“Consumers of all sources of media evidenced substantial misinformation, suggesting that false or misleading information is widespread in the general information environment, just as voters say they perceive it to be.”—WorldPublicOpinion.org/Knowledge Networks/University of Maryland study of the 2010 election.
I watched every episode of AMC’s Rubicon extremely late in the evening, in a dark room, all alone. At first, this was dictated by necessity—between football and premium-channel programming, Sunday nights in the fall of 2010 proved to be a watershed moment in the history of my DVR—but then I began to prefer it that way. Rubicon, about a (presumably) fictional lower Manhttan national intelligence think tank called the American Policy Institute, was a show best appreciated as a fever dream, a claustropobic vision purposely set in the most claustrophic neighborhood of the most claustrophobic city in the world. It was both hyperreal and ridiculously fantastic, an odd blend of tedious bureaucratic infighting and paranoiac thriller tropes. Its symbolism was heavy-handed, and certain characters came and went like disheveled red herrings, and entire episodes would pass with nothing really happening. Everyone was miserable and pale and on the verge of a breakdown, either over their use of recreational pharmaceuticals, their relationship with their spouses, or their growing knowledge of a vast conspiracy hatched by obsessive-compulsive oligarchs.
These are the reasons a lot of people hated Rubicon, and these are the reasons I enjoyed it. I think I would have fit in well at the American Policy Institute. I live my life in constant fear of the things I don’t know. I worry that my beliefs are shallow and incomplete. I worry that there is a cultural conversation taking place beyond my purview: Not necessarily that people are talking behind my back, but that they are privy to knowledge I don’t have. I would like to think I have certain inalienable views on sports and television and politics, but anytime someone argues the opposite viewpoint, I find myself wondering if I’ve missed some crucial fact that proves me empirically wrong.
This was one of the primary themes of Rubicon: That when we actually discover the truth, it is too late. As if to reinforce this notion, the title of the season’s final episode was “You Never Can Win.” Things blew up, a major character died, and then, nine days after the election of 2010, AMC reinforced that theme once more by cancelling the series.
Last week, a collaborative at the University of Maryland released results of a poll that measured the attitudes of voters in the first national vote since the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling struck down limits on election-related advertising. The title of the study: “Misinformation and the 2010 Election.” It provided empirical proof for what many of us already suspected: That part of the reason we can’t seem to find consensus on many of the major political issues of the day is because we can’t even seem to find consensus on the truth. Eight percent of the population believed that economic stimulus created or saved millions of jobs. Thirteen percent believed healthcare legislation would not increase the deficit. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, both of these things are true, yet somehow the mass perception of the opposite has come to define the partisan rigidity of the Obama administration.
Immediately, progressive websites leapt on the segment of the study which found that FOX News viewers were the most misinformed of all, while ignoring the fact that 77 percent of those who voted Democratic believed the stimulus did not create jobs, three in ten believed the healthcare legislation contributed to the deficit, and more than a quarter were no longer certain if there was a scientific consensus on global warming. The frightening part of this is not just that we’re all becoming more and more doctrinaire because of our retreat to partisan media sources; the frightening part is that there is a vast swath of moderate Americans who are hopelessly confused and deeply distrustful of even supposedly objective referees like scientists and budget wonks. The conspiracy is all around us: On one political pole, progressives are complaining that their message is being chewed up by a bureaucratic and dispassionate media; on the other political pole, conservatives are complaining that we are all falling victim to a vast and seditious cabal. It’s just what Rubicon’s lead character, Will Travers, discovered: Anywhere you turn, inside or outside the establishment, you never can win.
I’m glad Rubicon came and went so quickly, and I’m glad it was messy and imperfect and slow-moving, and I’m glad that, in the dark of night, it muddled my brain the way it did. Never in my lifetime have so many people—including me--felt so removed from understanding the why. Someday, when we look back on this time, rampant confusion will define the era. Rubicon wasn’t the best show of 2010—it may not have even been objectively good--but for that very reason, no show epitomized 2010 quite like it did.