"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 24 August 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Reality Plus



Tell a man a fish story, he

feeds on bullshit for a day.

Teach a man to tell a fish

story, he feeds on bullshit for

a lifetime. And we aim to teach

- which puts us in the company

of a couple of highly

respectable jurists, as well as

an old newspaper hack who isn't

respectable at all. Suck

matriculants, take note: Before

spinning that tawdry little web

of deception, at least make sure

you've applied for the right

kind of job.


Boston Globe columnist Mike

Barnicle, for example, applied

for the wrong kind of job,

although it took kind of a long

time for that lesson to reach

the final lecture. After nearly

a quarter century of pretty much

obvious fabrication,

plagiarizing, and just general

artlessness, the alleged "voice

of the working man" is no longer

a working man himself. Barnicle

finally went over the edge in a

rush after flirting with it for

several weeks; the last straw

was the revelation that a

transparent piece of bullshit, a

1995 column that makes the worst

Stephen Glass short story look

elegantly restrained, was a, um,

transparent piece of bullshit.

Worse, the fabricated column was

full of voice-of-wisdom

teaching, important nuggets from

the mountaintop about life and

death, and the old chestnut

about What America Means. Not

just false: false and didactic -

quite an accomplishment. But we

think we know why Barnicle

finally ended up losing the job

he so richly deserved to lose:

He didn't get a law degree,

which includes a hitherto

unrecognized license to teach

dubious lessons. Take James Ware

- please.


Ware, a trial judge in the San

Jose federal courthouse, is a

man with an unusual skill for

describing really big fish that

almost ended up in the boat. The

story even, as in Barnicle's

cancer baby piece, came complete

with a dead child in the role of

martyred, apple-cheeked saint.

Riding his bicycle as a child in

Alabama, the judge had

repeatedly explained in speeches

and interviews, he and his

brother - who was riding on the

handlebars - had been confronted

by a truckload of white

supremacists. They fired a shot

and rode off, leaving the

innocent brother to die in

Ware's arms. An inconvenient

detail: It had happened to an

entirely different James Ware. A

newspaper exposed Ware's

appropriation of another man's

life story.



The resolution to Ware's

indecent exposure just toddled

onto the stage: Ware has been

reprimanded, but the council

passed on reducing his workload

or recommending impeachment to

Congress. While the judge's

"public exploitation" of another

man's "private grief" had

inflicted "acute pain" on Ware's

hapless doppelgänger, the

panel reasoned, it wasn't a lie

he had told from the bench. John

Coughenour, a US District Court

judge in Seattle, took the

argument a step farther. Ware

had lied about his own life,

Coughenour allowed, and

inappropriately borrowed a

hugely painful piece of another

man's private history, but he

had a selfless and uplifting

sort of Robin Hood motive; he

stole from the rich-in-pain to

give to the

poor-in-understanding, to

teach, to, as Coughenour put it,

"heighten the public's awareness

of the evil of racial hatred."


And, you know, we're real glad

we got that one cleared up; we'd

been wondering why we had that

sudden, inexplicable revelation

last August, right about the

same time Ware got caught lying.

It was the subject of all kinds

of discussion around the office:

Hey, we remember saying, do you

think it might be wrong to gun

down innocent black children?

We'd probably still be clueless

if Judge Ware had been more

honest. But it's really not a

bad idea, now that we think of

it; we'll probably rip off some

of that Swiss bank cash being

paid out in reparations to

Jewish victims of Nazi theft and

brutality - just, you

understand, to help folks learn

about how terrible the Holocaust

really was. And, hey, wasn't

Mike Barnicle also trying to

teach us something?


