October 2002


We're all story tellers. Some people tell the truth and some lie. We should apply the same critical eye to history and journalism that we apply to other tall tales. Governments lie when it benefits certain special interests. Understanding the nature of those lies is important.

People just love to tell stories. Being a story teller is a distinguishing feature of homo sapiens. Looking at those prehistoric cave paintings, you know that they told a story. We are the stories that we have to tell. One of the reasons why we go out of our way to travel to new places or to do new things is to have fresh stories to tell our friends and family. Face it, no matter what you've done in the past, the people who know you best have heard all those stories before.

Some people have an insatiable need for narrative. We call these people gossips. They want to hear about the drama in other peoples' lives. Sometimes they don't even care if there's a shred of truth to the rumor, provided that it makes a good story. We all know people who create drama in their lives, when we know they know better. I wonder how many of these folks would be better off seeking their drama on the road.

There is one person I know who comes by to visit occasionally. He is a very dramatic person. The trouble is that all the really important episodes in his life seem to have happened before he turned 20 -- almost 20 years ago. He paints his life with a very broad brush. He is John Wayne tough. His exploits are legendary, at least to himself. When he has a fresh audience, particularly when female, he sets forth his amazing prowess in nearly every manly genre in a depressingly predictable series of stories. When you've had an opportunity to experience his tales many times, you can see how the long ago events have magnified themselves in his mind. His teenage fist fight has become a hundred heroic bouts won against impossible odds. Every boat he's been on has become an Ark and every trout a prize winning trophy.

We all like a tall tale now and again. But the principal difference between a good yarn spinner and a bore tends to lie in why they are telling you about this, and whether they have the sensitivity to shut up when you're done listening. Regardless of the quality of the telling, we listen to people's stories and choose what we're prepared to believe. When our friend comes by to tell about the amazing 52 pound salmon, we don't dispute his account, but we don't accept it as gospel either.

Apart from actual fiction, there are two brands of story telling that impact most people's lives: history and journalism. A lot of the same rules apply to these stories. Good history and good news reporting tell us things that are interesting or relevant. The best history and journalism provide this service for no other purpose than to inform. Unfortunately, most history and practically all journalism suffers under other agendas. They promote a point of view and spend more effort to convince than to inform. It is amazing how people believe historians and journalists when they say things that they would not believe if their own mother said them.

When I hear phrases in the news, such as "Axis of Evil" I get very nervous. This kind of rhetoric does not inform. When I hear things like this in the news, I react in the same way I do when my tale telling friend begins a story with "Me and my 9mm..." The premier journalistic liar of the 20th Century was Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda for Nazi Germany. He spoke about how to influence people with the "big lie." The big lie was something that required so much explanation that it naturally got none.

For example, inquire about Iraq at the United Nations, you will find that Iraq is a republic and that President Saddam Hussein el-Takriti was elected to a seven year term of office in 1995. He is never referred to in the US press as President Hussein of Iraq. He is always referred to as the military dictator Saddam Hussein, despotic strongman of Iraq. The latter characterization matches the CIA fact book entry about Iraq; no surprises there.

Which is true and why do you think so?

I don't honestly know which is the truth, but I wonder about labels that are promulgated without support or explanation. When Iran calls the US an evil totalitarian state whose figurehead president is the idiot son of the former head of the US Secret Police, we call that a lie. We're not a totalitarian state just because Iran says we are. Iraq is not evil just because our government says it is.

The trouble with big lies is that they get to be true beyond doubt or investigation. Overturning big lies is really difficult, painful, and usually destructive. If you want some history to support this, look up some of the tribulations that followed in the wake of notions like "The White Man's Burden" or "The Weaker Sex."

It is a well known fact that most folks operate on autopilot most of the time. Life is demanding enough without having to dissect it intellectually 24/7. So, a lot of the time, we operate under a variety of unexamined assumptions, which are convenient conclusions we've borrowed from other people. Big lies are created by powerful people with the hope that they will find a home among our unexamined assumptions. If they work and are accepted, then we will be somehow biased in a way that favors the powerful who thought up the lie, which tells you why they do this.

Another term for this class of lying is public relations. How many people reading this article are aware that the executive branch of the US government has spent $40,000 per month selling the Iraq war to the American people? Where do you think terms like "axis of evil" come from?

What I find most sad about this whole business of public subsidized deceit is that so many talented and otherwise useful people are employed in this kind of work. It reminds me of putting really brilliant research scientists on the trail of bigger and better bombs. What would the same resources and brain power have accomplished if applied to, say, cancer research or environmental problems? I have serious ethical complaints about my government spending my money to study better ways of lying to me, too. One would think that in a real democracy, like ours, with an election pending, there would be some way I could voice my discontent in a meaningful way. What do you think my chances are of doing that in November this year?

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