I blame Seinfeld.
Someone has to be blamed.
My kids watched as they grew up. My wife watched. I tried not to. There was the hapless George: no shabbier soul ever sullied a screen. Every so seldom Kramer might pop up. He’d break me up. A wondrous comic creation. But between cackles I could feel something niggling at my austere soul. It was only later, with the advent of ‘Friends’ – not as funny, the characters even more ordinary – that I could define what offended me.
Nowadays, what was subtext in Seinfeld and in Friends is the explicit in the great world. What those characters (Seinfeld) and those nonentities (Friends) did constantly was normative and, in time, became normal. The banks do it, the captains of cricket, the captains of industry do it. The incumbent in the White House does it, the churches, the military, politicians (of course) – they all do it.
They all lie.
In those TV shows the ethos was subterranean. You could feel the tremors but you didn’t always sense the accumulating weight of untruth; nor how truth as a value kept receding into distance. In response to any difficulty, every character lied. They lied by reflex. Awkward situation? Tell a fib. Everyone does it…
I’ll tell you a story from the Olden Days. It goes like this: A child goes into a bank with his piggy bank. The banker, a man in his fifties, helps the child to open a savings account. The banker congratulates the child on her thrift. The banker does not sell further products to the child.
Today that’s a fairy story. That banker will never drive a Ferrari.
Here’s a contemporary story: A customer goes into a bank and asks the banker a question. The banker replies, “I’m a banker. I tell only lies.” Should the customer believe the banker?
The makers of Seinfeld knew what they were doing. They were blowing a whistle on untruthtelling.
The makers of Seinfeld made us laugh. We laughed and we laughed. And we paid no attention to the whistle. And now the Liar in Chief sits in the White House tweeting. And the laugh is on us all.