Thirty years ago the singing duo that called themselves Milli Vanilli was revealed to be a fraud who had lip-synced their way to a Grammy award. This scandal, of course, paled in comparison to a great many other events that ushered America into the 1990’s, such as the end of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union or the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.
Nonetheless, the saga of Milli Vanilli somehow seems a neat signpost on America’s journey from a focus on actual accomplishments to a destructive fascination with the buying and selling of snake oil. Idiots blinded by their own egos have occupied center stage of many of the tragedies that have befallen individuals and our nation, and their inability to recognize their own shortcomings have left a terrible trail of human wreckage in their wakes.
The question is why American society seems to be producing these fools at an ever faster pace? Are we simply more readily recognizing them, or is there some flaw in our minds and society that is causing their growth to metastasize?
No age has ever been free of mendacity. Frauds, liars, hucksters, and charlatans have, of course,long been a part of U.S. history, and they have often excited our curiosity. However, our entertainment, political, educational, and business worlds—aided by the now incomprehensible penetration of our lives by public relations and marketing that is masquerading as news and information—have spent the past several decades peddling unadulterated falsehoods with a regularity and intensity that is quite remarkable. Lies have become the lingua franca of modern American life.
Unsurprisingly, choking down this all-you-can-eat buffet of false or misleading “facts” has left many suspicious to the point of paranoia and caused a great deal of anger and anxiety. Those who control our businesses and institutions seem not to realize that our dim opinion of their veracity is wholly justified. There is a valid reason why, for example, the U.S. Congress is held in such universally low esteem by Americans.
Some of the problem is that, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Prompted by the work of hothouse literary and cultural theorists ensconced in cushy tenured positions at America’s universities, our cultural elites have embraced a post-modern mindset that believes facts are merely interpretations of that which is ultimately unknowable—no truth is, as we long have believed, evidently “self-evident”. Therefore, our attempts to distinguish fantasy from reality generally devolve into endless arguments about our own feelings and emotions, and we cite “facts” only to the degree they support our close-minded viewpoints.
Sadly, there is always someone willing to tell us exactly what we want to hear in order to obtain our support, acquiescence, or the cash from our wallets. Moreover, no longer having any faith in anyone but ourselves, we now gravitate toward boneheaded celebrities, those paragons of fuzzy logic, whose vapid pronouncements, dripping with faux profundity, we now cleave to as if they are oracles.
Which brings us back to Milli Vanilli….
Those with few skills and little knowledge—but an insatiable appetite for fame—are now able to leverage the power of the camera to engage in incessant and deceptive self-promotion in order to evade discovery for what they really are: moderately talented people with troubling boundary issues. When the two men who comprised Milli Vanilli were exposed as dim pretty boys who couldn’t sing a note, they boldly moved on to a now well-travelled Plan B: They were innocent young men who had been victimized, which in their case was apparently perpetrated by a duplicitous record producer. Their ploy to gain public sympathy after their exposure as frauds was ultimately unsuccessful, but it does point the way toward another peculiar feature of our exceedingly peculiar modern age: victimhood as a career move.
We see this most clearly manifested in our politics today, which perhaps helps to explain at least a little of why so many candidates and office holders find themselves stuck in an “authenticity trap” as they craft their public images using the questionable and self-serving tactics of our celebrity culture as a guide to their success.
To a degree that is both startling and sickening, contemporary politicians now often seek to create their own tales of victimhood in order to gain support from the voting public. However, given that so many who either seek or hold office have been blessed with enviable good fortune, inherited wealth, or unearned privilege—which has allowed them to pursue a career in politics in the first place—their efforts to spin their extraordinarily blessed lives into a relatable tales of woe often require embellishments and omissions that leave them open to inconvenient questions. When their deceptive self-presentations are exposed, as so many inevitably are, the mighty but stupid hit the ground with a dull splat—or win election to yet higher office.
Just as Botox and boob jobs do not simultaneously raise your I.Q., so should politicians recognize that the inevitable little bumps on their otherwise smooth paths to success do not in any way compare to the onslaught of difficult life challenges their constituents face every day. Likewise, the belief of some politicians that their own coveted celebrity status is beneficial to anyone but themselves also requires harsh re-examination. Quotable outrage does not equal constituent service, and the nation is made no sounder or safer by Senator Blowhard’s book contract or sketchy charitable foundation.
Were our current crop of celebrity-seeking politicians to find themselves in a crisis akin to that which faced our nation after Pearl Harbor, I cannot help but wonder how many of our self-aggrandizing leaders would rush to enlist or allow their privileged offspring to do so. Those of our elected officials who have actually served their nation in wartime are today a rare species, and we should give them far more attention than those who daily check how many followers they have on social media.
The Hollywood-style convoluted logic that asserts utter nonsense such as gratuitously flashing your breasts in a movie is actually a brave blow for freedom and feminism now drives many odd beliefs that are disastrous for our nation and its citizens. Debt is not wealth. Mathematics are not racist. Prostitution is not a victimless crime. Drugs are not harmless. Schools are not required to give you a passing grade. Pajamas are not work attire. Obeying just laws is not a form of oppression. Proper spelling and punctuation is not optional. Criminals are not the victims. Those who peddle these myths and many more that absolve the irresponsible or plain awful and blame others for individual failures of will or judgment claim to be great truth tellers. However, their baseless beliefs serve to only further foster our unreal reality—and with it our obsessive pursuit of a positive image for others to admire.
In order to keep up appearances, many now feel compelled to follow the lead of their supposed betters. Therefore, we spin a tall tale to impress others. Our résumés are filled with falsehoods. We exaggerate our importance and ruthlessly denigrate others. We pay crooks to help to enroll our children in elite colleges so that others can admire our parenting skills. We tone ourselves at the gym so that we can better flaunt our bodies. We save our money—or more likely borrow it—for plastic surgery. We crave designer clothing and lust for the bright and shiny toys that will provide some distraction from the squeaky hamster wheel of unending and pointless wants that otherwise occupies our days.
Lip-syncing is fine for party nights with friends, but we need to remember the vast and unbridgeable difference between the fakery many use to gain fame and the harmless fun of occasionally pretending in order to entertain ourselves and others. If we can compel those who run—or aspire to run—our big businesses, elite colleges, government agencies, and mass entertainment to also recognize the differences between hard truth and comforting fantasy, we and our nation will benefit from this change back to decisions based on reality and actual, provable facts.