by Mike Herndon
I could tell she was going to be trouble, the hair all down over her horn-rimmed glasses, the too-sensible shoes and the anachronistic cardigan. She would not be one to accept the wisdom I offer. She would be one to think she could counter The Way Things Are with questions about The Way Things Ought To Be.
“What you’re talking about is lying,” she said, the accusatory glare in her eye only slightly softened by the addendum of a question: “Isn’t it?”
I’ve been through the spiel so many times now I could recite it in my sleep. Actually, I do recite it in my sleep. That sounds better. I usually save it for the second half of the semester, but if there’s a student brazen enough to introduce absolutism into the discussion, the syllabus goes out the window.
“Lying is such an outdated term,” I began. “What we’re talking about is the repackaging of truth. As I outlined in my book The Truth Is What You Make It, commercial marketers have successfully used this approach for years. And what is politics but the marketing of a leader or a worldview?”
“But what about the facts?” she interjected.
“What about them? What are facts but our perception of actual events? And our perception is inherently colored by our own personal backgrounds and biases. You can find facts to support practically any hypothesis. This is why, during court cases involving medical opinion, the experts called by the defense and the prosecution invariably differ. They are not lying or being disingenuous. They are using differing facts to support their opinions, which must necessarily fit the arguments of their side of the case.”
“But Nixon authorized a burglary for political purposes, or at least covered it up. That’s a proven fact.”
“That’s what the history books tell us,” I said. “But were you there?”
“I wasn’t born yet.”
“So you don’t really know, do you? You only know what you’ve been taught to believe.”
“But there is documentation. There were the Oval Office tapes. If he hadn’t resigned, he would’ve been removed from office.”
“Or so you assume. Documentation, as you call it—history—is only as good as whoever wrote or recorded it. Details can be fudged, distorted, made up. Tapes can be doctored, even counterfeited. Words can be taken out of context. There isn’t one facet of Watergate that any third-year law student couldn’t poke holes in until the American justice system’s standard of reasonable doubt was surpassed.”
“But it’s established fact,” she said.
“No, it isn’t. I’ve written a book outlining why it isn’t. It sold quite well.”
She stared back at me, jaw set, but her die-cast eyes melted before me as if being poured from a furnace ladle and I smiled, unable to help myself. I had seen this moment many times before, the second in which a student realizes that everything they know about the world and life itself is not a fact but a version of facts—disputable, open to debate.
It takes time, but sooner or later we always reach a point where the students let go of what they think they know. Each year it seems to get easier. They are now being conditioned by outside forces, by society, by contemporary marketing methods, by the malleability of social media trends and viral memes, to let go. They are told to question everything. Question authority. Question what you read. Question what you’ve been taught in school. Question the government. Question religion. Question traditional gender roles. Question your own sexuality. Question your own beliefs. From questioning, it is but a short leap to rejection.
Nothing is absolute. Truth is not fixed—a liquid, not a solid. Facts are irrelevant.
Most of them have become so conditioned to accept it now that sometimes I wonder how much longer I’ll have a job. But then there always seems to be that one student so mired in old modes of thinking that the semester takes right off. I have chaired what is essentially my own wing of the history department for seven years now, paid through an anonymous endowment. I teach a wide range of courses, most of which relate at least tangentially to 21st-Century American Exceptionalism, but the course for which I’ve become known—my baby, if you will—is Contemporary Relativism and Revisionism.
It is rhetoric on steroids. It is debate with no rules, no arbitrary sense of decorum. It is the future of American discourse—political and otherwise. And the future is here.
* * *
The process starts simply enough, by poking holes in everything they were taught in grade school. Columbus didn’t discover the new world; he exploited it. The founding fathers weren’t patriotic; they were seditionists, subversives and saboteurs—criminals. The men who settled the American West weren’t pioneers; they were thieves and murderers.
We will reconstruct their stature in its proper historical context with relation to the American experiment as the semester continues. The ease with which we can refute these overly romanticized bits of history, however, leaves but a short jump of logic to more entrenched truths. The moon landing is usually an interesting discussion, with all the documented skepticism to wade through. The history of the Republican and Democratic parties and their relation to racist policies is a particularly divisive, though thin and overdone, topic. The “inside job” theories surrounding Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are often turning points. We can progress right up to the present day with false flag questions raised, however clumsily, around school shootings and conspiracy theories about subterranean pedophile rings and the deaths of people close to polarizing political figures.
Where the freest thinkers among them would have likely scoffed at all this in the beginning of the semester, even the hardest cases are open-minded enough to take a fresh look at what we’ll call, for the lack of a better term, the facts of those cases by the end.
