understand that persecution requires a certain level of prudent paranoia. They ought to know better. Go into any of those so-called “Christian book stores” that sell the Left Behind books and you’ll find copies of God’s Smuggler and The Hiding Place. Nothing in the LB series comes close to capturing the dreadful reality of those books. All of the guillotines and OWG machinations to come in this series don’t ever quite seem as bad as those descriptions of life behind the Iron Curtain or in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Their efforts to describe the ultimate most evil regime falls flat because of their astonishing ignorance about evil regimes that have actually existed — or that exist now — causing real suffering for real people.

Buck and Bruce haven’t forgotten that Steve was brainwashed. They spend the next two pages rehashing the whole brainwashing scene —

“If Steve had just told me I hadn’t seen it right, maybe I would have thought I was going crazy and had myself committed. But instead he told me I wasn’t even there! Bruce, no one remembers I was there!”

— but they don’t seem to think it has any bearing on whether or not Buck should trust Steve’s offer to arrange another meeting with Nicolae.

“The question now is, what does Carpathia want? Do you think if he talks to you in private he’ll reveal his true self? or threaten you? or let you know he’s aware that you know the truth?”

“For what purpose?”

“To intimidate you. To use you.”

“Maybe. Maybe all he wants to do is try to read me, try to determine whether he succeeded in brainwashing me, too.”

“It’s pretty dangerous business, that’s all I’ve got to say.”

“I hope that’s not all you’ve got to say, Bruce. I was hoping for a little more counsel.”

“I’ll pray about it,” Bruce said. “But right now I don’t know what to tell you.”

And that’s where they leave it. The trap is set and Buck intends to walk into it.

Good luck with that, Bruce tells him.

Back at the Steele household, Rayford and Chloe take another lap around the question of whether or not she should call Buck back and what she should say, etc. This is interesting only in that it begins, “When Rayford returned from running errands that morning …” So it’s just another typical Saturday morning here in the apocalypse.

I will leave it to the reader as an exercise to consider the last few dozens tasks you have performed that might be categorized as “running errands” and to figure out whether any of those might still be relevant, or possible, or in any way routine, in the childless world of the aftermath of the Event and the early stages of the Antichrist’s OWG.

Buck spent the rest of the day tweaking …

That would explain a lot. I’d imagine that his only hope for finishing his big cover story by Monday morning would be to spend the rest of the weekend furiously scribbling in a sleepless, meth-fueled rush to try to make up for all of the work he has yet to do. But of course the ellipsis in the quote above distorts its meaning. What it actually says, instead, is something flatly impossible:

Buck spent the rest of the day tweaking his cover story for Global Weekly on the theories behind the disappearances. He felt good about it, deciding it might be the best work he had ever done.

No. “Tweaking” implies that he is polishing a finished article and the article has most certainly not been finished. The article has scarcely even been begun. We know this. This is not ambiguous. The text allows no wiggle room on this point.

Every moment of Buck’s life for the past two weeks has been accounted for in our story so far. Almost none of that time has been spent on this assignment, even tangentially. He flew from Chicago to New York to London to Germany to New York and back to Chicago. None of that travel was in any way related to this project. He ate cookies with Chloe and dinner with Rayford and fish and chips with Alan Tompkins. We’ve seen him flirt with three women and mistreat a fourth. We’ve seen him — twice — duck into the bathroom to search his soul. We’ve seen him conduct two interviews with the president of Romania, two with pilots, and a few more with whoever happened to walk by his desk there in the newsmagazine’s office. And while we’ve also seen him place too many phone calls to keep count of, none of those calls involved any interviews or even cursory research for his inexplicably finished and allegedly awesome cover story.

He simply never wrote it. This never happened.

But be that as it may, what does the article say?

It included everything from the tabloidlike attack by Hitler’s ghost, UFOs, and aliens, to the belief that this was some sort of cosmic evolutionary cleansing, a survival-of-the-fittest adjustment in the world’s population.

It’s not clear from that description whether that false range (“everything from … to”) covers Hitler’s ghost, UFOs and aliens as discreet theories or if these are meant as a single theory — Hitler’s ghost somehow working in concert with the UFOs as well as aliens. Either way, the implication is that a large portion of the population is willing to grasp at ridiculous and implausible explanations for the disappearances. That’s not fair. It wouldn’t even be fair if Buck had bothered to conduct a representative sample of interviews to confirm that such beliefs were, in fact, widely held.

It’s not fair because UFOs and/or aliens are an obvious and eminently reasonable hypothesis for this unprecedented phenomenon. This was the ultimate Black Swan event — all bets are off and no theory, no matter how implausible, can be dismissed out of hand. Two billion people vanished. That massive and astonishing Event requires a proportionately massive and astonishing explanation. Its scope, suddenness and precision seems to entail either outright miracle or the application of technology advanced beyond our wildest imagining. That leaves God (or the gods) and space aliens as our prime suspects. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from divine intervention.

We’re not shown, or even told, what Buck had to say about these UFO/aliens theories in his article. It seems likely that article simply repeats the assumption we find here — that the idea is dismissed out of hand as absurd and not worth exploring. Buck believes this idea is A) false and B) widely held. His responsibility as a journalist, then, is to refute it — to marshal the evidence and present the facts of the matter even when, or especially when, those facts are contrary to the presupposed beliefs of his readers. His article ought to include the voices of experts from NASA and SETI and whatever data or evidence they could provide. But none of that is in there.

