Thursday, September 10, 2009

On These Interesting Times

Warning: What follows is disjointed, and has very little do with sports, although there is a Larry King reference.

I believe it was either Confucious or a well-paid fortune cookie writer who came up with the phrase "May you live in interesting times." Coming of age in America in the 1990's, I presumed this was an idiotic and outdated aphorism that would never actually apply to my life. It seemed we were doomed to an era of harmony and prosperity, our pastoral existence marred only by the presence of Candlebox and Newt Gingrich.

Well, things are different now. Our country is so discombobulated that people are actually turning blue! Also, otherwise sane and well-respected sports columnists are feeling the need to dispense lessons in sports history to hostages; a prominent lesbian has been chosen as a panelist on a wildly popular program that features goth homosexuals crooning at middle America; and, of course, southern Congressmen are quoting Reba McIntyre lyrics at the president of the United States. These would certainly seem like interesting times, largely because technology has advanced so fast that the truth itself has become a fluid proposition. Or at least, that's what I thought last night when I watched a congressman named Joe Wilson, unable to suppress his impulses, shout at the president during his address to Congress.

Now, I am not going to attempt to defend Joe Wilson. I think what he did was silly (not to mention factually dubious), and I think as punishment he should spend a week picking fruit on a Southern California farm populated by live tigers illegally imported from Asia. But here's the thing: That doesn't change the motivation behind Wilson's outburst. He truly believes that the president is lying, despite the fact that pretty much every non-partisan source says the president isn't lying. And Wilson believes the president is lying because that is the way modern culture works, because the truth is fluid, because anyone opposed to anything--even an absolute and concrete truth--can always cite a source that will prove their claims correct, therefore proving that the force they are crusading against is somehow disguising the real truth behind...well, behind the real truth. This is the danger of the Internet, and of the proliferation of unfiltered news; it is a great thing of war breaks out in Iran and information is sparse, but when information is plentiful, it renders facts entirely elastic. It gives people like Joe Wilson a reason not to trust anything anymore. It gives them a reason not to believe the truth.

That's kind of a simplification, I know. So let me also say this: I feel a certain sympathy toward Joe Wilson, even as I find the substance of his outburst utterly idiotic. Because the other problem this moment exposed is that while the news has become increasingly unfiltered, the men who make the news--and this applies to sports as well as politics--have become ever more filtered, hidden beneath layers of handlers and bloggers and Twitterers who shape the message behind a veneer of populism. Today, I hear everyone saying that we are not like Great Britain, where the prime minister regularly has to endure a series of questions from his Congress that make Joe Wilson seem like Larry King. And I'm thinking, as I've thought many times before, Why don't we do this? Shouldn't our president, of all people, be able to parry criticism and cite facts and construct arguments at the spur of the moment? Shouldn't our president have the continual ability to correct and belittle the fraudulent claims of his critics?* Shouldn't the process of governance be framed as a rational argument, with no B.S. allowed, with ideologues on both sides smacked down for their attempts to cloud the information that actually matters? Wouldn't government be a better, more rational entity if both sides were forced to actually defend their arguments directly against their critics?

That's the thing: This was why, for so many years, the media and its "filter" existed. But now, with the media fractured and splintered, the newsmakers have become the filters**. People like Joe Wilson, therefore, can believe what they want to believe, as they are convinced that Barack Obama and his handlers have carefully orchestrated his entire career, and he is therefore lying not only about his sincere offers of bipartisanship, but about his background as a Kenyan Hitler Youth. The real world has taken on the feel of a college sports message board: Rigidly ideological, only true believers permitted, facts subject to the fluidity of one's emotions. We live in such interesting times that no one seems to care who's lying to whom anymore. It's all about the shouting.

*I mean, come on: I would love to see Obama engage in an unfiltered argument over health-care policy with John Boehner.
**In sports, Bill Belichick has become such a strong filter that no one is able to effectively question him about anything.

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