It’s not just political and it’s not just academic. I practice what I preach every day. A mastery of rhetorical revisionism, when coupled with rudimentary legal knowledge, makes life exponentially simpler and more enjoyable. I haven’t paid rent in over a decade. The provisions of any lease are open to reinterpretation or formal protest and, if you reach a true impasse, you simply move and start the process again. I am still single and without progeny thanks to my powers of persuasion and, in no small part, to carefully cultivated relationships with the owners of the top local DNA testing firms. I have, needless to say, never lost a Twitter argument.
There are occasional entanglements. Someone may be quick enough to screenshot an onerous social media post before it can be deleted, or sic a nitpicking lawyer on you, or engage in emotional blackmail through threatening bodily harm upon themselves. Whatever stunts they pull, the important thing is to remember that you are right and they are wrong. The only way you lose is if you second guess yourself, if you allow yourself to believe the original truth is sacrosanct.
The truth is whatever you say it is. Anyone who says otherwise has an agenda.
And so it was with the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, in whose office I sat staring at walls adulterated with framed honorariums and awards bestowed upon him by sycophants with ulterior motives. He sat behind his preposterously large desk and shifted his gaze from the papers in his hand to my smiling face.
“You understand the severity of this allegation,” he said, peering pompously over his glasses.
The nerve of the man, who had risen to his current position through his own archaic forms of trickery and subterfuge, to be questioning my integrity over a simple line in a résumé. I almost had to admire it. He and his minions have, upon a review of my academic credentials sparked no doubt by the villainy of some jealous colleague, found no record of the completion of my master’s degree. Never mind that my doctorate is unassailable. Do they think they just admit anyone into a Ph.D. program at Penn without the proper academic pedigree?
I slid a manila envelope across the desk toward him. “This should clear up any questions you may have,” I said, with just the right mix of nonchalance and good cheer.
He pushed his glasses up on his nose as he opened the folder and looked through the pages within. Every ounce of him is pretense, from his ridiculous reddish wing tips to the elaborate combover he thinks no one notices. He has questioned and sought to obstruct nearly every move I’ve made in building the department, vetoing catalogue additions that I created anyway under alternate names, actively trying to steer students away from my courses through nefarious means that he stupidly thought I wouldn’t notice and couldn’t counter. I can almost see the color fade from his face as he scans the documents, a starved dog who thought a hambone within reach only to find just another filthy stick.
“I will, of course, verify this with Vanderbilt,” he said as I rose to leave.
“Of course,” I said over my shoulder as I opened the door and stepped out of the office. Verify away, you old fool. What do you take me for, an amateur?
* * *
The place seems comfortable, even cozy. The lacquered tabletops and bar shimmer, spotlessly clean and silky to the touch. The walls are painted in subdued hues and covered with framed advertisements for various alcoholic beverages. The lighting is warm and dim. A framework of wooden tresses conceals the ceiling.
A closer inspection, however, reveals that the tables are cheap pasteboard beneath their overly lacquered tops. You can feel the sandy fake grain underneath, along with several surreptitiously deposited wads of gum. The bar is plywood, as you can easily see by the reflection of its backside in the mirror behind it. The walls are sheetrock, same as the nail salon next door and the title loan place two doors down. The air conditioning ductwork and the framework from which the lighting hangs is clearly visible in the shadows above the tresses for anyone who bothers to look.
But no one does. They are more interested in their vodka tonics and seared tuna appetizers, in whatever inane thing their companions have said, in the dark mirrors of their cellphones, in the elaborate falsehoods they have weaved together to create what they call their lives. They prefer false comfort to unvarnished reality. We all do.
I have seated myself where I can see the door, can watch her walk in and scan the room, can take note of the smart waistcoat and scarf she has chosen and the tiny clutch she carries, can sense the unease she is barely bothering to try to conceal. With apologies that my office was being deep-cleaned and was therefore unavailable, I’d suggested that we meet here to discuss a research opportunity. She flashed a quick smile and said hello as she approached the table, sitting as I motioned toward the chair opposite me but refusing my offer of a drink. She placed her clutch in her lap and stared at me, as I finished the last of my double and motioned to the bar for another. The horn-rimmed glasses that seemed so anachronistic in the classroom took on a more modern, almost hip appearance in this light.
“I’m writing another book,” I told her, getting straight to the point. “I need a research assistant. You’d be perfect. You ask the right questions. You think on your feet. This would be valuable experience as you finish your degree and look to start your own career.”
The waitress arrived, setting another Woodford on the rocks in front of me and a watermelon martini in front of my companion, who concealed an impressed smile quickly enough that most men wouldn’t have noticed.
