The Shameful Power of Lies

I refuse to believe that the truth no longer matters. I refuse to believe that the truth is simply what I choose to believe. I’m loath to admit it, but a clear-eyed look at world politics today and examples from the past suggests I’m wrong. Too many lies have been casually accepted as truth and too many lies have sparked monumentally consequential change.

A young George Washington never cut down a cherry tree or confessed with the line we all know: “I cannot tell a lie.” Biographer Mason Locke Weems made no mention of the tale in the first five editions of The Life of George Washington but the incident suddenly appeared in the sixth. Weems made it up. Similarly, there was no gift-horse, filled with soldiers, with which the Greeks duped the Trojans. Nero did not play the violin as Rome burned. When leaving the room, Galileo did not mumble, “But it does move.” Newton’s work on gravitation was not inspired by a falling apple. Benjamin Franklin never flew a kite in a lightning storm. I could go on.

Lies such as these have been repeated as fact by so many and for so long that they’ve become accepted as true. Joseph Goebbels would understand. As Hitler’s propaganda minister, he said a lie becomes truth when forcefully presented and repeated. Donald Trump certainly understands.

Politico.com studied Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign speeches and determined that, on average, he lied once every five minutes and sometimes twice in a single, rambling, non-sequitur littered sentence. He lied about having seen thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9-11 attack. He lied about MSNBC distorting his views by editing his statement on abortion. He repeatedly lied about America’s crime rate being higher than ever, about GDP growth being zero for the previous two quarters, and about the United States having the world’s highest corporate taxes. All the lies were shown to be lies but it didn’t seem to matter. Mr. Trump won the presidency. He continues to lie. He recently said there are 96 million unemployed Americans but that counts retired folks and kids in school.

Do the lies that inform so much of what we think we know about our past and Mr. Trump’s successfully lying his way to the White House prove that we don’t care about the truth? We should. Because sometimes lies bring about changes that are enormously consequential. Consider two examples.

President Truman said he approved the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan to save the lives of American soldiers who were preparing to invade the island. With each subsequent interview, Truman’s estimate of the number of men saved went up. He couldn’t quantify it because his justification was a lie. Truman had been advised by the scientists who created the bomb that its use would be immoral. A number of generals and military advisors, including future president General Dwight D. Eisenhower, said it was unnecessary. Japan was on the verge of collapse. All its major cities had been incinerated. The Soviet Union had declared war and was moving on Japan. Japanese leaders were preparing to surrender and Truman knew it.

But the bomb was not really about Japan. Truman agreed with Secretary of State John Foster  Dulles and other advisors that the bomb had to be dropped to brandish its power, especially to the Soviet Union, which they had decided to turn from ally to enemy. They had to demonstrate that America would dominate the post-war world. And so the bombs fell. Months before, Japanese leaders had offered to stop fighting with the condition that Emperor Hirohito stay in place but the Americans refused with their insistence on unconditional surrender. With the atomic bombs suitably displayed, Truman accepted the surrender terms that had been unacceptable before. Hirohito remained. The war ended. But Truman’s lie unnecessarily murdered 150,000 people in Hiroshima and 75,000 in Nagasaki with hundreds of thousands suffering life-altering wounds and horrifying birth defects.

While Truman’s lie involved the end of a war, other lies have started them. The Iraq War was based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He didn’t. In 1964, Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson unrestricted power to wage war in Vietnam after an attack on the American destroyer USS Maddox. But the attack didn’t really happen. The lies are disturbing but sadly, tragically, not rare.

At 9:40 in the evening, on February 15, 1898, a tremendous explosion sent a fire ball into sky above Havana’s harbour. The American battleship Maine, which had been anchored there as an expression of American power, had exploded. The ship was destroyed. Its burning, shredded hulk sank, and 266 Americans lost their lives.

Cubans had been rebelling against their Spanish colonial masters in a low-level guerilla war. Thousands of Cuban refugees had been working from new homes in Florida and New York to entice America to intervene on their behalf. After all, they argued, the Monroe Doctrine said that the United States considered the western hemisphere its back yard and would take action to keep countries stable and Europe out.

Powerful newspaper owners had joined their fight. The New York Journal’s William Randolph Hearst and the New York World’s Joseph Pulitzer were in a circulation war and both saw a Cuban war as their ticket to victory. They both had reporters in Cuba before the explosion writing articles that urged President William McKinley to take military action. Two days after the Maine explosion, Hurst’s Journal ran the headline: “Destruction of the warship Maine was the work of the enemy.” The next day, an article quoted unnamed naval men as believing that a Spanish mine had caused the explosion. Hurst offered $50,000 to anyone who turned in those responsible for the mine. Readership soared.

