Saturday, July 02, 2005

"The American Public"

Andrew Sullivan wrote an article about the Michael Jackson trial, explaining that, from the point of entertainment, "it's been a bit of a dud." He claimed that Americans "turned off" and explained why ("…because the Jackson trial focuses attention on features of American culture that most Americans simply don't want to acknowledge or handle.")

It's certainly a FUN article. And ten years ago -- maybe even five -- I would have called it perceptive. But as I've grown older, I've become increasingly suspicious of such essays -- ones that make claims about mass psychology: Americans want this; middle-class males want that. Certain writers -- David Mamet, Camile Paglia and others -- are genius at this sort of thing. I think their genius lies not in unearthing the truth, but in creating plausible worlds. They are really writing fiction in which the main character is "The American Public," which shouldn't be confused (but is) with The American Public (without the quotation marks).

These authors write with such conviction. Of course they do. They've freed themselves from the burden of proof. Claim almost ANYTHING about Generation X or Black Urban Males and you're likely to be believable, as long as your claims are bold and unapologetic.

When I get done enjoying these articles (and I DO enjoy them), I am tempted to say to the writers, "yes, but how do you KNOW?" What evidence backs up your claim about the inner minds of millions of people? Have you taken surveys? Have you performed double-blind psychology experiments, or are you just so smart and superior that you KNOW.

This idea that we just KNOW what goes on in other people's heads is terrifyingly pervasive. I suppose it's baked into our brains. It makes sense that, being social creatures, we need to make snap decisions about people so that we can act quickly. And we can get quite good are reading the tiniest signs and extrapolating reams of information from them. But this doesn't mean we're always right -- or even usually right. But it does mean that we FEEL like we're right.

We say, "You could tell just by looking at his face that he was jealous" or "Look at her; she HATES this party!" And in the worst case scenario, we get people like that woman Meryl Streep played in "A Cry in the Dark." (A Dingo Ate My Baby). You know, that Australian woman who was INNOCENT but who got convicted of murder because her face didn't show enough emotion. Everyone "knew" what was going on inside her mind.

(And the ironic thing is that I've been doing the same thing. In the last few paragraphs, I've been talking about what WE do and what WE think. And I may very well be wrong. And to add insult to injury, I'm going to continue my hypocrisy in the NEXT paragraph. But I'd like to admit this evidence into the courtroom: all those articles in the NY Times that note how this summer there have been three movies about Hospitals (or whatever) and then extrapolate that, as a culture, we have a fascination with mortality.)

What galls me the most is the condescension. It's always WE Americans or WE modern people, but you never get the sense that the author includes himself. Doesn't he really mean, "those stupid people who mindlessly follow trends -- a group to which I'm pleased to say I'm NOT a member"?

And how does he KNOW people aren't watching the Jackson trial? He doesn't cite data. What is he going by? The (flawed) Neilson Ratings -- which monitor only 100 households. Or is he just going by the general buzz of his friends and acquaintances.

I always wish, when I read these articles, that the author had rewritten it as a personal essay. I would have no objection -- indeed I would be thrilled -- if he said "I have stopped watching the Jackson trial because I am disturbed by stories about child molestation. In general, I'm a liberal guy -- not much shocks me -- but I can't deal with that one subject." But he doesn't say that. Maybe he doesn't do it because he feels that if he did so, the article wouldn't have enough weight. It would be "just" personal and not sociological. Or maybe -- more likely -- he feels like it would be dishonest. HE'S not uncomfortable. It's all those people who are less sophisticated than him (and, of course, less sophisticated than his readers) who fall prey to petty prejudices.

I'm sorry to pick on Andrew Sullivan. He's a good writer and it's was a well-written article in spite of my objections. But it's fiction. Sullivan has created a character -- and the fiction works (this is why all fiction works, isn't it), because it's easy to map that character onto real people that I know. That's its appeal. That's its danger.

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