The American Appetite for Deception

The "Feejee Mermaid," reputed to be a "specimen of a veritable mermaid" from the South Pacific, was one of the more outlandish wonders exhibited by P.T. Barnum.  In a painting outside the museum where it was on display, the mermaid was depicted as "a beautiful creature, half-woman, half-fish, about eight feet in length."  Inside, the "mermaid" was nothing more than the head and torso of a monkey sewn to the body of a fish "that a boy a few years old easily could run away with under his arm."

Outrage would have been a reasonable response to a ruse so outrageous, but in fact, the exhibit was a resounding success, both popularly and financially.  "The public appeared to be satisfied," Barnum later reflected, though he acknowledged not everyone was amused.  "Some persons always will take things literally, and make no allowance for poetical license, even in mermaids."  A Dutchman who, expecting to find the stupendous, beautiful lady-fish depicted outside, came face-to-face with the diminutive, ugly monkey-fish inside, exclaimed with unmitigated scorn, "Well that is the poorest show I ever did see."

Barnum's success as a showman can be attributed in no small part to his understanding of mass psychology.  As Daniel Boorstin observed, "[c]ontrary to popular belief, Barnum's great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived."  In an age of universal haste, life as it unfolds naturally is insipid.  Those who inhabit such an age expect more from life; in fact, they demand it, and though their demands may be unrealistic, they would rather have them met than have them disappointed.  That is, they prefer the factitious to the spontaneous, the false to the genuine, the artificial to the natural.  They are willing, even eager, to sacrifice authenticity for excitement, truth for novelty.  For Aristotle, it was the unexamined life that was not worth living; for modern man, it is the uncontrived life.

The verity of this phenomenon was borne out recently in the wake of Beyoncé's rendition of the National Anthem.  By any fair reckoning, it was a deceitful performance.  A more honest showing would have replaced Beyoncé with a cardboard cutout or an empty chair so that no one would have been led to believe that the object at center stage actually was singing.  Yet on the whole, people remained pleased all the same.  Spectators understandably would have preferred to witness an actual performance, just as Barnum's audience would have preferred to behold a veritable mermaid.  But insofar as there could be no mermaid, nor, for whatever reason, an actual live performance, dissemblance was preferable to a candid (pre-)disclosure.  The former engendered emotions -- positive, heartfelt emotions -- that never could have been roused by the latter.  Of course, there are those who take things literally and make no allowance for poetical license, even in the live performance of the National Anthem on Inauguration Day.  But as Barnum recognized, such persons there always will be.

Concealed beneath this spectacle was an even more entertaining and revealing one -- one that further alludes to the willingness with which people welcome, or at least, abide deception:  the American people were flagrantly and purposefully misled about the performance of the National Anthem at the inauguration of a president who flagrantly and purposefully misled the American people.  The latter imputation seems no more open to dispute than the former.  In making this claim, what is being contended is not that Obama misled the people as a result of failed policies (e.g., the stimulus did not keep unemployment below 8%) or unfulfilled promises, however naïve (e.g., shutting down Guantánamo) or shameless (e.g., ObamaCare will not add to the deficit) those promises may have been.  All this is true, but policy failures and unfulfilled promises are part and parcel of politics.  What is meant is that Obama purposefully portrayed himself as something he fundamentally was not.  How else can one explain that the person who campaigned on transparency, post-partisanship, and fiscal responsibility is less transparent than his notoriously opaque predecessor, arguably the most partisan and unarguably the most spendthrift president in U.S. history?  A failed policy cannot account for so tremendous a disparity between image and reality.  But a successful one can.  And therein lies the rub.

The promise of an implausibly transcendent president was sold to the American people.  They bought it.  What they received was something radically different from that what was advertised. 

As with P.T. Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid, from President Obama's point of view, the swindle has been an unquestionable triumph.  Of course there have been, as there always will be, those who have not afforded the president any poetical license.  But the majority of the people seem not the least put off that they were misled so flagrantly.  Even after the swindle had become apparent, they opted, with the full knowledge that they had been duped, to purchase a second ticket! 

In a more prudent age, the dubiety, to say nothing of the vacuity, of Obama's rhetoric would have been recognized early on.  But alas, the present age is one that will not be remembered for its prudence.  Not only were untold scores of people swept up by that rhetoric, but even after learning that they were being helmed astray, they preferred to be carried off by the current rather than struggle against it and chart a new course. 

To be taken in by an entertainer is one thing; to be taken in by an elected official, one elected to the nation's highest office, is something else.  Perhaps, in the end, a people cannot invite the former without risking the latter. 

The way of the world, reflected Barnum, is "to excite the community with flaming posters, promising almost everything for next to nothing."  As the past four years have made plain, and in spite of what Obama's rise was proclaimed to herald, the way of the world remains unchanged.

David A. Eisenberg is assistant director for academic affairs in the arts and sciences at Columbia University and is adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Baruch College, City University of New York.