By Craig Joseph
“He handed us fiction after fiction, and we printed them all as fact. Just because we found him entertaining.” Ten years have passed since I saw Shattered Glass, and still, Chuck Lane’s words in the film’s final moments prove fertile ground for my thoughts.
Back then, Lane’s indictment and Hayden Christensen’s disarming portrayal of Stephen Glass convicted me of my own duplicity. I never deceived to the same degree, but I was pinned to my cinema seat with remorse as the credits rolled. Like Glass, I’d been given a high level of responsibility at too early an age and I knew how to use my clout and perceived infallibility to skirt questions about how I did my job. My eye for detail and reputation for moral-ethical fervor made me the last person anyone suspected of dropping a ball or cutting a corner. My time in the theatre rendered me a “charmer”: I could be all things to all people and no one knew that the life I was living in one corner was completely inconsistent with what I was professing in another. And I got away with everything, because I was so likeable, entertaining and dependable that no one could even conceive of me pulling any shenanigans.
The difference between Glass and I? I never get caught. So thank God for didactic movies and my capacity for remorse.
From today’s vantage point, Lane’s words still give me guilty pause (I am the world’s best non-Catholic Catholic). Seconds after screaming at the television set (“How could they let him get away with this?”), I’m punched in the gut by the fist of complicity and I double over thinking of the many arenas in which I’ve participated in (and still allow) willful communal blindness. The church in which our senior pastor got away with all sorts of bad behavior, chalking everything up to “God’s will” and painting any naysaying as “an act of Satan.” Or the numerous workplaces in which we’ve refused to cut a person lose who wasn’t getting the job done because she’s everyone’s best friend. And the community theater world! A place where toxic and emotionally unintelligent volunteers can poison the water undeterred because everyone’s afraid that no one else will put in the same time and hours if they’re forced out.
I am part of the problem – guilty of harboring the Stephen Glasses of the world. But why? There’s a part of me – despite my bravado – that still hates conflict. There’s another part – despite my self-protective cynicism – that still wants to believe the best of everyone. And even when I do realize that we’re being duped, sometimes – embarrassingly – I don’t care enough about the larger organization or institution to speak out. I just shrug my anti-establishment shoulder (with chip firmly entrenched) and mutter, “Dig your own grave, suckers. If you don’t care enough, I don’t either.”
The problem is that I am now responsible for the very thing I grieve: the erosion of trust in the church, the media, the government and (fill in the blank here) among my generation. I can’t very well blame “the man” for not policing those under him because – guess what? – I’m part of “the man” and I’ve been letting shit slide, too.
I suppose this is the beginning of an eloquent argument in praise of prophets and whistleblowers, but I’m well over my 500 words. Thanks, Chuck Lane (and I love you, Peter Sarsgaard).