May 22, 2012
Long ago, crazy people at least had the good sense to pretend they were heroes.
Asylums were packed with dueling Napoleons. Rival Jesuses (Jesuii?) challenged each other to miracle-working matches in the sunroom.
The play Arsenic and Old Lace, which premiered in 1941, featured eccentric “Uncle Teddy,” a character so convinced he’s Theodore Roosevelt that he’s excavating “the Panama Canal” in the Brewster family’s Brooklyn basement.
Almost everything wrong with society today can be traced back to the 1960s. The erosion of lunatic self-deception from distinguished to pedestrian is no exception.
Delusions of grandeur went the way of men’s fedoras, replaced with pantomimes of insignificance.
It’s easier to fake being a loser than a winner. And so the victim-hero was born.
A victim-hero enjoys the sympathy accorded the former and the acclaim awarded the latter. I’m surprised it took humankind so long to cook up this scam. Then again, the victim-hero cult is a product of its era, one which witnessed the entitlement state’s expansion alongside the newly minted therapeutic “wisdom” that shame was something of which to be ashamed.
You’d think Holocaust survivors would have no need to exaggerate their experiences, but when the 1961 Eichmann trial shattered the cultural silence surrounding the Shoah, victim-heroes such as novelist Jerzy Kosinski and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal related widely spread assertions of dubious veracity. (Kosinski also claimed he’d narrowly escaped being murdered at friend Roman Polanski’s home by the Manson Family.) Eventually, some attention-seeking “survivors” began fabricating entire horrific narratives out of striped cloth.
Vets returning from Southeast Asia didn’t get ticker-tape parades. In fact, they were (supposedly) spat upon. Men duly cultivated grizzled beards and jostled for spots around the Vietnam War Memorial, wearing unearned medals, tattoos, and other insignia, affecting PTSD, and (not incidentally) collecting monthly government checks.
Pretending to be someone you aren’t had escaped the confines of the rubber room. It became socially acceptable, even laudatory. Middle class Robert Allen Zimmerman from Minnesota reinvented himself as Okie folkie Bob Dylan and was richly rewarded. (There’s a Let Us Now Praise Famous Men joke in there somewhere.)
Artistic self-invention, even as extreme as Zimmerman/Dylan’s genealogical makeover, isn’t new. (See “Owl, Grey.”) Annoying or endearing, it’s mostly harmless”even “victimless.”
More troubling are revelations about another 9/11 impostor, or another fake Indian affirmative-action hire such as Ward Churchill, or another fake “homophobic” or “racist” “hate crime,” or learning that the author of the beloved “growing up Cherokee” memoir The Education of Little Tree was a KKK member whose other famous written creation was Governor Wallace’s “segregation forever” speech.
Surely the perpetrators of such elaborate deceptions must be deeply troubled, if not downright crazy.
So what happens when these “crazy” people are running the country?