Back in 1999, when I was a freshman in college, a friend of mine told me about a new movie he’d just downloaded on his computer that featured a bunch of students, armed with video cameras, who’d been hunted down by a killer in a forest back east. Someone had found the footage and made a movie out of it, he said. The second I sat down with him to watch Blair Witch, I knew it was fake. I’m pretty sure he did too.
But, in an act that foreshadowed the next decade, for some inexplicable reason, neither of us said a damn thing. We kept pretending we believed until it came out in theaters and everyone called us on the lie.
Tim Footman at Prospect has an article about the last decade called “The noughties: an age of fleeting plausibility,” and it asks why, in the name of God, we seem to want to be such a bunch of suckers. (via)
“Ours is supposed to be a dour and cynical age,” he says, “Politicians and bankers are deemed to have the basest and most venal intentions. Climate change deniers and 9/11 conspiracy nuts pick away not just at our perceptions of reality but also our faith in institutions and people. … Yet this was also the decade in which we allowed ourselves to believe, for a while at least, the silliest, most implausible narratives. Or to put it more clearly, we allowed ourselves the pleasure of half-belief—which, especially when a million people are doing it with you, is one of the most deliciously satisfying human emotions.”
Whether it was the justification for the Iraq War or fake memoirs or a long list of things we don’t usually mention on The Rumpus (like the Balloon Boy or Susan Boyle), it seems that we were guilty of something more than mere gullibility. We wanted more than anything to believe in the most unlikely and ridiculous lies imaginable.
Footman says, “Perhaps these things (and especially the contrived media-driven hoaxes) work because they fill the gap left when so many of our belief systems began to crumble, from the middle of the last century. In the age of the Internet, it’s also all too easy to debunk the integrity of miracles and public figures alike—and yet there remains an almost hardwired human desire to vanquish our own cynicism, to believe in something in spite of ourselves.”
Maybe, but I’d take it further. Storytelling is an important part of who we are biologically, evolutionarily and culturally (sorry, the link is behind a pay wall. You can also see this or about 11:23 into this.) I have a theory that the real problem is that people love and need stories, but because we’re afraid to admit it, because we’re taught to mistrust simple narrative, we end up buying whatever crappy semblance of a story we’re told is “true” because then we don’t have to call it a “story.” Because there’s also a sense out there, like it or not, that stories aren’t real. They aren’t true. Science is real. Data are real. Academics dismiss their enemies’ work as “mere storytelling.” Stories, we’re told, are a kind of silly luxury. So we pretend we don’t need them.
What happens when we deny who we are? Here’s an iffy and over-the-top parallel that just might have some truth to it: I sometimes sleep with men. Like many gay and bi men, before I embraced who I was, I found myself getting drunk and making out with whatever guy was closest, regardless of whether he was cute or my best friend or straight or he smelled like pee. Once I came out, I could choose relationships that were better for me. When we don’t admit how much we need and love stories — when we try to suppress their inherent power — we end up making out with whatever story is closest, as long as we’re told it’s true. We end up kissing in the closet with George Bush, the Balloon Boy and Susan Boyle.