“Why would I want to work with you on your right-wing propaganda?” she said.
Bless her heart. She still had some ideals left.
“Who said it was right wing? It so happens that this particular project cuts the other way.”
Her eyebrows crinkled with surprise and I laid it out quickly, while I had her attention: “The Republican Party has cast itself as the party of fiscal conservatism. Reagan, in particular, has been held up as a conservative hero. I aim to show, with statistical evidence, that Reagan was in fact fiscally irresponsible, that the vast majority of Republicans are as well, and that fiscal responsibility is itself often bad policy.”
She stared back at me with the kind of look that is trying to figure you out, and I just smiled back at her. It was not true revisionism; anyone with a basic grasp of macroeconomics could blow holes in that tired mythology. She said she’d think about it, which was enough for now.
* * *
The semester wound down as semesters typically do, with a flurry of papers—some promising, some clearly written to simply acquire a passing grade. I held back my critiques and sprinkled flattery before the class upon Little Miss Hornrims, whose name was Rachel. Do not allow yourself to get so haughty as to presume that the knowledge of names is unimportant.
As she and the rest of the class tried with varied levels of success to focus on a final exam I’d hastily thrown together over the weekend, I scanned my personal email inbox on my phone—a tedious process, but necessary in the interest of delicacy. Neither this nor a subsequent Google search provided what I was looking for. Strange, but a life without unforeseen challenges would hardly be worth living. Or so I’m fond of saying.
A few students who fancied themselves as brilliant stood up to turn in their exams along with the final papers they’d been assigned. The exam was required by the department, but the paper was where they’d be ultimately judged. If their thesis was sufficiently subversive, and they could successfully convince me of its merits, they’d prove their proficiency. If not, no exam would save them.
Just as one of them stretched her hand toward me with the completed exam and paper, her face turned dark along with the rest of the room around her. Surge protectors pinged, as students still finishing their exams groaned. Power outages had become common this semester, possibly a result of the ongoing construction projects around campus. Or a sign of a coming tuition hike. Ordinarily, this would not have posed a problem, as the exam was a hard copy. But the university, in its infinite wisdom, had scheduled the final for this class at night. It was now so dark, the students remaining in the class were visible only as outlines.
“You will be given ample time,” I said, as the shadow of the girl placed her papers on the desk and left the classroom. Two other shadows followed.
It is at this point that the industrious student would be taking advantage of the situation. But as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw a room full of heads lowered, eyes no doubt squinting at the papers in front of them, trying in vain to continue answering whatever irrelevant questions I’d given them. If they weren’t willing to use whatever edge fate provides them, whatever answers they came up with were entirely beside the point.
A shadow passed, pausing near me to deposit a paper and exam. “Didn’t we reject all this,” her voice said, “in the election?”
“A man was rejected,” I said. “The concepts are as sound as they were when they got him elected in the first place.” How quaint to assume no one else has used them.
The final paper she’d placed on my desk, I already knew, would be a first-rate takedown of Clinton-era economic policy and the meaninglessness of reducing the deficit. “Have you considered my proposal?” I asked. The thought crossed my mind to be frank with her, but I have come to understand that these urges are fleeting and best ignored.
“Actually, I have,” she said. “I think my work on Clinton will help in researching Reagan.”
“Excellent. We can start next week.”
Her shadow rotated as if to leave, but instead hesitated, hovering over me like a dark cloud. “I wonder though,” her voice ventured, “if this does more harm than good.”
I did not answer, but left her to consider her own question before she continued. “I suppose the experience will be worth it.”
“Yes,” I said, smiling at her as the lights came back on. It always is.
* * *
Just over two weeks had passed since I’d last found myself in the Dean’s office, and I’d assumed I wouldn’t ever have to waste a minute in it again. I’d been summoned to appear at a specific time, but of course he wasn’t here. His secretary showed me in and apologized for him, saying he was running late from a meeting. Oldest power play in the book.
I wondered if he’d be the standard five minutes or if he’d stretch it to ten or fifteen. If he was brazen enough to try the latter, there might be time to remove the backing of a couple of the degrees on his wall and practice a little material revisionism. I always carry a calligraphy pen in my satchel for just this possibility. As I pondered whether to simply alter the dates or do something a little more elaborate, he strode into the room, muttering a half-hearted apology for his tardiness and cutting an eye toward me to check my reaction.
He got nothing but an unbothered smile. He would get no such satisfaction from me.
He sat heavily in his oversized chair and spun slowly toward me. “We’ve checked the information you’ve provided,” he said, “and it cannot be authenticated.” He enunciated each word slowly and carefully, savoring them as a man would an expertly grilled steak or a glass of finely aged scotch. But these are the sorts of pickles where a true grasp of revisionary rhetoric pays for itself. The game had changed, but this simply calls for a reassessment of strategy.
