06/18/2007 01:54 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Scooter Libby, Paris Hilton and Village Gossip

Just when I was wondering where my next laugh was coming from, I saw a CBS report that in 1994 the Air Force's laboratory in Dayton asked for $7.5 million to develop a chemical weapon that would turn enemy soldiers into horny homosexuals.

The story momentarily distracted me from my obsession with Scooter Libby's pardon and Paris Hilton's jail time. It took me a while to wipe the tears from my eyes and get back to our National Game. I mean our real national game, village gossip.

The word gossip comes from 'God's sib' or my brother or sister in the congregation, my intimate, the one with whom I share gossip, intimate revelation. From those honest roots, gossip has gone downhill -- it has a bad rep. The tarnish is probably because it is the balancing weapon of the underpowered, the despised members of our polity. Certainly the powerful hate and fear gossip much more than the less powerful. The first thing a new dictator does when he takes over is to impound the media -- but what he can't stop is gossip. (I think it was Foucault that called these types of speech "an insurrection of suppressed knowledges.")

The social network that first carries the news -- who in your village is a crooked merchant, a predatory priest or doctor, or just somebody who's a jerk -- is more likely to be the informal network of gossip than formal channels.

There's a pretty robust theory coming out of evolutionary psychology that gossip is one of those survival tools we assembled over the last 100,000 years, operating software, some even think hardware, in the brain -- like the ability to recognize emotion in faces or the diminished capacity of the human mother to bond with the smaller of very low birth-weight twins (why waste the milk). The content of gossip -- sex and power -- as well as the process, suggests it arose in response to a need to keep track of important happenings in the village.

You are on the subway. Opposite you in the subway car is an elderly woman. Her ankles are swollen, her respirations are labored, between her feet sits a canvas bag with cleaning supplies in it. Her body sways and sags, her clothes bind, her lips move as she reads her magazine. And what is she reading? She's reading Soap Opera Digest, that's what -- the official record of gossip in her virtual extended family, her fictive tribe

There must be a "gossip gene"; we're too good at it to have learned it. The filtering function and the analytic-synthetic function of gossip are unstudied, natural. The survival value of being able to assemble stories from multiple sources is obvious, as is the skill of filtering the various layers of gossip according to listener -- layers like 'probably true' versus 'likely false' -- qualities of gossip such as function and intent, useful versus trivial gossip -- or aspects like shading, nuance, order of presentation of data and its persuasive function.

And what is the evolutionary pay-off, the biological corn-syrup that makes it so delicious? Why, it's the laughter. There is nothing funnier than gossip and nothing more destructive to power.

I want everybody -- right now, drop whatever you're doing -- everybody everywhere to laugh at somebody in power. It doesn't just have to be the enemy. It all converges at the horizon where fact and fantasy flip-flop and "we" become "them." What do their mullahs want? The fusion of religion and government, treatment of women as property, and a literal interpretation of sacred writings, that's what.

What do our mullahs (here and in Rome) want? A narrowing gap between church and state, laws to control women's bodies, literal interpretation of the Bible and "strict construction" of the Constitution. Perhaps by mirth and good chance we will be saved from the quest for inerrancy of texts, literal interpretation of sacred writings, mistranslations and all. Unbeknownst to most of us, the sacred texts of our time are gossip in all its forms, and the funnier the better.

But back to the "gay bomb" -- it was about this I wanted to gossip with you in the first place. I can't shake this eerie sense that some time in the second half of the last century, fiction replaced nonfiction. Without our realizing it, something happened and we're now all living in somebody's postmodern novel. Did it happen when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot on live television, when Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood? Did fact and fiction unawares turn inside-out like a sock on laundry day? Otherwise I can't account for a world in which Acts of Congress designed to drill for oil in national parks are called things like "An Act to Save National Parks" and legislation to gut education becomes "A Law to Save the Children" or some such name.

In the "gay bomb" story what really made me laugh till the tears came was the sudden realization that even now, probably at this very moment, the U.S. is working on poison gas and germ warfare -- for offensive purposes, naturally. When I decided to write about it I vowed, using every molecule of will in my body, to resist the temptation to pun on Weapons of Mass Destruction (and don't pretend you didn't already think of it).

Oh, what the hell -- I can't stand it any longer.

"Weapons of Ass Destruction."

There! I feel better.