Way back in the 1940s, before he went into the field of higher education—a less glamorous branch of the entertainment business—my father was a prodigy of stage magic. He was especially gifted at what’s called “close” magic—those in-your-face card tricks, disappearing coins, and other dazzling acts of prestidigitation (let’s keep that word from going extinct!) As a teenaged magician in New York City he even patented two of his own tricks, which were published in The Linking Rings, the trade journal for magicians; I remember that one of his illusions was called “The WOKSE Effect,” which involved letters appearing in a mirror to form the backwards spelling of the family name.
But, to paraphrase The Buggles 1980s hit, video killed the prestidigitation star: close magic, especially those tricks that depended on sleight-of-hand, couldn’t survive the brutal close-ups of television cameras. But long after my old man had abandoned smoky nightclubs for the leafy halls of academe and leapfrogged into the bourgeoisie, he kept his hand in—quite literally. All the neighborhood kids came over to our house to be awed by my father. He never stopped practicing his cardwork—deceptive shuffles, fans, and “forces”—making you pick one specific card from the deck of 52 when you’re absolutely, positively sure you chose it of your own free will. This kind of magic demands an exquisitely fine touch, which can only be maintained by constant practice. Even when he’d become a college president, whenever my father sat down at presidential desk—to ponder weighty issues, to talk on the phone, whatever–he kept working a silver dollar across the back of his knuckles, slowly, right to left and then back again, the tendon of each finger rising and falling in turn as the heavy coin rolled hypnotically from one knuckle-crevice to the next.
Though I became the guinea-pig for his latter-day prestidigitation, my father always kept faith with the magicians’ code, and never once told me how a trick was done. Maybe he secretly hoped I’d grow so desperate to acquire his secret knowledge that I would plunge into the mysteries of his ancient Linking Rings, and by doing so join the ancient brotherhood. In any case, he would always deflect my questions about his tricks with two simple bits of instruction. “One–remember that whatever I’m doing, it’s not actually magic. And two: never look where I’m trying to make you look.”
Much later, I realized he was teaching me lessons that extended far beyond magic. He was teaching me not to be A Mark.
If only dementia would loosen its death-grip on my father’s brain for just a few hours, and he could give that second piece of advice to the gullible rubes of the American media!
It’s all about misdirection, Rachel!
Don’t look where they’re trying to make you look, Lawrence!
It’s kind of hilarious–in a heart-breaking way–to see the smug grins on those pancaked faces as they report what they call “the news”—especially those well-fed, unlined faces on MSNBC. They’re so proud—so knowing! They’re the cognoscenti, the clear-eyed few who always pick the right card, who know which of the three-card-monte cups is hiding the little ball.
Yep! Can’t fool us! It’s the cup marked RUSSIA!
It reached one of a thousand summits of absurdity when Trump bowed to the MSNBC/neo-con pressure and bombed a Syrian airfield (killing 16 civilians, which they have never seen fit to mention) in order to show he really and truly hated those Commies (Joy Reid insists it’s still a Red Leninist Hell!) Mentally gobsmacked by this break in the narrative, Lawrence O’Donnell speculated that…Putin had ordered Trump to do it!
Meanwhile, enjoying the blessings of this misdirection, the war merchants and the water-poisoners and all the other oppressors go about their dark work unobserved.
But the MSNBC faces never change; they run breathless Breaking News updates about memos and meetings and dumb underlings doing dumb underling things, but there are never any real twists to their story. Whenever I chance to watch for ten minutes, a line from Dylan’s epic song “Senor” springs to mind: “The last thing I saw before I stripped and kneeled/Was a trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field.” (Parenthetical note: that is an amazing couplet, enough to quash the Noble Prize debate, and I will climb up proudly on Ezra Pound’s table in my cowboy boots and shout it out loud.) They’re always auditioning lousy new mottos—remember “Lean Forward?”—how about this one: MSNBC–Proudly Bogged Down for The Rest of Time! No matter the hour, day, or week, any time you tune in to Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s favorite network—vaguely hoping they might move on, say, to cover our racist prison system, or our continued genocide of Native Americans, or any of a dozen societal horrors that any Counterpunch reader can tick off in his/her sleep, and probably does–the Rachels and Joys and Aris will always be sitting there in the parlor car, blissfully unconcerned with prison or Indians, paralyzed but unaware of it, gazing out the windows slack-jawed and endlessly mistaking Dylan’s magnetic waves for a fast-moving landscape of mountains and forests, as the ruling elite pipes in pre-recorded moving-train sounds to reinforce the illusion for them. RUSSIA, whisper the moving train-wheels on the omnipresent soundtrack; RUSSIA…RUSSIA…RUSSIA…picking up speed now…RUSSIA-RUSSIA-RUSSIA—and instead of “whoo-whoo,” the whistle says “poo-ooo-tin!” Listen: it’s entrancing, isn’t it, Rachel?
I’m not the card mechanic my old man was, but I’d sure like to find that magnetic field, sneak onto the parlor car, and deal a few hands of high-stakes draw poker to the MSNBC faces: sophisticated as they think they are, in fact they’ve become The Ultimate Marks.