Thursday, July 14, 2016

"The Illusion Of Knowing Things"

Considering predictive certainty in determining the success of any show business undertaking, screenwriter William Goldman famously proclaimed:

“Nobody knows anything.”

It happens all the time.  Confidently predicted “sure things” go ignominiously down in flames; projects the “suits” are convinced will tank shatter box office records (at which point the “suits”… what’s the saying, taking credit where credit is not due?)  

So there’s that.

But what if it’s even bigger?  What if it’s more than just about show business?

It is possible, I am beginning to believe – wait, maybe I should turn this into a question so that I won’t sound “Smartier Than Thou”–

Is it possible, do you think, that nobody knows anything about anything?

I recently told a story about toppling fully clothed into our swimming pool, explaining specifically how it happened.  (While watering a tree, I inadvertently slipped on the slick protruding end of our rolled-up pool cover.)  Truth be told?  I don’t know specifically how it happened.  I was too busy falling into the swimming pool to take notes.

Instead, I explained how I think it happened.  In the absence of personal certainty, proximous eye-witnesses or neighboring busybodies documenting my “Secular Baptism” on their recording devices, the story I provided becomes the truth by default.

That, for posterity, is the official “Story Of My Dunking.”

Which may, in fact, be what actually happened.  But it also may not be, since, as admitted, my immediate attention lay elsewhere.  (Exemplifying my confusion, when I post factoly pondered with Anna how much worse things might have been if the swimming pool had been covered, she reminded me that if the cover had been on the swimming pool then I wouldn’t have slipped on it.  Don’t you just hate it when your children are smarter than you are?  “Oh yeah,” I replied, in mumbling retreat.)

So here’s the thing.

If an observable happenstance cannot be explained with ultimate certainty, what of happenstances whose interpretations are entirely subjective? 

How do you determine the truth about those things?

Or it is finally…

“Nobody knows.” 

You simply believe what you believe.


“Finally! That theoretical stuff is excruciating!”

I am listening to Robert Caro’s “Passage of Power”, the fourth volume of Caro’s massive biographical undertaking:  The History of Lyndon Johnson. 

I shall focus on a single event.

November 22nd, 1963.

President Kennedy has just been pronounced dead, and, as prescribed in the constitution, Vice President Johnson ascends immediately to the presidency.  No official “swearing-in” ceremony is necessary.  The V.P. is automatically president.  It like, “The president is dead; long live the guy who moved up” and off they go.

Instead, however, now President Johnson does this:

He insists on a swearing-in ceremony.  And he insists that it happen immediately, on the tarmac in Dallas, before Air Force One takes off back for Washington (and before the former president’s coffin is returned home, let alone buried in the ground.)

The new president then calls the nation’s Attorney General, who happens also to be the late president’s younger brother, Bobby, who has only recently been informed of the president’s assassination, to offer condolences, of course, but also to solicit the country’s Chief Law Enforcement Officer’s expertise as to who exactly is qualified to administer the presidential “Oath of Office” and to ask for the oath’s exact wording.  

Backstory:  The Kennedy people dislike Lyndon Johnson (and nobody more than Brother Bobby), disparaging the Texas-born vice president with behind-his-back nicknames like “Rufus Cornpone” and humiliating him by excluding him from crucial decision-making meetings (The Cuban missile crisis) and consigning him to the “Loser’s Table” at high-profile gatherings.

Lyndon Johnson, once the most powerful man in the Senate, felt demeaned and condescended to by the Kennedy clan and the elite, “Best-and-the-Brightest” Harvards – Johnson himself went to Southwestern Texas State Teachers College – surrounding the president.

Keeping that in mind…

Did Lyndon Johnson require the swearing-in ceremony at all?  Was it necessary for that swearing-in ceremony to take place so quickly?  Did he need to go to the grieving president’s Attorney-General brother for specific technical advice? 

We have two credible explanatory alternatives.  Which is one more than is actually helpful.
Was the reality here ”payback”?
“I have to take the ‘Oath of Office’ because your brother’s dead and I’m president and I need to know the exact wording of the oath I have to take because your brother’s dead and I’m president and although there are a lot other people I could have called for this information I called you to remind you that your brother’s dead and I’m president.”

Or was it “expediency”?

Johnson reacted to the need for “presidential continuity.”  Concerned that even the slightest interruption in authority might embolden America’s adversaries, specifically the Russians, and he wanted to decisively “send a message” via the immediate “oath-taking” that things demonstrably were under control.

So which one was it?  (And if the answer is “Both”, which one predominated?)  I have a personal preference – you may have noticed – but so what?

You can interview people close to the situation, you can speculate within the informing context of the historical background.  But when you get to the question of “What’s true?”…

Nobody knows.

That, in the final analysis, is about other people’s lives.

But, faced with similar subjectivity, what for a certainty do we know about our own?

Bringing it “home”, over the years here, I have written more than two thousand stories.

But is that really all they are?



Brett said...

Isn't the statement, “Nobody knows anything,” self-defeating? Just as that rotund philosopher, Sgt. Schultz used to proclaim, "I know nothing!" Not possible.

I don't believe that LBJ was out to stick it to the Kennedys but to show the world that there has been a smooth transition of power in the USA. It might have been a little bonus for Johnson to know that RFK had to squirm a bit, but no intent from the Pres. Probably.

VictoryGarden said...

For some reason this posts reminds me of an old joke:

One Yom Kippur, in a little shul in Gunnysack, New York, the rabbi stops in the middle of the musaf service, prostrates himself beside the bimah, and cries out, "O God. Before You, I am nothing!"

The chazen is so moved by this demonstration of piety that he immediately follows suit, throwing himself to the floor beside the rabbi and crying, 'O God! Before you, I am nothing!"

In the ensuing silence, a shuffling is heard in the back row. Saul Blumenthal jumps from his seat, prostrates himself in the isle and cries, "O God! Before You, I am nothing!"

Seeing this, the chazen nudges the rabbi and whispers, "So look who thinks he's nothing?"