The apparent facts are: As I had come to realize, my contact is no longer employed at Vanderbilt, leaving no one to run interference there for me.
The preferred tactics are: Aggressive advocacy and deflection to plant the seeds of doubt and stall the process.
The spin is: This is obviously a mistake. An inability to authenticate does not equal falsehood. It simply means efforts to authenticate have not been sufficient. Did Vanderbilt not recently reorganize its archival files? Could they not have misplaced or mislabeled some of them, leaving them in a purgatory beyond the reach of the usual search keywords? Did I just imagine spending those two years in Nashville, shotgunning beers at Tootsie’s and working a Pedal Pub on the weekends for extra cash?
He waved his hand and cut me off. “This isn’t my call,” he said, clearly enjoying himself despite his farcical show of duty-bound irritation. “This matter will come before a judicial review committee next month. You can present your case then.”
With that, he swiveled his chair and turned his back to me, an action I’m sure he intended to be dismissive. But you never turn your back on an apex predator.
* * *
Over the next week we worked together in my apartment, debating the vagaries of Reaganomics and their effects, or lack thereof, on the markets of the 1980s. I postulated and she researched, and I postulated again, refuting the research she had uncovered and the motives of its authors. The lights of the upper quarter lit one side of the room through the windows, and a small desk lamp illuminated the other where she sat with her books and laptop. I paced through the shadows in between.
As fascinating as it was, the collection of all this research was simply a means to a predetermined end. This process of working toward one’s thesis is really not much of a challenge for someone with the requisite experience. It’s deliberate and yet organic. You introduce your primary idea subtly, preferably in response to an unintentional prompt from your intended audience—an alleged fact easily manipulated, a point easily turned. You allow it time to marinate, to take shape, to evolve from the absurd to the real. Then when you sense the time is right you take the next step, you introduce new information to support your position, you attack the weakest area of the opposing viewpoint, and you repeat your thesis. It is resisted at first, but not refused. If you persist with just the right amount of pressure, you see that resistance fade into acceptance. The objections melt away, the mind opens to the new reality, and as you feel her fingers in your hair, you unzip her skirt and allow nature to take over.
“Do you remember in grade school,” I asked when it was over, the sheets twisted around us, “when kids started rumors?”
She nodded and opened her mouth as if to add something to the conversation, but I continued before she could get the words out.
“If I said Billy liked Susie enough times, with enough conviction, it didn’t matter if Billy actually liked Susie or not. Everyone believed he did.”
“And if he denied it?”
“That just made them believe it even more. He’s legitimized the debate.”
“When did you first get interested in this?” she asked, as though it mattered. These are the types of questions that are asked by people who think too much.
It was the Beatles, I told her. They may or may not have essentially invented modern pop music, but nothing they did musically pushed their legend further than the rumor of Paul’s death and his replacement in the band by an imposter. Books have been written about it, theories postulated about how it happened and how the counterfeit Paul was found. And John Lennon’s genius was in taking this rumor and, while dismissing it publicly, continually breathing life into it by tucking these clever little clues into the songs and on the album covers—the 28IF license plate, “Paul” walking barefoot across Abbey Road, the “he blew his mind out in a car” line, “turn me on, dead man” inserted backwards into the mix. It added to the legend. It became the legend. Whether the Beatles created the theory or simply capitalized on it is immaterial. It became the narrative.
I have always been fascinated with that success. Whether that’s actually what first got me thinking about revisionist history or it’s just a truth I manufactured, I cannot remember. It may have actually been when I first lied to my parents and they bought it. It doesn’t matter. The mark of a successfully manufactured truth is when the manufacturer can’t even tell the difference anymore.
“That’s amazing,” she said.
But it wasn’t, really. Almost nothing truly is.
* * *
The next few weeks were productive—a couple more research sessions with Rachel and a week’s sojourn in Nashville that yielded promising results. It’s remarkable what can be accomplished with a simple promise to pay off a student loan, or the threatened revelation of an affair. As I headed back south, I knew I’d soon have to start showing something in the way of written pages. Bullshitting an opening chapter should buy another couple weeks and that’s all I’d want or need.
I’d given her a key to water the plants and feed the fish while I was gone, and I texted her to be there ready to resume our work when I returned. But I found the apartment empty, the plants wilting, the fish ravenous. A call went straight to voice mail, and the phone took barely a second to cross the room and turn the mirror into a spiderweb of cracked glass. I was tired from the drive anyway. Had she been there, I’d have just sent her away and gone to bed.
