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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.

Hence, beneath the veneer of ostensibly rational discourse which outfits like Media Matters professed to espouse was an enormous need to hate. Given a photo, they just had to hate Drudge for it. They couldn’t help themselves. And now that it didn’t work out they’ll find something else. It was an itch they needed to scratch.

An itch.

Therefore the wise dictator gives his dupes the periodic opportunity to throw off their thinking selves and momentarily indulge themselves in a tribal frenzy if ever they hope to stay in power. How Orwell put it:

The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters, perhaps even — so it was occasionally rumoured — in some hiding-place in Oceania itself …

Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room. The self-satisfied sheep-like face on the screen, and the terrifying power of the Eurasian army behind it, were too much to be borne: besides the sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other. But what was strange was that although Goldstein was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers, in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were — in spite of all this, his influence never seemed to grow less. Always there were fresh dupes waiting to be seduced by him. A day never passed when spies and saboteurs acting under his directions were not unmasked by the Thought Police. He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State.

Every myth is like that. Paradise and the Fall. The Villain and the Hero. Except with Marx the cast of characters has been changed to suit. But it’s the same deal. What the Party participants who emerged drunken with hate never realized was that Two Minutes Hate was a potion used to control them. They were administered a jolt aimed at misdirecting and ultimately dulling the mind, not so that they could eventually become free — but so that they could keep enjoying the Two Minutes Hate.

Was there ever a Goldstein? Was Eastasia really ever at war with Oceania? What is crazy perhaps, is to inquire after the facts as if they mattered. They never really mattered outside of math and engineering and, perhaps, real spirituality. Did they ever?


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