“Poetic Truths” are Everywhere

This month I watched two films about the past. One reconstructed a controversial police killing based on witnesses that the Department of Justice verified as credible and then offered commentary about the incident. The other, a dramatization of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, made up a slew of facts about history to make one of the most famous conservative leaders of the last century look bad. No prizes for guessing which has had more trouble being screened online. The Crown, created by Netflix, has been hailed and watched around the globe. What Killed Michael Brown?, an independent film about the killing in Ferguson, almost did not get an audience, after Amazon initially blocked it because of concerns about its content. There might not seem to be much in common between these two, but they share at least one quality: Both, in different ways, show the danger of poetic truth taking precedence over factual truth concerning events that shape the narrative of our politics. 

The Crown cost far more money to make and is beautifully filmed and often brilliantly acted (although Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher verges on caricature). But it is largely fantasy posing as fact. It would take an article of law review length to catalogue all its untruths in service of a left ideology, but two about Thatcher stand out. First, the film accurately reports that, shockingly, a young man named Michael Fagan managed to get into the Queen’s bedroom in the early morning hours of July 9, 1982. But almost every important detail about the incident is changed to make it an assault on Thatcher rather than the Queen. First, Fagan is portrayed as a down-on-his-luck victim of unemployment losing custody of his children rather than a petty criminal and sometime member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party with a wife and four children. Second, Fagan is shown making a speech to the Queen in her bedroom about his plight, which he blames on Thatcher’s policies. But according to Fagan himself, the Queen immediately left the room upon his entry.

Of course, the whole incident is interspersed with pictures of long unemployment lines. It is true that unemployment was high initially as Thatcher tried to revivify the economy. But the film, in its previous episodes, never makes clear the shamble that Britain faced when Thatcher was elected. Nor, in subsequent episodes, does it show the great revival of prosperity that Thatcherism created. Her policies were so successful that Labour under Tony Blair accepted a new political settlement. 

A second falsehood was even more outrageous. When Thatcher faced the leadership challenge that ultimately ended her premiership, she is shown asking the Queen to dissolve parliament to prevent her defeat. The obvious implication here is that she is power-mad, willing to involve the Crown in a partisan political squabble for her own benefit. There is no evidence whatsoever that this event occurred and, given Britain’s unwritten Constitution, no prime minister could hope that it would succeed.  

The one event that portrays Thatcher in the most flattering light, moreover, undermines her real achievements. After the end of Thatcher’s premiership, The Crown shows the Queen appointing her to the Order of Merit, the highest decoration that is in her personal gift. But, in an imagined private conversation, the Queen tells Thatcher she is doing so because she stood up to the men in the Conservative Party. Thus, the award is for her gender rather than for her accomplishment in transforming Britain, as it was in the case of Clement Attlee, the only other post-war Prime Minister to obtain the O.M. For The Crown, being a woman is Thatcher’s one redeeming quality.

The series is not much more fact-based when it comes to its main subject—the Royal family. There are obvious falsehoods, as when the Queen is portrayed as unaware that Thatcher would preside over a victory parade marking the retaking of the Falklands Islands and resenting her for it. In reality, she knew about the parade and was in the Pacific at the time. But the more damaging fabrications are those that make the Prince of Wales look like an arch-villain in his marriage with Princess Diana, largely based on invented private conversations. Prince Charles may not be a wholly admirable character, but he is not a reincarnation of Henry VIII minus the power to send his wife to the scaffold. 

The Crown’s blend of fact and conscious inversions of truth underscores the danger that what is curated on the screen will increasingly substitute for what occurs in the world.

The most ironic part of the episodes on their marriage is the presence of trigger warnings. Because Diana excessively eats rich deserts and decorously throws up into a sink, these episodes have an opening disclaimer: “The following episodes contain scenes of an eating disorder which some viewers may find alarming.” In fact, the warning that should accompany most episodes is that they contain knowingly fabricated events at variance with confirmed facts.

Given that this series is about royalty, it might be thought that The Crown could mount a Shakespearean defense of its fabrications. The Bard wrote history plays, sometimes with dubious or unverified facts and often to glorify the Tudors at the expense of their rivals, like Richard III. But this analogy is unavailing and not only because the prose contains nothing of the majesty of Shakespeare’s poetry. The events of The Crown are much closer in time and with better records than the ones about which he wrote, and thus the audience today brings a greater expectation of verisimilitude. The Crown indeed uses these records to try to underscore the accuracy of its portraiture. For instance, the character of Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s Deputy Prime minister, gives much of his famous and damaging resignation speech verbatim as it was recorded in the Commons. Shakespeare had to imagine all such speeches with the advantage that he could put the immortal words at Agincourt in Henry V’s mouth, but also with the signal that they were his own words. And it is not at all clear that Shakespeare included scenes that he knew to be false, as The Crown does time and time again. It goes far beyond selectively presenting facts to emphasize themes. Finally, a short play is inherently a less reality-based medium than a forty-part (and counting) film series.   

