Thursday, September 08, 2011

More Real Than Reality

In one of Star Trek’s decidedly inferior episodes, The Savage Curtain the Enterprise approaches a planet and receives a broadcast from Abraham Lincoln, asking to come on board. Lincoln has always been Kirk’s hero, so he agrees and doesn’t know what to make of it. Kirk knows it is impossible for this stranger to actually be Lincoln, yet "his kindness, his gentle wisdom, his humor, everything about him is so right."

Of course, it does turn out to be impossible. They are actually part of an elaborate game by rock-like creatures on the planet wanting to stage a battle between good and evil and creating famous historic characters to play the parts. (Lincoln is on the side of good, of course). The less said of the rest of the episode the better. But there is one good line at the end, when Kirk wistfully says that they all seemed so real, especially Lincoln. Spock says that in many ways they were more real than the actual historic characters. “Because they were taken from our impressions of them, how could they be anything but what we expected?”

Ghastly as the rest of the episode is, this statement is actually quite profound. If Captain Kirk has stepped through the Guardian of Forever and met the real Lincoln, he would no doubt have been disappointed. The real Lincoln would have been a flawed human being with his own quirks and annoying habits, quite incapable of living up to Kirk’s expectations. The false Lincoln, made to match for Kirk’s expectations, was a whole lot more subjectively “real” to Kirk that that objectively real Lincoln could possibly have been.

I have taken a lesson from this, not just that anything that seems too good to be true probably is, but that anything that too perfectly fits your prejudices and preconceptions should not be trusted. This impression is strengthened by the book, They Never Said It, a collection of spurious quotes.* The two most common sources of spurious quotes – Lenin, who regularly has people’s worst fears put in his mouth, and (you guessed it) Lincoln, who is made a source of quotes for absolutely everything people want to support.

On the whole this has served me well. For instance, when I saw this picture of Sarah Palin, I immediately spotted it, not so much as a hoax, but more of a spoof, the perfect expression of what Palin's enemies think of her, rather than an actual pictue.

All of which is an overly lengthy lead-in to what a lot of liberal blogs have been commenting on – the recent piece by former Republican Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren his old bosses. Emotionally, it is very appealing, a former Republican expressing exactly all my prejudices and preconceptions about the Republicans, based on inside information. It seems too good to be true. Is it?

If it were anonymous, I would assume it was a hoax. But the author published under his own name. Legistorm on Lofgren confirms that Mike Lofgren really is (was) a Congressional staffer. And Michael Tomasky, who shares my concern, is willing to take the word of James Fallows, who has plenty of Washington contacts and vouches that Lofgren is for real. (He also comments that Lofgren has worked "mainly" for Republicans).**

So apparently this is for real. Substantive comments to follow in my next post.

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*And yet it did have quotes that appealed to my preconceptions and I wanted to believe.

**Tomasky also asks the question – how did someone like that get to be a Republican in the first place. He answers that Lofgren has been on Capitol Hill for 28 years, and that when he first arrived, it was perfectly normal and acceptable for a Republican to be sane.

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