On Faith: Look past perception to find substance

Lyndon Johnson once praised the bravery of his great-grandfather in defending the Alamo. When a journalist pointed out to the president that his great-grandfather did not fight at the Alamo, he answered, "Why are you journalists so concerned over facts?"

Johnson testified to a truism of human nature: The facts themselves are not as important to us as what we want the facts to be. Although we learned in Philosophy 101 that our perception of a thing is not the thing itself — that the map is not the territory — we confuse what is with our own take on reality.

The husk is barely penetrated in our national discourse. We are satisfied with superficiality, as ideas are reduced to sound bites, truth is cheapened to truism, and cliches are substituted for content. Today it is all about semblance rather than essence.

In the 1960 presidential debate, the camera was kinder to John. F Kennedy than to Richard Nixon. Nixon later said: "At the conclusion, I recognized my basic mistake: I had concentrated too much on substance and not enough on appearance." Abraham Lincoln could hardly be elected president today. He wasn't telegenic, spoke in a squeaky voice, walked with an ungainly gait, and projected a sad countenance.

The vacuity of our political process, in which voting preferences are based on how many flags or how many firemen are positioned behind a candidate, reflects a deeper malaise: Image is taken for substance.

Writing about one of the great swindles of the 1930s, John Kenneth Galbraith pointed to a trait of any financial community that he believed put it at the risk of committing fraud, "The tendency to confuse good manners and good tailoring with integrity and intelligence." We are seduced by images and airbrushing. Nothing succeeds like the look of success. As long as you seem to know something, it is the same as if you know it. We are bombarded by weapons of mass perception.

A front page story becomes news by virtue of being on the front page; a best-seller sells a lot more copies because it has already sold a lot of copies; a celebrity is known for his or her well-known-ness.

Facts are not paramount — things are what we want them to be, imagine them to be, perceive them to be. It is all smoke and mirrors. If "Dragnet" was produced today, Sgt. Friday would plead, "Just the virtual reality, ma'am, just the virtual reality."

Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, is known as the founder of modern public relations, and less charitably as the "father of spin." His credo was that presentation, packaging and peripherals are everything.

Reality takes second place to image, as in the anecdote of two women who meet, one pushing a stroller: "My, that's a beautiful baby you have there," says the admiring friend. The mother replies: "Oh, that's nothing — you should see his picture!"

Confusing externals with virtue is a spiritual issue. The Bible warns us that charm does not necessarily signify inner good. A gregarious person is not inevitably a sincere person, flawless skin is not a certain indicator of inner purity, success is not the measure of significance, and wealth does not always equate to being a mentsch.

When the Prophet Samuel was sent to anoint a son of Jesse as king of Israel, he was about to select Jesse's son Eliav, a strapping and handsome young man who projected a kingly manner. But God vetoed this choice, saying to Samuel: "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."

The worth of a human being has nothing to do with possessions, schooling, position, charisma, attractiveness, glibness, a firm handshake, marketing, public relations, spin, or a winning smile. It has everything to do with character and integrity, morality and humility, spirit and heart.

MARK S. MILLER is the senior rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.

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