In a perfect world, I would be placed in charge of restoring national respect for truth and honesty. And my first target would not be politicians, or the school system. No, I would concentrate my initial reform efforts on big-time wrestling.
Why pick on a few beefy guys in tights and face paint? Because their antics illustrate a serious problem that's affecting American culture. They're promoting a charade. It's presented as genuine, but we all know they're acting. This athletic theater of the absurd was mostly harmless until, in the 1980s, extensive TV exposure pulled it into the mainstream of American culture, along with tabloid news programs and trash talk shows. Suddenly, it was acceptable to walk on both sides of the line separating fact and fiction.
"Primary Colors" is the latest example of this trend. The book was marketed as a novel, except that (wink, nod) everybody knows who the author (Anonymous, a.k.a. Joe Klein) was writing about. To me, this kind of flexible reality is disorienting.
Worst of all is the vast and growing mountain of bizarre information on the World Wide Web. In the cyberworld of uncensored voices, conspiracy lovers have created a system of inverted logic, in which the wildest claims are considered valid until proven false.
If enough people decide that facts and speculation are roughly equal, truth becomes irrelevant, and nothing is worth taking seriously. All the important issues will simply become grist for late-night TV monologues.
To some extent, this is already happening. During the O.J. Simpson trial, it seemed that David Letterman and Jay Leno were competing relentlessly for the best jokes about the case. And if, for some reason, a subject is deemed too risky for humor, an alternative approach is to offer lurid information packaged as insight: "Now a Newscenter exclusive! We take you inside the mind of a terrorist." Sorry, I'll wait outside.
If we're lucky, truth and honesty are just experiencing a temporary dip in popularity. And there are plenty of role models to inspire us. Hulk Hogan and his fellow grapplers could take a lesson from The Harlem Globetrotters. The Trotters never claim to be playing in a real game. They're putting on a show and having fun. No team member ever gives wild-eyed interviews, explaining how they win every time.
So why don't they receive more media coverage? Do the networks think a team of good guys is boring? Is it possible to convince Americans not to get so excited about books, programs, and events that rely on theatrics, duplicity, and sensationalism?
I wish there were easy answers. But I suspect we'll be wrestling with these questions for a long time.
* Jeffrey Shaffer writes humorous essays from Portland, Ore.