Why the media keeps handing over their wallets for inspection

Often it pays to be credulous.

Why the media keeps handing over their wallets for inspection

Often it pays to be credulous.

One of the greatest all-time Simpsons bits is that scene in the episode Homer Goes To College where the three nerds Homer has befriended get expelled, after he’s roped them into a plot to kidnap a pig that’s friends with Richard Nixon. As they’re walking away from the Springfield College gates, having been rendered not only degree-less but homeless, the nerds insist: “don’t worry Mr. Simpson, we can take care of ourselves.” Only for Snake, the “jailbird” character, to immediately run up, declare that he is the “wallet inspector,” and receive three crisp, bulging nerd-wallets, right into his open hand. “Oh, here you go,” the nerds say. “I believe that’s all in order.”

“Hey,” says Homer, peering through the gates as Snake runs off. “That’s not the wallet inspector.”

In recent years, the phrase “wallet inspector” has proved a useful one. On social media, the spectre of the wallet inspector is summoned whenever someone falls for an obvious grift: this is most typically something of the form “believing a right-wing politician might conceivably want good things for them,” or “thinking that a right-wing political commentator might not be completely disingenuous.” Those who are “wallet inspected” are thus most usually self-consciously “establishment” liberals, who for all their hand-wringing about “post-truth” and “fake news” are often all-too-willing to acquiesce in the bullshit of an obviously lying and corrupt political mainstream.

And yet, it is precisely the credulous and the gormless, the doltish and the unassuming, who feel most able to pose as being in the know. Nowadays, by noticing that Snake is not in fact the wallet inspector, Homer would quickly be smeared on social media as a hard-left conspiracy theorist, and BuzzFeed would be readying an article insisting — against Homer’s divisive comments — that they’d contacted the wallet inspector, and the nerds really are all going to get their wallets back, just as soon as Snake has had time to check their contacts over and ensure there are no irregularities. Irving Kristol once described a neo-conservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality” — but nowadays, the liberals have somehow managed to find a way to let reality mug them, over and over again, without their ever feeling like they need to acknowledge it.

To be taken seriously by the political mainstream, for example, one must oneself take seriously the suggestion that Sen. Bernie Sanders’s diverse coalition of voters who just want a more compassionate society where they won’t be made destitute for getting physically sick or suffering the bereavement of a child, are in fact a vicious and extremely online mob of privileged white boys who spend their whole time being rude to celebrities and maliciously vandalizing the campaign offices of our poor, embattled billionaires. If you do not acquiesce in this alleged truth, which there is really very little evidence for short of what has been distorted to fit a particular mold, you will mark yourself off as difficult, and divisive, and probably hate-filled.

Meanwhile, during the last general election in the UK, the Tories were constantly inspecting the wallets of almost every mainstream political reporter, especially the ones who work for the BBC. To give just one example, the governing party — which was found by one report to have lied on some 88 percent of their campaign materials — briefly convinced all the journalists in the UK that a Labour activist had punched a Tory minister’s aide at a hospital in Leeds, when in fact he had just lightly and accidentally brushed him with his hand. Shortly after their victory, the Tories announced plans to scrap the licence fee that funds the BBC, and to turn it into a subscription-only service..

The saps really are the people who are able to “get ahead”: the happily sensible, who can contentedly conform to the various bizarre and conflicting things demanded of them by the people in power.

But perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the phenomenon I’m talking about here is the discourse surrounding the death of Jeffrey Epstein, who was found hanged in his cell in an apparent suicide, although after some suspect irregularities in prison security procedure and with injuries some experts claim are more consistent with homicide than suicide. In the wake of Epstein’s death, liberal journalists clamored to declare the idea that the prolific insider sex criminal/trafficker didn’t commit suicide a “conspiracy theory.” But this would be, it has to be said, a strange sort of conspiracy: an ostensibly wild and out-there plot which conforms far more readily to our ordinary common-sense understanding of reality than any “official” explanation. Whatever else one wants to say about Epstein’s death, and people’s motivations for speculating about it, it is utterly bizarre to suppose that only a deranged conspiracy nut would think it likely that there are a group of very powerful people out there who would both want to, and for whom it would be possible to, kill Epstein in his cell. In the discourse surrounding Epstein’s death, it is precisely the people defending the official narrative who most readily present as raving, obsessive cranks.