In contrast to the ease with which Netflix misrepresents the past, What Killed Michael Brown? begins with a careful reconstruction of Michael Brown’s death. One of the principal points of Shelby Steele could be seen as a comment on propaganda like The Crown: that the actual truth of an event often diverges from the “poetic truth” that groups put forth subsequently to advance their political agenda. Steele, however, is careful to base his reporting on the Obama Department of Justice report which debunked the story that Michael Brown was a victim who wanted to surrender, rather than an aggressor who tried to get the police officer Darren Wilson’s gun and then charged him, ignoring repeated commands to stop.

To be sure, the film also contains Steele’s views that liberalism has robbed African Americans of agency by making them appear to the world and to themselves as victims. It has also created conditions that make it more likely that young people in that community will not live upstanding lives. This claim is certainly debatable, but, unlike The Crown, Steele does not falsify the facts of someone’s life to make his own “poetic truth.”

The larger lesson of these two films is the peril posed by a world of illusion made possible by the power of our media, and the ideological mirages that such illusions can create. In an era where people increasingly move from screen to screen, there is an ever-greater danger that what is curated on the screen will substitute for what occurs in the world. The Crown’s blend of fact and conscious inversions of truth underscores that peril. At a time when traditional religion has declined, there is also an ever-greater danger that people feel the need for “poetic truths” to give them secular myths by which to live. A society that does not hold up a mirror to itself but instead goes through the looking glass of fantasy loses its connection to reality. And it is that reality that creates a foundation for shared understanding, social stability, and empirically based renewal.

Reader Discussion

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on December 17, 2020 at 08:42:22 am

This post is a work that evokes admiration. It is admirable. I am using this term as it is explained in the writings of Robert Sokolowski's "Moral Action".
This quality - that of being "admirable " - is found in many short essays and reviews published at liberty law site, including in particular those by John O. McGinnis.

Fr. Sokolowski writes: "To be admirable is a sign of being good." (Discussion follows in Chapter 7 of "Moral Action", pages 187-189). The author writes: "... admirability is not a value we project into the thing we examine. It follows from the thing's being perfected, from its having achieved its good. This perfection in the nature of things occurs also in regard to human moral conduct."

The films reviewed here distort the truth of their subject matter. We are at least provided with examples of things that have been "drained of their" truth; "nothing is left for us to do but make" the history of the events serve a particular purpose; one desired by the film makers. The purpose these films serve is attainment of political power by those who no longer acknowledge any truth beyond their own "desires and needs".

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on December 17, 2020 at 08:56:07 am

I'm confused as to the point(s) of McGinnis' mini-reviews. Is he worried that because The Crown greatly distorts history there is a risk that people will believe the lies they see on Netflix rather than the truth they might learn (were they actually to study history, which is no longer taught?) Is it that, while Shelby Steele's documentary about Michael Brown accurately portrays history (unlike Netflix's The Crown,) nevertheless Steele makes what McGinnis considers to be "certainly debatable" claims about liberalism's adverse social effects on blacks? Does McGinnis believe that each film, it its own special way, represents the triumph of illusion over reality?

If those are his points, perhaps McGinnis should consider as to Netflix that The Crown is yet another meager expression of intellectually worn-out postmodernism, which considers history to be whatever the historian says it is and the writing of history to be a creative act of political utilitarianism. We are accustomed to it, by now, since the plague of postmodernism on the teaching of history in our universities and in pop culture is now into its 50th year. What is relatively new is that the postmodern ideological perspective on history has been expanded to embrace the discussion of science, as well. Just watch a Michael Moore documentary or listen to an Al Gore speech on climate change.

As for Shelby Steele's assertion that liberalism has harmed blacks, it seems hardly to pose the risk that McGinnis fears, that illusion will triumph over reality, especially since Steele's assertion is historically true.

All in all, as to McGinnis' mini-reviews, I suggest that "if that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing."

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on December 17, 2020 at 11:53:30 am

Kudos to McGinnis for the "trigger warning."
My wife and I simultaneously exclaimed, "OMG, are you bleeping kidding me."

