ERROL MORRiS' GROWiNG SAND
EM: "Well, that’s one of the great mysteries of self-deception. When Donald Rumsfeld says to me, 'There you were in the Oval Office of the White House. There’s Gerald Ford, there’s you, there’s Henry Kissinger, et cetera, and we are pulling out of Vietnam. People are climbing onto helicopters.' And I ask: Do you feel we learned anything from the experience of Vietnam? And Donald—I guess the other Donald, Donald Rumsfeld—says to me, 'Well, we learned that some things work out and some things don’t. And that didn’t.'
And the question that comes to my mind, actually at the time, and then certainly subsequently, is what is he saying to me? Is he just simply saying fuck you and I don’t really care to reflect on this or to answer the question? Or is he revealing the fact that there’s nothing there? Like the Wizard of Oz, you open the curtain and there’s just simply a little man, an imposter, standing there.
AA: It’s an inability to reflect on the damage he’s done…
EM: To reflect on anything! The inability to reflect... Just a kind of glib self-satisfaction... A glib kind of narcissistic self-love...
- Errol Morris
interviewed by Anthony Audi for Literary Hub, 10/27/16.
~ by christopher funderburg ~
Late in Errol Morris’ deeply bananas 1982 portrait of a backwoods community, Vernon, Florida, a couple shows the filmmaker their prized jar of growing sand. Growing. Sand. They assert that this nondescript pile of grit has been steadily increasing in volume and slowly filling the mason jar in which it is contained. Morris treats it as one more bit of hinterland insanity, another example of the almost inconceivable weirdness lurking in this truly bizarre small town* - weirdness that most importantly illustrates some of the fundamental conflicts between cognition and reality.
Morris put it this way in a 2003 interview with Paul Cronin, “Not too long ago, I was giving a lecture at Brandeis University and showed various clips from my films, including one from Vernon, Florida about the sand that grows. Mr and Mrs. Martin appear with their bottle of sand. They had collected the sand at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico and brought it back with them to Florida, and they talk about how they put very little sand in the jar and how the sand almost filled up the jar. They are both absolutely convinced that the sand is growing. I said, 'One thing we know about the sand is that it isn’t growing. But they clearly think it is. How could that possibly be the case? Can our desire to have the world accord with our fantasies be so great that it influences how we actually see the world?'”
Early in his career, Morris was frequently accused of yokel-izing his subjects, of pointing his camera at folks and snickering to his audience, “hey, get a load of these dipshits.” The documentary community which (in those days especially) saw itself in part as an apparatus for advocacy and social change, came down fairly hard on Morris - it accused him of being an elitist looking down his nose at rubes and mining cheap laughs from a vantage of smug superiority.
The accusation, which trails him somewhat to this day, has always been unfair - he undoubtedly belongs to Buñuelian tradition of embracing the human race’s flaws and weirdness with an enthusiasm that is both critical and affectionate. In a 1997 interview with Michel Negroponte, Morris explained his perspective this way: “Well, I really like the characters in all my films, at least most of them. That’s certainly true on Vernon, Florida, which I think has a kind of tender quality; it has an absurdist quality too, but I don’t think those two are incompatible.” As with Buñuel, you can accuse his work of cynicism, but you could never accuse it of being black-hearted. It’s infused with an affection, a tenderness, for humanity’s strangeness. There’s an irrepressible sense of wonder to the scene with the growing sand, something like a palpable joy that Morris feels in exploring the most bizarre recesses of the human mind.
Of course with Vernon, Florida, Morris was wrong.
The yokels weren’t dummies, stupidly convinced of an impossibility. The sand really was growing. Morris was the deluded party. Morris viewed the situation from a factually incorrect position. From the same 2003 Cronin interview: “And I went on and on about this, until someone raised their hand and said, ‘You know that the sand at White Sands Proving Ground is not beach sand. It’s gypsum, which is very sensitive to changes in humidity. It absorbs water. So perhaps when they brought the sand back from the low humidity of New Mexico to the high humidity of Florida, the sand actually did expand.’ And I thought that’s great! Just when I think I have an absolutely perfect example of self-deception, it turns out that the only one who’s deceiving himself is me.”
The truth of the growing sand is what unsettles me most about the Rumsfeld quote above. Morris and his interviewer take it is as a given that Rumsfeld’s answer to the question of Saigon’s fall is unacceptable on a fundamental level - that there is either a factual or moral dimension to this reply that is incorrect. But what if Rumsfeld is right? What if there isn’t much to be learned from the experiences of Vietnam, beyond “Well, it didn’t work this time.”
