Friday, April 27, 2007

Plato and Jessica Lynch

I spoke to Jessica Lynch this week - it was for a subsequently aborted Sunday Times column - following her testimony to congress. She was straightforward enough; in fact, she was rather touching when I asked if being pretty and blonde had anything to do with the Pentagon's enthusiasm for making up stories about her. 'I'm sure out there there is a pretty blonde female in the military that is a hero, but it just wasn't me...' Of course, the story demonstrates the fantastic ineptitude and cynicism of Rumsfeld's Defense Department combined with the supine malleability of the media. Both are well covered here. But there's another, very different point. The newspaperman Maxwell Scott says in John Ford's great film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 'This is the west, sir. When the Legend becomes fact, print the legend.' It's the same attitude taken by Lisa Simpson when she discovers the story of Jebediah Springfield is not all that it appears to be. The message is: persist with the noble lie, it will be better for the people. The Pentagon story about Lynch unravelled absurdly quickly either because it was an incompetently constructed noble lie or because noble lies are no longer possible in a media-saturated world. Obviously one could also add that this lie was not noble at all because it was dispensed by cynical people devoid of wisdom. But I may be saying that because media-saturation favours that kind of insight. In Plato's Republic would I have simply accepted the words of the elders, cynical or not, and been happier as a result? Remember, before you answer, the modern, media-saturated world promotes its own lies and illusions with its own claims to nobility.


  1. ...I asked if being pretty and blonde had anything to do with the Pentagon's enthusiasm for making up stories about her...

    ooh, you old smoothy.

    We're becoming more and more cynical, it's true. It will all end like the story of the boy who cried wolf.

  2. Like the four TV reporters who after A.C. Peter Clarke had warned about journalists compromising his anti-terrorist investigations/lines of questioning, had the effrontery to claim that they represented 'the public'. Many cynical chuckles in the room about the 'nobility' of that one.

  3. I liked this Marcotte-esque sentence from Jeffrey's tribute to Brian Lara:

    He managed to get himself run out after a fairly stupid call by Samuels who the crowd had not come to see.

  4. Lucky you.

    I do like that girl's moxie, going up against not one, but two areas of entrenched interests. But the danger comes from people with careerist interests inside the structure of both the military and the media. The doing right by the organisation, rather than doing right, by the purpose of the organisation. Put another way, it is unlikely that middle rank personnel would be as open as she. While the Plato scenario is interesting as it was written following a destructive war, where his bugbear was the decision making process in the Athenian demos. Governance by a theatre audience, a bit like governance by telly audience or public sentiment. Both, liable to err when information is compromised. But while there are people like her around, then there is some hope.

  5. "We have nothing to fear but fear itself!"


    Fake Everything Abolish Reality

  6. That Jeffrey comment above was meant for the other thread, of course.

    Bryan's question in this thread is an interesting one. We live in an age that is so paranoid about avoiding falling for Government propaganda that we have probably gone too far the other way.

    Both BBC and Channel 4 News, for example, put out fear-mongering anti-Government propaganda on a daily basis - particularly on Iraq. Just this morning there was yet another queasy "soldier as victim not hero" story, complete with widow tearfully watching wedding video and murmuring "I didn't deserve to have my dreams shattered" above swelling music.

    One sympathises, of course, but it was as blatant as propaganda can get.

  7. i'd see the reflexive resort to bullshit & lies as symptoms of a highly tecnologised culture, in which Man is, in Protagoras' phrase, the measure of all things, for mankind can so drastically make or mark his environment (no more wildernesses), that he lives within his creation, godlike. There is no longer an 'outside world', but everything is a human creation, as if The Matrix were designed not by machines but by its own prisoners.

    If this is so, then why can't men & women use words to make reality? Just as we can bulldoze hills and re-engineer genes and whatnot, why can't we re-make the 'truth'.

    i realise this sounds bizarre, but i suspect men like Tony Blair, who seems to me to lie with such missionary zeal, in some weird way believe that what they say is the truth - that there is no such thing as objective reality, but that we are in The Matrix and they are the programmers.

    The reach of mass media probably encourages this delusion.

  8. We're all modernists now. Who is going to defend telling falsehoods in the name of innocence, sacred cows and emotional comfort? But few of those who insist on the pure unvarnished truth (often the same folks who say there is no such thing philosophically) seem to have much sense of why or where it might take them.