Thousands of Americans wrote to their president demanding a war of revenge with Spain. Militia groups formed and volunteered to leave immediately. Men yelled “Remember the Maine and to Hell with Spain!” as they swamped recruitment offices. Congressmen joined the jingoist parade, declaring that American honour had to be respected. A March 28 Naval Court of Inquiry moved with lightning speed to conclude that the Maine had indeed been downed by a mine. President McKinley was suspicious of the evidence but the mounting political pressure was enormous. He acquiesced. In April, the United States declared war on Spain.

The war lasted only ten weeks. The most famous battle was the taking of San Juan Hill by the Rough Riders, a rag tag group of cowboys, college students, and ex-convicts organized by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who had quit his post to join the fight. The war was won when the American navy destroyed Spain’s Atlantic fleet in the Philippine’s Manila Bay. About 2,000 Americans died in the war, all but 385 of disease. About 60,000 Spanish and Cuban soldiers and civilians died. America’s victory led to the Paris Treaty which gave Cuba its independence and ceded the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States.

The war’s second phase began when Filipino nationalists insisted on independence rather than trading one colonial master for another. When rebuffed, they shouldered rifles. The fighting lasted three years and took the lives another 4,200 Americans and over 20,000 Filipino combatants. The war also saw about 200,000 civilians die from war-related famine, violence, and disease.

The Maine attack and wars that followed entered American civic understanding alongside Washington’s hatchet and Franklin’s kite. They were true because they were believed to be true. But the truth is stubborn.

In its rush to not really investigate but simply confirm the mining of the Maine, the US Naval Court of Inquiry had refused to hear from a number of experts. Included among them was Navy ordnance professional Philip R. Alger. He told the Washington Star that the explosion’s power and ship’s wreckage suggested that the blast had originated with a fire in the Maine’s engine room that ignited its magazine, the room where ammunition and gun powder was stored. In fact, another naval inquiry had reported only a month before that designers of ships such as the Maine had put magazines too close to coal-fired engine rooms. This was alarming because coal bunker fires were a regular problem on naval ships at the time and it had been found that those carrying bituminous coal, like the Maine, were far more likely to suffer spontaneous engine room fires than those carrying anthracite coal. Those salivating for war knew all this but ignored it as they silenced Alger.

In 1974, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover initiated an inquiry into the Maine’s sinking. American, Spanish, and Cuban records were scoured and experts on ship explosions were interviewed. The study concluded that “without a doubt” the Maine had been sunk by a spontaneous combustion fire in her engine room that ignited the magazine. The Spanish had nothing to do with it. Wars had been fought in Cuba and the Philippines, thousands had died, the Spanish empire had shrunk, the American empire grew, and Roosevelt’s political career took flight, all because of a lie. It was a lie the American media helped create and then exploit and that the American people were too willing to believe.

Today, in the revered Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac from Washington, lay the remains of over 14,000 American veterans. On a hilltop near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, towers a gleaming white mast. It’s the Maine’s mast. In 1915 it was salvaged and erected atop a large concrete base resembling a ship’s turret. The mast throws a shadow over the respected dead laying nearby while serving as a monument to the power of lies.

power-of-lies-memorial

Maine Memorial (Photo Arlington National Cemetery)

Lies led to the dropping of the world’s worst weapons, were cynically employed to elect a president and used to start unnecessary wars. Lies ended lives and changed the world. It is said that we live in a post-truth era. No. No! We can’t afford that luxury, that embarrassment, that threat. Ignorance is not bliss, it’s dangerous. Ask those resting in American military cemeteries laid there by lies or the ghosts haunting Cuba, the Philippines, Japan, Iraq, and Vietnam. Ask Joseph Goebbels.

The media has an awesome responsibility as the citizens’ eyes, ears, and conscience. It must question and say no to power and not be its poodle. Rewriting press releases is not journalism. The media cannot, as Hearst did, and as Fox and others do, report lies or fashion lies of their own for ratings, clicks, and sales while making us dumber and less safe. We must join the media in robbing lies of their power by calling them what they are and calling out those who either don’t speak the truth, don’t seem to care, or don’t know the difference. We deserve the truth. We can handle the truth. We must demand it.

