Spaniards and Aztecs

>> Thursday, May 27, 2010

So apparently one of the latest bits of excitement in the Palinverse is that professional douchebag Joe McGinniss is going to rent the house next to Frau Palin's while he writes a book about her. Slate's Jack Shafer approves, and it seems I saw a favorable tweet from the generally awesome Bob Cesca earlier in the week.


Here's one of these things I think is funny in history: in 1519, the maniacal conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in what is now known as Mexico, and proceeded to destroy the dominant indigenous civilization, the Aztec. At the time, the Spanish Empire was the most religiously paranoid, xenophobic, bloodthirsty power in Europe, bent on conquering the entire world for the sake of gold and God, and many people incorrectly regard the conquest of Mexico as a great historical tragedy, an archetypal example of the ugly history of Europe's conquest of diverse and independent peoples.

The problem with this interpretation is this: the Aztec were the most religiously paranoid, xenophobic, bloodthirsty power in America, bent on conquering the entire world for the sake of gold and gods. Where the Spanish had the Inquisition, the Aztec dragged people to the Pyramid of Tenochtitlan and similar sites to cut their hearts out for the divine. Coincidentally, Wikipedia tells us the Spanish may have burned 2,000 people at the stake and the Aztec cut out the beating hearts of 2,000 people at the re-consecration of the Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, a lovely symmetry considering, basically, that the Aztec were the Spaniards of the New World. The Aztec were so appalling that the inhabitants of the vassal states of Mexico were more than happy to join Cortés when he went about destroying the Aztec. The only shame, really, you know, is that the Aztec and Spanish Empires didn't manage to wipe each other out in some sort of cultural matter-antimatter reaction.

Awful people, the whole lot of them. I know, this isn't the sort of thing you're supposed to say about anyone other than the Germans, but seriously--awful people, the whole lot of them.

I mention this because Joe McGinniss is an awful person.

He is most famous, of course, for befriending convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and telling MacDonald he'd write a sympathetic book, only to decide MacDonald was guilty and write a book about that, Fatal Vision, which became a popular TV show in 1984. While some people might think (a) that it was awfully honest of McGinniss to write it the way he saw it and (b) a guy who was convicted of stabbing the shit out of his pregnant wife and two daughters gets what he deserves, those concerned with, you know, ethics were prompted to write things like:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about "earning a living."

-Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer
qtd. in Wikipedia

Which is the problem. The problem isn't that McGinniss decided to write a book about a man's innocence, did some research, decided he was guilty, then wrote a book about that. The problem is that McGinniss told somebody he believed him, sucked up to him to take advantage of playing the role of confidante, decided he didn't believe him after all, and then kept sucking up to the dude and telling him he still believed him in order to continue serving as the confidante so he could ultimately stab the guy in the back. Or to put it another way: McGinniss lied to MacDonald1; a person who tells lies is a liar; therefore we know that McGinniss is a liar, we merely don't know for certain what he's lying about or what kind of liar he really is or how frequently he lies or to whom he lies beyond the observation he's evidently the sort of liar who betrays people whose trust he's obtained.

See the problem?

This would be enough, but I have to admit my biggest beef with McGinniss came from reading a fairly awful book McGinniss published in 1991 about the Pritchard case called Cruel Doubt, and yes, it was irritation fueled by being a gamer.

In North Carolina in 1988, a young man named Christopher Pritchard, along with some close friends, murdered his stepfather and assaulted his mother while they slept and was subsequently convicted. Now, it is probably irrelevant that Mr. Pritchard was in line to inherit two million dollars. It is also probably irrelevant that there was some evidence of tension between Mr. Pritchard and his stepfather and some indications that the household was not exactly happy (beyond the fact that the guy, you know, killed his stepfather, I mean, granted that stabbing your stepfather is possibly a warning sign that there are problems in your familial relationships). What is relevant, according to McGinniss, is that Pritchard and his codefendants liked playing Dungeons And Dragons. Which, you know, is what we crazy homicidal deviants all used to do before we got hold of computerized murder simulators like Grand Theft Auto.

He said with a sigh.