Clearly, Morris (and most of his audience) is operating from the position of wishing a different lesson was learned: they want Rumsfeld and his supporters to understand that the American involvement in Vietnam was wrong, that it was a moral not an operational failure. They want Rumsfeld to learn a moral lesson lesson (“we should not wreak wretched ruin on sovereign nations under convoluted, self-serving pretexts”) via an operational channel (“Saigon fell, therefore what we did was wrong.”)
But American history, especially after WWII, has far more examples of this kind of interventionist military action acting to the U.S.’s favor than resulting in Vietnam-esque disaster. From a stand-point of logic (the foundation of “intelligent” thinking), Rumsfeld’s attitude is unassailably correct: usually this sort of thing works out for America. This time it didn’t. From a certain moral vantage (one I suspect Morris shares), to write or speak about this dispassionately is almost as tone-deaf as writing an essay like “Positive Examples of Genocide: Comparing the Ramifications of Power Consolidation in Armenia and the American West.” The moral dimension of the situation is unambiguous to people who despise Rumsfeld.
But something being moral or immoral is very different from it being “smart” or “dumb.” Would you disagree with the sentiment: “moral” is based in belief, “smart” is based in facts? But the two get conflated constantly: intelligence, smartness, comes in to play because discussing Vietnam with Rumsfeld in 2014 isn’t really about Vietnam, it’s a discussion about the current Middle-East and the on-going debacle kicked off in part by Rumsfeld himself: Intelligent People “see” history and expect Rumsfeld to understand that the invasion of Iraq is repeating the same mistakes of Vietnam. If he cannot “see” this truth, he is either dishonest or dumb.
As Georges Santayana put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Everyone knows this quote, even if they couldn’t tell you one other thing about Santayana, such as his nationality, the context in which he originally put it forth or even that this is the correct quote and not the frequently misattributed “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” At this point, it exists primarily as a mantra repeated as a method of conflating intelligent activity and moral activity. I’ve always preferred Morris’ re-imagining of it: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility.”
“Knowing” that the Iraq invasion is a repeat of the Vietnam invasion is evidence that one is operating from a “smart” position - one based in fact. Rather than beginning from a position of belief (“Doing this shit is wrong, regardless of whether it works or not”), Leftist resistance to the Iraq invasion sought to frame itself in terms of “smartness,” of knowable factual information such as its similarities (both moral and operational) to Vietnam and bolstered the importance of this “fact” with clever quotes from Important Philosophers (familiarity with old quotes being evidence of knowledge, a demonstrable possession of a fact as a starting point: a long time ago, someone said this Wise Thing.)
The impetus behind the rhetorical strategizing is reasonable enough: our moral opponents are dumb. Unlike us, they do not operate from a position of facts and knowledge. They have not studied history and in the unlikely event that they have (like Rumsfeld and unlike the Very Wise Santayana) they refuse to learn anything from it. The idea that there is no clear relationship between facts, knowledge or intelligence to any moral position is elided as part of the strategy. The rhetorical gestures intend to maneuver the opposition into a position where they appear dumb - the idea is not to get your opponent to admit what they are doing is wrong, but to prove they are stupid. But what if they’re not dumb? They must be dishonest. Con-men. Or even more dangerous: self-deceivers. Dishonest without knowing it. Narcissists, in one of the more popular taunts.
Since Rumsfeld is clearly not dumb in any traditional meaning of the word, Morris (and his audience) then begin to parse the meaning of his dishonesty. Morris sees Rumsfeld as a great conduit for exploring his favorite theme, self-deception. As the filmmaker put it in a 1998 interview with Joel E. Siegel, Morris considers himself "very much aware of the gulf between people’s fantasies and the realities of their lives.” The idea that his subjects cannot clearly see themselves or the world around them runs through all of his work, right from the beginning with Gates of Heaven up through The Unknown Known - and his most complicated concern is how much of a role his subjects themselves play in that lack of clarity; how much "self" is there in "self-deception?"**
There are plenty of simple deceivers in Morris’ work - people who knowingly live in untruth, those who use untruth to their advantage; the real killer David Harris and opportunistic police informant Emily Miller (who sees murders "all around the house") in The Thin Blue Line, for example. But the most dangerous and disturbing characters are the ones who you can’t be quite sure whether they believe their bullshit - Rumsfeld, Robert McNamara, the judges and law enforcement officers in The Thin Blue Line, the deeply strange Smartest Man in the World. What these characters all have in common is a self-certainty about things we “know” not to be true - the judge is absolutely certain Randall Adams murdered a police officer, semi-employed bouncer and outright lunatic Christopher Langan believes because of his astoundingly high IQ that he could run society better than anyone else. But do they actually believe this?