Only other comment on this epic fail is this: There is not one single sympathetic character in soap opera. They are all hideous, horrid shells of actual human beings and the "opera" bears as much similarity to history as the TV show "Ancient Aliens' bears to theoretical and planetary physics.

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on December 17, 2020 at 16:05:41 pm

I can not believe that I am going to give kudos to McGinnis TWICE in one day BUT...

Kudos to McGinnis for the timely and appropriate title. Indeed, POETIC Truths ARE everywhere and they may be observed impinging upon our consciousness and sensibilities in all manner of places from TV shows to TV ads to periodicals, etc etc.
One could easily believe that according to Hyundai, "it doesn;t matter "No matter how you FAMILY" - presumably this would include SSM, polygamists, inter-species relationships, etc. One would also be forgiven if after watching the typical British Crime Show (and Polish, Swedish, Norse, etc) that ALL Police Departments are run by brilliant, tough as nails, karate fighting female Police Chiefs; that males are usaully incapable of navigating their own professional and personal lives UNLESS guided by the expert, compassionate BUT tough hand and mind of the ever more intelligent female / minority / oppressed victim.

Everywhere one turns we are bombarded with a cavalcade of Poetic Truths.

Oh, for a simple rhyme!

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on December 18, 2020 at 09:57:28 am

HaHa your sarcasm! I feel your pain about TV's deplorably bad fiction, so bad that even the commercials are insulting.

To paraphrase Billy Martin speaking of Jim Bouton's "Ball Four," I say of TV, "I don't like it; I don't watch it." And I have not watched it, at least since the Dark Age of the Clintons (I had an "Impeach Clinton" bumper sticker two years before they impeached the bastard) when, along with the culture and the country, all of TV Land took a sharp turn downward, like a market crash, from which we have not recovered. Since then TV has been the work of culturally inferior, morally depraved, poor writers writing bad fiction. That is true most especially of the news, which is really badly written fiction, badly delivered by bad players acting the role of journalists.

While I do not watch them, I am told by my children who do (I am disappointed to say) that Amazon and Netflix, like their competitors, pretend to historical truth in their bad historical fiction, like The Crown, but that their bad fictional non-fiction is not as bad as that of their competitors. (Sounds to me like the difference between Mercedes Benz and BMW, on the one hand, and all the rest of the even more inferior but less costly products of their competition in the once great automobile industry.)

You and I were born in the wrong period of history, at the start of its great national depression, much too late to participate in creating or perpetuating a Great America and, it would appear, just a bit too soon to Make America Great Again. Rather, we must accept our important historical assignments as warriors protecting the rear during the country's great retreat. (Think Matthew Ridgeway in Korea.) One must hope that by managing an orderly retreat the country may turn the war around and live to fight another day.

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on December 19, 2020 at 10:11:31 am

This mini-review might well have pointed out the error of the admirable Shelby Steele's misuse of the phrase ''poetic truths." The language of poetry has nothing to do with lies. It is, rather, designed to penetrate to truth, which is often obscure, if not hidden. Steele confuses "poetic truths" with "poetic license," the poet's liberty (license) to deviate from factual reality in order to pursue the poet's purpose, which is to reveal truth. Poetic license is a means to a poetic truth, which is truth revealed and expressed in the language of poetry, typically metaphor. Neither poetic license, poetic truth nor poetry has anything to do with lies. They are the opposite of lies. To call lies "poetic truths" is a disservice to poetry and a denial of Aristotle's "Poetics."

Steele is talking about lies in service of ideology in order to conceal and defeat truth. That is politics not poetry, deceit not truth.

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on December 20, 2020 at 14:13:16 pm

While I agree that any dramatization of the past walks a tightrope: any change to known historical events could distort reality or even amount to a deliberate lie. However, I'd argue that the key term in 'dramatic licence' is 'drama': this is not a lie, it is a fiction. It is based on a true story, not actually a true story; we call those 'documentaries'. And most people are able to tell the difference between fiction and documentary.

I'd also say that loose historical adaptations are nothing new. The most famous proponent is probably William Shakespeare, whose history plays—were they written today—would probably have to be billed 'inspired by true events'.

Finally I have to take issue with Prof. O'Ginnis's own, very partizan, re-imagining of Thatcher's Britian. I grew up in London in the 1980s. I saw the unemployment lines, and felt the misery she inflicted on the country. While she revived Britain's economy, she did so at great cost to the countries soul; the scars of her policies echo loudly. I remember her leaving office too and it was clear at the time that she had become intoxicated by power, which is why her own party threw her out. I suggest that Prof. O'Ginnis is the one attempting to distort history.

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Guy Ducker

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