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Mutt & Jeff: Things that are hidden

Locations: Columns Published

When the curtain rises, all is hushed. The conductor lifts his arms, signals to the orchestra, and the symphony begins.

He is in control of the ebb and flow of tempo, of heightened tensions and frenzied crescendos, until audience and orchestra arrive safely at the denouement. With a gentle downward undulation of his hand, the conductor diminishes the impact of a passage or, if he so pleases, hyperbolizes it with a dramatic gesture. Although we think we’re experiencing the composer’s work, we’re really experiencing the conductor’s interpretation of it.   

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It’s not only symphonies that are modulated by a conductor’s deft hand. It’s all experience. Everything gets mediated, massaged, hyperbolized, minimized, or otherwise ordered into some narratable form. We emphasize the parts that make a good story and hide the things we don’t want to think about. If something doesn’t bolster the story, it gets the silencing hand.         

False accusations make for a good story. They can swell into larger-than-life legends, acquiring a life of their own. In cases like this, don’t confuse us with facts, our minds are already made up.

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Right now, I’m reading about Ty Cobb, the baseball player who achieved a .366 batting average over the length of his twenty-three-year career. He is popularly remembered as a brutal spike-slasher who terrorized his opponents. (Since his enemies portrayed him this way, it must be so.) Biographer Charles Leerhsen challenges various stereotypes that have attached to the figure of Ty Cobb. (Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, Simon & Schuster 2015.) I’m just a few chapters into the book, but so far, it’s shedding valuable light on some scurrilous legends.     

Meanwhile, we encounter a scandal closer to home. Christine Blasey Ford has a friend, Leland Keyser, who at one time corroborated Ford’s account of being sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh, who became a Supreme Court Justice. Now Keyser has denounced the accusation, saying that she does not believe Ford’s account.

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The New York Times covered the incriminating allegation thoroughly enough, but failed to report on Keyser’s retraction. This is called withholding exculpatory evidence, and is beneath the dignity of a paper like The Times. ABC, CBS, and NBC devoted a generous amount of attention to the accusation, but little or none to contrary evidence. This is the manipulating hand of the media, which sometimes has low regard for the truth.

We smother the truth. We rely on emotional pyrotechnics to convince ourselves of what we know to be a fabrication. We assemble a straw man and admire this shoddy work of our hands. How extraordinarily lucid we are. How invincible is our straw man. It will stand up to anything (except honest questions). Our opponents are racist. (Don’t ask anyone you know what he actually thinks about race.) Trump is a Russian agent. (That really gets at the heart of the matter. Isn’t it Andrew McCabe who said we “can’t rule out the possibility that Trump is a Russian agent”?) Trump hates women; his supporters hate women.

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Don’t read any transcripts or underlying statements that contradict this idea. Be comforted in your assumptions about your own moral superiority.

Though what I’ve said seems harsh, I remember that I am not morally superior to anyone. I, too, proceed on inadequate evidence. Reminds me of the time I told a guy who was being belligerent toward me, “I’m no better than you are.” He looked at me kind of quizzically.

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It’s not really a crime not to know everything. None of us knows as much as we think we do. There are so many things we don’t take account of. It’s just that to make our side look good we suppress the truth. Suppression happens all over the place. We’re always massaging the facts to make saleable stories. The cure? Be inquisitive. Investigate your own assumptions. Break the rhythm of your story. After all, it’s not given to us to be omniscient. 

There is nothing secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither anything hid, that shall not be known, and come abroad.  —Luke 8:17

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