Twitter was consumed with Brian Williams messages today. News that the journalist had ‘misremembered’ his claim to have been in a helicopter hit by groundfire during the invasion of Iraq seemed to hit the public with an emotional force similar to finding that a beloved church pastor was a fraud. Why? Because people need someone or something to trust and after Williams there’s one less.
Life is so full of deceit and hype that many would find it unendurable without one pillar of belief to support their heavens or a sure stone to stand upon. A totally suspicious public is like a herd of cows that have become convinced there’s no place to go, no reason to move. The ability to convince individuals they are accomplishing something worthwhile is the key to motivation. Consider that the majority of people who join the armed forces are paid comparatively little. Clearly, no one in his right mind would risk death and dismemberment for the money paid. They do it instead for “important” things like Patriotism, Loyalty to friends or Honor.
The coin of that realm is the memory of accomplishing these intangible, “important” things. It is that belief which provides lasting solace so that whatsoever befall a man who possesses it, even if he should be forced to live in a cardboard box following a divorce or reduced to working as a greeter, the memory that “I was once brave” will keep him from a total loss of self-respect. It was to this self-affirmation that Shakespeare referred in Henry V.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Not everyone can afford a fast car or thousand dollar suit, but memory goes a long way to redressing the mental balance. Of course there are lots of people who make up imaginary stories about themselves. There is no shortage of news stories about of a guy wearing a phony uniform trying to get a discount cup of coffee; however these sorts are really too pitiful to hate. What is working against Williams is the Bathsheba effect. For those who don’t know the story from 2 Samuel, here it is:
Then the Lord sent Nathan to David. And he came to him, and said to him: “There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor. “The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare one for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! … You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife [Bathsheba] to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon.'”
Wealth and fame have intensified the problem for Williams. Better if he had been some loser trying to cadge a cup of coffee. But he had the car, the suit, the house, the fame. He had no real need to borrow the one ewe lamb. But beyond that, he let his class down. For we would have liked the story to be true. We prefer our journalists courageous and hard-hitting and our presidents stolid and straight. Even when all the evidence suggests they’re not, still we would like them to be. In the last scene of Three Days of the Condor the idealist whistleblower walks towards the New York Times when he is called back by the cynic.
Hey, Turner! How do you know they’ll print it? You can take a walk. But how far if they don’t print it?
They’ll print it.
How do you know?
We don’t know, but we would like to believe, just as much as old time sailors preferred to think the captain standing firm upon his bridge knew what he was about, that there exists a profession that worships the truth no matter what. Because if not, well it’s every man for himself, then it’s “run Turner, run because they won’t print it. You know that now for sure.”
And while we’re not quite sure they won’t print it, it’s beginning to look that way.
The biggest danger to using the press as a meme machine is that you ruin the coin of the realm. When people find out they’ve been had, they become cynical about their social betters. Then they stop believing in the news, politicians, even in “the defense of their country” because it’s all a pile of s**t. Then everyone becomes just like the man disillusioned with the crooked pastor or pedophile minister: not only do they quit trusting the minister, they begin to wonder whether Jesus, Moses or Mohammed were part of the same racket.
A country can survive danger, but it cannot outlive the destruction of its most sacred things. In the end it’s not the suit nor the fast car nor the big house that has historically held men together in great peril but shared meaning. The coin of the realm is the belief that something important binds us, even if we’re not sure it does. The glue is expressed in what an old man might mumble in a little hall, to no one in particular about something few still remember: “these wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
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