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A Speaker’s Rules on Speaking

I’m all about words. With the proper motivation, I’ll write them, speak them, and even sing them. I have long respected the transcendent power of the spoken word and studied public speaking to become better at it. As an author, book promotions have taken me across the country and I’m always humbled by an audience’s attendance and attention and moved by invitations to return. This is what my study and experience have taught me:

  1. The Backside Dictum: As with plays, concerts, and movies, the second you become aware of your ass, the best end has passed. Speakers must respect their audiences. Rather than doing myriad other things, people have opted to devote a sliver of their lives to you and must never regret the decision. Nearly all audiences are captive but must never feel like it. It is the feeling in their end that in the end will have them wish for the end and, consequently, that they should never have come.

Hint: Before approaching the podium, take pen in hand. On your left palm write BB and on the other write the time that your talk should end. BB stands for the primary principle of public speaking: Be brief and Be seated. If you discretely observe your palms throughout your talk you’ll be fine. After all, at the bar afterward (remember I mentioned proper motivation) you want to overhear, “I could have listened all night” and not, “it went on too long.”

A Speaker's Hints on Speaking

  1. The Three Rule: Western society rests on three. Every TV show, movie, or play you have ever seen is based on three. There is the introduction of setting and characters, then the conundrum, and then the resolution. Abner Doubleday understood when he, sort of, invented baseball – three strikes and you’re out and three outs and your team’s out. The three rule applies to public speaking for just like people can only remember seven numbers (that’s why phone numbers are structured like that) they can only remember three arguments. Every good speaker makes three points, not two, and certainly not four or more.

Hint: Whatever you are talking about, boil it down to three points. Each has evidence but never cite more than three. Be blunt. Say clearly that there are three points and number them as you speak. Tell them what you will tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them – that’s the three hint within the three rule. Of course you know more about whatever you’re on about but always remember that you want them to remember and they will never remember more than three points.

  1. The Show: The best way to demonstrate that you have something to say worth remembering is to remember it yourself. Never read. Reading is for politicians or others whose words are written by others. They are not really speakers at all; they are readers. Recall that the last half of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech – the whole part about the dream – was off script. Robert Kennedy’s moving speech to an African-American audience in which he reported King’s assassination, one of the best speeches in American history, was extemporaneous. Recall every TED talk.

Hint: Memorize your opening lines. Memorize a few sound bites and, of course, your three points. After that simply explain what you know so well. If you think this stuff is interesting then the chances are they will too. Always ask for a lapel mic for without ties to a script you can move around the stage or among the audience. Without reading you can make better eye contact and your moving will force them to shift in their seats a little and that goes back to the backside dictum. Smile. Always be reading the room and silently editing. Make digressions like TV commercials, little breaks before the next part begins. Remember that those who don’t understand the marriage of speaking and entertainment understand neither. Finally, never say um or ah. Any such guttural sound indicates you have forgotten where to simply be silent for a moment suggests thought.

There is more but I remember the three rule. People crave the spoken word. It’s part of who we are. The spoken word pokes memories of bedtime books and the safe murmur of adult voices as we nod asleep. Its power rests gently in the poetry of persuasion. A good speaker honours childhood memories and adult intellectual curiosity. A good speaker understands that it’s the words and ideas that matter and so becomes like a good singer who never gets in the way of the song.

I’m off doing more speeches this week and will try to remember my own rules. Hopefully our paths will cross and you can tell me how I made out. Meanwhile, if you enjoyed this column, please consider sending it to others and checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com

Icarus, the Cleavage, & the Interviews

A man should never look at a woman’s breasts. Never. A man should never, ever look down a woman’s cleavage and under no circumstances for fifteen straight minutes. Never. Ever. No how. But I did. The red-faced moment occurred during one of the many interviews I have done as the author of six books supporting the rocky marriage between art and commerce.

A print journalist once began an interview for Into the Hurricane: Attacking Socialism and the CCF with the question, “What does CCF stand for?” The back jacket explained that the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation was the Canadian democratic socialist party and precursor to the NDP. I tried not to betray surprise with my realization that far from judging a book by its cover, she had read neither.

I understand that interviewers are busy folks often armed with nothing but a list of questions prepared by others. Some are so shackled to their list that I could respond, “Gee, my pants caught fire!” and hear nothing but, “I see, now my next question…” I accept those interviews as a challenge to stir interest and I sense success with the first follow up question that hints at a wandering from script.

