Don’t think and drive.
That was the message sent out by the FBI to roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies on Christmas Eve. The alert urged police pulling over drivers for traffic violations, and conducting other routine investigations, to keep their eyes open for people carrying almanacs. Why almanacs? Because they are filled with facts–population figures, weather predictions, diagrams of buildings and landmarks. And according to the FBI Intelligence Bulletin, facts are dangerous weapons in the hands of terrorists, who can use them to “to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning.”
But in a world filled with potentially lethal facts and figures, it seems unfair to single out almanac readers for police harassment. As the editor of The World Almanac and Book of Facts rightly points out, “The government is our biggest single supplier of information.” Not to mention the local library: A cache of potentially dangerous information weaponry is housed at the center of almost every American town. The FBI, of course, is all over the library threat, seizing library records at will under the Patriot Act.
The blacklisting of the almanac was a fitting end for 2003, a year that waged open war on truth and facts and celebrated fakes and forgeries of all kinds. This was the year when fakeness ruled: fake rationales for war, a fake President dressed as a fake soldier declaring a fake end to combat and then holding up a fake turkey. An action movie star became governor and the government started making its own action movies, casting real soldiers like Jessica Lynch as fake combat heroes and dressing up embedded journalists as fake soldiers. Saddam Hussein even got a part in the big show: He played himself being captured by American troops. This is the fake of the year, if you believe the Sunday Herald in Scotland, as well as several other news agencies, which reported that he was actually captured by a Kurdish special forces unit.
It was Britain, however, that pushed the taste for fake to new levels. “Her main aim is to meet as many Nigerians as she can,” the Queen’s press secretary, Penny Russell, said of the monarch’s December trip to Nigeria. But just as Bush never made it out of the airport bunker in Baghdad, the Queen’s people decided it was too dangerous for her to mingle with actual Nigerians. So instead of the planned visit to an African village, the Queen toured the set of a BBC soap opera in New Karu, constructed to look like an authentic African market. During the “fake walkabout,” as the Sunday Telegraph called it, the Queen chatted with paid actors playing regular villagers, while actual villagers watched the event on a large-screen TV outside the security perimeter.
But 2003 was about more than embracing fakery and forgery–it was also about punishing truth-telling. The highest price was paid by David Kelly, the British government weapons expert who killed himself after he was outed as the source of a BBC story on “sexed up” security documents. Katharine Gun, a British intelligence employee, faces up to two years in prison for revealing US plans to spy on UN diplomats in order to influence the Security Council vote on Iraq. And in the United States, Joseph Wilson, who told the truth about finding no evidence of Saddam’s alleged uranium shopping trip in Africa, was punished by proxy: His wife, Valerie Plame, was illegally outed as a CIA operative.
While truth did not pay in 2003, lying certainly did. Just ask Rupert Murdoch. According to an October study conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, when it comes to the war in Iraq, regular watchers of Murdoch’s Fox News are the most misinformed people in America. Eighty percent of Fox News watchers believed either that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, that there is evidence of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link or that world opinion supported the war–or they believed all three of these untruths.
On December 19 the Federal Communications Commission gave Murdoch the right to purchase the top US satellite broadcaster, DirecTV. The FCC vote took place just five days before the FBI’s almanac bulletin, and they can best be understood in tandem: If books that fill your brain with facts make you a potential terrorist, then media moguls who fill your brain with mush must be heroes, deserving of the richest rewards.
When Bush came to office, many believed his ignorance would be his downfall. Eventually Americans would realize that a President who referred to Africa as “a nation” was unfit to lead. Now we tell ourselves that if only Americans knew that they were being lied to, they would surely revolt. But with the greatest of respect for the liar books (Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Big Lies, The Lies of George W. Bush, The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq et al.), I’m no longer convinced that America can be set free by the truth alone.
In many cases, fake versions of events have prevailed even when the truth was readily available. The real Jessica Lynch–who told Diane Sawyer that “no one beat me, no one slapped me, no one, nothing”–has proven no match for her media-military created doppelgänger, shown being slapped around by her cruel captors in NBC’s movie Saving Jessica Lynch.
Rather than being toppled for his adversarial relationship to both the most important truths and the most basic facts, Bush is actively remaking America in the image of his own ignorance and duplicity. Not only is it OK to be misinformed, but as the almanac warning shows, knowing stuff is fast becoming a crime.
It brings to mind the story about why Castilian Spaniards pronounce gracias as “grathiath.” In the seventeenth century, the country was ruled by a monarch with a severe speech impediment and a fragile ego. To flatter the ruler, it was decreed that everyone should imitate the king’s lisp and mispronounce their c’s and s’s.
According to all reputable linguists, the legend is a complete fake. But in Bush’s America that should hardly matter.