Is it madness to obsess over the Tom Bissell essay on the ULA?
Yes and no. Yes, in that the ULA campaign was pure madness from its very beginning. If you want to change anything in this world, it involves a level of madness.
No, in that when you examine an object from all sides, break it down like a watch into its parts and put it together again, you begin to understand how the thing operates—which also gains you understanding of the mind of the object’s creator.
Bissell’s essay, for instance, is a collection of dishonest statements and presentations surrounded by empty assertions. Yet journalists bought this presentation.
I have a fictional character in my new satirical ebook named Mr. Empathy. He’s based loosely on Bissell. In the sole chapter he’s in, Mr. Empathy describes his propaganda techniques to “Boss Eggers,” a fictional character based loosely on Dave Eggers.
How did I learn Bissell’s techniques? When I reread the essay, I was struck by the disconnect between Tom Bissell’s presentation of the ULA, and the reality. I was well placed to know the reality, having founded, with a few others, the organization, and been with it throughout its history. I know the entity “ULA” as no one like Tom Bissell could possibly know it. In the essay Bissell presents distortion after distortion AS IF these distortions are reality.
The distortions then become exaggerated by others. For instance, in the ULA essay Bissell says that George Plimpton had gone into his debate with the ULA “with high hopes and fellow feeling but grew swiftly disgusted” by what the ULA was about. First, Plimpton had corresponded with me for several years, had been a reader of my 90’s zeen, and well knew what I and the ULA were about. Second, at the debate everyone had a great time. We left on good terms. Ask anyone who was there—including the CBGB’s bartenders. Plimpton’s purported disgust had to have come later.
Bissell’s distorted, ill-informed remark is then distorted further by others, such as Ed Champion-- “Bat Segundo”—who in his interview with Tom Bissell this year presents Plimpton as having invited us to an event (we invited him to ours) and then been treated rudely—when in reality we treated the old dog with utmost respect. Those who heard the Segundo interview will likely distort events further.
Slippage between truth and presentation.
Bissell’s distortions have been accepted by the literary world as a true narrative, AS the reality. Again, the same question: Why have intelligent journalists and writers bought the false presentation?
The essay becomes a Rosetta Stone for understanding the entire mainstream media. Bissell is an integral part of that media. In no way does he stand outside it. He’s embedded himself within it. His distortions then aren’t simply a conscious attempt to smear the ULA—though that’s part of it. He’s channeling the literary world’s herd mind; expressing that mind; to do this, acting not like objective commentator, so much as a ventriloquist’s dummy. This is why the essay receives unquestioning acceptance by its Insider audience. That audience, through its unconscious wishes, wrote that essay. Bissell is giving the audience exactly what they already believe about the ULA—or about writers like those in the ULA. He’s expressing what they want to read.
Case in point is the unfair slam against underground writer Urban Hermitt. Bissell takes an excerpt of Hermitt’s writing out of context, then bolsters his presentation with an excerpted comment by myself, adds a few snarky words—and his audience applauds because he’s cutting down a writer who ostensibly doesn’t belong; who presumptively doesn’t belong; who couldn’t possibly be a good writer. (Urban Hermitt in fact is a terrific writer, though one who, yes, colors outside the acceptable lines.) One of the reviewers, Maria Bustillos, literally applauded in her review of the Bissell book at this point. The everpresent question: Why?
Bissell wasn’t giving her the watch—the object being examined—with his essay on the ULA. He wasn’t giving Maria Bustillos a bad two-dimensional photograph of the watch. He gave her a scribbled sketch of a distant glance of the watch. For Bustillos and others, this faked glimpse was all that was required for her approval, and more than approval, enthusiastic commendation. A mere fragment of reality thrown into a mix of dishonesty and fakery. It’s the essence of propaganda to connect with the herd mind, with the presumptions, premises, and prejudices of that mind, to stimulate the preconceptions in a happy way so that they know that their mind, their beliefs, their herd, all the totality of their world is well and fine, so the herd continues along untroubled not thinking about anything.
(Upcoming: a note about the physics of propaganda.)