    In the world wars that ground so much of our national pride, thousands of commanding officers wrote letters to mothers and "sweethearts" recounting how their loved ones died painless deaths while battling the enemy courageously, although often they died stupidly or in agony with their guts spilling out as they cowered in fear. Shall we condemn them? What exactly is the Tillman family trying to accomplish by appearing before Congress and demanding to know whether Pat died in battle or by friendly fire? I suspect the word "closure" is rattling around in their minds, but not much else. It is hard not to suspect an underlying political motive, although quite possibly unconscious.

    Perhaps the most moving expression of this dilemna is from the closing pages of Heart of Darkness where the narrator tells Kurtz's priggish and thoroughly unlikeable fiancé that Kurtz, who descended into a pagan hell of unimaginable evil and terror, died thinking of her. Coward! Would she not have been better off with the truth?

    And it isn't just in war and politics. I'm convinced that part of the reason for our high divorce rates is that gurus from the caring professions keep haranging us to "work" on our marriages by telling to absolute truth to each other. Tom Wolfe did a hilarious take on this when he gave us a couple in miggle-aged doldrums who had read the right self-help books and decided to spice up their marriage and get closer by telling it like it really was. He tells her how she embarasses him by the way she talks in public and she tells him he doesn't clean himself properly after he visits the toilet. What?!!. Next stop, lawyers.

    But some things never change and modern progressives can be pretty selective about their love of truth. We scorn as the epitome of hypocrisy the old vicars who always mentioned at funerals how the deceased was a good Christian, leaving the truth about the lying old reprobate to be muttered about at the wake out of earshot of the family. But have you not noticed how increasingly common it is to read obituaries of noted boomers and learn that the deceased (in and out of rehab, four marriages, estranged from his kids)cared passionately about human rights?

    So, Bryan, the only answer I can think of to your question about elders and happiness is to pose another question: How many times in your life can you bear to be told the truth about Santa Claus?

  9. Great post, Peter. (Do I detect a new lease of life? It must be spring.)

    It is essential that families hear from the vicar the nicest possible thing about the deceased at the funeral, because that's what funerals are for. Obituaries less so, but still somewhat so.

    There is a perennial debate about whether there should be more good news on the News. There never is and the News continues to hold only a dark, distorting fairground mirror to reality. So the question is: is all News bad and frightening and depressing because we demand it, or because newspeople force it on us? Is it push or pull, in other words.

  10. you have such short memories! did you forget about young alec's winning bet?

    though it is human nature to prefer bad news as long as it's happened to someone else, and only good news as long as it happens to us.

  11. Nice post, Peter. I agree with you, up to a point. Comforting lies are important and necessary for society's well being, but as vince pointed out the position of comforting liar brings with it personal benefits that tend to corrpupt the person filling the office, and the lies serve personal and organizational goals rather than societal.

    Jessica Lynch is a hero just for being over there in the path of harm. Her story didn't need embellishing.

  12. Pat Tillman himself would have discouraged his family from their present course of action. After all, he gave up semi-celebrity and a fortune because he was motivated by his nation's ideals, not by its actual conduct. For him, the legend was good enough - possibly because, (as Mr. Appleyard has written, fantastically well), in times of greatest need America actually has lived up to the myth.

    Further, as a professional athlete in a team sport, Tillman must have been acutely aware that no matter how good the team members are, and how hard they've practiced, it's always possible for mistakes to be made, and for a plan to dissolve into chaos. Also, he knew about living with the ever-present specter of injury.

    [I]s all News bad and frightening and depressing because we demand it...


    Sure, newspeople can shape the story or debate, attempt to "force it on us", but in the end, in a capitalist democracy it's the consumer (or taxpayer, in nations with publically-supported media), who will ultimately determine how the news is reported, and what kind.

    In America, there have been many attempts to start "happy" news services, but the demand for good news is low, and none of them have been particularly successful.

    This may be because humans are hard-wired to be alert to danger, and also because bad new might require that some action be taken, but good news rarely does.
    For us, "the wolf is coming !" is of far more interest than "the sheep are really happy today."

    As far as truth-telling goes, separating fact from opinion can sometimes be tricky, so "truth" is often subjective, as irritating as that may be to some moral conservatives.

    But even where the facts are pretty basic and straightforward, American and European politics proves that a very large plurality of humans DON'T WANT to know the truth. They want to believe in Santa, for whatever reason, and will actively avoid acknowledging reality.
    The struggles over government-run pension plans spring to mind.

    Additionally, at least in America, decades of surveys have firmly established that roughly two-thirds of Americans don't really care to know anything more than what they need to be successful at their jobs, and to get by in day-to-day life, despite enormous and historically unprecedented opportunity to cheaply and easily learn anything and EVERYTHING.