To differentiate: Fred Leuchter, Jr. the electric-chair repairman turned Holocaust denier in Mr. Death remains somewhat of a tragic figure because his belief in an untruth (in Holocaust denial) appears to be sincere and is arrived at through an intellectual process - he doesn’t begin from an abject moral position to arrive at denying the Holocaust, he follows bad science to its logical conclusions. That’s one of the most unsettling ironies of the film: the Holocaust denier who isn’t a bad guy. Leuchter hopelessly screws with the definitions of both “smart” and “moral” - he’s a scary demonstration of the pitfalls of arriving at a moral positions by being “smart.”***
But he’s different than other Morris subjects. The most dangerous and disturbing subjects, like the members of the law enforcement apparatus in The Thin Blue Line, are the ones who you can’t be sure know they are operating according to untruths: it is strongly suggested the police and prosecuters knew Randall Adams likely did not kill a police officer and they relied on suspect evidence easily revealed to be manufactured (false testimony) to ensure Adams would be punished for the crime. But did they believe they had their man? Did they manufacture their moral position? That’s entirely unclear.
That’s the most disturbing kind of Morris character: the one who blurs the line between knowing and believing - it’s the flip side of Leuchter: they stake out a moral position that appears to rely on facts (they are “smart”) but it's unclear how much they are aware that their facts and logic might be manufactured by their pre-existing moral position. Shouldn’t Christian Langan’s massive brain-power allow him to see how full of shit he is? How can an “objectively smart” person hold so many objectively ludicrous positions?
Rumsfeld belongs to that category, although I find the discussion above unsettling for this reason: intellectual self-certainty has become a hallmark of the Left in the U.S. - the idea that people on the Right are dumb, uneducated and reliant on hopelessly biased news sources. Fake news. Anyone who has a different ideology than me is stupid. And if they are not stupid, they are dishonest; they are con-men like Donalds Rumsfeld and Trump who take advantage of the inherent stupidity of the Left’s ideological opponents, who are definitely dumb yokels we should be sneering down at.
In the context of Rumsfeld’s Vietnam quote, Morris and his film’s audience refuse to entertain the moral position that allowing the South Vietnamese people to be crushed under Communist rule was unacceptable - this, despite the fact that Soviet and Communist rule proved to be disastrous in nearly every instance and the brands of Communist authoritarianism that took hold in that era & area (in North Korea, in Cambodia) proved to be among the most despicable governments of modern history. The idea that it might have been a verifiably moral position to resist authoritarian Communism in that part of the world, in that era doesn’t even seem to occur to them.
Morris says "And the question that comes to my mind, actually at the time, and then certainly subsequently, is what is he saying to me? Is he just simply saying fuck you and I don’t really care to reflect on this or to answer the question?" but the answer to his worry is obvious, especially in the context of the film (because Rumsfeld, who is if nothing else a brilliant debater, strikes the pose throughout.) What Rumsfeld is expressing with his blunt answer is this: "You are setting an obvious moral/philosophical trap that you want me to step into, so I am going to reject your rhetorical framework entirely."
Rumsfeld immediately sees that Morris wants him to engage the question of the inarguable operational failure of Vietnam to set him up for reflecting on the moral failures of the invasion. He immediately grasps the argument Morris wants to maneuver him through and rejects it, essential waving it off by saying "good process sometimes has bad outcomes" - which is a sound approach to decision-making, one that is reasonable. Rumsfeld's position is clearly this: a result (Saigon falling) is irrelevant to the moral process of deciding whether to invade. That's perfectly logical. Well-reasoned, even. No one would argue that, say, The White Rose was in the wrong just because it was crushed.
Morris and his interviewer certainly don't spend one moment reflecting on the possibility that Rumsfeld's moral process might be right, on the notion that strengthening the position of America across the globe through interventionist actions both demonstrative and covert might have been a righteous activity, that continuing the expansion of dominance of a stable and essentially democratic superpower might be a good thing? I don't mean to advance a position, only suggest a possibility - is the future really so concrete and predictable so as to rule out any contingency in this vein?
