Tall Tale

The man known as Shi seemed to move through life with ease. Not many could claim a billionaire status, a friendship with the likes of Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, a resume that included fighting poverty and directing an internet economic research center. But, inevitably, the Chinese authorities caught up with him.

Why inevitable? Well, to start with, Shi is 17 years old. And a junior high-school dropout. Oh, and one other thing – not one of his accomplishments actually existed. Except maybe for having 10,000 followers on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter until his account disappeared.

“Shi went viral on Chinese social media websites after his crafted online identity was exposed,” Reuters reported in its Sept. 12 story, which noted the Photoshopped pictures, the false claims and even a faked official Chinese  news release that had gone out before northern Chinese police announced their investigation. The story also included a statement from the authorities that “we will punish those who spread rumors online with an adverse impact on the society.”

Is it just me, or could they be busy for a while?

By now, I hope, it’s not exactly news that it’s easy to lie online. In the early days, a New Yorker cartoon famously claimed that “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Today, the fictions and false claims fill our world.

We know about the fraudulent warnings about computer security , complete with viruses ready to infect the unwary.

Or the posts that call for an “Amen” for a (nonexistent) sick child or claim to break a (false) limit on the number of Facebook friends you see.

And of course, there’s the  zillions of political claims and “articles” that fall apart with 30 seconds of research or less, but get circulated and recirculated, because – well, everyone knows it’s true, right? (And the tendency for real articles to get denounced as “fake news” by their subjects doesn’t help matters.)

Like many an old scam, it seems so obvious from the sidelines, yet it keeps going and going. Why?

Easy. We love a good story.

We are storytelling creatures at heart. Where there are humans, there have been stories, whether it’s ancient hunters talking about their kills over the campfire, neighbors gossiping about their friends over the backyard fence, or Hollywood telling yet one more tale of love and glory. Stories excite and entertain, they inform and educate, they give us a way to make sense of the world  even when creating new worlds of the imagination.

It’s one of our best traits.

But … it also means that we can be quick to believe a story when we shouldn’t. Or to see one that isn’t there, pulling together unconnected events into deep conspiracy. And the more we get invested in a story, the harder it is to pull free from it, and the more vocally we defend it.

That’s something every con artist knows. Sure, it’s usually greed that initially hooks the “mark.” But the fuel that keeps a con going is the victim’s investment in the tale. The story has to be true, it must be true – not least because the consequences of it not being true are too embarrassing to think about. A true story means you’re smart or lucky. A false one means you’re a schmuck. Which one do you want to believe?

I’ll say it again – it is not bad to like stories. But like any of the best human instincts, it can be misused or waylaid. Check the stories you hear, especially if you agree with them. Test the claims, examine the evidence. Suspension of disbelief is great for enjoying a novel or movie, but it makes for terrible citizenship.

Be aware.

It’s the only way to know a sure thing from a Shi thing.

Tightening at the Top

Times are tough even for yes-men.

The British news agency Reuters recently reported that austerity of a sort has even reached the Chinese parliament, a group that basically exists to gather once a year and kowtow to the Communist Party. This year, that party for the Party is required to be much simpler: no welcoming ceremonies for deputies at the train and railway stations, no flowers in the hotel rooms, no fancy galas or pricey meals.

Put it this way. When the state isn’t even sure it wants to shut down the road as you drive by, things are sensitive.

A little belt-tightening? Not exactly. According to Reuters, it’s more of a charm offensive.

“The party, which has shown no sign of giving up its tight grip on power, has struggled to contain public wrath at a seemingly endless stream of corruption scandals, particularly when officials are seen as abusing their posts to amass wealth,” the agency reports.

Hmm. A government afraid of the public? Needing to calm the waters, sharpen its image, make at least symbolic moves to straighten up?

How do we get a piece of that?

The cases, of course, aren’t perfectly analogous. The Chinese Parliament is a rubber-stamp body connected to a system that’s perceived to be increasingly out of touch with the people. The U.S. Congress is a brawling system that can’t often agree with itself, never mind anyone else – and is perceived to be increasingly out of touch with the people. When the IRS has a higher approval rating, there’s definitely room for improvement.

But where?

This should probably be a serious call for reform, I know. But with the Chinese example in front of me, my mind couldn’t help taking a few flights of fancy: “If I could set some new rules for Congress, what would I do?”

Tip the Waiter, Please: Let’s face it. As much as we’d like to get all the special-interest money out of Congress, it’s not likely to happen. We could put a delegation of angels in there and within six months, half of them would be getting campaign assistance from the National Halo Association (“A brighter tomorrow – today”).

So if we can’t stop it, can we at least benefit from it? Under the new Decrees, 15 percent of all special-interest money received by a congressman or senator would be set aside for the voters themselves, to be totaled and dispersed every Dec. 1. Call it a Christmas stimulus, if you will. (Oh, if you want to be boring, we can put that finders’ fee toward the debt instead. Meanies.)

Hit the Highway: It’s admirable that so many delegates want to travel home so frequently. But from now until your terms are up, planes are forbidden to you. (Sorry, Hawaiian and Alaskan congressmen, it’s for the greater good.) If you travel, it will be by bus, train, or personal vehicle – the perfect chance to get an up-close look at both the country and the state of its infrastructure. Highway bridges become a higher priority when you may be rolling over the next collapsing one yourself.

The Grand Tour: One big issue with today’s Congress is that many delegates – both Democrat and Republican – come out of “echo chamber” districts where they rarely hear opposing viewpoints until they get to the Capitol floor. So let’s bring in the scheduling geniuses from the National Football League and start planning some away games. At least half of the visits back home must be to districts in your state that had a majority for the other party, with a “Congress on the Corner”-style public meeting that lasts at least an hour.

And yes, Colorado Republicans, we can probably talk about scheduling a Denver visit on Bronco weekends. But no public meeting, no game. Capice?

I know. Idle fantasies. Waste of time, right?

I mean, next thing, I’ll be thinking these folk work for us. That they’re actually supposed to be accountable to us. That if we want something different than what we’ve got, we actually have the power to make it happen; that it’s our country, to be reshaped by us as we see fit.

Whoa. Better get down from those clouds. It’s getting me a little light-headed.

Maybe I should go get us a meal.

Chinese sound OK?