Looking for the Joke with a Microscope

A couple of years ago I watched Hard Times at Douglass High, a mesmerizing, Wisemanesque HBO documentary ostensibly about an inner-city Baltimore high school struggling—and failing utterly—to meet the proficiency requirements codified under George W. Bush's harebrained No Child Left Behind education initiative. My use of the word "ostensibly" in the preceding sentence is advised, because although the film is packaged and promoted as a public-spirited critique of NCLB with the usual appeals for educational reform implied, the document that meets the viewer's eye soon belies every conceit of advocacy journalism. In full effect, Hard Times is as devoid of hope as a Haneke joint; it presents a grim portrait not of institutional dysfunction, but of an intractably pathological culture in free-fall. The film provokes a sense of futility that really has no place within prevailing modes of policy discourse.

I am not alone in this impression. A few seconds of Googling turns up a suspiciously intoned New York Times review that bluntly sums up the pregnant subtext:

[This] dismaying film isn’t really asking whether No Child Left Behind can help Douglass. It’s asking whether anything can.                  

There's this notion that Serious Thinkers will sometimes disguise or encode their real intentions—that by employing ironic, esoteric, obscurantist or cleverly misdirectional argumentative strategies, philosophers and intellectuals (and documentarians, we may suppose) can engage dangerous, ineffable or otherwise troublesome ideas on the sly, without griming up the scene or stirring discord. The notion is at once intriguing, plausible, and insidious. I also think it's mostly, though not entirely, bullshit.

The political philosopher Leo Strauss famously argued that esoteric modus operandi could be descried in the texture of many pre-Enlightenment works of poli-phi (that is, until Machiavelli gave the game away), and that hidden meanings sizzle just beneath the surface of the ancient canon. Probably the most commonly cited example of a purported "Straussian" text is The Trial of Socrates, which, at least according to Leo and his cult, is only read exoterically as a morality play about a persecuted truth-seeker. To the elite few who are wise enough to crack the code, the deeper, esoteric meaning is revealed to center not on the injustice done to a revolutionary spirit, but on the danger posed when elite philosophy is uncorked for mass consumption. 

Even you suspect—as I do—that Strauss was given to bookish paranoia, and that his Big Idea comes laced in Kabbalistic thread, I think it is generally agreed that problematic ideas are sometimes addressed from behind a veil of plausible deniability. It seems likely that David Hume's writings on religion are layered with the kind of self-acquitting winks that we might expect from someone—an atheist—who sought to advance skepticism without rousing the bench. If we jump-cut to the more-or-less present, I am reasonably convinced that this was Dinesh D'Souza's none-too-subtle ruse when he was writing his post-Bell Curve treatise, The End of Racism, back in the mid-90s. D'Souza's schtick comes to a head in a chapter entitled "The Content of Our Chromosomes," where he duly rehearses the strong case for a bio-realistic account of racial differences before concluding, in a conspicuous non-sequitur, that such evidence can and should—for some forgettably crucial reason—be summarily discounted.* I'm actually less persuaded concerning the HBO doc that quacks like a video addendum to a Charles Murray white paper, but I know better than to look for clues in the press kit. 

I've heard speculation concerning other threads, usually from partisan channels. Some feminists, for example, argue that Freud's abandonment of the seduction theory can be understood as a kind of "post-emptive" cover for the patriarchy's dirtiest little secret. It's also common enough to find lefties suggesting that neoconservative prattle about spreading democracy amounts to a double-spoken defense of  imperialism. Meanwhile, on the Weekly Standard right, it's just as common to find the claim that people who criticize neoconservatives—or who use the word "neoconservative" twice in the same paragraph, or with the wrong inflection—are merely encoding anti-Semitic messages. Such examples may or may not hold an ounce of water, and it's likely that your impression will tell more of your political biases than your powers of discernment as such.           

But if someone were to raise the magic curtain and let us in on the unfettered Truth, I suppose D'Souza's the only chimp I'd bet good money on (or against). One obvious problem is that once you allow that hidden meanings might be buried here and there, it becomes all-too-tempting to spot esoteric strategies everywhere, which is to say, inevitably, where none exist. Isn't this always the snare with pattern recognition? Best to sniff thrice and tread carefully, lest you squint out the N-rays or find yourself adrift in LaRouchian fantasies

Still, if we're inclined to go fishing, it seems safe enough to assume that the Straussian "art of writing"—or filmmaking or music or art or tetherball—will be observed where legal or cultural forces inveigh against the open and explicit engagement of certain proscribed logical sequences. Too bad I can't read Arabic.

In a 2008 Hoover Hog interview, the dissident videographer known as "Denier" suggests that Errol Morris's documentary, Mr. Death, can be read as a covert defense of Holocaust revisionism. Here's the clip:  

THH: You mentioned Errol Morris's film, Mr. Death, about Fred Leuchter. Any thoughts on Morris's work?

Denier: Mr. Death is about holocaust denial, and the only way that movie could make it into every video store in the country is to have the proponent (Leuchter) portrayed as a freak. In the 1500's, there was probably some corollary with Atheism. Some book which discussed atheism, but where it was allowed because it was a freak or a Bad Man who was an atheist.