Or consider this even worse notion: the very real possibility that there is nothing to be learned from Vietnam, that Morris’ quote is true: history repeats itself, your only comfort is an ironic sense of futility as you watch humanity fail over and over again in the same ways. That the Vietnam war was an inevitable action, if not in any way a righteous one. In that case, all the Rumsfelds have it right: sometimes it works out for you, sometimes it doesn’t. The possibility that Rumsfeld’s quote is anything other than self-deception, dishonesty or stupidity isn’t engaged by Morris or his interviewer.
They refuse to entertain the possibility that the sand might be growing.
Maybe the only thing I have learned from Morris’ work is that having an awareness of self-deception is extremely important; it’s important that I be open to the possibility that I am stupid, that I am wrong.**** The lesson to be learned from Morris’ work isn’t that other people are capable of self-deception and error, but that people much smarter than me (like Rumsfeld, "IBM machine with legs" Robert McNamara and indeed the Smartest Man in the World) are capable of believing untrue things to be true.
If I accept the possibility of my wrongness, of my successful self-deception (especially in a moral sphere - a sphere inherently discrete from facts) then the situation becomes compounded: people with whom I vehemently disagree can be truthful, both morally righteous and operating from a position of factual accuracy. In this context, it then goes without saying that an ideological difference is not evidence of stupidity and it is, unquestionably, not evidence of dishonesty. That’s what makes the exchange above about Rumsfeld so unsettling: he could be right despite the certainty that he is wrong. It’s the Unknown Known.
~ JANUARY 24, 2017 ~
* Morris originally ventured to Florida to make a documentary about “Nub City” - so nicknamed for the town’s notorious and implausibly popular insurance scam where residents would cut off their own limbs to collect on guaranteed payouts. When he got there, he found that (obviously) no one wanted to speak on camera about felonious deception and, in fact, some folks expressed quite concretely that they would have preferred to see him dead rather than make the film.
** Errol Morris NY Times essay on the condition seems to be the source of the current popularity of the Dunning-Kruger effect as an explanation for the persistence of nearly every kind of policy and voting decision Leftists disagree with. The basic idea is that a study showed that the less test-takers knew about certain subjects, the more confident they would be of their answers on the test (and that more knowledgeable folks would accordingly be more prone to doubt their correctness.) There’s a ridiculous irony that after reading a short internet article folks immediately began applying the concept to their political adversaries and never to themselves. If you heard about Dunning-Kruger and immediately thought "Man, other people sure suffer from that all the time!" then you missed the entire goddamned point.
*** Of course, folks will naturally point out his bad science and explain how much smarter they are than Leuchter, how his problem really is simple stupidity. And that’s a background element of the film - but it is unquestionably a film about how human beings believe in things that aren’t true and how the reasons for doing so are far more frightening than “they’re evil” or “they’re dumb.” Keep in mind, Morris only added a section debunking Leuchter's bad science after showing an early cut of the film to a class of Harvard students who found Leuchter's claims to be convincing (in Morris' words, he had to then go back into the film and "prove the sky is blue") - personally, I've never been impressed by the caliber of thinker I've encountered from Harvard, but at very least you can't accuse them of being uneducated. Anyhoo, if all you take from Mr. Death is “don’t be dumb,” I truly pity you. And am terrified of what hideousness you’re capable of!
**** This sentence was originally written using the editorial “we,” which just goes to show how ingrained “our” resistance to self-examination is.
***** One final footnote for true footnote enthusiasts: in the piece I point out there's a possibility that the Vietnam war was inevitable - and I'd like to take that farther by suggesting that there's a possibility that war, rape, murder, disease, exploitation and misery are all inevitable aspects of humankind. Many knowledgaeble, responsible, civically-engaged people are aware of this possibility, but choose to live in hope and fight for a better future. But isn't that the purest form of self-deception possible? The anti-war advocate who knows that an end to all war is almost definitely an impossibility but chooses to take a moral stand against it or hope against hope for a better future? What does it mean to take up a fight which might be literally meaningless and treat it like the most essential moral position imaginable? What does it mean to live in the hope for a future that is laughably unrealistic? Or this: what does it mean to believe that any individual can have a clear and coherent effect on the flow of history when that is plainly untrue? It is without question noble. But it is also self-deception. I'l let someone more fond of buzzwords decide whether it constitutes narcissism or not.