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.

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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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JFK and the Myths We Need Now

Myths matter. They are important in all societies. They help create, define, and preserve the values and institutions we deem important. They provide structure and stability. Myths present themselves in many forms and sometimes as people who were once politicians but somehow became much, much more. The Americans are quite good at myth-making. Abraham Lincoln became a myth; his deeds and character recalled in hushed, reverent tones as a model for citizenship and a reflection of all that is good about an entire people. The most recent of American politician-myth is President John F. Kennedy. His youth, looks, vigour, promise, and the degree to which he inspired hope and optimism, coupled with the Shakespearean tragedy of his bloody and public death, rendered his elevation from man to myth almost inevitable. That transition is instructive and important for us today.

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The public murder of a man who represented so much to so many, and by such a puny little assassin, was incomprehensible and overwhelming. People who had never met or even seen him wept as if a family member had passed away. I’m old enough to recall arriving home from Grade Two to find my mother weeping before the television. It was the first time I had ever seen her cry. French president Charles De Galle said, “I am stunned. They are crying all over France. It is as if he were a Frenchman, a member of their own family.” In London, famed actor Sir Laurence Olivier interrupted a performance and had the audience stand as the orchestra played the American national anthem. Other Londoners stood in the multi-coloured glow of Piccadilly Circus neon and openly sobbed.

Canada declared November 23 to 29 an official period of mourning. Polish churches were crowded on its national day of mourning, and the Nicaraguan government declared a week of mourning. Flags were dropped to half-staff in Ottawa and other world capitals, including Moscow. In the United States and around the globe, airports, schools, streets, libraries, public squares, and more were renamed after him. In the Canadian Yukon, a 14,000-foot snow-peaked mountain became Mount Kennedy.

Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, was shattered by the murder of her husband, killed just inches from her side, but at the moment of the unspeakable violence, she understood what would happen and what she wanted to shape. She took charge. She arranged for the state funeral to reflect Lincoln’s. She insisted on an eternal flame at his grave and that he be buried at Arlington National Cemetery just across the Potomac River from Washington which, since the Civil War, had become a revered burial place for veterans. She chose a hilltop location overlooking the city that the president had actually visited and declared a fine spot to be placed at rest.

From a popular play addressing the legend of King Arthur, she coined the name Camelot – that mystical place of missed opportunity, to describe her husband’s thousand-day presidency. Kennedy’s brother Robert also moved quickly. He ordered files to be removed from the White House and Oval Office and Cabinet Room tape recordings were taken and squirreled away. The myth could only grow properly if the legacy was carefully sculpted.

The myth grew quickly. Kennedy transcended politics and entered popular culture. A movie based on his Second World War military exploits had already been made. In March 1960, Senator Kennedy had met the former British intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond adventure novels. A year later, Life Magazine listed Fleming’s From Russia with Love as among the president’s favourite books. The endorsement led Fleming’s American publisher to push the previously underperforming titles and to Sean Connery taking the British rogue to the big screen. The favour was returned when a character in The Spy Who Loved Me said, “We need some more Jack Kennedy…They ought to hand the world over to young people who haven’t got the idea of war stuck in their subconscious.”

Kennedy had created the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. In the summer of 1963, DC Comics had written a story based on Kennedy asking for Superman’s help to urge Americans to take better care of themselves through diet and exercise. The project was shelved after the assassination but Kennedy’s successor, President Johnson, leant his support and so the comic book was published in July 1964. Its cover showed a ghostly JFK towering over the Capitol Building and Superman in mid-flight, glancing sadly back, one mythical hero in awe of another.

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The Beatles second album was released on the day Kennedy died. Three months later, they arrived for their first American tour and 50,000 kids screamed their welcome at the newly named JFK airport. While Elvis had offered sex and daring, the Beatles offered love and fun. On a subsequent tour, in September, they toured Dallas. They smiled nervously and waved from an open limousine as they passed through Dealey Plaza, the very spot where Kennedy had been killed. Many of those trying to understand the band’s unprecedented popularity claimed that their songs and wit personified the same youthful enthusiasm as the Kennedy promise. They renewed that promise while providing a welcome tonic to America’s grief. The Beatles, it was argued, allowed the black bunting to be removed and the country to smile again.

John F. Kennedy was an imperfect man and an imperfect president but the perfect stuff of myth. His assassination tore time. For millions of people, the assassination was an irreparable rending that forever split before and after. The violence in Dallas was visited not just upon the man but also on the very idea that everything was possible and all problems solvable. For in the final analysis, Kennedy’s gift was not his programs and policies, but himself. His most important contribution was the courageous, audacious determination that idealism is not naïve, hope is not foolish, hardship and challenge is incentive, and that community can extend beyond one’s family, city, or even country. His violent death, like Lincoln’s, challenged those ideas and asked if they were worth preserving, celebrating, and fighting for.

So let’s ask the question. Are those ideas of clear-eyed idealism, unifying confidence, hope, and ambition, and the notion of a broader, deeper community, worth the fight? If so, let us embrace the myths, whether they be people like Kennedy or, in Canada, the myth of the rich, giving, but untameable land, and ask what they say about those ideas and about us. Then, let’s pick our fight. In these foreboding days of Trump, Brexit, and racist, intolerant notions disguised as political programs among leadership aspirants in France and Canada, the fight has never been more urgent. And so, more than 50 years after his death, perhaps we need John F. Kennedy more than ever. 

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. There is more on JFK and his relationship with Canada in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available  in bookstores and online through Amazon and Chapters https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/cold-fire-kennedys-northern-front/9780345808936-item.html