Perhaps the thing I find most unforgivable is lying. In the past, I’ve written that the one thing lost that cannot be regained is integrity, the belief that you can trust a person’s word to be true, or at least presented with the sincere belief that it’s true, even if it’s mistaken. I can tolerate mistakes. I can tolerate stupidity. Tolerating liars is another matter.
Am I a dinosaur? It appears that I may be, as Kat Rosenfeld writes about how the righteous no longer concern themselves with lies, per se, as long as the lies serve to allow them to feel virtuous about themselves.
Today, the collective horror at Frey’s deception feels like the product of a more innocent time, particularly when compared with the muted response to last week’s unmasking of his contemporary equivalent. Comedian and television personality Hasan Minhaj, an alumnus of The Daily Show, built his career on stories of the persecution he had faced as an Indian, Muslim son of immigrants in a post-9/11 America. But as outlined in a devastating report by New Yorker writer Clare Malone, his most popular material contained key omissions and barefaced lies.
The FBI informant who infiltrated Minhaj’s Muslim community and then reported his mosque to the authorities? Minhaj never met him. The hospitalisation of Minhaj’s daughter after someone mailed him an envelope full of a white mystery powder that could have been anthrax? Never happened. And the high school ex-girlfriend who accepted Minhaj’s invitation to prom, only to jilt him on her doorstep for racist reasons while her new (white) date slipped a corsage on her wrist? She had actually turned down Minhaj several days earlier, and this doorstep moment — upon which Minhaj more or less built his career — was a complete fabrication.
But Hasan Minhaj is a comedian, right? And nobody believes comedian’s stories are slavishly truthful, right? They take comedic license to make their stories funny or endearing, to make a point. Social commentary is nothing new for comedians. George Carlin and Richard Pryor were all about social commentary. Except they didn’t fabricate a persona that gave them credibility to be the embodiment of harm or to falsely convince the public to feel empathy and, in turn, better about themselves for being so wokely empathetic.
Of course, this is as intended. Minhaj isn’t a make-you-laugh-til-your-face-hurts comedian; he’s a Daily Show guy, a pundit with a slightly-better-than-average sense of humour, but one that is smug rather than silly. His audience isn’t there to laugh so much as enjoy the sensation of moral authority with a wink and a titter. And while Minhaj’s material works well enough on television, onstage it translates to something that is less stand-up comedy and more performance memoir.
The “trauma merchants,” as Kat calls them, aren’t selling truth, but moral superiority. And their audience is buying it like white women buying abuse at dinner with Saira Rao.
But today’s trauma merchants are ultimately better off than the hoax memoirists. The days in which audiences responded to lies like this with a sense of outrage and betrayal are over; if anything, the anger today is reserved for the person who interrupts a comfortable narrative with a bunch of pesky facts. Consider what happens, inevitably, whenever some bias-stroking outrage is exposed as a fraud — whether it’s Jussie Smollett, or kids identifying as cats, or a guy allegedly shrieking the N-word at a crowded sporting event. Instead of revising our priors, or even being relieved, we look for ways in which being wrong only goes to show how right we were. So, this story wasn’t true? Ah, well: this country is so racist, or sexist, or full of sexually depraved weirdos who want to secretly turn every kid into a trans-cat, that it could have been true, and that’s just as bad.
That it wasn’t true but could have been has replaced truth as the measure of what we value. There is no award for being honest, even when it cuts against our self-interest to be so. But lie to make yourself a victim and you’re adored with the “thoughts and prayers” of thousands, maybe even millions, of adoring fans who desperately want to prove their moral righteousness by sharing their empathy with another’s trauma, real or imagined.
And convenient lies are no more the exclusive domain of the woke than the absurd “Big Lie” still being sold to anyone stupid enough to believe it or willing to overlook such flagrant nonsense for their inability to accept that their Jesus-substitute is just another lying narcissist, shamelessly saying anything that serves his personal interest. But I digress.
But despite the fact that the prom story is emotionally resonant with many a teenage experience, there is still something weird — even, dare I say, appropriative — about claiming to have been a victim of something that didn’t happen, let alone making a living off it. On this front, Minhaj has less in common with the comedian who embellishes a wacky story for laughs, and more in common with the TikToker who scammed her followers out of thousands of dollars to treat a cancer she didn’t have. Minhaj has been dining out for years on that doorstep moment. He published it as an essay in Vanity Fair. He’s spoken about it countless times with reporters, never presenting it as anything but a first-person experience. And while it has become a fixture of his comedy over the years, when Minhaj first debuted this material, it wasn’t actually in a stand-up routine, but at a storytelling competition called The Moth.
As Kat explains, The Moth has only one rule, that the story told must be true. To dinosaurs, that rule mattered. Today, not so much, as long as the lie allows its adherents to bask in the warm glow of righteousness.