When Peter Novick passed away recently, I immediately thought of the enormous impact that That Noble Dream had on my generation of graduate students. The book was published in September, 1988, the very month that I began graduate school. The book’s importance to many of my fellow graduate students and myself rested on at least three factors: first, it immediately became a centerpiece of the reading list for the historiography / methods course that we all took in our first semester of grad school (i.e. it was going to be “on the test”); second, it provided a historical narrative of the professional identity as historians that we had all recently decided to assume; finally, as Jim Harrison commented at the time (and, more recently, on this blog), the book was a “serious meditation about the state of things in the late 80s,” and thus very much spoke to the particular world of historical practice that we were all entering at the time.**
I was going to write something to this effect in response to Tim’s invitation to comment on Novick’s passing (I would have liked to say something, too, about The Holocaust in American Life, which was also a book of enormous importance to me), but I never got around to doing so. And the moment passed.
In part, I hesitated to write my memories of That Noble Dream in the late 1980s because I felt that the whole question of objectivity was less front-and-center in the profession today, that the book, while still a fine piece of scholarship, had (not surprisingly) lost its immediate currency. But I couldn’t manage to formulate exactly what had changed in this regard.***
Then, late last week, This American Life announced that, for the first time, they were retracting a story. “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” an episode-long exploration of conditions in a Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, that manufactures products for Apple, originally aired back in January and was an excerpt from a longer staged monologue by Mike Daisey who traveled to Shenzhen to investigate working conditions there. It turns out that many of the details of Daisey’s story were fabricated. Though it’s worth listening to the entire TAL story devoted to the retraction, the executive summary is that Daisey successfully, if temporarily, hid his fabrications from the show’s producers by lying to them about, among other things, the name of his translator, thus essentially making fact-checking the details of the story impossible. When the translator was later located, the fabrications became obvious and Daisey fell back on pseudo-defending himself by insisting that, since he is not a journalist, it’s wrong to hold him to the standards of journalism.
When this story broke, I commented on Facebook that “I’ve grown increasingly tired of people who try to pass fiction off as nonfiction. The issue of working conditions in China is a serious one, but fabricating stories about bad working conditions there does not help the cause. And simply saying ‘I’m not a journalist,’ as Mike Daisey does, won’t do. Nonfiction storytelling needs to be not fictional, whether or not one calls it journalism.”
In a variety of interesting ways, this is not quite Novick’s “objectivity question.” But it’s a cousin of it. And, like Novick’s book was in the 1980s, the Daisey scandal is very much of its time. From the controversy over James Frey’s pseudo-memoir A Million Little Pieces to the recent publication of John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact, which anticipates the controversy and undoes the scandal by making the nature of truth the very topic of the book itself, we find ourselves in a moment that both has an unusually high regard for non-fiction storytelling, yet is very unclear on how to define the boundary between fiction and non-fiction.
Then, just today, Aaron Bady published a really smart and interesting post over at The New Inquiry**** entitled “The McNulty Gambit.”***** Starting with the subplot from Season 5 of The Wire in which Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) invents a (media friendly) serial killer in an effort to attract public concern to crimes that would otherwise be ignored, Bady mounts a semi-defense of fabricating evidence, with reference to the Daisey case, the recent Kony viral video, the Three Cups of Tea fiasco, and the Gay Girl in Damascus blog. It’s an interesting effort. Rather than summarize Bady’s post in detail, I’ll just suggest you go read it.
Now that you’re back, let me note a couple things about Bady’s piece that bothered me.
Here is what I think are the nut ‘graphs of Bady’s post:
what these fiction writers also have in common is a certain objective sense in which they are right, in which the story they are telling is true. While their subjective accounts tend to be the least true part of it (the most damning lies have to do with Daisey’s description of his personal experiences, for example), but behind those subjective untruths, we also find a broad field of objective accuracy: Foxconn is a terrible place to work, Joseph Kony really is a nightmare, building schools in Afghanistan is a good thing to do, and Syrian repression is no joke. Marlo really was a serial killer.
This is not a defense, of course, but it is worth saying: if we only emphasize the lies in these accounts, we thereby overlook the extent to which they were saying true things. And it is also worth remembering that truth is not an either/or. One can easily deceive by telling nothing but the truth – telling it selectively, misframed, etc – and one can also tell a kind of truth by using statements which are, on their own, untrue. This is why fiction matters, and why journalism never rests onquite the firm bedrock of objectivity that it needs to pretend it does. But again, this is not a defense, just an attempt to describe a problem that we often have vested interests in failing to acknowledge, the blurriness of the line that separates fact from fiction.
What bothers me here is the slippage in Bady’s post between right and true. Bady seems to want to argue that, though not true in one sense, the falsehoods in these stories are true in some other sense.
But this seems like a wholly unnecessary bit of water-muddying. Certainly Daisey, Frey, Tom MacMaster (“Gay Girl in Damascus”), and (the fictional) McNulty absolutely understood that they were telling falsehoods and did what they could to cover up that fact. What each was interested in wasn’t arriving at some higher truth, but rather compelling action, which each felt couldn’t be done by simply sticking to the facts.
Bady understands this. And most of the rest of his post concerns precisely what one needs to do to compel action (more about this later). But for some reason Bady starts the discussion by attempting to reframe the it in terms of the complexity of truth, almost suggesting that a lie that compels good action might be another form of truth.