    For instance, roughly 25% of Americans think that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

  13. The "noble" lie quickly, and by necessity, becomes the ignoble pack of lies, because those who define noble are invariably privileged. And without doubt, they will go to great lengths to maintain their position of privilege.

  14. Wars and lies go together like marmite and toast.

    'Twas ever thus. Read your Homer. There's nothing new under the sun in Western civilization except technology, which speeds the lies to us ever faster, and then the corrections of the lies as they appear afterward.

    Many people, however, never read the revisions. Life goes on.

    America has several "happy news" outlets. "USA Today," one of the country's best-selling papers, read mainly by travellers, is such an outlet.

  15. The Lynch story and the Tillman story are completely different. Lying about Tillman's death was despicable, if somewhat understandable. (Having learned that our unit screwed up and killed Pat Tillman, which of us wouldn't have at least thought about whether the truth could be covered up.)

    The story told about Lynch's capture struck me at the time and strike me now as being the product of the fog of war. Early details from the front are always wrong. (A couple of times I've read or seen press reports about events I've participated in. The reports are always wrong, sometimes because the reporter was incompetent, but mostly because competent reporters summarize or misunderstand what to the participants seem like important details.)

    The worse thing about modern political culture is our absolute refusal to recognize the difference between being wrong and lying. The reports of Lynch's capture were wrong. The reports of Tillman's death were lies.

  16. David, you are absolutely right. I work at a newspaper and with big news events (Va. Tech shootings, most recently), there are many subsequent stories about "what happened" after the initial report. In the course of these stories and further reporting, errors in the original story are corrected. A minor news story with errors *might* get corrected if someone calls in to rectify an error and the paper runs a clear. Otherwise the error stands.

    Lies are different, of course, because they are purposely introduced. But they do always appear in wartime, or any time when a government, or any power source, wants to convince those with no access to the unvarnished truth to do this or that, support this or that.

  17. I should add that ignorance can definitely be bliss, if that about which one is ignorant couldn't be changed, even if known.

    Knowledge about evil can be quite useful, but it's a heavy burden to bear.

    America has several "happy news" outlets.

    Even at USA Today, if it bleeds, it leads.

  18. When was the last time someone in a position of power or privilege came out with their hands up and admitted they had told a fib - voluntarily? Or for that matter, that they were just plain wrong about something.

    We need to know the truth. If it hurts to hear it, so be it.

  19. "Wars and lies go together like marmite and toast."

    That's a keeper, Susan. Into my notebook it goes.

  20. Neil: The Bush Administration has on a number of occasions, most notably in the case of the famous "16 words" ("The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.") Shortly after the State of the Union, the White House announced that the 16 words had not been properly vetted and should not have been included in the speech.

    This is particularly shocking since the statement is true.

  21. Oro:

    For instance, roughly 25% of Americans think that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

    That's nothing. Fully 75% of we Canadians think the Earth revolves around them.

  22. Dickens noted similarly, I recall, in Martin Chuzzlewit. (truth vs the noble lie -- no contest)

  23. You all ought to read this, which makes a strong case that the mythologized Jessica Lynch was a creation of Old Media, not the Pentagon, and that the current recriminations are a smoke screen to conceal that.

    Moreover, given Greenwald's rather dicey grip on reality, citing him as an authority does your cause damage. Just consider this quote from what Greenwald claims is the "seminal article"

    Several officials cautioned that the precise sequence of events was still being determined, and further information would emerge as Lynch is debriefed. Reports thus far are based on battlefield intelligence, they say, which comes from monitored communications and from Iraqi sources in Nasiriyah whose reliability has yet to be assessed. Pentagon officials said they had heard "rumors" of Lynch's heroics but had had no confirmation.

    Note that the Pentagon is the one throwing cold water on the story, not boosting it. Read through the article and you won't find a single exaggerated claim sourced to the Pentagon. And this constitutes Greenwald's best and only cited evidence! Gosh, you guys are gullible.

    And this gets back to Brit's point, which is that it's not a problem to be skeptical of government statements, it's a problem to be so uncritically accepting of anti-government ones.

    P.S. Ali, this one's for you.

  24. Um, just to say, the 'Susan's Husband' above ain't *my* husband.

  25. Another Susan's husband, obvieusement. Mine can't be bothered with blogs -- he's too busy doing Sudoku.

  26. I'm beginning to get confused. Who am I again?