Strangely enough, making things

up to convey a lesson about

reality isn't all that uncommon

away from the courtroom; if Ware

ever gets tired of being a

judge, quite a few other

educational forums could

probably benefit from his unique

skill at teaching - although The

Boston Globe probably isn't one

of them. The best part is that

some even aim to teach the same

lesson. In Memphis, Tennessee, for example,

visitors to the National Civil

Rights Museum can stand a few feet from

the bloodstained motel balcony

where Martin Luther King died

... and gaze educationally upon

a simulated catfish dinner, much

like the one King himself ate

just before being shot. The

motel was gutted a few years ago

- following the eviction of the

longterm tenants, who didn't

actually want to be tossed out

on the street by sheriff's

deputies - and remodeled behind

a faithfully preserved facade as

an exhibit hall full of

mocked-up racism: A bus, for

example, in which a tape

recording demands that the

visitor move to the back, while

statues gathered around simulate

hostile white riders. Elsewhere

in the museum, an exhibit

features what a typical

newspaper travel section

described, back when the place

opened, as an "actual lunch

counter." The counter itself

doesn't come from a historic

site - but it is, the

explanation goes, "reminiscent"

of the real thing.



Sadly, museum officials don't

actually follow young white

out-of-state visitors around

after dark to simulate the

murder of the Freedom Riders of

yesteryear - relax, son, it's

just a starter pistol - but

maybe they'll take our

suggestion and give it a whirl.


If it's hard to believe that

listening to a menacing cassette

tape on a simulated bus journey

really puts the simulatee in

precisely the same shoes as a

black protestor being blasted

with a fire hose or bloodied by

a police dog in 1963 Birmingham,

Bull Connermania still stands as

only one of many silly extremes

in the business of teaching

through unreality; museums,

all kinds of them, are crazy for

this stuff. That is, they're

crazy for the form of the

simulated experience, a

particular kind of show and tell

that permits an exhibitor to

claim the crucial descriptors

"multisensory" and "multimedia."

Visit the recently opened

museum at the National Steinbeck

Center in Salinas, California,

for example, and you enter a

simulation of the writer's

childhood. To learn what it was

like to have a grandfather who

did foundry work on a farm, pull

down on a lever that triggers a

simulated bellows - in turn,

brightening the light that glows

beneath the simulated hot coals

of the plastic fire. Ah, we

thought, watching the juice

crank higher in the light bulb

underlying the exhibit, this

makes The Grapes of Wrath quite

a bit more clear!


Elsewhere in the Steinbeck

museum, lifting a can of beans

reveals a bottle of ketchup - a

revelation that teaches visitors

about the inner workings of

Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.


A short hop down the highway,

another simulation stretches

more ambitiously for the realm

of the meta. An exhibit at the

Monterey Bay Aquarium purports

to take visitors behind the

scenes, revealing The Inside

Story of the facility -

revealing, that is, the

techniques by which the people

who run the place create a

simulation of different ocean

environments. Except that,

watching video feed of "life

support systems" in operation, a

visitor slowly realizes that the

video images don't match the

view out the window. Standing

behind the scenes, reading notes

scrawled on a white board ("Hey

Dave," reads a note in a feeding

room, "can we talk blenders?"),

you find yourself watching a

simulation of the mechanism

behind a simulation: An exhibit

on an exhibit. Giv 'em another

few months, and the price of

admission will probably include

a look behind the scenes at the

look behind the scenes. Pay no

attention to the man behind the

curtain - the guy behind him

does all the work.



Don't tell Judge Coughenour, but

the reality behind manufactured

truth tends to do a little

something more than miss the

target; what you won't learn at

Disney's newish Animal Kingdom

theme park, say, wandering

exhibits like Conservation

Station and The Tree of Life, is

that the animals Disney used to

dress the set have been dropping

like flies. The body count stood

close to 30, the last time we

checked. It's a parade of

animals that ends with burial

after teaching ticket holders

how neat animals are and how

important it is to protect them.


Not quite as serious a load to

haul as the simulated dead

children James Ware and Mike

Barnicle have to carry around,

but still a decent reminder.

Reality, in a simulated

environment, tends to die off in

ways that really are kind of


courtesy of Ambrose Beers