False identities are as basic to comedic farce as they are to American public life. Put on a costume, learn the expected cliches and get into action. Those waiting to be hustled are already in place.
When we see the Republicans digging in their heels as they thunder about how harmful it will be to the middle class if the Bush tax cuts are not sustained for the wealthiest 2% of the American public, we find ourselves right in the middle of a dangerous farce. The elephants, who love to present themselves as financially responsible, are willing to foist $700 billion in debt on this nation in order to make sure that the GOP can hold its position as a shill for the rich.
Recognizing this trick is central to understanding America today. The tradition of the hustler has swept from the world of pop entertainment to the world of politics. Reality has never been as enjoyable as fantasy, but when rabble-rousing entertainers - for the example, the Palin family - begin to dominate the big national arguments, we need to find some place in which actual facts have a sacred position of importance.
Questions of taste and preference are basic to the world of entertainment, but our enjoyments have descended into the muck exactly the same way we've seen serious political disagreement descend. Political ideology has become no more than an offshoot of entertainment advertising, where no truth is necessary.
When "King Kong" first appeared in 1933, no one had to explain that an ape 50 feet tall had never actually flipped out in Manhattan. Yet by the time of Orson Welles' 1938 broadcast of "War of the Worlds," many thought they were hearing the actual reporting of an invasion from Mars.
Welles was widely blamed for creating a panic. Rupert Murdoch's Fox News network is an update of the Welles broadcast. It has the same content of illusion and fear, often resorting to fabrication. This is not solely a right-wing phenomenon: The left can also be caught smudging the lines separating truth from fiction, or putting convenient rhetorical decals on individuals.
A perfect example is the Rev. Jesse Jackson claiming that LeBron James was being treated not like a free man but a slave during the controversy over his free agency. James ended up signing with the Miami Heat, which is paying him $14.5 million this season. Jackson got to be the center of a controversy entirely of his own making. So much for fact.
And that's not quite as bad as Cornel West pretending that Jay-Z wasn't a real crack dealer: The brother was a freedom fighter and a revolutionary. Black prisoners have enough trouble with reality; they do not need a Princeton professor telling them that they're actually rebels, not acidic slime burning holes in the social fabric of their communities.
Having what remains the most successful commercial culture in the history of the world brings special problems if the techniques of business begin to overshadow our attempts to stand up to existing realities.
Hustlers will always tell you that the only rule is that money must come from your efforts, whatever they might be. That's one of the reasons that the airheads of hip hop can make recordings about how many units they've sold.
Unfortunately, the conservatives now roosting in Washington play by those same rules. Emboldened by Murdoch's attack dog of Fox News and talk show rabble-rousers, they advertise billionaires as though they're part of the beleaguered middle class. The masquerade goes on and on.
Stanley Crouch's column appears in the Daily Nwes every Monday. Stanley, who has written for the paper since 1995, has received many awards for his writing, including a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. His books have been widely praised and he was recently inducted into the Academy of Arts and Sciences.