TCS Daily

The Paper God

By Robert McHenry - April 12, 2005 12:00 AM

Remind me to stay out of Washington, D.C. Weird stuff happens there, and for all I know it's catching.

We've always known that D.C. is a strange place, of course, but just comparatively so -- stranger than Chicago, say, or Kansas City, but not necessarily than Berkeley. But lately it's seeming more and more like an episode of "Outer Limits."

Take paper. Plain, ordinary paper, such as your office and mine are full of, even though somebody or other some years ago promised that if we would just buy these computers and things the paper would go away and our work would be oh! so much easier. Maybe the Paper God heard about the paperless office and decided to remind us who's who in the cosmos. Anyway, paper is acting up in D.C.

Sandy Berger wanders innocently into the National Archives, putters about for a while, easy as you please, and leaves. End of story? Not hardly. Somehow a bunch of important papers end up stuffed down his pants and in his socks, and he has no idea how it happened.

OK, one incident could be a fluke, a statistical offchance. Nobody called in the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

But then Sen. Mel Martinez walks into the Senate, reaches in his pocket, and pulls out a paper that he's never seen before and can't account for. He doesn't notice that it's a paper he's never seen, though, so he gives it to Tom Harkin, who doesn't look at it. Later it turns out to be a paper that nobody wrote, which is good, because nobody should have written it. When somebody eventually does look at it, everybody is in trouble.

The crafty hand of the Paper God, no? He has lots of tricks, and one of them is to make stupid pieces of paper look not stupid. Everybody falls for this one, but some fall more often and harder, like journalists. H.L. Mencken, who knew a thing or two about paper and journalists, wrote about

        "the profound, maudlin sentimentality of the average American journalist 
        -- his ingenuous and almost automatic belief in everything that comes to 
        him in writing. One would think that his daily experience with the written 
        word would make him suspicious of it; he himself, in fact, believes fondly that 
        he is proof against it. But the truth is that he swallows it far more often than 
        he rejects it, and that his most eager swallowing is done in the face of the 
        plainest evidence of its falsity....When the means are readily at hand, he 
        often attempts to check it, and sometimes even rejects it. But when such 
        checking presents difficulties -- in other words, when deceit is especially 
        easy, and hence should be guarded against most vigilantly -- he succumbs 
        nine times out of ten, and without a struggle." ("Journalism in America," 
        Prejudices: Sixth Series)

Mencken didn't dig into the reasons for this; he just noted it as one of many sad facts of sublunary life. But then his age did not obsess about journalists and journalism as ours does. The great editor of the New York Sun, Charles A. Dana, was being only mildly facetious when he claimed that "Journalism consists in buying white paper at two cents a pound and selling it at ten cents a pound."

We postmoderns might well believe that now, eighty years on, with computer science and cognitive science and neurobiology to draw on, we are just that much more savvy about the workings of the credulous mind. Perhaps we are. But how much 21st-century science is needed to understand this:

        "It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble. 
        It's the things we do know that just ain't so." (Artemus Ward)

What kinds of things do we know that just ain't so? Well, ask Mary Mapes or Dan Rather.

And then there's this brave assertion:

        "But it's the truth even if it didn't happen." (Ken Kesey, Sometimes 
        a Great Notion

You know, it's a higher truth, a truth that really should have happened, a truth whose non-happening is mere accidence, not substance. The kind of truth that -- if you're a person with an especially close relation to truth and really deep understanding, more than the average citizen -- just comes to you, all shiny and bright and ready for publication. For some of us, "publication" may be limited to bar chat or cocktail parties. Others have, for some reason, broader opportunities to make fools of themselves in newspaper space or air time or book deals. The bigger your opportunity, the bigger the potential egg on your face, and some of us, having worked hard and diligently in the business of leaping to conclusions, are ripe for ostrich eggs.

Of course, we wouldn't behave this way if it didn't work. How many of us quiet, private citizens have passed on the one about Eskimos and their 17 or 26 or 40 words for snow? How many of us in the last couple of weeks handed on the finger-in-the-chili yarn? Sometimes it seems that we're all deep into a gigantic game of Telephone, while from time to time a few hardy souls pick up brooms and take a few swipes at the incoming tide .

The Paper God knows us in our heart of hearts for the eager, gullible clods we are. Once food, clothing, and shelter have been supplied, our next greatest need, and therefore our greatest vulnerability, is the need to appear to be in the know. The Paper God is quick to help. Heh.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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