Wednesday, December 7, 2016
good news for the Pope
The American people have been falling for fake news, and that’s a big story among the indignant purveyors of the other sort, whatever that may be—genuine news? Just at the moment the genuine newsers are sore at the fake newsers, whom they find partly or mostly responsible for the electoral victory of Donald Trump. This may strike you as an odd opinion, but puzzling events often attract puzzling explanations. We have just been through a thoroughly democratic election. Concerning the American electorate, Mencken still has the last word. “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” Mencken wrote a long time ago, before academic social scientists had come up with the useful euphemism “low information voters”. His more pungent term was boobocracy. One might lament that our national leadership is determined by people inclined to believe that Barak Obama is a Kenyan or that John McCain sired a black baby, but even silently to wish that "the great masses of the plain people" refrain from voting without first finding out what Aleppo is would be "voter suppression" by thought crime.
From my point of view the great scandal about fake news is that so many people seem scandalized by it. Newspeople lie. Presidents lie. Presidential candidates lie through their teeth. But philology does not lie, and what philology demonstrates is that reporting the news is so close to making things up that for all practical purposes the two are the same thing. News is the English equivalent of the French nouvelles (or, since it is the Christmas season, Noëls). The commonest English word meaning “extended prose fiction” is novel. A slightly more specialized one is romance. What the latter term meant was the vernacular language (the tongue of the “plain people”) as opposed to Latin. European romance really got going in the twelfth century, the European novella (news flash) in the thirteenth. Fake news.
Fake news is of course much older than that. In the Æneid a hideous creature named Fama (usually translated “Rumor”) flaps about North Africa spreading the account of a love affair between Dido and Æneas. Her news reports are designed to cause mischief, and they do. Concerning Fama Virgil says something very revealing. She isn’t just a liar. Rather, her news reports promiscuously combine truth and falsehood. That is a characteristic of much rumor as, for example, many of the legends exhibited by the African-American “grape vine”. You didn’t realize that Aids was a genocidal plot? It’s fantastic, but from a certain point of view cruelly plausible.
It hardly need be said that fake news has played a huge role in world history. Consider for a moment the “Donation of Constantine”. The Emperor Constantine gave away the Western half of the Roman Empire to the Pope! It said so, clear as day, right there on a piece of parchment. There were even pictures. It took the best minds of Europe a few centuries to conclude that it ain’t necessarily so, but by then it hardly mattered. More recently we had the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Zinoviev telegram. The newscaster Dan Rather sank into disgrace over his obdurate credulity concerning a piece of fake news about George Bush’s career in the National Guard! One unfortunate thing about human beings is that we have a tendency to believe what we want to believe.
Fake news is sometimes well-intentioned, and it can even perhaps have some beneficial effects. When I was in high school back in the Cretaceous, sex, though on all our minds, was not a matter for public discussion. It was definitely back-of-the-bleachers stuff; and we depended for our news mainly on second and third-hand reports possibly originating with the unseen elder brothers of our classmates. One chilling item concerned venereal disease, a terrible affliction with but one medical treatment, namely “a shot in the balls with a square needle”. That’s the kind of news designed to encourage perseverance in the straight and narrow.
There is, finally, a large body of fake news that is either unintentionally or intentionally delightful. The former is represented by various tabloid papers one views chiefly from the checkout line in supermarkets. One of my favorite headlines from this source is “Dead Mum Gives Birth to Child in Coffin!” In our end is our beginning I suppose. The latter is represented by the Onion, and on many college campuses, an annual “April Fool” edition of the student newspaper. The problem is that in our current situation the gap between straight reporting and parody is razor thin. But I still remember with the greatest pleasure a travel-documentary I saw on British television many years ago. Its subject was the annual spaghetti harvest in the Tuscan countryside.
The spaghetti harvest in Santa Cristina in Salivolpe in an undated photograph from the 1950s. Today, mechanization is threatening traditional folk ways and, according to some, the quality of the al dente.