Leading by rumor: The great jackery of 2012

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In this election year, the nonstop use of electronic media plunges us back to an age in which rumor and word-of-mouth were the agents of destiny. As a character sings in The Barber of Seville, “Calumny starts like a breeze.”

The force of rumor came into its own in the 14th century, when a peasant uprising blew across northern France like a tornado. The nobles called the event a jacquerie. “Jacques” or “Jacques Bonhomme,” Good-Fellow Jack, had been their patronizing term for peasant; but once the explosion occurred, they took Jack very seriously indeed.

The rumors that fueled early jacqueries were direct and simple. The nobles are starving us with levies. They are stealing our sons for their wars. As literacy spread, rumors gained in nuance. No one speaks for us in the councils of power. We should be free but we are everywhere in chains.

For the first time, public opinion took shape and erupted with massive power. Newspapers and pamphlets cropped up in the towns, while in rural areas terrible jacqueries helped to bring down the old régime. Across the ocean, citizens of America were becoming pioneers of communication. As our capacities unfolded, we drew ever more closely connected — first by the post office, then by telegraph, telephone, electricity, radio, TV, computer, the Web, and lastly by instant global messaging.

We have grown very much more sophisticated than the peasants of old. We have captured and strengthened the power of rumor with far-reaching technologies. We devour word-of-mouth with a voraciousness that puts traditional societies to shame. We have become the ultimate peasants. Alexis de Tocqueville, who well knew the jacquerie’s destructiveness, found its echo in the American press of the 1830s. In Democracy in America he said of the way our journalists worked: “One can only deplore such a misuse of the powers of thought.”

Nearly two centuries on, we are the reigning masters of jackery. And it seems only fair to liberate the term from French, given that our global networks of rumor are American-made. In this election season, jackery rules the airwaves with a power combining easy melodrama and solemn reason. Each of our major parties is working hard to get the weight of rumor on its side. But the Oscar for Best Jackery of 2012 goes to the infamous video that is now joined to our most serious overseas crisis in four years.

The shadowy piece came to life on YouTube as a trailer purporting to represent a film no one has seen. It was said to have been produced in the United States but could easily have been made or posted anywhere. No one quite knew who had organized the video or why. Its hallmarks were an embarrassing tawdriness and pervasive incoherence. To say that it offended the spirit of the prophet Muhammad was to grant the object an importance it flatly lacked.

For the first months of its life, the video lay unnoticed — a suitable outcome in light of its qualities. But then by some agency it was given Arabic subtitles and reborn in Egypt, whose Coptic sect is pilloried in the piece. In Egypt the video caught fire and raised a storm. America’s embassy in Cairo was attacked by “protesters” who, in the “rumor-has-it” styling of the U.K. Guardian, “were angry at an American produced film.”

The Obama administration jumped on the story and rode it in the direction it was going. “The video! The video!” the president and his cohorts cried, almost as if they were part of that crowd in Cairo. Even in the presence of America’s dead being returned to our shores, Hillary Clinton could not help speaking of the video and linking it to the very different kind of attack that had destroyed our consulate and people in Benghazi. Ambassador Susan Rice’s performances on TV were an exercise of calm demeanor in the service of a wild exhortation.

With Clinton, Rice and other messengers beating the drum for “the video,” one could not only identify the president as the source of this view but actually see the strength of his attachment to it. Analysts will have their explanations, but the fact is pretty striking all by itself. For the president, America’s troubles in the Muslim world — an ambassador and three other Americans murdered, our installations under attack in 20 countries, radical Islam rising, our nation’s image in a shambles — have pretty much begun and ended with “the video.”

A policy that issues from such reflection is not so much “leading from behind” as it is leading by rumor. A story that started as a breeze has exploded like a bomb. The long line of jackery that began with peasants in medieval France has scaled the heights of power and continues to move events from the top of the world.

David Landau, a San Francisco editor, used to be a foreign-policy expert but gladly gave that up to be a novelist and playwright.