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Mixture of fact and fiction is very much in the air

January 6, 2001

Edmund Morris has just proved that the defense of a lie can be worse than the lie itself. Morris, a biographer (Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan), was trying to defend Joseph Ellis, the Mount Holyoke historian who was caught telling whoppers in class about serving in Vietnam and playing a role in the civil rights movement. Ellis, a prize-winning author who was teaching a class on Vietnam, even conjured up some false but heartwarming stories, including a poignant one about a soldier in Vietnam who read Emily Dickinson. Not to worry, though. In effect, Morris argued that the truth doesn’t really matter, as long as you believe strongly in the emotional reality of the story you tell. Morris’ defense of Ellis makes three points: (1) Everybody does it (“Can any of us gaze into the bathroom mirror and whisper, “I never made anything up?”); (2) MTV made him do it — Ellis felt an “urgent desire … to convey the divisiveness of the ’60s to a generation rendered comatose by MTV”; and (3) Ronald Reagan did it, telling us, falsely, that he had been on the scene at the Nazi concentration camps when they were liberated by the allies in 1945. Morris defended Reagan’s fabrication, which is no big surprise because his own biography-memoir of Reagan (“Dutch”) was full of fabrications. Among other things, Morris inserted himself into Reagan’s life as a boyhood friend, though he never grew up with Reagan or anywhere near him.

Morris talks admiringly of “the genuineness of (Reagan’s) emotion,” whether telling the “false” story about opening the camps, or the much duller “true” version (that he had spent World War II in Hollywood and merely saw early film of the Allies entering the camps). Morris said: “To him, it was plainly the same parable, conveying the same moral essence told in two different ways.”

This is an astonishing argument. If truth depends merely on “moral essence” and not factuality, then there is no difference between fact and fiction, or between people who report what happened in the real world and people who just make it up to express a feeling.

There’s a lot of that going around. Last week a man who claimed to have witnessed lynchings in the South in the 1960s admitted he had made up the story. A series of reported racial incidents and rapes, particularly on campuses, have turned out to be hoaxes. Apparently they had been intended to convey a feeling of danger, or merely to gain more attention for a cause. The reality of a strongly felt “story line” now justifies hoaxes.

Patricia Smith, fired from her job as a columnist at The Boston Globe after repeatedly writing about imaginary people and faking interviews, defended herself by saying that in her heart she felt her stories were true.

When leftist heroine and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu was found to have falsified much of her book on oppression in her native Guatemala, neither she nor her defenders seemed fazed. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that “Faculty members … say it doesn’t matter if the facts in the book are wrong, because they believe Ms. Menchu’s story speaks to a greater truth about the oppression of poor people in Central America.” If it’s for a good cause and won her a Nobel, who cares if she made it up?

This cynical attitude is strong these days on campus, where postmodern theory erodes basic truthfulness by holding that facts and truth don’t really exist. In effect, this allows lying activists to think that they really aren’t lying. “We are all engaged in writing a kind of propaganda,” two University of Pennsylvania instructors wrote in the Journal of Social History. “Rather than believe in the absolute truth of what we are writing, we must believe in the moral or political positions we are taking with it.” (Feelings and political stances count. Facts and truth don’t.)

The American Enterprise magazine had this to say: “It is almost impossible to overstate how deeply this kind of thinking has seeped into left-wing intellectual life over the last generation, starting from strongholds on college campuses and then trickling down into other corners of society.”

Society has its own truth troubles: docudramas; Oliver Stone; a constant supply of lying but successful politicians, presidents included; a torrent of Internet information, much of it probably untrue, that people feel they must pay attention to anyway.

One sign of the times is that some writers feel free to mix fact and fiction, and wink while doing so, as if tweaking the assumption of basic honesty on its way out the door. The June issue of Esquire contained a profile of rock star Michael Stipe that was largely untrue. Nothing sneaky here — the magazine referred readers to a Web site that separated fact from fiction. The writer, Tom Junod, said: “I want people to question the enterprise of celebrity journalism, and that’s what we’ve done.”

This is unusually lame. If you don’t believe in celebrity profiles, don’t write them. More likely Junod and Esquire were just exploiting an idea that’s clearly in the air now: that fact and fiction are routinely mixed these days, and readers are less sure which is which. All the more reason to take the stream of fibs from a nationally known historian like Joseph Ellis very seriously.

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