Lies, Damned Lies, and Ourselves

The interlocking stories of Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe, right-wing agitators who came to prominence during the first years of Obama’s presidency, show how a little expertise with the Web along with video editing can be used effectively when regard for truth is cast aside.  They also show how the intoxication of power (or the perception of having power through the ability to destroy) allows one to wield it without any indication of understanding of  broader contexts or even of the implications of the actions. The two manipulate  for ends no broader than those of a frog whose world is limited to the fast-moving and vulnerable.  They have no idea how much, also, that they illustrate the maxim (#119) of François de la Rochefoucauld, “We spend so much time deceiving others that we end by deceiving ourselves.

Breitbart is trying it again this weekend (Update: Breitbart had this one right–and the screenshots I mention were not doctored), attacking a U.S. Congressman through what are apparently doctored screenshots.  So, I thought I respond by posting this, a piece I wrote for inclusion in another essay, but that I didn’t use.  Maybe it can provide a recap of the background leading to this current nonsense.

Though Breitbart had been a prominent political activist for some time, his first big splash came when he featured a “report” by O’Keefe and partner Hannah Giles for the launch of his The report, which seemed to show employees of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) giving business advice to a prostitute and her pimp (on things like evading taxes and managing child prostitution), helped destroy ACORN, though the tapes were later determined to have been highly and selectively edited to show ACORN in the worst possible light. Most famously, O’Keefe was shown on the street dressed in an imaginative get-up suggestive of an African-American street hustler from a 1970s blaxploitation movie (though O’Keefe is white)—a costume he would wear on television to promote his story—though he actually visited ACORN offices in much more standard garb.

Writing in The Columbia Journalism Review in the immediate aftermath, Alexandra Fenwick connected this staged event to the then-recent nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and video clips that had immediately appeared on various cable and broadcast channels—discussed by Mark Bowden in the then-current issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Fenwick writes, “The videos weren’t unearthed by enterprising journalists at Fox News or CNN. And they weren’t broken by CBS or ABC, either—although all four aired the incendiary clips, almost simultaneously. In fact, the videos were dug up by two conservative bloggers to serve a singular political purpose: sink Sotomayor.” But Bowden made a distinction between the tapes of Sotomayor and their sources. He tacitly accepted the value of the tapes and discounted the motivation of those who produced them and offered them to the public: “What’s most troubling is not that TV-news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery. The very smart and capable young men (more on them in a moment) who actually dug up and initially posted the Sotomayor clips both originally described themselves to me as part-time, or aspiring, journalists.” Bowden, however, showed his own lack of understanding of the systems we operate within today by falling into the trap of accepting the validity of video in a way he never would of print—of of the dangers of a multimedia information milieu where print, rather than anchoring the verification process, becomes only one of a panoply of possible sources of information and verification. He was unable to see beyond the confines of an older system.  He couldn’t see the con–which is exactly what the likes of Breitbart and O’Keefe count on.

This belief in the visual as proof is itself an old problem, admittedly, compounded by the vagaries of memory that anyone ever involved with eye-witness accounts of auto accidents can certainly understand. What we see, and what we remember seeing, is also selective in ways beyond those analogous to the selective sensitivities of a frog, though we do continue to be certain of our memories. When video becomes involved, something of the same reliance on limited senses that a frog must accept follows: we saw the tape (or the picture, or the screenshot), and therefore accept its veracity—and it a way we never would, with the written word, which now falls within, rather than at the edges of, our understanding.

There’s a certain irony, here. One of the hallmarks of literacy culture has been a reliance on the truth of the written word. ‘If it’s in the newspaper,’ many have felt, and some continue to feel, ‘it must be true.’ ‘I read it in a book,’ therefore, it can be relied upon as fact. At the same time, we have learned enough about the process of writing—and the manner of fiction—to realize that words can be manipulated to make things look true even though they are not. ‘Seeing is believing,’ however, has not yet reached that same level of doubt.  Breitbart and O’Keefe know this, and make it the center of their political scams.

The success of the ACORN “exposee” led Breitbart and O’Keefe to attempt others of a similar nature, with varying success. One, an excerpt from a speech given by Shirley Sherrod, an official with the United States Department of Agriculture, led to her forced resignation and a subsequent apologetic telephone call from the White House once it was shown that the clip completely misrepresented the point that Sherrod had been trying to make.

In the meantime, O’Keefe had managed to get himself arrested, having attempted to enter the offices of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu disguised as a telephone repairperson. U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr., in referring the case back to a magistrate, wrote, “Deception is alleged to have been used by the defendants to achieve their purposes which in and of itself is unconscionable. Perceived righteousness of a cause does not justify nefarious and potentially dangerous actions.”

Since then, the adventures of O’Keefe and Breitbart have continued, Breitbart trying to destroy the lives of a couple of college professors in Missouri and to taint Congressman Anthony Weiner with sex allegations while O’Keefe has taken on New Jersey teachers and National Public Radio as well as making a fool of himself trying to entrap a CNN anchor in a sex scam.

This continuing travesty isn’t completely the fault of Breitbart and O’Keefe, however.  All of us, as de Rochefoucault might have gone on to claim, deceive ourselves… and any good con’s success  rests on the willingness of the victim to be fooled.  As Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer:

The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients.

Breitbart and O’Keefe are playing to their own choir of believers, of those who already believe the worst of liberals, progressives, and the rest of the left.  So, though we will (and should) rejoice as Breitbart and O’Keefe start their inevitable slide into ignominy,  the problem they represent will not have been resolved.  That won’t happen until the hatred, the desire to believe the worst, is somehow dissipated.

And that won’t happen until we on the left start working to understand the right, listening to them, not making fun of them, and not (not right away, at least) trying to convince them of their errors.  Then we can start helping them lead themselves to understand the truths of the world–from Obama’s birth to the nature of our reliance, as a culture, on our governments and the social networks they provide.

Breitbart and O’Keefe are nothing but opportunists.  As such, they aren’t really the enemy.

In fact, there is no enemy, just people like us, but who fool themselves even more than we do.

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