An American print journalist once told me she had read Blood and Daring, which was about Canada’s role in the American Civil War. That, I thought, standing in my office, cradling my phone, fighting my ADD and trying to stay focussed, was a good start. She then said, “I’ve never heard of this Sir John A. Macdonald, but he seems like kind of a big deal. Perhaps for my American readers you could you sum him up in one sentence?”

With apologies to my high school English teachers, this was my one sentence stab: “Macdonald is like your Thomas Jefferson because he provided much of the philosophical underpinnings of our democracy; he is like America’s James Madison because he was the main architect and author of our constitution; he is also like your George Washington because he was our first chief executive and fully cognisant of the fact that everything he said and did would be precedent to his successors – so, Canada’s Sir John A. Macdonald is like America’s Jefferson, Madison, and Washington rolled into one man.” Damn, I was proud of myself. The article based on the interview was a well-written piece but the run-on Macdonald explanation was absent. Rats.

In-studio radio interviews are fun because many studios are cramped and chaotic. The interviewer is often hidden behind microphones and equipment or glass, making eye contact impossible. Assistants and producers are often scurrying about. During one interview the news and weather person was scribbling madly away beside me, tapping an I-Phone, and leaving and returning. It was a challenge to focus. Other studios offer Zen-like calm. Like Forrest Gump’s chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

Icarus, the Cleavage & the Interviews

(Photo: http://www.mxlmics.com)

Live radio over the phone is often interesting. I recently attended a good friend’s retirement party in Chatham, Ontario and expected to be back at his house in time for the 8:00 pm interview with a gentleman broadcasting from Montreal to affiliates across Canada. The party ran longer than I had expected. So, at 8:00 I was shivering in my dark, cold car, beside a parking lot dumpster, answering questions about John F. Kennedy and John Diefenbaker, while hoping beyond hope that a police officer or ne’er-do-well would not rap on my frosted window.

Live radio hates dead air. You must talk without time for thought. The funniest live radio question came at the end of a long interview about my biography of R. B. Bennett. The gentleman said, “Now you have read a lot about Canadian prime ministers so tell me, which one would have made the best NHL hockey player and why?” Later, my wife Sue, who is much smarter than me, said that Lester Pearson was a great hockey player or maybe I should have said Jean Chrétien because of the Shawinigan handshake. The best I could muster was, “Sir John A. because in the Gordie Howe tradition he was the best of his era and not above throwing an elbow.”

Television is fun. I once did a live interview for the East Coast CBC from a studio in Toronto. I was made up, wired up, placed on a swivel chair but told not to move, and then instructed to look at the screen six feet before me. I heard the producer count down and the interviewer’s voice through my ear-piece but the screen remained dark. I had expected to see him as he and viewers were seeing me. I know I was thrown for the first question or two wondering if there was a malfunction. I carried on and tried, as always, not to say anything too stupid.

One of the best in the business is TVO’s Steve Paikin. He has interviewed me three times and in each instance he has carefully read the book and prepared questions but then the interview becomes a conversation. For those interested, here is my most recent interview with Steve Paikin so you can see how very good he is.

http://tvo.org/video/programs/the-agenda-with-steve-paikin/kennedys-northern-front

TVO Feb 17

Steve Paikin and me on February 17

And then there was the cleavage. It was an interview for my Bennett biography. For some reason, it was decided that the taped radio interview would be done outside. The interviewer was an attractive woman about eight inches shorter than me clad in a red, low-cut top. I had begun to respond to her first question when the sound person stopped us and said that because of the height difference she would lower the wind-socked microphone and I would need to look down and keep looking down throughout the interview. “OK,” I whispered, realizing straight away that I was being asked to break the cardinal rule and look where a man should never look. Never. A cleavage is like the sun, I’ve been warned, more than a glance can hurt you. Yet, for fifteen long minutes, I was Icarus.

Interviews are all fun and nearly all interviewers are well read, intelligent, articulate, interested and interesting. Like the folks I get to meet at speeches and festivals, I feel honoured to share ideas with them. I never forget that I am lucky to have written and published books and, through them, to have met so many great people and seen the places I’ve seen and done the things I’ve done. Even when the interviews get a little funny, crazy, or embarrassing, I never take for granted how truly blessed I am.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice. You can check out the books I was talking about at your local bookstore or here http://www.amazon.ca/John-Boyko-Books/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A916520%2Cp_27%3AJohn%20Boyko