Against this backdrop of mind-numbing obedience to authority has emerged a rich genre of cult-themed shows and documentaries. Hulu is debuting a brilliant first season of a series inspired by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The same network is serving up a solid, if in some ways less inspired second season of The Path. And HBO is running the final season of what may be the best drama ever made about faith and the human condition – The Leftovers. Our best hope for understanding current events probably lies in fiction. And fiction, unlike current events, is not letting us down.
Sometimes, distant opinions are best understood indirectly, through allegory or metaphor. Consider this scenario.
Thanks to generations of progress in civil rights, race, and more specifically “whiteness,” is failing. Being white is losing its meaning, its privileges, its social and even religious significance. As it fades, it has weakened a load-bearing wall in our democracy. Our goal of transcending race, encoded as a distant aspiration in our founding documents, threatens to undermine the “classless” assumptions that make the rest of our system work. Stripped of race as a reference point, and of whiteness as a marker of special privilege, we are left to cope with class as our main expression of identity.
We embrace fake news because it is easy, because it confirms what we want to believe about the world. Fake news is folklore; comfortable, mentally soothing stories about things that did not happen. Fake news may be pleasant, but it is an inferior evolutionary adaptation. Institutions built on fake news will underperform fact-driven institutions until they are eventually swept away in failure.
Though grifters find ample opportunity in fake news, dismissing the genre as mere deception is an error. There is a philosophy of fake news, a populist ethic of folklore versus facts. That ethic doesn’t legitimize fake news, but it provides an explanation for its reach and its persistent appeal, even in the face of consistent failure. Fake news is never defeated by fact-checkers. You overcome the power of fake news by delivering a better story.
TV news is the political equivalent of toxic industrial waste. No context, no depth, just minute-by-minute breathless panic, veering from one subject to the next like a dog in a field full of rabbits. It is making people crazy.
What were the odds that my father, in his half an hour a day of free time over the past forty years, would ever successfully escape the cultural tractor beam created by these professional crooks? Those odds were low enough that thousands of people could build careers on them, stripping my father and millions of other people of their political power just as blatantly as if they had robbed them on the street. My father had little chance against this machine.
This Southern culture, one of America’s greatest gems, can be truly ours with all that goes with it if we recognize our kinship and confront our history with open eyes. We can be the first generation of Southerners, liberated from white and black, from fear and violence; the first generation of Southerners to truly breathe free. This is no mirage. That legacy is waiting for us. It is ours for the taking.