Thursday, May 3, 2012

Manly Thor's Day Special: Reality?

"Reality is one of those words we use as a synonym for authenticity. "Reality" doesn't have to be true, it just has to be "reality". Meaning it just has to confirm our beliefs.

I was thinking about this seeing that everyone is all abuzz about the revelation that Barrack Obama's "New York Girlfriend" is a "composite" rather than a real person.

We never would have known except that his real New York girlfriend kept a journal and biographer David Maraniss found the girlfriend and her journal and quickly realized that the "New York Girlfriend" in Obama's autobiography was pure fiction. Obama, confronted with this, fell on the old composite defence.

It's highly appropriate, by the way, that she should be a "New York" girlfriend and then the whole house of cards came tumbling down in Washington. It was New York Magazine that made the "composite" approach to journalism nonfiction fiction famous. And then the Washington Post made it infamous. A writer named Janet Cooke wrote a story called "Jimmy's World" about an eight-year old heroin addict in Washington. She won a Pulitzer for the story. And then it started to unravel.

Interestingly, the people who actually work with young heroin addicts were the first to blow the whistle. They'd seen lots of young heroin addicts but they had never seen one that young. That was why Cooke got caught. Her defense was that the character was a "composite" but even composites have to be based on a sliver of truth and there were no eight-year-old heroin addicts in DC. Cooke's story was very real, meaning it was very "gritty. It just wasn't true. Keep that in mind.

And then it turned out that Cooke had lied about other stuff too. Like her college record for example.

Oh yeah, if you like nice little coincidences that lend a feeling of symmetry to things, when the Washington Post ran the story on it's own scandal, it was written by David Maraniss.

But suppose for a moment that Obama had written not an autobiography but fiction? Suppose that he had written a story of a young man much like Barrack Obama and had been widely praised for that? Would that be any better? There are a number of such novels out there by young black men. The problem is they get their authority from a sense of authenticity. No one would read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man if it were not for the sense that there is something real about the book. That it, while fiction, is telling us something about Ellison's own experience. If some scholar were to turn up evidence now that Ellison created fiction largely at odds with the facts of his life, he'd disappear from our culture.

Let's jump to something else. The Globe and Mail's TV critic John Doyle writes this morning:
And another thing: There are too many rich, brawling, vacuous women on TV. Too much attention is being paid. Why?
I agree (although I'm not sure why either his or my opinion should matter as people are surely allowed to watch what they want to watch) but he nowhere gets around to mentioning Girls in his  tirade. For if there is a show on TV that features too many rich and vacuous women it is Girls. Do they brawl? Perhaps not literally but they sure were ripping at one another in the episodes I saw. (And another thing: there as still far more rich, brawling vacuous men than women on TV: football, hockey ....)

Why is Girls just fine and Real Housewives beyond the pale? You get a hint in Doyle's conclusion:
Men are almost entirely absent from Big Rich Texas, as they are from most of Real Housewives shows and their imitators. That’s part of the appeal. In these peculiar times, women are watching women unleashed, freed from mundane life and behaving badly. It’s about women of the 99 per cent being agog at the 1 per cent of women who get to be loud, lewd, rich exhibitionists.
The rich girls in Girls are the right kind of rich people and Big Rich Texas are the wrong kind. Obama's tales of a young black man dating a white woman in New York are most probably just stuff he made up but it gets accepted as reality because it confirms what college-educated upper middle class people want to believe. It's very real meaning that it's very gritty. (An odd feature of Obama's writing is that he tends to discount his mother who gave him so much comfort and support and play up his absent and useless father because he represents the sort of gritty realism that was mostly absent from the privileged life Obama actually led.)

That also answers the question of why people believed the story of an eight-year-old heroin addict to the point that Janet Cooke was awarded a Pulitzer for making him up. Because it confirmed the gritty reality that they desperately wanted to believe in.  

Similarly, Girls confirms what writer Alexandra Molotkow wants to believe about herself:
I’ve been there, give or take a few details. As a woman in your twenties, you sometimes serve as a human Fleshlight, and you sometimes thank the guy for the privilege, and you sometimes pay for it when the STI or the pregnancy test, or both, come back positive. Our lives, like any, are made up of small humiliations. 
It is telling that The Globe and Mail did not trust regular TV writer John Doyle to write about Girls but went to find an "authentic girl" to do so. And to give her her due, to scan Molotkow's internet record is to see someone much like Lena Dunham, meaning that these are young writers who have been training their entire lives to tell the awaiting world the sad story of their own sad experience in much the same way as Milton trained his entire life to write Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, albeit with a less glorious result.

