Monday, September 1, 2014

It’s All a Blur

He couldn’t get close enough to wolves in the wild to film their social activity, so with a deadline looming, he rented domesticated wolves.” This promo on NPR about the making of animal documentaries caught my attention. I’d heard exposes about Animal Planet earlier in the summer—depicting film crews who bated animals before filming. The stories don’t surprise me. And yet, today as I listened to the phrase “he rented domesticated wolves,” I thought, in this new century, is there a line between fiction and reality, and if so, what is it?

This all sounds a bit like Jayson Blair who was caught both plagiarizing and fabricating stories for the New York Times back in 2003 before he resigned. He wasn’t the first journalist to perpetrate such lies on the news reading public, but he was a spectacular example that fiction can easily masquerade as fact.

Another story on NPR earlier in the week about the latest war tourism somehow worried me more. They recounted the story of former Army Pvt. Eric Harroun, one American among many, who have gone on their own to fight in Syria. Harroun documented his pursuit of the enemy on camera and posted it on Facebook and YouTube with his narration. It sounded like a bad movie or a video game. A listener could hear him lock and load his weapon, no doubt an automatic one. It was eerie and strange. Was it real or memorex? 

What happened? It’s a chaotic scene in Syria with a variety of forces fighting one another. He was arrested for treason when he returned to the US and spent 6 months in solitary. Eventually the charge was changed to providing weapons to the enemy and released for time served.

I lived in Michigan during the early days of the Michigan Militia, which according to their website held an event this weekend, so I’m not unfamiliar with the idea that Americans would take up arms to protect themselves at home and abroad. As much as that may trouble me, what caught my attention this time was the making of the documentaries. While life and death were clearly at stake, the imitation of a fictive storyline with all of the elements, save an underscore of music, made this somehow more about self and fun than about duty or country.

Why does this blurring of fact and fiction matter to me? I write fiction. I’m a scholar. The two meld. In writing Isolation I did a great deal of research. My goal: make my fiction seem real. I don’t think that’s new. Even when writers aren’t academics or researchers, they’re readers and observers. I think writers of fiction have always wanted to tell a true story. Not true in the sense of it happened, but true to life. Believable. 

And in promoting my novel I try again to connect my fiction to current news. A recent tweet: 

“They stopped and put on masks before touching him again.” It wasn’t Ebola, but it could have been. 

If the quotation marks seem odd, it’s because the first sentence comes from my novel and appears within the larger context of the story of Tomás on a site called Bublish. The second sentence connects the quote to the news of the day. Was it successful? I’m too new at social marketing to be sure, but I will say it got more views than most of my tweets. Why? Again, I can’t possibly know, but I suspect that which leads to trending, popular culture’s interplay with news. 

If that particular mix of fact and fiction is comfortable for me, why do I find renting domestic wolves or war tourists who record their travails to be problematic? In a word, propaganda. So commonly associated with war that I immediately think of Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda—Goebbels.   The audiences of Nazi propaganda were multiple: the SS, Hitler Youth, the Allies. Triumph of Will is a gorgeous demonstration of fiction presented as fact, to speak nothing of the use of cinematography to capture an emotional response as well. 

From our current vantage point, the fictionalization of such a piece is amazingly evident, but in the midst of the war that was far from the viewers’ perspective. If we turn our attention to 1984 and the slogan “War is Peace,” we can see propaganda at work from the standpoint of fiction. Oceania, the society of Orwell’s novel, has been duped into believing many party slogans which appear so ludicrous on the surface as to be oxymoronic. 

And of course, no reader wants to be Winston. It is clear that even as free individuals, free readers, we would not choose the slavery of the characters in 1984. We watch as Winston, among others, creates the propaganda by re-writing history before our reading eyes. Ration numbers change, heroes become villains, no fact is safe from the Ministry of Truth. 

As a dystopian reader and writer, this is what I fear most: a government which hides the truth, whether in subtle ways or right out in the open. It’s not just animal documentaries that hide the truth about rented wolves in the fine print of the credits or war tourism which provides a lens onto the battlefield while masquerading as clear and just fighting, it’s also the labeling practices of the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association which are funding the anti-GMO-labeling initiatives cropping up in state after state. 

But it’s not just my inability to know what products contain what kinds of GMO’s that has me scared to eat food sold in US supermarkets, it’s also the FDA’s lack of standards when it comes to additives in general. That which is “Generally Recognized As Safe” or “GRAS” might be a fine standard if it weren’t for the corporate monetary incentive to rush to market rather than protect consumers. 

Of course, the conspiracy theorist in me would point to the number of former Monsanto execs who have ended up in government offices to show the collusion between Agri-Business, the FDA, and the EPA, but I’ll let you be the judge: check out the websites from Monsanto and one of many opponents.

For me there’s no question, the public lines between fact and fiction are blurred. In 2014 it’s hard to know what to believe. Maybe this doesn’t matter to you. Maybe it shouldn’t matter to me. I lived through 1984 in reality, but I don’t want to live through its fiction. After many years of thinking I should eat organic, I’m trying to actually do that—at least at home. I donate money to support GMO-labeling. War is not Peace; Freedom is not Slavery; this is not 1984.

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