In season five of The Wire, Jimmy McNulty invents a serial killer and tries to use the press to spur a systemic reaction to an irritant that doesn’t really exist, but also sort of does exist. Marlo, after all, is actually a serial killer, just not the kind that anyone really wants to actually try to stop. So he invents one that the system really does dislike, the kind of sensational killer that gets people excited. This fails, of course, but that’s not the important thing; the important thing is why he even tried.
After all, Jimmy McNulty’s problem is not only that he’s an unscrupulous narcissist, but that he combines that quality with a streak of good intentions, a kind of idealism and desire to do some version of the right thing. Cynics and fatalists wouldn’t fall into this trap, because they’ve never expected the world to be different, or never imagined that they could change it. Those who want to work within the system – for whatever reason – will be co-opted or will simply adjust their expectations relative to what it is that they can reasonably accomplish within the bounds of that system (Carcetti being McNulty’s doppleganger in that sense). And, of course, many don’t want to change the system at all.
But McNulty’s problem was that dangerous coupling of his belief that he could change the world with the idea that he should. And because the world he lived in didn’t allow him that possibility – because, by season five, it had been pounded into his skull that you can’t get results by following the normal channels – he rejects the reality he inhabits, the true stories it would be possible to tell, and decides to invent a new story, to imagine the kind of reality that will provoke the system into taking the kind of action he wants it to take.
If there’s a certain radicalism to this gesture, we should also note that the most he can do is make the system do what it always does anyway: in this case, throw police at a crime it thereby propagates and reproduces. But the main thing is why, and how: the fiction comes into existence because an immovable object has been met with a force that can’t accept that it is stoppable. Within the normal course of the system, Marlo can’t be moved, because the system is not built to move him. But because McNulty can’t imagine his own failure, he imagines that failure out of existence. He tells the story he needs to be true.
* * *
Mike Daisey wasn’t the first person to make up a false personal story as a way of raising the kind of “awareness” that will necessitate change, nor was #StopKony the first hyper-successful campaign to take a massively complicated political-economic-military problem and reduce it to the narrative of a great white savior. See, for example, Greg Mortensen, who is similar to both, in the way that both are similar to each, or to a Tom MacMaster, the hoaxter behind “Gay Girl in Damascus.”
The pattern, the trend, and the continuity are far more interesting than the individual stories. Part of it is simply the usual racist narcissism of The West, of course, which is and which must always be History’s Protagonist, for which all problems become nails, the better to be serviced by our hammers. But while this is the Occam’s razor explanation – and it’s the true one – there is also more to see here, more to say: what these fiction writers also have in common is a certain objective sense in which they are right, in which the story they are telling is true. While their subjective accounts tend to be the least true part of it (the most damning lies have to do with Daisey’s description of his personal experiences, for example), but behind those subjective untruths, we also find a broad field of objective accuracy: Foxconn is a terrible place to work, Joseph Kony really is a nightmare, building schools in Afghanistan is a good thing to do, and Syrian repression is no joke. Marlo really was a serial killer.
This is not a defense, of course, but it is worth saying: if we only emphasize the lies in these accounts, we thereby overlook the extent to which they were saying true things. And it is also worth remembering that truth is not an either/or. One can easily deceive by telling nothing but the truth – telling it selectively, misframed, etc – and one can also tell a kind of truth by using statements which are, on their own, untrue. This is why fiction matters, and why journalism never rests on quite the firm bedrock of objectivity that it needs to pretend it does. But again, this is not a defense, just an attempt to describe a problem that we often have vested interests in failing to acknowledge, the blurriness of the line that separates fact from fiction.
I say this to clear away the temptation of easy moralism, of making “true” seem like it would be the easy way to be right. For if truth and fiction are not black and white – and they are not – then it is simply not enough to condemn Mike Daisey for lying. Moralizing about that, after all, allows us to imagine a simplistic world in which telling the truth would have been the right choice. If you tell the truth the right way, we imagine – if you tell the version of Mike Daisey’s story that didn’t narcissistically mythologize – then the real problems that really do exist could be dealt with. But this isn’t the case, is it? If you tell the truth with scrupulous accuracy and breadth, people are as likely to doze off as be scandalized.
