Massachusetts U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren can’t seem to untangle herself from the web of claims she has made about her American Indian heritage during her years as an academician and again during her campaign. An issue that may seem collateral to a race for the Senate has become the defining feature of her run.
Warren, of course, isn’t the only public figure to get caught in the quicksand of the new millennium’s self-branding fetish:
● Florida Senator Marco Rubio portrayed his parents as having fled Castro’s Cuba on the eve of the 1959 revolution. Rubio’s parents had left a few years earlier, unquestionably seeking a better life in America, but under less cinematic circumstances;
● Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson was forced to step down last May when he was discovered to have lied about having a degree in computer science;
● Senator Richard Blumenthal jeopardized his 2010 Senate bid by saying that he had been in combat in Vietnam when he had not (he had, however, served in the Marines);
● Author Greg Mortenson is alleged to have fabricated some of the more daring war zone adventures in his non-fiction books.
Are we experiencing an epidemic of “over-egging the pudding,” as the British say?
Surely, exaggerating one’s credentials and capabilities is an old phenomenon. From the Old Testament through the Greeks and Shakespeare, history is replete with misrepresentations.
While fibbing and bragging are ancient, today’s transgressors are getting caught because of the tension between two postmodern poles. At one end is the desperate need for personal differentiation in an age of self-surveillance where any non-entity can shamelessly become a pundit or “brand.” At the other end is the abundance of information — true and false — that is now available to us with the tap of a Send key or an anonymous email from a Kinko’s to a nasty reporter.
Today’s concoctions bring to mind the adventures of serial fabricator George Costanza. Among other deliberate misrepresentations, the “Seinfeld” character posed as the architect who designed “the new addition to the Guggenheim” (adding the flourish: “It didn’t take very long either”) and a marine biologist.
The main difference between Costanza’s fabrications and the others may be that he made this claim before the Internet boom. In the world of “Seinfeld” no one could type in “Costanza,” “Guggenheim” or the name of his fictional alter ego, “Art Vandelay,” into Google and check him out. Google was founded, after all, the same year “Seinfeld” bowed. The targets of George’s lies had to wait for him to blow himself up, which he reliably did.
In today’s climate, a fabrication or embellishment collides with the metastatic phenomenon of mainstream and online media, and becomes a trillion lies.
The more a data point snowballs, the harder it is to retract or characterize, especially since you are not only dealing with the original sin, but the metric effect of millions of “hits” calling you a liar. To make matters worse, these “hits” live on in cyberspace forever.
So why do successful, intelligent people vulcanize the truth?
There is a colorful Yiddish term, bubbehmeisah (BUBB-uh-my-seh), that means, literally, a “grandmother story.” It’s essentially the same thing as a “wives’ tale” or an urban myth, but it tends to have a personal angle.
Bubbehmeisahs serve two purposes, one psychic, the other strategic. The psychic benefit is that exciting personal narratives make the storyteller feel unique and important. In Warren’s case, she’s not just another smart white lady, she’s something cooler, a contemporary Pocahontas. (She may even believe this.) Her strategic objective was originally academic advancement in a competitive environment where ethnic identity greatly matters. Perhaps her more recent invocation of her purported heritage was to solidify her popularity with constituencies that have proven time and again to dig her act.
Rubio’s recasting of his family’s history and Blumenthal’s Rambo routine served obvious political ends, underscoring that embellishment is a non-partisan affair. Yahoo’s Thompson was making a play for a top job in high-tech. Mortenson was selling books.
Elizabeth Warren benefits from a loophole in personal biography that allows one to make claims about one’s family’s past based upon what is known as “oral tradition.” This basically means that somebody in your family told you something about your background and you passed it on. There is no proof or disproof beyond what somebody told you. Most families have oral traditions of one kind or another — I exploit mine in novels — which is all well and good until you sign an official document or run for office and characterize something opaque as being crystal clear.
Fabrications paradoxically get to a core truth about a person, which is why we can’t let go of them: How the storyteller would like to be perceived; or who he or she believes themselves to be. Thompson’s decades-ago scholastic career manages to become the main issue at a moment when Yahoo is fighting for its very survival.
Warren, for example, attempted to borrow against the culture’s victimhood account by associating herself with the most fashionable minority among U.S. coastal gentry, the talismanic American Indian. This ploy has inflamed two key audiences.
Warren’s base, progressives who believed in her policy insights and media personalities who facilitated her rise, feel betrayed by her misrepresentation and/or her tactical incompetence. Conservative opinion leaders and news organizations have had their suspicions confirmed that Warren is just another grievance-peddling huckster created by a liberal news media that liked her shtick so much that they didn’t check her out.
Most ambitious people have a fabulist chromosome or two. After all, before achieving something impressive, one is likely to have fantasized about achieving it.
Ambition, reinvention and salesmanship comprise the tripod on which the American system rests. Debating credentials and track records is dicey business that doesn’t always lend itself to empirical declarations of truth or falsehood.
Still, things have gotten bad enough that the Supreme Court had to consider the constitutionality of the “Stolen Valor Act,” a law that would prohibit false claims of military heroism. The court ruled last week that while such behavior is reprehensible, it is not unlawful.
Whereas fake marine biologist George Costanza faced his crucible when he was unexpectedly called upon to save a beached whale, present-day jive artists get theirs when a skeptic uses today’s geometrically expanding information resources to start digging. Sadly, it doesn’t necessarily matter if what the sleuth digs up is right or wrong because our culture is wired to receive agenda-driven information that resonates (see fake Obama birth certificate), not information that is necessarily true.
As Costanza, self-described “Lord of the Idiots,” counsels the understudy, Seinfeld: “Jerry, just remember: It’s not a lie if you believe it.”
Eric Dezenhall is the CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis communications firm, and the author of books including the historical novel The Devil Himself. He’s also an acclaimed marine biologist and Charlize Theron’s boyfriend.