My husband and I went to a comedy news show called Shoot the Messenger when we were in New York. It was in a basement in Greenwich Village with an audience of People Kind of Like Us — middleaged liberals who were pissed off about politics and the state of the world.
The second half of the show was an interview with Mark Crispin Miller, who’s some kind of resident NYU expert about how everything is far more dire than we think and we might as well just kill ourselves and get it over with. He pontificated about how none of us knew what was really going on in the world, since “they” kept the news from us. (“They,” of course, included the mainstream media.)
“They” had, in fact, been quite busy. They didn’t tell us that a recount of the 2000 Florida election results showed Gore had really won. They didn’t tell us about a politician in Alabama who’d been jailed. They were also rigging the voting machines so they could win. Too, they were behind Hillary’s victory in the New Hampshire primary (since everybody knows the Clintons couldn’t have won on their own).
Miller peered at the audience with an air of weary superiority, like some kind of modern-day Cassandra on Xanax. I started to work on a pretty big migraine every time I heard a new account of what they were doing. I tend to get confused when people constantly use pronouns without antecedents, but that’s just me.
On the taxi ride back to our hotel, my husband and I discussed how much we believed of what we’d heard. Half? Three-quarters? Like every group of true believers, we were supposed to accept it all as the Gospel truth, glug the Kool-Aid, beg for more. Any questions would have to be in support of the premise that “they” were out to get us and were winning.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a fundamentalist church or a fervent right- or left-wing group: Probing questions are discouraged. You’re never really supposed to question the reigning authority. Life is simple, so just shut up.
Half? Three-quarters? I realize I spend much of my life discounting some of the messengers and messages in my life. Like the vehemently negative friend who tells me horror stories about people and institutions around town. Is 50 percent of it true? Less than that? The more fervent and adamant the underlying belief, I notice, the more I discount it. It seems to work.
But it depends on the situation, the message, the messenger. Years ago, my husband and I managed to get to an outdoors Rolling Stones concert. As we headed toward an entrance, with a growing crowd being funneled into a narrow opening, my husband began to get concerned. He said he didn’t like the looks of things.
“How bad is it going to be?” I asked. Ever the panic attack waiting to happen, I wanted to know.
“Unpleasant,” he said.
Unpleasant? My uber-optimistic, normally unflappable husband said things were going to get unpleasant?
I knew what to do with that particular message. I grabbed his arm and we ran like hell.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)