So why is this happening? In part this is just one aspect of a more general drift away from (the very idea of) accountability. The powerful feel able to flex their excesses in plain sight: Michael Bloomberg can quite openly use his billions to try and buy an election to stop a socialist candidate from winning; 10 Downing Street can hire a eugenicist and win a whole day of “oh, now the woke snowflake brigade is coming for the eugenicists” discourse before having him (who knows how permanently) resign. A UK government minister can be fired from a relatively junior position for holding secret meetings with the Israeli government before being appointed to the much more senior role of Home Secretary not much more than a year later. The prime minister of Australia can go on holiday while bushfires of unprecedented magnitude engulf his country because he knows his voter base will blame the fires on activist “Greenies” trying to trick people in helping the environment. The Brazilian President can address concerns over rainforest clearances and climate change by telling reporters they ought simply to shit less in the toilet. For all the hand-wringing talk of “cancel culture,” it seems next-to-impossible for anyone who actually matters to ever experience any consequences for their own actions.

All of this, in a way, makes perfect material sense. If journalists (and newspapers, and websites) really want to be able to hold the powerful to account, they need a level of material security that most press simply lacks: on an institutional level, publications need to be able to protect themselves against the whims of the super-rich, who are plausibly able to sue them into non-existence (cf. what happened with Gawker and Peter Thiel). On an individual level, the lower tiers of journalism churn with young people living, whether from necessity or out of some frankly bizarre choice, in wage-sapping metropolises like New York or London, operating at the margins of their ability to function financially. Precarity means reporters are able to invest less time in serious work — and it breeds caution (the precarious worker needs their boss more than their boss needs them; they rely on their boss’s goodwill to survive).

In this world, the saps really are the people who are able to “get ahead”: the happily sensible, who can contentedly conform to the various bizarre and conflicting things demanded of them by the people in power. When you look around at the people who have nice, comfortable, well-remunerated media jobs, or who get regularly invited to talk about politics on television, it can be hard to tell the difference between the saps and the shills: between those who really can’t see that there is something illusory about the reality they speak out in favor of, and those who are just, you know, openly lying because they consciously realize it’s in their (personal, factional) interest. Every few months, on British journalism Twitter, the establishment journos will all get really annoyed because some wretched little member of the public has dared question their reputation for an intellectual autonomy that they are apparently careful to never empirically display: the most obvious explanation for this is that these people genuinely do not realize their views might have been in any way conditioned by the consensus within the (narrow, socially pretty exclusive and unrepresentative) institutions they work for.

But perhaps, when it comes to the saps vs. shills debate, there really isn’t any difference. In a 1971 essay, “Lying in Politics,” written in response to the Pentagon Papers (the secret history Robert McNamara commissioned of the Vietnam War) which had then recently leaked, Hannah Arendt points out that it was the “problem solvers,” experts drawn into government from universities and think tanks, who proved most able not just to perpetuate but to bend their own thinking to suit the vast network of untruths necessary to sustain America’s involvement in Vietnam; a grand system of open and obvious lies that, in the end, the defence establishment ended up making almost all of their decisions in relation towards. The take-home point here being that at some point, even those who think they can manipulate the truth are liable to get caught in the shadowy cloak of their own lies.

On a certain level, you really are an idiot if you’re given to pointing out that “that’s not the wallet inspector.” To point out that this is not the wallet inspector is to show that you cannot be trusted — to indicate that, at the very least, you aspire to an autonomy the world is careful to deny the vast majority of the people who are given any sort of responsibility for running it. But if you dare to hand your wallet over, blankly and without question, the world may well be happy to reward your acquiescence in it tenfold.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.