(For my money, the space-aliens theory is still in play. What we’ve learned so far is that these aliens have the technology to teleport or disintegrate human bodies instantaneously from a remote location. We’ve also learned that these aliens have the power to brainwash humans and that their devious scheme — whatever it is — involves some of them posing here among us as, say, a Romanian politician, or as a small-town pastor who produces video tapes to throw the humans off their track.)

The “cosmic evolutionary cleansing” theory doesn’t begin to make sense. It sounds like what it is — some kind of clumsy evangelical mockery of evolution by authors who don’t have the slightest idea what it is they’re trying to mock. This is why it’s sad, on their own terms, that the authors never bothered to show us Buck working on this article. They could have shown us his interview with their parody of an evolutionist, rigging the conversation so that the condescending buffoon was rendered spluttering and speechless by Buck’s zinging questions about the intelligent design of the banana or the cruciform shape of our model of laminin proteins. Jack Chick wrote this scene dozens of times, always providing just the dose of self-affirming ignorance that this series was meant to provide. But such a scene was apparently too much work for LaHaye and Jenkins who rushed to produce their book using the same method Buck seems to have used to produce his instant, no-research, no-interviews article.

Buck’s article apparently also neglects to explore, or even to mention, the alleged official explanation for the disappearances — the Rosenzweig/Carpathia hypothesis that two billion people disappeared due to:

Some confluence of electromagnetism in the atmosphere, combined with as yet unknown or unexplained atomic ionization from the nuclear power and weaponry throughout the world, could have been ignited or triggered — perhaps by a natural cause like lightning, or even by an intelligent life-form that discovered this possibility before we did — and caused this instant action throughout the world.

Since he was first assigned an article on “the theories behind the disappearances,” Buck has spent many hours with both Rosenzweig and Carpathia, yet he’s never bothered to talk to them about their pre-eminent theory. He’s never asked them about it. He’s never explored any of their alleged evidence, or asked for a clearer explanation of what “some confluence of electromagnetism” is supposed to mean, or asked even the obvious question of why a politician and a botanist should be regarded as experts on “unexplained atomic ionization.”

As vague and inscrutable as that theory is, it’s also old news by now, having become the accepted wisdom around the globe. People running errands on a Saturday morning make their small talk:

“Hey, Bill. How’s the wife?”

“Gone, I’m afraid. You know, the unexplained atomic ionization.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah. Your kids too, I suppose?”

“Yeah, both gone. Confluence of electromagnetism took ’em along with the rest. That’s why I’m here at the bank, actually. Have to put a stop on those preschool tuition checks …”

In addition to being a lazy and incurious as a reporter, though, it turns out that Buck is also a practitioner of the worst form of journalism — adopting a posture of neutral objectivity in which he refuses to show any bias in favor of facts over non-facts.

In the middle of the piece, Buck had included what he believed was the truth, of course, but he did not editorialize. It was, as usual, a third-person, straight news-analysis article [sic]. No one but his new friends would know that he agreed with the airline pilot and the pastor and several others he interviewed — that the disappearances had been a result of Christ’s rapture of his church.

This is nonsensical on so many levels.

Let’s imagine that instead of the cause of the disappearances, Buck Williams had been assigned to write about the cause of a suspicious warehouse fire. Some people theorized that the fire was due to a lightning strike, or to faulty electrical wiring, or to unattended cooking materials. The fire occurred on a cloudless night, the power was shut off and the warehouse did not have a kitchen, but Buck decides not to mention any of that because he doesn’t want to “editorialize.” He wants to make sure that his “straight news-analysis article” doesn’t include any biasing assessment of whether or not any given theory is actually true. So Buck includes all the different theories, giving each equal weight, leaving out only the official ruling from the fire marshal (too prejudicial, that, too biasing). Only Buck’s closest confidants would know that he agreed with the pastor and the dozens of members from the church across the street from the warehouse who theorized that the fire was arson. So as to avoid any hint of editorializing and bias, he doesn’t mention that dozens of members of this church witnessed a man pouring gasoline over the walls of the warehouse and tossing flaming oil-soaked rags to ignite the blaze before fleeing in a white Econoliner van with license plate number KLB 431. One parishioner videotaped the arson and showed Buck the tape, but he doesn’t mention this either as he doesn’t find it newsworthy.

That is, essentially, what Buck is doing here with his article on the disappearances. He doesn’t simply have an opinion, he has proof. He’s got Billings’ videotape and all of Bruce’s charts and prophecies. He can report not just what happened and why, but what is going to happen next and then what’s going to happen after that.

Yet out of some warped notion of journalistic objectivity, he withholds these facts from his readers, refusing to allow them to see the evidence he has discovered. He thus presents facts as though they were merely opinions and wild fantasies as though they were the equivalent of facts. And then he leans back and congratulates himself, “deciding it might be the best work he had ever done.”

All of that might have worked if it had been intended as a parody of Fox News or a lamentation over the wretched state of contemporary journalism, but Jenkins seems utterly sincere. He really seems to think that this refusal to let facts outweigh opinions is somehow the hallmark of quality reporting.

What it actually demonstrates is that Buck Williams is a Very Bad journalist. And also something of a Very Bad person.

Browse Our Archives