Because, see, the problem once again may not be what you think it is (or maybe it is, I don't know). The problem wouldn't be blaming D&D if there were actually any evidence that this was somehow a real factor in a homicide. The real problem is what McGinniss actually does in Doubt, which is to briefly mention the two million dollars and, oh yeah, some of the family issues, and then to go for the thing that will help you sell the TV rights to the book, which is the whole outré "They were obsessed with a fantasy world"/Mazes And Monsters angle.

It's ethically dubious, like telling a guy you're his best bud and trying to get him out of prison while behind his back you're talking to your editor about how to spin the story so said guy doesn't seem too repulsively screwy too early in the text. It's about selling the story--in the most literal movie-and-television-rights sense possible--as opposed to actually getting the facts right.

Like I said, douchebag.

Now, Sarah Palin is an inexpressibly awful human being (though if you follow that link, you'll recall that I've tried to express it). And Joe McGinniss is a professional douchebag who pretends he's a serious journalist while angling for the sleazy angle that will self-market the film rights. So it's Spaniards and Aztecs, the worst representatives of two worlds coming together to make a shit sandwich. Who cares who gets the worst of it, everybody involved ought to be shot off a really high cliff into shallow, shark-infested waters?

Jack Shafer at Slate writes:

It's called legwork, it's called immersion journalism, and it doesn't look pretty. But it should come as a surprise to only naive newspaper readers that every day journalists treat the subjects of investigations the way McGinniss is treating Palin.

--which would be nice if there was any reason to think that this wasn't stunt journalism performed by a fading hack who nobody should trust to write a straight story. The truth is that McGinniss will have as little access to Palin living next to her house (when she's even in it at all, and not out of town on the Perpetual Self-Promotion Tour through the Lower-48) as he'd have living in Guatemala, and I can't fault the Palins for that because I wouldn't trust McGinniss to write an astrology column for a bi-weekly 'zine.2 But when his book comes out, the big schtick on the cover and coverage will be "He lived next to the Palins--what did he find out?" The "assholery," contrary to what Shafer believes, isn't being perpetrated on the Palins, it's being perpetrated on the American public that will be exposed to McGinniss' book's marketing campaign in 2011. (There's something to look forward to.)

Shafer, for all his faults (he's sometimes a contrarian's contrarian), can usually be relied on to smell bullshit and call it what it is. He's frequently Slate's skeptical voice of reason, the noble curmudgeon who tells everyone to hold up just a minute, not so fast, hang on a second. One suspects in this case that he's so eager to see a reporter finally really be a dick to Sarah Palin (as opposed to ambushing her with softball questions about what she likes to read, for fuckssakes) that he's missing the obvious: that the joke is on the rest of us. I'm disappointed in him, really.

Meanwhile, who the fuck cares who gets the gold and glory, Palin or McGinniss, when it would just be better if they both went away?

1Per Wikipedia:

...McGinniss struck up a close friendship with the accused murderer Jeffrey MacDonald.

MacDonald, an Army physician, had been charged with the 1970 murders of his twenty-six year-old pregnant wife Collette and their two young daughters. McGinniss secured MacDonald's cooperation in turning his story into a book: the journalist would report from both the court room and MacDonald's side. McGinniss shared housing with his book's subject, exercised with him, and sat beside him at the defense table during his trial. As Malcolm writes, "They clothed their complicated business together in the mantle of friendship—in this case, friendship of a particularly American cast, whose emblems of intimacy are watching sports on television, drinking beer, running, and classifying women according to their looks." Within a month of MacDonald's conviction, the journalist began a series of letters. Malcolm quotes McGinniss' expressions of sympathy—"any fool can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair was utter madness"—as well as his tacit assurances that the book would help win his release: "it's a hell of a thing—spend the summer making a new friend and the bastards come and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey—not for long."

In fact, as McGinniss would later admit, he had become swiftly and easily convinced of MacDonald's guilt during the trial; in the same months that he wrote warm letters to the now-jailed MacDonald, he was also writing to his editor Morgan Entrekin, discussing the technical problem of not spoiling his work's effect by making MacDonald, in the book, appear "too loathsome too soon."

(cit. omit.)

2The joke here being, of course, that astrology is a bunch of made-up horseshit. Not sure if I needed to telegraph that point or not.


Janiece Thursday, May 27, 2010 at 10:43:00 AM EDT  

Why can't these people just GO AWAY??

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