Back in September 2010 Molotkow wrote about one of those small humiliations she shares with the girls of Girls. She told the whole world about how at 21 she moved out of her "parents’ home in the Beach" and into an apartment that had been occupied by another girl who had been known for her reputation as "party girl",
I could barely talk to her for thoughts of all the things she’d already done that I’d never have the guts to try. She was calling because she’d found an apartment on Palmerston Avenue, the downtown renter’s holy grail, and was quitting the place she’d lived in for the greater part of a decade, a local institution that had hosted so much sex and so many drugs that, an acquaintance joked, one could get high by licking the walls.
Notice how gritty all this is. (And how hackneyed it all is; that joke about licking the walls was already old by the time I first heard it in the 1970s. Do millennials have any experiences at all that amount to more than vicariously living lives of the past century?)

This pursuit of grittiness she describes is not unusual, some kids of every generation do this sort of thing. Typically, most come back to their senses and move out of their gritty downtown apartments and get real jobs. A few settle in downtown forever becoming "characters" and few others don't do so well and they and their lives spiral out of control. One day you may be walking, as I did, from a downtown lunch meeting and recognize the crumpled heap lying on the sidewalk as a guy from high school who was "really into" punk rock. What makes Molotkow different is that she didn't do any of those things but instead moved back in with mom and dad and now wants the rest of us to see her as a victim because it turned out that the living away from home was too hard for her the way math was too hard for Barbie.

Question: are vacuous upper-middle class girls like Molotkow less obnoxious than vacuous rich girls? "Sunny", the first commenter on her story of moving out of and then back home nails it:
I'm sorry, but this is a depressing read, and not something I'd want to be bragging about in public. I had thought this was someone who'd just graduated high school, and was shocked, shocked, to read that the writer was 21 at the time. Being 21 and wholly unable to look after yourself is something for both parents and child to be ashamed of.
Obnoxious and vacuous girls from the rich, upper-middle, middle-middle and lower-middle classes really do exist. They are reality. The difference is that the women who watch Big Rich Texas know they are watching a show about people who aren't like them. The women who watch Girls believe they are seeing their lives reflected and their pathetic humiliations on screen.

For guys, the take away is this, if a woman tells you with a straight face that it is the fate of a girl of her generation to serve as "a human Fleshlight*", you don't want to be with her.

* A Fleshlight is a sex toy for men that looks like a flashlight. Trust me on this: that's all you really want to know.


  1. I read this earlier today, and it says that the whole "composite girlfriend" thing is basically misleading...

    Also, I have to say it's pretty funny for me to see Palmerston Ave referred to as a Mecca of debauchery, since, if you add up the visits over years, I have probably lived on that street for the equivalent of several months and had no idea of its reputation.

    1. Always good to read your comments. Thanks.

      To begin with, you may be right about the Obama thing. For what it is worth, I will provide a little explanation of my suspicions.

      The thing that bothers me (and others) about the composite girlfriend is not the possibility that Obama made her up or is lying about her. What I find troubling is the account of going to the theatre and a break up that revolves around her response to black culture. That part of his story has always rung false, particularly as he does not name the play. To find out now that his girlfriend from that period has no memory of such an occasion is disturbing.

      The whole thing smacks to me of the sort of revisionist story that a lot of people (including me in some moods) tend to tell about their past. It seems to be a little too perfect to me. Where I would differ from the people at Politico is that I don't find it nearly as damning as they do. It strikes me as a pretty common sort of failing to mythologize your own past and the only person who really gets hurt by it is Obama.

      Molotkow likewise seems to suffer from delusions that only hurt herself (plus anyone foolish enough to connect their life to hers). What both she and Obama have in common is that they have written about themselves publicly so I can use what they have written to make points about virtue and character.

      I don't, of course, actually know he was lying but I am suspicious. The excerpt in question is on line and I'll see if I can find it.

      Reading my own stuff, I see I didn't draw that out very well.

      As to the Mecca of debauchery you'll be relieved to learn it's not on Palmerston Ave but Queen Street West. The den of debauchery became available when the woman who had rented it got a new place on Palmerston. That is a little hard to make out in the excerpt I quoted. Worse, I see that I have not provided a link for that quote, which I will remedy as soon as I finish this.

    2. I found the excerpt from the Obama autobiography. It was included in the Politico story (which now also includes a much more extensive correction at the head meeting all the Atlantic's objections.

      Anyway, the problem with the composite is not that anyone suspects that Obama made up the girlfriend but rather that he made up the following event:

      "One night I took her to see a new play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humor. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering—nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said—and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough."

      That just seems a little too much like fantasy to me and now that Genevieve Cook denies that it happened it seems ever the more so.

    3. PS: it seems to me that Obama makes a false analogy here. Being angry all the time is not the same as remembering and, if anything, anger tends to distort and dishonour memory.