THH: That's an interesting point. Do you think that Mr. Death can be viewed as an esoteric defense of Leuchter — and of Holocaust denial even if that wasn't Morris's intention? I read that when an early cut was shown, audiences responded with sympathy toward the Bad Man, and that the film was subsequently re-edited to include the critical segments featuring Robert Jan van Pelt, which really do seem tacked on.

Denier: Yes, my video "One Third" mentions that. A preliminary screening of Mr. Death at Harvard University had some students believing Leuchter's theory, so he re-edited the movie.

I've seen most of Morris's films and I've read his books. I follow his NYT journal. I'm a fan. If I also tell you that I have long believed that Morris's oeuvre might be instructively assayed in light of Janet Malcolm's famous monograph, The Journalist and the Murderer, the irony will be revealed soon enough.

Mr. Death is an interesting film, and I think Holocaust revisionists may be correct to note that the face-saving footage is easily identified and feels out-of-place. But a more perceptive appraisal may be located in a pseudononymous review that originally appeared in the pages of the Bradley Smith's newsletter:

The film is difficult to evaluate, particularly from a revisionist perspective: Morris' films are supposed to be exercises in irony, not documentaries in a strict sense. Yet the whole aim of revisionism is to dispel the double-visions, and the superstitious delusions, which make irony possible. This simply means that if Morris had made a positive contribution to revisionism, the irony would have been tragic, but if he had made the kind of movie he wanted to make, the irony would have been non-existent. As a result, instead of a revisionist breakthrough, or a delicious satire, Morris has been left with very little, except, possibly, a friend.   

I don't think it's trivial to suggest that Morris may have felt amity toward the Bad Man. To appropriate Sister Y's preferred phrase, it could be that the learned documentarian came, slowly and against all instinct, to see Leuchter as an "epistemic peer," that is as someone whose views he could not readily dismiss. We've all had the experience: a conversation that echoes in the mind, that nests in like a dormant itch.             

A bit further in the same review:

But the problem was that for once Morris broke the surly bonds of satire and found himself soaring weightless in reality. Fred [Leuchter] is not a stupid person. His ideas are not insane. His report, although flawed, contained a genuine core of insight and inspiration. But Morris could not see any of this; for once, he could not appreciate the irony. Twenty years ago, he had college students laughing as old folks talked about meeting their dogs in heaven. He figured that Fred Leuchter would be just as funny. He was wrong: as the saying goes, the joke was on him.

Errol Morris, at least in the years since he sat down with Fred Leuchter to document the eccentric engineer's "Rise and Fall," seems curiously preoccupied with epistemological puzzles—especially those that simmer where presumptional foundations are held, by dint of cultural consensus, beyond question. His recent investigations have focused on photographs of historical and political currency—emotionally laden images that that are gradually complicated by problems of interpretive bias, or by problems of knowledge. From Roger Fenton's cannonballs to the most wrenching Abu Ghraib stills, the mysteries embedded in Morris's carefully chosen photo-gallery reside where the precept of "obviousness" collides with verifiable data, or collapses under scrutiny. With an ingenuous wink toward Donald Rumsfeld, Morris seems driven of late to explore lurking matters where "unknown unknowns" may occlude our understanding of "the obvious."

As Morris insists in his captivating study of photography, Believing is Seeing, "Nothing is so obvious that it’s obvious,"

When someone says that something is obvious, it seems almost certain that it is anything but obvious—even to them. The use of the word “obvious” indicates the absence of a logical argument—an attempt to convince the reader by asserting the truth of something by saying it a little louder. 

When does this happen? Under what conditions, and why? You look at a photograph and you read the caption and the most easily presumed—the most obvious—contextual narrative is confirmed. Close enough every time. Except when it isn't. Or when questions hover out-of-frame.

Turning to the publisher's description for The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes Morris's next book, we find the following text:

A nonfiction story can be falsified by evidence. But what happens when a theory of a crime—a narrative—overwhelms that evidence? When evidence is rejected, suppressed, misinterpreted, or remains uncollected simply because it does not support the chosen narrative? To make matters worse, what happens when the chosen narrative, despite underlying infirmities, solidifies as it is told and retold until it is accepted as fact and is no longer subject to scrutiny?

To be clear, the book being described is called A Wilderenss of Error, and it revisits the sensationally reported case of one Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor who was eventually tried and convicted for the murder of his wife and two daughters—a crime he blamed, notoriously in the wake of the Manson family spree, on "drug crazed hippies." Of course, we are familiar with the story through Joe McGuiness's bestselling book, Fatal Vision—as well as, perhaps and significantly, through Janet Malcolm's aforementioned study of journalistic ethics, which famously opens with a most incisive provocation:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. 

The "nonfiction story" is specific enough. It concerns events that long ago commanded our collective attention, and it concerns a narrative long believed to have been confirmed. Morris begs our consideration not with some ironic gesture dispatched at the expense of a compliant rube, but with an appeal to look beyond the made-for-TV mythos, beyond the "obvious" conclusion that has been imprinted through telling and re-telling.

My wife thinks I'm crazy to slum for a deeper irony, and she's probably right. More than a decade has passed since the Bad Man faced the Interrotron. Obviously, we have all moved on.      


* See Thomas Jackson's review of D'Souza's book from the November 1995 issue of American Renassaince

Memento mori.