The great masses of the people … will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.
—Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
This is a book about lies, not truth. When someone lies, he or she corrupts the Truth. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if it’s done for the right reasons, such as sparing someone’s feelings or achieving a higher moral purpose, although it’s sometimes tricky making the call. For instance, in John Ford’s 1962 Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, a reporter is asked to bury a story because printing it would damage the reputation of a hero, and America needs its heroes. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This line, written by Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah, has been frequently quoted to justify political “spin.”
But what if a lie is told for the wrong reason? As political activist Noam Chomsky has pointed out, “The right to lie in the service of power is guarded with considerable vigor and passion.” The question then becomes, Whose power? Is it for “good” or “evil”? Who decides? Now define your terms.
Philosophers (and sometimes juries) make a distinction between conscious and unconscious lying. Conscious lying is sometimes obvious, frequently immoral, and—when it is used to defraud—usually illegal. Unconscious lying can be determined only in hindsight—that is, after the Truth becomes known—and it is seldom punishable, although it may be embarrassing (“Golly, I didn’t know that was a toupee!”). It is also what makes this book possible, because it is unconscious lying that gives rise to rumor, myth, urban legend, and folklore—in other words, that uniquely human recreation known as gossip.
What Are These?
Throughout this book you’ll see items called “reality checks.” They will point out lapses of logic, corrections of fact, additional comments on nearby topics, or just stories that seemed like a good idea at the time.
Gossip is the lie that contains its own disclaimer; nobody really accepts it, but everybody wants it to be true. People couch their skepticism by saying, “I don’t believe this, but …”or “Someone just told me that …” It’s like saying, “This joke is offensive, but it’s so funny I’m gonna tell it anyway.”
When journalists print gossip, they tag it with the word reportedly, as in “The XYZ company reportedly admitted that one of its products is faulty.” Check it out. The dictionary defines reportedly as “according to a report.” In other words, reportedly is the journalistic equivalent of “Trust me.”
Word History: Gossip
The word gossip is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words God and sib, referring to a close friend or protector, such as a godfather or godmother. Gradually it was familiarized to gossip. By Elizabethan times, gossip had lost its religious significance, thereafter referring to someone who was known to enjoy a good time.
“Trust” is conditional. We trust facts but believe rumors. Maybe it’s because facts are provable, but rumors come to us through someone we … er … trust. Before the invention of writing, human culture was transmitted by oral tradition. The veracity of the information depended entirely upon the credibility of the person imparting it. If Ugg the Caveman was known to exaggerate how many wildebeests he slew during the hunt, why should the tribe believe his account of a strange, flickering red-orange substance that lit up the cave and hurt when you put your hand in it? But if Gronk, who was never off on his wildebeest count, said he saw something called “fire,” everybody believed him. Thereby did Gronk become the king, while Ugg went on to start the National Enquirer. A modern corollary is, If space aliens are so smart, how come they always show themselves to the people who are least likely to be believed?
The answer is that human beings are, by nature, curious. We are drawn to (1) money, (2) sex, (3) shiny objects, and (4) juicy stories, and if number 4 contains some combination of the other three, so much the better. What separates us from the beasts is that we are supposed to be able to tell what’s true from what’s false, or at least what’s right from what’s wrong, and, what’s more, to care which is which.
In the end, it comes down to morality, and morality is usually a function of Faith. Not necessarily religious faith, but Faith as in assurance. How many times have you heard the wisecrack, “My mind is already made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts”? Although, in some cases, Faith can include fact, it doesn’t have to. As many a creative writer has said, “Never let the facts get in the way of the Truth.” What is important—and what this book is about, underneath all the stories—is why we so often embrace lies as if they were the Truth. How can normally intelligent human beings be seduced into being abnormally unintelligent? Is there something deep inside that allows our innate curiosity to be deflected into the comfort of fantasy? Is it like yin and yang? Like Satan and God? Matter and Antimatter? Holmes and Moriarty? Captain Kirk and his Evil Twin?
Lies can be seductive. As a test, read this paragraph straight through:
During the 1990s, the national crime rate fell, yet that same period saw an exponential increase in the construction of prisons and the birth of a movement to fill them using the “three strikes” and “truth-in-sentencing” laws. Does society actually need criminals so much that politicians pass laws making more things illegal, and police justify themselves by going out to catch the offenders? Is there a connection between tougher laws, more prisons, and campaign contributions by the prison guards’ union? Most Americans believe that the government’s war on drugs is warranted by the prevalence of controlled substances in our society. Yet a growing number of people believe that the government purposely controls certain substances in order to get people to approve laws that will incarcerate nonviolent drug users, oppress minorities, seize people’s assets, undermine the Fourth Amendment (search and seizure), engage in domestic spying, and—oh, yes—help the tobacco companies who, as everybody knows, long ago trademarked all the popular names for marijuana so that, when pot is eventually legalized, they can control the market.
Danger, Will Robinson! Danger, Will Robinson!!
What makes human beings trust one another? Perhaps it's the simple need to bond with someone, as when tourists who would never pay attention to each other in the States become fast friends when they meet in a foreign land. Baby ducks follow the first thing they see once they come out of their shells; scientists have even trained newborn Rhesus monkeys to think of a warm washcloth as their mother. People who speak with their palms upturned inspire trust, as do those who, in conversation, constantly repeat the name of the person they're talking to. On the other hand, people distrust those who have three names (such as Lee Harvey Oswald, Mark David Chapman) or two first names (most AM radio disc jockeys). Oh, and never trust anybody who says, “Trust me.”
Whoa! Take a breath. Did anything in that paragraph sound like a lie? If, for even one moment, you believed any part of it to be true, then you are beginning to understand the power of myth on the human psyche. (By the way, depending on whom you ask, part of it actually is true.)
On a less paranoid level, remember when you were a kid and you heard that if you swallow aspirin with a bottle of Coca-Cola, you become intoxicated? Or if you smoked baked banana skins, you’d get high? Or that Joan Crawford once made a porno movie called Ballin’ the Jack?
None of the above is true. At least, not per se. All you get if you chug aspirin and Coca-Cola is stomach gas. Smoking baked banana skins, if anything, gives you a headache. And if Mommie Dearest ever made a “groin grind” film (as Variety used to call them), you’d think a copy woulda turned up over the last 70 years—unless they’re being hoarded by the guys in the black helicopters, of course. And yet how many times have we heard those stories, or repeated them because the person who told them to us swore they were true? Or because they sounded as if they could be? Or because we felt important knowing something that our friends didn’t?
So this book doesn’t presume to explore Truth. Leave that to the philosophers. The examples that follow captured the popular imagination of their time. Not everybody in here is a crook, and not every story is a crime, but they are fascinating examples of society’s frailty, and the need that people have to believe.
The ever quotable Oscar Wilde said, “The aim of the liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilized society.” In Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, the Blue Fairy warned, “A lie grows until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.” Finally, Mark Twain put the cork in the bottle when he wrote, “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”