In fact, this is precisely the problem that empowers the Mike Daisey’s and Tom MacMaster’s to get creative: because reality won’t cut it, isn’t outrageous enough, we must sex up the story for it to get any traction, and it must get traction, it MUST. Children literally working their fingers to the bone? That’s outrageous. But children who grow up into a world of endless toil, one that offers little human dignity or hope of self-realization but only metaphorically “works their fingers to the bone” will produce little outrage. That’s normal, our normal. Yawn. And that “yawn” at what is and should be maddeningly outrageous is not even a new problem: Upton Sinclair thought that when people read The Jungle, they would get upset about the capitalism, about the working conditions, about the crushing and cruel exploitation. In fact, people got upset about the thought that there was rat shit in their food.
Beyond the narcissism, this is where the lies come from, and where the belief comes from that a lie is true, must be. The truth is not enough, these people think; I have to tell the story that will get results, results that will testify to their deeper truth.
But the deeper problem, I think, is that telling stories is the only way these people can conceptualize getting results. And because appealing to the public sphere to be scandalized and to demand reforms is the only kind of result they can envision – because this is how they imagine justice works – the story will inevitably become what it needs to be to appeal to that kind of conscience, whatever will appeal to that sense of the public’s fickle taste. No one in the West will care about the reality of Syrian repression, thinks Tom MacMaster; I need to invent an Angelic White Victim to speak in place of those whose stories are not, as such, sufficiently compelling to compel action can only speak and be unheard.
The result will be twofold. On the one hand, as the producers of outrage crank it up to eleven, the threshold for what to takes to produce real outrage will rise as well. As Amitav Ghosh puts it, quite nicely:
The thickening crust of our awareness is both a sign and a reminder of our unwitting complicity in the evolution of violence: if that which mesmerized us yesterday ceases to interest us today, then it follows that the act which will next claim our attention will be even more horrific, even more resistant to yesterday’s imagination, than the last.
Ghosh is talking about 9/11 and suicide bombing, of course, but it’s still an apt way of phrasing the way our outrage economy tends towards an equilibrium. And this complicity is worth thinking about very carefully; if a certain level of violation is required to provoke our interest, then does feeding that interest with stories that reach that threshold only reinforce the fact that a broad range of stories do not interest us? Does the “we must do anything” of the #StopKony campaign also mean that anything less than child-raping scans as less outrageous by comparison
Perhaps more importantly, because such stories are derived from their audience – and its imaginative capabilities – they will for that reason demand and privilege reactions to the problem that are maddeningly simplistic in their very imaginable practicality. Kony is bad and so he must be killed by the military, because that’s something we can picture, can visualize; fundamentally restructuring the Central African system of political economy and governance is impossibly and unthinkably remote. Apple is bad and must be regulated (or shunned or something), because, again, that’s something simple we can imagine happening (as opposed to any alternative to the advanced industrial capitalism that makes Foxconn all but inevitable). And MacMasters later admitted that he had given his story an ending, an ending that is striking by its plausible realism: “I was going to end the story with having her be free, and get out of country — end of story.” But this ending is necessary precisely because individual escapes happen every day (while a real solution to the Syrian crisis is unthinkably complicated). Each of these outcomes are imaginable, in part, as a direct consequence of the fact that they do not trouble the status quo. We can imagine those reforms, because they are essentially superficial adjustments of a system that not only remains intact, but which we – in our thinking about what is and isn’t possible – rely on and presume.
All of which is simply to say: it’s in the nature of grand structural transformations that we will always have great difficulty picturing what the end-state would look like. And because we feel we have to, we tend not to, falling back on the narrative patterns we know better. It’s hard to imagine a future without militaries or a world without capitalist production, because we don’t live in that world, or that future; everything we do know about the range of possibilities we inhabit is derived from the economic and political conditions of it, of our knowable world. And since we live in a world that produces capitalist exploitation as reliably and as organically as militaries produce conflict and police produce criminals, we will always have difficulty in imagining what a system that didn’t organically do so would look like; we will tend to be confined to the solutions which that system produces for itself, which the world we live in makes thinkable, possible. In short: we can imagine killing Kony, or fining or shunning Apple only because doing so would do nothing to disable the systemic forces that make Kony possible in the first place, would do nothing to change the system that makes it economically “necessary” to treat workers the way Foxconn does.