lying about art

There's this lovely little interchange in the new HBO show The Newsroom that perfectly illustrates why I think it's pointless to get involved in political debate.

The lead protagonist, Will McAvoy, is a news anchor who's just done a show debunking the story that was kicked around a couple years ago by right-wing entertainment "pundits" that Obama was trying to take away everybody's guns... a claim that was, in fact, an easily-demonstrable lie (albeit one so widespread that I heard about it, repeatedly, from some of the more fervent gun-toting students in my classroom). For those who (like me and a lot of the population of Canda and Mexico) would like to see the U.S. enforcing stricter gun control, Obama's been sort of a useless pile of nothing. Nonethless, these lies were politically expedient at the time and helped somebody make a LOT of money in gun sales, so The Newsroom decided to imagine what it would have been like if a news show came right out and called a spade a spade. The next evening, McAvoy's on a date with a woman who asks him to grab something from her purse. When he does, he discovers a small handgun. He calls her out on it (apparently, statistics show that a woman with a handgun is likely to have it taken and used against her) and she says, "I know... I saw your show against guns last night," to which he replies by saying something like, "it wasn't about guns, it was about lying." His date obviously doesn't agree.

Granted, her logical jump there was understandable, given that he was diving into a lecture on the dangers of guns, but it is that pointed re-reading of what the actual criticism was that I want to point out.

In politics (as in religion and any other system of power-distribution) the proponents of any given side - having tied themselves to a power-accumulating agenda - invariably end up believing that the people who disagree with them are idiots. Everything the other side says is idiotic (and possibly evil), and anything anyone on my side says is founded on truth, justice, and the American way. Because this is, itself, a lie, people involved in this game are forced to tell further lies to maintain it; and one of the most frustrating ways this manifests is in the deliberate mis-hearing and mis-representation of the other side's point of view.

I call it deliberate not because I think it's entirely conscious (it seems more likely that it is emotional rather than rational in origin), but because I think there has to be some sort of accountability for the intentional, persistent deception that gets practiced in the name of power. There's nothing particularly surprising about this Machiavellian manipulation of the truth, I know, but it still depresses me... which is why I generally choose not to get involved.

It took about two seconds from the end of the first episode of The Newsroom for critics to start doing what they do best and saying how terrible the show is, and that annoys me even more, because what we're talking about now is Art... which I do love to discuss. 

Critics justify their existence by ripping into stuff, sure, but it's doubly annoying when they do so not because of an actual lack of merit in the work, but because of the politics in the work. It is deceptive of them to trash a show because they disagree with the politics and then claim that this is not what they're doing, but rather that the show itself is horribly flawed.

It's not. 

I personally hate the politics in the film The Cider House Rules, by John Irving. I'm massively not a fan of abortion, and I hate the way film takes one extreme example (a father rapes his own daughter, and is likely to kill her if he finds out she's pregnant) and uses it to make an emotional argument for a broad application of the pro-choice agenda. Nonetheless... it's a really, really good movie. One of the best. And even though I think it likely that it got its Oscars in part because the generally liberal Academy agrees with its politics, it would be disingenuous of me to ignore the artistic merits of the film because of my own ideological slant.

The answer to a movie like Irving's is not to dis the movie, but to disagree with it, and then write a better one. This is difficult, I know, but I firmly believe that it's the best course of action you can take. The answer to Lies is the beauty of the Truth. Anything else is not a courageous defense of virtue, but rather an ugly betrayal of your own cowardice.

There is no beauty in a lie. 


  1. I just finished watching this episode, and I think artistically it was the best so far.


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