He seemed like such a nice old man. That he survived the Holocaust only made his sweetness more poignant. And the story he told had that sense of improbability that seemed plausible in a mixed-up world.
Only it wasn’t plausible. It wasn’t even true.
Herman Rosenblat had a tale of how, as a child at Schlieben—part of the Buchenwald concentration camp—a young girl, an angel to his mind, threw apples over the fence to him. This angel continued to pass food to him for another seven months before he was transferred to another camp. 15 years later, Rosenblat met a girl, Roma, on a blind date, where she mentioned she lived in the town near the camp and often came by and tossed apples over the fence. Herman found his angel. They married soon after.
It’s a glorious, uplifting tale. Herman was canonized a saint by Oprah Winfrey, who proclaimed his story to be the greatest love story she had heard. It made the rounds on the Internet and Sunday sermons (where I first heard it). Rosenblat, meanwhile, was on his way to having his memoir, The Angel At The Fence, published and a movie deal was struck when it was revealed that the story was, in fact, made up.
There was no girl. No angel. No apples. No reunion with his angel. Herman Rosenblat was just a Holocaust survivor—something which shouldn’t be ordinary and yet in this instance seemed that way.
Wait a moment. Let’s turn the clock. A man named James Frey was lauded by Oprah after he recounted his horrors as a recovering heroin addict in his book A Million Little Pieces—a harrowing account that included tales of depravity and heroic resolve that included having root canal without anaesthetic.
All lovely. All uplifting. All bogus.
You wonder why Oprah Winfrey even bothers some days.
Never mind that in an age of ‘truthiness’ it could be argued that it doesn’t matter if Frey or Rosenblat’s accounts are factually accurate; what’s strue is what it means to those who hear their stories. That’s not postmodernism by the way—we’ve embroidered around the truth throughout history (George Washington told his father he chopped down a cherry tree because he never told a lie) and wrested the facts into a more moving narrative all the way back to the Bible. But never mind any of that. And never mind the fact that Oprah seems to have become the arbiter of what people should meditate on these days.
No, I want to ask: what does this say about us?
In these times we seem to be desperate to hear inspirational, uplifting stories. I think that’s as healthy and human as the pithy aphorisms we put up on our bulletin boards. And yet, three generations ago, people huddled by their raidos to hear of Lucky Lindy crossing the Atlantic in a plane almost made of balsa wood. Two generations ago, Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. A generation ago, Neil Armstrong stepped out on the moon’s surface. Now we derive inspiration out of fabricated stories on Oprah.
It’s like we’ve become addicted to inspirational stories. And it’s not the chic, acceptable addictions like caffeine or social smoking either. This is huffing glue mixed with crystal meth. Think about it: Frey and Rosenblat, however misguided, would never have tried to perpetrate such frauds had there not been an eager audience desperate for a fix of inspiration.
And now there’s Obama.
Ignore the fact he’s the first African American president and, probably more importantly, the first person who has held the office of leader of the free world who can speak in complete sentences in almost a decade. No, listen to the chatter on the 24 hour news channels and the Internet and the people are complaining he’s not giving us hope.
You could see it in the Inauguration coverage: everyone was wanting some kind of an amalgam of ask not what your country can do for you, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, I have a dream, four score and seven years ago and we have met the enemy and he is us. Never mind that these past speeches were not scrutinized and dissected with the immediacy of blogging and have the benefit of the weight of history. People wanted uplift and they wanted it now.
And the lack of uplift has dogged him ever sense. Never mind that the man speaks intelligently about everything, managed expectations—unlike the last guy who stood on a boat with the banner proclaiming “mission accomplished” to a mission still miring a nation—and talks about accomplishing goals in realistic terms. No, he doesn’t give us enough hope. As though hope is a commodity available in aisle three next to liberty and virtue.
Why are we so addicted to the happy, inspirational stories that we judge our leaders, surrender ourselves to people on Oprah and often suspend common sense and better judgment?
We live in desperate, unhappy times. I get that. And humans don’t live in the box. We need inspiration—something better about human nature to keep us going forward. However, if we put qualities like hope and states like human inspiration and turn them into commodities to consume like everything else, I fear we are headed down a road that will lead us away from, not closer to, hope and inspiration.
A friend of mine once said, “Grace is not scheduled like a bus”. While bloggers blather and news anchors amble and Oprah reigns supreme over all, we need to keep that in mind. In this culture we are desperate for our inspiration fix but there is a cost. Let the buyer beware.