The View in the Mirror: Is it Us or Is It Them?

Groucho Marx NBC Promotional Photograph
Chico Marx 1931

I know many readers here are familiar with Breath of the Beast blog. Just in case you missed the latest, you shouldn’t.

In Picking Up Hats – Waiting for Chico, BotB examines our relationship with the media, and theirs with us – and around and around we go. These are sobering times. Take a break and enjoy this essay.

If everything we do, say and think is a kind of mirroring how do we know know what is real and what is reflection and, if it is reflection is it distorted? If our behavior, thoughts and desires are reflections of those of other people, how do we establish authenticity in our own behavior? How can we be sure we are not being manipulated?


By Breath of the Beast
Picking Up Hats – Waiting for Chico
October 14, 2008

Seventy-five years ago in 1933, The world was three years into The Great Depression. Hitler became the dictator of Germany in 1933. FDR was inaugurated as President of the U.S.. Also in 1933, in the Soviet Union, the famine created by the collectivization of farms was into its second year. The Soviet famine, actually a political atrocity of genocidal proportions, is thought to have claimed as many as five million lives. 1933 was also the year that the new president Roosevelt broke the sixteen-year long impasse and granted U.S. diplomatic recognition for the Communist regime in the USSR.

I’m going to forgo the obvious observations. Those who have eyes to see the parallels and implications for today will surely have seen them already and those who don’t will only become agitated. Anyway I have something startling to show you from 1933
Take a look at this short video clip:

Its from the Marx Brother’s movie Duck Soup. This is one of the great classic scenes in entertainment history and I believe that it is so memorable because it says something universal and scathing about mirrors, human behavior and illusion. The pas de deux between Groucho and Harpo starts out looking like an earnest attempt by Chico to imitate Groucho’s actions exactly- as if to fool him into thinking that he is really looking into a mirror instead of at a spy who is on a mission against him. Now, this scenario has been imitated by other pairs of actors and lesser comedic talents always play it straight. That is to say that the one playing the “Groucho” role will assume an attitude of ominous suspicion or innocent credulity.

Groucho here is playing it coy and amused through the whole exercise. We see in his attitude and our acceptance of it that the autonomic mirror is not just an urge to mirror but a reciprocal urge to be mirrored as well. He feigns trick after trick to trip Harpo up and ignores every slip.

As the scene progresses, the gap between Groucho’s actions and Harpo’s imitations widens. They even circle each other and briefly switch sides without breaking the spell. When Harpo drops his hat Groucho even surprises us by picking it up and handing it back to him. All the while, Groucho remains no more than bemused while he plays along. The peculiar brilliance here is that even while we wonder why he does not just pull the plug on the charade, we also feel the elemental pleasure/pain of the dissonance created by the elemental power of the autonomic mirroring urge as it interacts with the mounting accumulation of evidence. Finally the appearance of Chico in the scene- dressed identically- breaks the tension and Groucho is compelled to break the illusion of “mirror” he has so willingly preserved.

What we witnessed in the video clip is theater but it its greatness derives from a deep resonance in human nature. It incorporates the mirror (in this case a purely fictional one) as a central character.

As humans we are mirrors for each other throughout our lives. Mirroring each other is the way in which we learn about life, form opinion and conceive desires. We learn about our place in the larger world by reading, listening and viewing the media which are the larger mirror on which we depend for news and point of view. Intellectual, cultural and social life is really mirrors within mirrors.

There is a an elemental conflict in this scene, as one man sets out to convince the other that he is merely the mirror image of the other. This is an eternal human dilemma. If everything we do, say and think is a kind of mirroring how do we know know what is real and what is reflection and, if it is reflection is it distorted? If our behavior, thoughts and desires are reflections of those of other people, how do we establish authenticity in our own behavior? How can we be sure we are not being manipulated? These are very disquieting thoughts and in order to maintain confidence in our own actions and reactions we need to keep the reflecting relationship secret from ourselves- or at least under control to the degree that we do not see our self as unoriginal – as a mere façade.

Is it possible, you ask, if this allegory, this uncritical acceptance of an obviously flawed mirror image, has an analog in reality?

Yes, in fact, our media study under the banner of Second Draft has turned this kind of thing up in many unexpected places. The one being played out in the presidential elections in the US at this moment is one of the most obvious, though, and it is also one of the very most dangerous. In this instance the part of Groucho is played by the Main Stream Media and Harpo is Barack Obama and his campaign.

The action between Groucho and Harpo evolves as a kind of pantomime of the way in which the media, having begun to mirror a character or story it has begun to “carry” will go to fantastic lengths, even to the equivalent of Groucho (in the mirror that is not there) picking up the “dropped hat” and handing it back to a public figure when he drops it.

Picking up the dropped hat can take many forms, these include:

• Ignoring or refusing to investigate important stories that contradict the theme being “carried”.
• “Reframing” information and “putting it in context” to minimize its impact.
• Making up rationalizations and excuses for behavior and situations.
• Refusing to identify connections between obvious gaps in information

I believe that time will show that the media’s participation in the pandemic infatuation of millions of people all over the world with Barack Obama is a very dramatic example of this kind of active distortion of the mirroring relationship. Obama intentionally presents us with an image of ourselves in that is calculated to make us feel is a reflection of the kind of world we desperately long to see. Because of that image, many people have made the commitment to ignore any thing negative that may come up about him and threaten the coherence of the image. This, as in the strange little mirror dance of Groucho and Harpoo ceases to be gullibility and becomes credulity. Even in the face of mounting evidence that he is not a man of good character, experience or, even, good will.

The enticement of the “change” he offers, begins with the image of a black man who behaves like a white man ascending to the presidency “proving” that we are not a racist country and that we put equality before reason and self-reliance and ends with a bland and rational-sounding but nebulous approach to bringing about a socialist “change” in America. He leads many to believe that racism will just disappear from people’s heart and minds and seems to imply that his policies are less socialist than they are benevolent- that they will take away all the “inequalities” and suffering of normal life.

A world without racism, inequality and suffering is called Utopia. Utopia always sounds nice but go try to implement one- entirely unrealistic- we know that from thousands of failed attempts. We know it too because an honest look around the world will tell us that the countries in which the socialist engineers of equality and benevolence have had their way are the greatest sources of new immigrants into the United States. But that does not stop his mirroring minions from cheerfully ignoring both the evidence and the surreal assumptions behind their cult. It does not stop them because they don’t necessarily have to believe it is possible- they just want that narcissistic mirror image of themselves trying to do it. When an outsider to the cult offers even the most reasoned argument and clear evidence, it is met with some combination of taunting, insolence, blind denial, disproportionate rage, obfuscation or sneering- none of which actually address the arguments and evidence.

I will, at least for this post, keep my word and not make all of the obvious observations. Allow me, though, one more chilling bit of information about the movie from which the mirror clip came:

Here is part of the plot summary offered by the New York Times for the movie Duck Soup

“In this 1933 Marx Brothers film, the mythical country of Freedonia is broke and on the verge of revolution. Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), Freedonia’s principal benefactress, will lend the country 20 million dollars if the president withdraws and places the government in the hands of the “fearless, progressive” Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). At his inauguration, Firefly shows up late, insults everyone in sight, and sings a song about how he intends to abuse his power. Naturally, the crowd cheers wildly.”

Read the end at Breath of the Beast, and while you are there, here are two more favorites – pithy and pertinent:

Rage, Sex Roles, Elections and the Media (and Sarah Palin)

Free Speech – Even if We Have to Put it in Code, We’ll Do It!