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.
“You must be nice to him,” Wendy impressed on her brothers. “What could we do if he were to leave us?” “We could go back,” Michael said. “How could we ever find our way back without him?” “Well, then, we could go on,” said John. “That is the awful thing, John. We should have to go on, for we don’t know how to stop.” This was true; Peter had forgotten to show them how to stop.
When it comes to the war in Iraq, Kerry is likewise forced to concede that simply turning around and going home is not an option. “We have to succeed. We can’t leave a failed Iraq,” he said in the first presidential debate. “But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a mistake of judgment to go there and take the focus off of Osama bin Laden.” This hardly amounts to flip-flopping, but Bush’s fictions, like Peter Pan’s, have total authority. “Osama bin Laden isn’t going to determine how we defend ourselves,” he snapped at Kerry. “The right action was in Iraq. My opponent calls it a mistake. It wasn’t a mistake.” Bush hasn’t told us how he plans to stop, but in this time of war, if the Republicans tell us that the economy is improving, or that Bush will keep us safe, or that Peter Pan is green, who are we to question them? Kerry says Bush lives in a “fantasy world of spin”—the problem is, a lot of Americans want to live there with him.
This leaves the Democrats in a bind: If they point out Bush’s failures or the lack of real food on the tables of Neverland, they’re accused of insulting our allies and sending “mixed signals.” Kerry’s mature reasoning is labeled suspicious and disloyal, whereas commitment to the fantasy of Bush’s strong leadership is noble, a sign of team spirit. The real Peter Pan would have approved.
Unlike the Family Feud competitors, the presidential candidates get to debate the validity of each other’s claims. How astonishing, then, to watch Bush continuing to boast of the pirates he has slain and the victories he has won. “I’ve said Peter Pan is green, and the American people know where I stand,” smirks the Bush in my mind. “My opponent claims he doesn’t know what color Peter Pan is.”
Cut to Kerry, droning: “While it is true that Peter Pan is often depicted wearing green, that’s only a convention of late-20th-century stage and screen adaptations. In fact, Barrie’s text describes him as being ‘clad in skeleton leaves,’ which I suppose are brownish. And as for his skin color . . . ”
Cue the Bush supporters: “Flip-flop! Mixed signals!” No matter how groundless Bush’s claims or how clear Kerry’s rebuttal, the election will still be the national version of Family Feud, and public opinion is a stubborn, slow-changing thing.
The producers of Feud can avoid embarrassment by sticking to non-literature-based categories like “Popular Names for Dogs.” An entire family that can’t come up with Fido or Spot may be pathetic, but they’re not really wrong—and more importantly, the welfare of the free world will probably never rest in their hands. In the election the stakes are somewhat higher, and the Democrats are banking on the willingness of the lost-boy swing voters to question what their current leader is telling them. If voters prefer to stay in Bush’s fantasy world, survey says: straight on till morning.
Mollie Wilson’s last essay for the Voice was “The Passion of the Hargitay.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 5, 2004