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Belmont Club

The Secret Chord

March 27th, 2012 - 9:49 pm

One Tagalog word for which no exact translation in English exists is “kuryente.” It literally means “electric current,” but the word can be applied to the practice of spreading sensational but faked news in order to produce a media jolt. One newspaper translates “kuryente” as “a bum steer”; others have rendered it as “actually but not really” or “confirmed but not definite.” At any rate, the phrase applies perfectly to the storm of bogus rumors swirling around the Trayvon Martin media feeding frenzy. The Daily Mail reports:

Fake Will Smith tweet about Trayvon Martin sweeps the internet  — and Spike Lee retweets wrong address for George Zimmerman. … Man tweeting as Will Smith tweeted angry post about no justice for Trayvon — Spike Lee retweeted incorrect Florida address for Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman — Man posing as Will Ferrell also tweeted about high-profile case.

Americans are no stranger to the phrase “fake but accurate.” But kuryente takes things to another level where the lie becomes the truth; or worse, to where nobody can tell the difference.

The couple who actually live at the address which Spike Lee wrongly believed to belong to George M. Zimmerman now fear for their lives. The address was actually associated with the electoral roll of a different Zimmerman — George A. Zimmerman — though of course such fine distinctions are lost in the wash. As for the “Will Smith” tweets, the author of his missives is actually a “white man from Nashville, Tennessee.”  Nor is Will Ferrell the Will Ferrell — his spokesman says his tweet was a hoax.

Not that it will make any difference. The main thing about faked news is that it shouldn’t matter whether it is in the slightest degree true. It is far more important for the news to confirm what we want to hear: our deepest suspicions about our neighbor or our wildest vanities about ourselves. People will believe it because they want to. As for the truth, well what about it?

Even the most basic facts becomes surprisingly irrelevant. Media Matters, for example, apologized to Matt Drudge after accusing him of being a “racist demagogue” for running a fake photo of the victim — only to discover it was actually a real photo. You would have thought Media Matters would know true from fake to play the fact-check game, but really, why would factuality be important?

Winston Churchill once observed that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” The immense power of kuryente consists in that it operates in the world of myth. It does not belong in the universe of fact. Hence what happened when, who liked what, what reasons there were for which: these are irrelevant.

Kuryente addresses what some might call a “deeper truth,” and it is therefore proof from falsification. You cannot falsify the re-telling of a myth. Take The Protocols of the Elders of Zion for example:

The Protocols purports to document the minutes of a late 19th century meeting of Jewish leaders discussing their goal of global Jewish hegemony by subverting the morals of Gentiles and by controlling the press and the world’s economies. It is still widely available today — still presented, typically, as a genuine document — on the Internet and in print in numerous languages.

Even if you could show that none of the events, meetings, or correspondence depicted in Protocols ever took place, it could never meet the objection that, taken as a whole, the narrative still contained the “truth” about the Jews. In that plane, evidence has no place. What predominates in that airy sphere are symbols, sacraments, and chants.

One of George Orwell’s most important insights is that all totalitarian ideologies — all methods of control — fundamentally required a religious liturgy to persist. It was faith — or its evil twin prejudice — that you really had to appeal to.

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