Sorry. I’m not buying.
There is, of course, a tradition stretching at least back to Plato that argues in favor of “noble lies” or socially necessary falsehoods. It is a tradition that, at least today, is largely associated with the political right. I can’t say I find this tradition very attractive. But speaking of noble lies seems to me a good deal clearer and, in a certain sense, more honest, than attempts to rebrand putatively socially necessary falsehoods as some other form of truth. The story of the McNulty Gambit is, in fact, a story about noble lying. We will be clearer about the virtues and vices associated with this strategy if we are honest about what it entails.
My other dissent from Bady concerns his post’s concluding thoughts about the seemingly futile reformism of many of the efforts that he discusses. In situations that require fundamental structural changes–the political situation in central Africa, crime in Baltimore, working conditions in China–Bady’s protagonists spin yarns that seem to instead point to inadequate and local changes–killing Joseph Kony, capturing Marlo, boycotting Apple products. This flawed reformism, Bady argues, is intimately linked to the limitations of narrative:
[B]ecause such stories are derived from their audience – and its imaginative capabilities – they will for that reason demand and privilege reactions to the problem that are maddeningly simplistic in their very imaginable practicality. Kony is bad and so he must be killed by the military, because that’s something we can picture, can visualize; fundamentally restructuring the Central African system of political economy and governance is impossibly and unthinkably remote. Apple is bad and must be regulated (or shunned or something), because, again, that’s something simple we can imagine happening (as opposed to any alternative to the advanced industrial capitalism that makes Foxconn all but inevitable). And MacMasters later admitted that he had given his story an ending, an ending that is striking by its plausible realism: “I was going to end the story with having her be free, and get out of country — end of story.” But this ending is necessary precisely because individual escapes happen every day (while a real solution to the Syrian crisis is unthinkably complicated).
Each of these outcomes are imaginable, in part, as a direct consequence of the fact that they do not trouble the status quo. We can imagine those reforms, because they are essentially superficial adjustments of a system that not only remains intact, but which we – in our thinking about what is and isn’t possible – rely on and presume.
All of which is simply to say: it’s in the nature of grand structural transformations that we will always have great difficulty picturing what the end-state would look like. And because we feel we have to, we tend not to, falling back on the narrative patterns we know better.
I think, in principle, quite the opposite is the case. Our ability to imagine fundamental structural change is, if anything, more dependent upon, and more helped by, fictional narratives, than is the reformism of these particular efforts. Our culture–and most other cultures of which I’m aware–is full of stories that imagine vast, fundamental changes in the world: from the Book of Revelation to the entire genre of secular utopian (and dystopian) fiction. The world’s great revolutionary and reactionary movements have compelled transformative action–for good and ill–precisely by substituting fantastic tales for quotidian truth, often labeling the fiction a kind of higher truth (Stalinist Socialist Realism comes most immediately to mind, but just about any millenarian religious movement or radical political movement has similar structures). Bady is right that the reformism of these efforts is worth noting. But that reformism is accidental; it does not reflect any limits of the McNulty Gambit.
Let me conclude by pointing this discussion back in the direction of historical practice (without ever quite getting there). None of the figures that Bady discusses are historians. Despite historians occasionally playing with narrative and fiction, even the most postmodern of us tend to go no further than knowingly making stuff up that we simply cannot know and admitting as much (and even that is a bold, and IMO rarely entirely successful, maneuver). To the best of my knowledge, the canons of historical practice still explicitly forbid passing on knowing falsehoods as the truth.
And yet the “objectivity question,” to the extent that it still exists, revolves around similar issues. The quest for a “usable past” is not entirely dissimilar from the desire to tell stories that will compel action.
So I’m back where I was when I didn’t write about That Noble Dream the week before last, wondering how exactly this moment of our culture’s continuing struggle to reconcile narrative and truth is reflected in my own profession. And wishing, I suppose, that I had a guide as good as Novick around to help clarify these issues for me.
* What is blogging for if it is not, occasionally, for muddled thoughts?
** This was particularly the case in the Princeton History Department, which played a starring role of sorts in Novick’s final chapter on the David Abraham controversy, which had occurred just a few short years earlier. Several years later, I’d actually become friends with David. Though he was teaching at the University of Miami’s law school, he continued to live in Princeton, NJ. And, during summers, he played softball with me on the History Department’s B-league softball team, the Revolting Masses (fwiw, the more serious / skilled A-league History Department squad was called the Machiavellian Moment). But in the fall of 1988, David was very much an historical actor and, as of yet, unknown to me personally.
*** One way or another, I would have asked younger readers of this blog whether this book mattered to them at all. So I might as well do so here. Does it?
**** The New Inquiry’s format, like that of the sports-and-culture blog Grantland, incorporates marginal notes, a marvelous (and marvelously old-fashioned) way of presenting additional information that turns out to be particularly well-suited to the web. Certainly it beats the crap out of these jerry-rigged footnotes. Memo to myself: when this blog finally migrates to WordPress, let’s see if we can incorporate marginal notes in our new design!
***** The piece is apparently partly inspired by Slavoj Žižek’s recent talk on The Wire, which I have yet to listen to. Bady’s description of that talk as “usefully wrong about lots of things, and strikingly insightful about a few,” however, seems to me one of the best general descriptions of Žižek’s work that I’ve ever read.