Of course Oprah took
the side of veracity-challenged author James Frey, author of "A
Million Little Pieces." She is in the feelings business,
and you don't succeed in her line of work by favoring facts over
deeply felt but untrue stories. The tears that she and her staffers
shed while reading Frey's largely concocted tale of crime and
addiction made the book important to her.
When Frey appeared
on CNN's "Larry King Live," Oprah made things worse
by phoning in to say, "The underlying message of redemption
in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me." Apparently
this meant that she was so moved by the book that she doesn't
care that it contains many untruths. Resonance makes lying defensible.
She has a lot of company.
Bill Bastone, the talented investigative reporter whose Web site,
The Smoking Gun, broke the news about Frey, says 40 percent of
e-mail consists of "How dare you" messages defending
Frey. Patti Davis, President Reagan's daughter, expressed sympathy
for Frey, and some bloggers have abandoned coherence in order
to come down on Frey's side. ("I believe that much of his
fabrications are collective memories, splintered memories and
probably recovered memories," one wrote.)
types help justify the fraud by arguing that memoirs are never
100 percent accurate and almost all autobiographies contain evasions
and lies. Doubleday pointed to the "overall reading experience"
of Frey's work, which is probably better than saying, "It's
a pack of lies and you'll love it." In 1972 the writer Clifford
Irving went to prison for creating and selling a fake autobiography
of Howard Hughes. Now Oprah and his publisher might defend him
as an emotional truth-teller.
The willingness to
accept "emotional truth," even when packaged in lies,
is hardly new. What's new is that those who insist on factual
truth are now on the defensive, pictured as fuddy-duddies who
don't understand that the self recognizes the highest truth in
College speech codes
have long been written in feelings language. Hurt feelings are
evidence of an offense. These codes reflect, and reinforce, the
rise of feelings over facts and standards. The emotional impact
is what counts. Brown University, for instance, banned "verbal
behavior" that "produces feelings of impotence, anger
or disenfranchisement," whether "intentional or unintentional."
In other words, you can't say anything that makes anybody feel
hoaxes on colleges campuses, mostly involving untrue reports of
rapes and racial attacks, often turn out to be teaching instruments
of a sort, conscious lies intended to reveal broad truths about
the constant victimization of women and minorities. After the
Tawana Brawley case, an article in the Nation magazine
said the faked kidnapping and rape she reported were useful because
they called attention to the suffering of blacks, so "in
cultural perspective, if not in fact, it doesn't matter whether
the crime occurred or not."
Many of the campus
hoaxes owe something to the postmodern notion that there is no
literal truth, only voices and narratives. If so, who can object
if you make up a narrative that expresses the truth you feel?
This attitude seeps into therapy, often through therapists who
guide patients to the feeling that parents must have abused them.
After one California patient sued her parents, her therapist said,
"I don't care if it's true. ... What actually happened is
irrelevant to me."
Certainly our culture
is awash in lies -- politicians, professors, reporters, columnists,
scientists, etc., so much so that numbness has set in. "Emotional
truth" seems to take advantage of this numbness over a culture
saturated in lies. If you can't believe the literal truth anymore,
why not trust your own emotional response to stories?
Press coverage of
Hurricane Katrina was loaded with stories and claims that turned
out to be wildly untrue. But the emotions stirred by TV's often
fanciful coverage were powerful, and the most emotional of the
media stars -- Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper -- strongly
advanced their careers. If emotional impact keeps advancing at
the price of truth, we will all be in trouble.
2006 John Leo
by Universal Press Syndicate