Among the assorted detritus in the mail was an academic journal to which one of my colleagues had been persuaded, thanks to my knowledge of his own less discreet wooing of co-eds, to publish a rather scathing article under his name that had been written by yours truly. It cast doubt, with harrowing detail, on the merits of certain awards and honorariums awarded to the Dean of Arts & Sciences of our fine university, as well as the Provost of Academic Affairs, who just happened to be the chair of my “judicial review committee,” and for good measure, the university president himself.
Correspondence bearing the letterhead of Vanderbilt University and the signatures of a couple of well-placed graduate school officials would be arriving in the campus mailboxes of the dean and provost within the week. Within that correspondence would be included authenticated transcripts that would nullify the need for any review of my academic credentials. And it had only taken a road trip, a few phone calls, a little internet sleuthing, and the knowledge that anyone with his ear to the ground on a college campus can easily acquire.
About a month later, the victory was completed with a two-line missive on university letterhead in my mailbox in the department office. “The university’s inquiry into your academic history is hereby ended,” it read. “We apologize for the inconvenience.” They never want to admit defeat in person. Whoever said only bad news comes in the mail was in the wrong line of work.
The other piece of correspondence in my box that day was troubling, but not unexpected. In the weeks since my return from Nashville, I’d taken the liberty of switching cellphone carriers and numbers, and of moving to a new loft in the Warehouse District. But I knew she could still reach me here and so had taken other proactive steps as well. By the end of the week, she had been delivered, via certified mail, correspondence bearing the signature of Thomas A. Chapadeaux, Esq., Attorney at Law, disavowing any responsibility on behalf of his client and requiring that she submit to testing at the below-indicated laboratory in order to resolve the matter. The DNA lab referenced, of course, was run by a closely cultivated acquaintance who would guarantee the desired findings, her pleas of abstinence for the previous two years notwithstanding. Chappy was a regular at the Avenue Pub, an establishment I frequented, who drank more than he worked and had no ethical issues with sending threatening letters, no questions asked, for the right price.
Do not allow undesired narratives to linger unanswered. Debunk them early and replace with your own. Done and done.
* * *
The fall semester proceeded uneventfully, my classes largely devoid of any promising talent. While the advent and predominance of skepticism is, in one aspect, making my job easier, it is also robbing the emerging generation of its imagination and creativity. Their premises are the same tired tropes, their theses the same regurgitated ideas. They ultimately accept what they are given like their parents and their grandparents before them. They simply have more choices of the media to which they submit themselves. They select their shepherd, but they remain sheep.
I have crossed paths with the dean just twice since the dismissal of the inquiry. On both occasions, I said hello and he responded with a curt nod. Such are the ways of the defeated.
With the successful completion of midterms and the semester rolling on its downhill stretch, I poured a glass of Kendall Jackson, clipped off the end of a Macanudo and settled into my recliner, mentally noting to refer to these later as a Chateau Lafite Rothschild, a Cohiba and a high-back leather chair. It was as I considered what vintage to make the wine, whether to refer to the flavor of the cigar as “nutty” or “buttery,” that a heavy blow struck my shoulder, like a dagger being thrust into it, spinning me sideways in the chair. I looked first at the shoulder, where a deep red circle was spreading across my white dress shirt, and then at doorway, where a large handgun was pointed in my direction by a thin, feminine arm, and then to the face behind the gun. The hair was shorter, the cheeks a bit fuller, the horn-rimmed glasses traded for a more discreet, less distinctive style.
The apparent facts are: I have a gunshot wound. There is blood pouring out of my shoulder.
The preferred tactics are: Deflection and reason to defuse the immediate situation, discretion to conceal the aftereffects.
The spin is: Hurting me isn’t going to change or improve anything. You know that I can make this go away. My private physician will handle this with discretion, out of state, with all expenses paid for travel. Put the gun away, leave now and none of this ever happened.
“Not this time,” she said in a voice an octave lower than I remembered. “This isn’t going away.”
The apparent facts are: The gun is raised in my direction again. Though I have employed proven tactics with impeccable delivery, the eyes behind it remain red with hate, unpersuaded.
Reassessment of tactics: Abandon reason for emotional pleas. Adopt a countenance of fear and allow her to believe she has made her point. Profess a change of heart, regret for her situation and tacit admission of one’s own role in it.
The spin is:
Mike Herndon is a former journalist who earned an MA in Creative Writing from the University of South Alabama and now teaches future journalists there that past-tense verbs are their friends. His fiction has appeared in The Blue Mountain Review, Change Seven, Sleet, Aura, Oracle Fine Arts Review and other publications.