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On Faith: Look past perception to find substance

November 11, 2011|By Rabbi Mark S. Miller

Lyndon Johnson once praised the bravery of his great-grandfather in defending the Alamo. When a journalist pointed out to the president that his great-grandfather did not fight at the Alamo, he answered, "Why are you journalists so concerned over facts?"

Johnson testified to a truism of human nature: The facts themselves are not as important to us as what we want the facts to be. Although we learned in Philosophy 101 that our perception of a thing is not the thing itself — that the map is not the territory — we confuse what is with our own take on reality.

The husk is barely penetrated in our national discourse. We are satisfied with superficiality, as ideas are reduced to sound bites, truth is cheapened to truism, and cliches are substituted for content. Today it is all about semblance rather than essence.

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In the 1960 presidential debate, the camera was kinder to John. F Kennedy than to Richard Nixon. Nixon later said: "At the conclusion, I recognized my basic mistake: I had concentrated too much on substance and not enough on appearance." Abraham Lincoln could hardly be elected president today. He wasn't telegenic, spoke in a squeaky voice, walked with an ungainly gait, and projected a sad countenance.

The vacuity of our political process, in which voting preferences are based on how many flags or how many firemen are positioned behind a candidate, reflects a deeper malaise: Image is taken for substance.

Writing about one of the great swindles of the 1930s, John Kenneth Galbraith pointed to a trait of any financial community that he believed put it at the risk of committing fraud, "The tendency to confuse good manners and good tailoring with integrity and intelligence." We are seduced by images and airbrushing. Nothing succeeds like the look of success. As long as you seem to know something, it is the same as if you know it. We are bombarded by weapons of mass perception.

A front page story becomes news by virtue of being on the front page; a best-seller sells a lot more copies because it has already sold a lot of copies; a celebrity is known for his or her well-known-ness.

Facts are not paramount — things are what we want them to be, imagine them to be, perceive them to be. It is all smoke and mirrors. If "Dragnet" was produced today, Sgt. Friday would plead, "Just the virtual reality, ma'am, just the virtual reality."

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