Twenty-nine years ago President Ronald Reagan was caught up in a horrific storm of controversy over his ceremonial visit to a certain cemetery in Germany. The idea of the visit was to acknowledge the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe (V-E Day) by laying a wreath in recognition of the soldiers of both sides who lost their lives in battle. World media outlets let it rip with a ‘blitzkrieg’ of oppositional reporting. Several SS men were buried in the cemetery, a fact that was exploited to keep the story steaming. The theme of the occasion was – in Reagan’s words – “We can and must pledge: never again.” It would not seem possible therefore to mistake what took place as in any way honoring Nazis. Nevertheless, that’s how the media chose to play it. Not coincidentally, press coverage of all Reagan statements and actions tended to be generally negative. Bitburg, the name of the cemetery’s location, became a huge political black eye for the Reagan Administration as its second term began. Those in control of what average people read and heard saw to that.
Perception is more powerful than reality – unfortunately. How we choose to see a situation often overrides the facts. A development that to one person is a devastating setback is to someone else an adventure. In our highly politicized culture, we have chosen to see most of life in terms of stereotypes. The candidate of the opposing political party is nearly always either stupid or evil or a combination of both. We don’t take the time to develop any meaningful understanding of the nuances; it’s so much easier to snap up the grab-and-go version.
But while we content ourselves with mere cartoons of situations and events, let us be mindful of what our intellectual laziness costs us. When we don’t think for ourselves, we end up being told what to think by others. We let the bias of the news reporter or the commentator become our bias. Our perception of what is and is not a big deal ends up being shaped by others.
An outstanding case in point is the recent media-manufactured big deal concerning Justin Bieber. Normally, I would not take the time to notice let alone comment on the activities of an individual whom I regard to be a symbol of the sad shallowness to which pop music has descended. Brian Wilson’s “Good Vibrations” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” prove that we were once made of sterner stuff. But enough is enough; the latest anti-Bieber “news” story is so far beyond the pale it demands a response.
Bieber was recently forced to apologize, not for what he’s done to music, but for his alleged offense against the sensitivities of peace-loving people everywhere. It seems that Justin made the mistake of visiting Japan’s Yasukami war shrine in Tokyo, a Shinto memorial to 2.5 million war dead. The shrine’s roll includes fourteen convicted war criminals. Bieber says he was cruising along, saw the shrine, and asked his driver to stop. He had himself photographed in a praying pose (of course) and standing with a Shinto priest. This insignificant stop somehow invoked torrents of rage from the likes of China and South Korea who see it as an unforgiveable endorsement of “Japan’s past militarism.” “I was misled to think the Shrines were only a place of prayer,” Bieber said in his apology, “To anyone I have offended I am extremely sorry.”
Now let’s try to acknowledge reality, if only for a moment. This is Justin Bieber. Again, this – is – Justin – BIEBER! Do not allow yourself to take the mental shortcut here. If a pop star’s visit to a Shinto shrine can provoke an international incident, there is something very wrong. Let’s closely examine the perception-over-reality approach that catapulted Bitburg and has now propelled Bieber into the ranks of infamy. In fact, let’s take it to its logical extreme.
Several years ago I visited a certain cemetery in Chicago with a friend who wanted to pay his respects to the family members buried there. The cemetery happened to be right along the route we were taking to another destination, so it seemed reasonable to make the stop. While walking among the graves, I started to notice some familiar names. Like Capone. And Giancana. And O’Banion. Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti rests there. And so does Machine Gun Jack McGurn, one of the gunmen of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The cemetery’s headstones constitute a crime hall of fame.
If we use the Bitburg-Bieber formula this means that I personally support prostitution, drugs, gambling, and wanton slaughter. It constitutes a buddying up with some very bad guys. If a reporter chose to spin it the right way, I could be condemned for applauding organized crime! The pain and suffering these characters caused can be painted all over me. All because I went to a cemetery where my friend’s family is buried.
We are daily assaulted with throngs of what we might call idea merchants, people attempting to sell a point of view. Often a narrative is picked up by a number of idea merchants, and gains credibility through mere repetition. We hear it all over; we see it all over; we believe it. And the world becomes a little darker, a little smaller. So the next time you find yourself condemning something, make sure it’s really condemnable. Let’s shrug off the mental manipulators, and start taking the time to inform ourselves enough to filter all the relentless messaging. When the commentators start commenting remember that things are not always as they seem (or are made to seem).