In Tom Stoppard’s brilliant new play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Max, a Marxist academic, explains to his lunch guests that “newspapers are part of the system and truth is relative to that single fact.” His former student, a recently jailed Czech dissident, replies, “The propaganda paper and the capitalist press arrive at the same relation to the truth…. Because ‘all systems are blood brothers’…. Giving new meanings to words is how systems lie to themselves, beginning with the word for themselves–socialism, democracy…. An invasion becomes fraternal assistance.” Whether Stoppard had the US media and the invasion of Iraq in mind I cannot say, as he did not grant my interview request. But almost any honest appraisal of the mores of the US media will find a consistent pattern of deference to the official version of events, regardless of what the available evidence explains.
As often as not, the effect may be entirely unconscious. Take, for instance, the relatively innocuous example of two recent obituaries. When Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets died November 1, the New York Times repeated Tibbets’s contention that “It would have been morally wrong if we’d have had [the atomic bomb] and not used it and let a million more people die.” That virtually no reputable historian would put the casualty figure for a US invasion of Japan anywhere near that high (leaving aside the question of whether an invasion would have been necessary) was not mentioned in the story. Similarly, the obituary recounted the furor over the 1995 Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian–in which veterans’ groups pressured the museum into censoring the exhibition’s relatively fair-minded historical presentation of Harry Truman’s decision to drop the bomb on two civilian cities–but failed even to refer to the fact that the veracity of the Smithsonian’s original presentation was never seriously questioned by historians. Indeed, the decision to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki is presented as so uncontroversial that we read Tibbets’s admission that “I wanted to kill the bastards,” followed later by his claim that “I viewed my mission as one to save lives,” as if no inconsistency is apparent between these two sentiments.
On the same day, another obituary–this one for the one-time Soviet spy Aleksandr Feklisov, who played a trivial role in the Cuban missile crisis–paid tribute to yet another carefully constructed official myth: that of John Kennedy’s refusal to trade US missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy made exactly this trade but kept it secret, pretending that all he had done was promise not to invade Cuba. “Some sources believe that a deal for the Russians to remove their missiles from Cuba in return for an American promise not to invade was suggested in one of their conversations,” writes the Times‘s Douglas Martin of Feklisov and his American interlocutor, John Scali. Of course that story was a lie, but it lives on in Times obituaries. (The consequences of said lie were the topic of my doctoral dissertation and subsequent book, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.)
Though official lies will always be with us, our political life has recently been poisoned by an even more insidious phenomenon: the “unrebuttable lie.” Stoppard shines his spotlight on this type of lie when, in Rock ‘n’ Roll, a young philosophy professor complains of the journalistic irresponsibility underlying an exposé of the life of early Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett (one that was actually a 1988 “News of the World” story). Here, the young man notes, is a lie that is impossible to rebut because, “To anyone who knows, it’s an overheated nonsense, apparently written for people with arrested development, and mindlessly cruel…. But the oddest thing [is that] the cruelty and dishonesty are completely unmotivated, it’s just a…kind of style.”
In Maureen Dowd’s bizarre October 31 New York Times column, she lies about Hillary Clinton: “Her husband’s sexual behavior, quite apart from the private pain that it has caused her, has also sullied her deepest–and most womanly–ideals and convictions, for the Clintons’ political partnership has demanded that she defend actions she knows to be indefensible.”
In fact, Dowd’s lie is at least partially rebuttable. Senator Clinton has never defended her husband’s sexual behavior. Dowd is simply making that up. More interesting are her claims regarding what the senator “knows to be indefensible.” How the hell does Maureen Dowd know what Hillary is thinking or how and why she values her marriage? All marriages are mysterious to those outside them, but Dowd–who has never been married and has no children–gives chutzpah a bad name with her unrebuttable lies about Hillary’s thoughts and feelings as a wife and mother.
But believe it or not, Dowd is only warming up. Quoting the antifeminist Atlantic Monthly essayist Caitlin Flanagan, she piles on, “Ms. Flanagan…was particularly bothered by Hillary’s callousness in dumping Socks, the beloved White House cat and best-selling author, on Bill’s former secretary Betty Currie.”
No, the above is not an Onion-inspired Maureen Dowd parody. It is, in fact, a literal catfight in which an allegedly serious New York Times columnist quotes an allegedly serious Atlantic Monthly writer who complains of the way a presidential candidate treats her daughter’s cat. It’s almost beside the point that, at least according to Sidney Blumenthal, this story is also a lie. To cruelly mix my animal metaphors, to attempt to rebut this crazy cat tale is by definition to lie down with pigs.
But curiously, as Stoppard observed of Barrett’s tormentors, cruel and dishonest as they may be, these lies remain merely a “kind of style.” In Stoppard’s magnificent play, the catty columnist in question is justly beaten over the head with her newspaper by her prospective daughter-in-law. If only American democracy were more like Rock ‘n’ Roll…