“Poetic truths” are in every single place
This month I saw two films about the past. One reconstructed a controversial police murder based on witnesses confirmed by the Justice Department as credible and then commented on the incident. The other, a dramatization of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, included a number of facts about history to make one of the most famous Conservative leaders of the last century look bad. No prices for guesses that were more difficult to verify online. The crown created by Netflix has been celebrated and watched around the world. Who Killed Michael Brown, an independent film about the Ferguson murder, got almost no audience after Amazon initially blocked it over concerns about its content. These two don’t seem to have much in common, but they have at least one trait in common: Both show in different ways the danger that poetic truth takes precedence over actual truth in relation to events that shape the narrative of our politics.
The crown costs much more money and is beautifully filmed and often played brilliantly (though Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher borders on caricatures). But it’s mostly fantasy that pretends to be fact. It would take an article review to catalog all of his untruths in the service of a leftist ideology, but two about Thatcher stand out. First, the film accurately reports that a young man named Michael Fagan shockingly managed to get into the queen’s bedroom in the early hours of the morning of July 9, 1982. But almost every major detail of the incident is altered to make an attack on Thatcher rather than the Queen. First, Fagan is portrayed as a victim of unemployment losing custody of his children, rather than a petty criminal and an occasional Worker Revolutionary Party member with a wife and four children. Second, Fagan is shown giving a speech to the Queen in her bedroom about his plight, which he attributes to Thatcher’s policies. But according to Fagan himself, the queen left the room immediately after entering.
Of course, the whole incident is riddled with images of long unemployment lines. It is true that unemployment was initially high when Thatcher tried to revive the economy. But the film in its previous episodes never illustrates the mess Britain faced when Thatcher was elected. In the following episodes, it also does not show the great revival of prosperity that Thatcherism created. So successful was their policy that Labor under Tony Blair accepted a new political deal.
A second lie was even more outrageous. When Thatcher faced the leadership challenge that ultimately ended her term in office, she is shown calling on the Queen to dissolve Parliament to prevent her defeat. The obvious implication here is that she is power insane and ready to engage the crown in a party-political dispute for her own benefit. There is no evidence whatsoever that this event occurred and given the UK’s unwritten Constitution, no Prime Minister could hope it would.
The only event Thatcher portrays in the most flattering light also undermines her real successes. After Thatcher’s tenure is over, The Crown features the Queen designating her to the Order of Merit, the highest distinction included in her personal gift. But in an imaginary private conversation, the Queen tells Thatcher that she is doing this because she has opposed the men in the Conservative Party. Hence, the award is for her gender rather than her achievement in transforming Britain, as was the case with Clement Attlee, who was the only other prime minister of the post-war era to receive the OM For The Crown. As a woman, Thatcher’s redemption is quality.
The series isn’t much more fact based when it comes to the main theme – the royal family. There are blatant falsehoods, such as portraying the Queen as clueless that Thatcher would lead a Victory Parade that marked the retaking of the Falkland Islands and angered her for it. In reality, she knew about the parade and was in the Pacific at the time. But the more damaging inventions are those that make the Prince of Wales look like an arch-villain in his marriage to Princess Diana, largely based on fabricated private conversations. Prince Charles may not be an entirely admirable character, but he is not a reincarnation of Henry VIII without the power to put his wife on the scaffolding.
The crown’s mix of facts and deliberate inversions of truth underscores the danger that what is curated on screen will increasingly replace what is happening in the world.
The most ironic part of the episodes of their marriage is the presence of trigger warnings. Because Diana eats excessively rich desserts and throws herself decoratively in a sink, these episodes have an opening exclusion: “The following episodes contain scenes of an eating disorder that some viewers may find alarming.” Indeed, the warning that should accompany most episodes should be that they contain knowingly fabricated events that differ from verified facts.
Given that this series is about kings, one would think that The Crown could build a Shakespeare defense of his inventions. The bard wrote history, sometimes with dubious or unconfirmed facts and often to glorify the Tudors at the expense of their rivals like Richard III. But this analogy is absent, and not just because the prose contains none of the majesty of Shakespeare’s poems. The events of The Crown are much closer in time and better recorded than the ones he wrote about, and as such, audiences today bring with them greater expectations of truthfulness. The crown actually uses these records to emphasize the accuracy of their portrait taking. For example, the character of Geoffrey Howe, Deputy Prime Minister of Thatcher, gives much of his famous and damaging resignation speech verbatim as recorded in the Commons. Shakespeare had to imagine all these speeches with the advantage of being able to put the immortal words in Agincourt in Henry V’s mouth, but also with the signal that they were his own words. And it’s not at all clear that Shakespeare recorded scenes that he knew were wrong, as The Crown does over and over again. It goes well beyond the selective presentation of facts to highlight topics. After all, a short piece is inherently a less realistic medium than a forty-part (and counting) film series.
Contrary to the ease with which Netflix misrepresents the past, Who Killed Michael Brown begins with a careful reconstruction of Michael Brown’s death. One of Shelby Steele’s main points could be seen as a commentary on propaganda like The Crown: The actual truth of an event often differs from the “poetic truth” that groups later put forward to advance their political agenda. However, Steele is cautious about basing his coverage on the Obama Justice Department report which exposed the story that Michael Brown was a victim who wanted to surrender rather than an assailant trying to get Police Officer Darren Wilson’s gun and then accused him of ignoring repeated orders to stop.
Of course, the film also contains Steele’s views that liberalism has stolen African Americans’ freedom of choice by making them appear victims to the world and themselves. It has also created conditions that make young people in this community more likely not to have righteous lives. This claim is undoubtedly controversial, but unlike The Crown, Steele does not falsify the facts in a person’s life to make his own “poetic truth”.
The bigger lesson from these two films is the danger of an illusory world made possible by the power of our media, and the ideological illusions that such illusions can create. At a time when people are increasingly switching from screen to screen, there is an increasing risk that what is curated on screen will replace what is happening in the world. The crown’s mix of facts and deliberate inversions of truth underscores this danger. At a time when traditional religion has been declining, there is also an increasing danger that people will feel the need for “poetic truths” in order to give them worldly myths to live by. A society that does not hold a mirror in front of itself, but rather goes through the mirror of fantasy, loses its connection to reality. And it is precisely this reality that creates a basis for mutual understanding, social stability and empirically founded renewal.