Second Spin to the Right

Best way out of Neverland? Survey says: If you believe in Kerry, clap your hands!

 The difference between [Peter Pan] and the other boys at such a time was that they knew it was make-believe, while to him make-believe and true were exactly the same thing. This sometimes troubled them, as when they had to make believe that they had had their dinners. —J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Watching game show contestants go bankrupt is kind of like watching Bush supporters defend their positions on the evening news: First you feel smug and superior; then shame seeps in as you remember you're all products of the same society. I call this the Family Feud effect, after that quiz show in which contestants triumph not by being factually correct, but by correctly predicting the majority response to a question. A typical rerun can expose the stupidity not just of one person or one family, but of an entire sample of the American population.

Take, for example, a memorable episode I caught one afternoon. Presiding over the face-off, the host said, "Name one thing that makes Peter Pan different from other boys," and the matriarch of the family on the left slammed down the buzzer and said, "He's green."

Not "He can fly," or "He never grows up," or "He serves as the corporate mascot for both a coach line and a brand of peanut butter." Any of those answers would have been true, but this woman declared confidently, "He's green." Which is not true. In a fair world (say, on Jeopardy!), she would have been pronounced incorrect. But to my dismay, "He's green" was on the board, which means that out of the 100 people polled, at least a few had said the same thing. In other words, the survey said she was right.

The survey is the arbiter of truth on Family Feud—that's what makes it so fascinating and frustrating to watch. I would never have guessed that in a random sampling of Americans, even a few would have thought Peter Pan is green, let alone that greenness is his most salient characteristic. But whether this woman's success lay in choosing to bank on the ignorance of the average American, or in being the average American, she probably didn't get the silent treatment from her family on the way home.

I was reminded of this woman's unlikely triumph during a recent visit to my Pennsylvania hometown, where both presidential candidates are campaigning frantically. Until this election, I interpreted "swing voter" as a compliment—it denoted someone impervious to partisan cant, who votes based on his own analysis of the facts. If that were an accurate portrait of my neighbors (and if an election like this one is indeed a referendum on the incumbent), Bush ought to start packing now. Yet the voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere remain split. So why are people who don't automatically toe the GOP line still considering voting Bush back into office?

A major reason is our focus on security. September 11 scared us all, but if you're reading this now, it didn't kill you. And across this country there are many people who believe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that President Bush deserves credit for the fact that they are not yet dead. We're still here, he's still in charge, so that means he must be keeping us safe. Or else they believe Bush's threats that a change in leadership will encourage terrorists to strike again. The ballot won't require these voters to back up their beliefs with sound arguments, and the Republicans know it. They don't have to prove that a Bush-led America is a safe America; they just have to make sure their constituents believe it. They know a national election is played by Family Feud rules.

Meanwhile, John Kerry is answering allegations that he has "flip-flopped" on the Iraq war by saying that Bush "wishes I have the same position he does, but as we've learned from this president, just wishing something, and saying something, doesn't make it so." But have we learned that from this president? It seems, in fact, that Bush operates very successfully on the Peter Pan principle of leadership—his saying something makes it so, because he's the leader.

It should be noted that the popular American image of Peter Pan is slightly less complex (and apparently, greener) than the original character created by J.M. Barrie. Peter is the spirit of youth and innocence, yes, but Barrie is realistic about what kind of leader an irresponsible pre-adolescent boy would be. For example, although Peter's directions to Neverland are as familiar a refrain as "Follow the yellow brick road" in our pop culture consciousness, in Barrie's version the phrase is useless and empty.

"Second to the right, and straight on till morning." That, Peter had told Wendy, was the way to the Neverland; but even birds, carrying maps and consulting them at windy corners, could not have sighted it with these instructions. Peter, you see, just said anything that came into his head.

Furthermore, in the Disney film, the flight from London to Neverland is quick and thrilling. In Barrie's novel the trip takes far longer than the Darling children had anticipated, and Peter abandons his companions so frequently en route that they begin to doubt his intentions and leadership abilities.

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