Thursday, September 07, 2006

Truth is Hard; Lies are Much Too Easy

I haven’t weighed in on the controversy over the ABC 9/11 film because I don’t have any new information – I can only repeat what is widely available at Eschaton, DailyKos, Firedoglake, and elsewhere. But the attitudes and obvious bias of ABC/Disney in this affair compels me to speak about this, wearing my historian’s hat.

I hate it when people lie about history.

I’m a professional historian. I have specialized training, a title, a paycheck, membership in various professional organizations and a few publications to my name. Because of this, I feel a strong personal and professional responsibility to historical truth. Now, “truth,” when talking about history, is complicated. We might all agree on certain facts – Custer and his men were wiped out at Little Bighorn – but what do those facts signify? And even getting the empirical facts straight can be tricky – did Richard III have the two princes in the Tower killed or not?

But some pieces of empirical information are easier to pin down than others. By their own admission, the film ABC/Disney plans to show contains improvised and “composite” scenes - read “fiction” – even though they are claiming the film is based on the 9/11 Commission Report. They are presenting this as “true,” as the real thing, when they openly admit that not all of it is. And the fictionalized parts are not trivial – some of them clearly depict the Clinton Administration as making a deliberate choice not to kill or capture bin Ladin when they had easy opportunities to do so. That’s a very serious charge, and needs serious evidence to back it up.

The truth is that we know that the people behind the film have Republican ties, and we must conclude that the anti-Clinton stance is deliberate, and deliberately timed. Oliver Stone’s film, JFK, bothered me because it perpetuated a version of history that is not supported in any way by the evidence. As Americans are not deeply historically-minded, I was concerned that his film would convince many people of a set of “facts” that were without basis. But I also believe that Stone genuinely believes that Kennedy was, or probably was, killed as the result of a conspiracy. If I recall correctly, the scenes in which the conspiracy was portrayed were presented as speculation, not unvarnished fact. I’d give him a low grade if he turned that film in as a term paper, but I probably wouldn’t flunk him. Bad historical analysis is not necessarily dishonest historical analysis.

ABD/Disney and the producers of the 9/11 film are up to something else. Even if you argue that the “facts are in dispute,” the principals are all alive and available for rebuttal. Stone couldn’t ask Jack Ruby for his perspective, but ABC/Disney is presenting a “j’accuse” against the Clinton Administration without any evidence to back them up and without any acknowledgement that the officials involved have vigorously disputed the claims the film makes. As I write this ABC is backpedaling, claiming the film is “unfinished.” (Funny – it wasn’t “unfinished” enough to prevent sending it to Rush Limbaugh.) Let us hope that their revisions lead to a more honest portrayal, one that at least recognizes that the version of events in the first draft have been hotly disputed by the players involved. We can not go back and change time itself, but we can rewrite history to make it something utterly alien to any honest version of the truth. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen this time.

1 comment:

Lyndon said...

I'm trying to avoid rewriting history at the moment, while trying to learn as much as I can about a murder that took place in 1851. I am accessing information that would rightly be kept from the jury; the previous criminal records of the accused. I'm also learning about their lives after the trial. I'm conscious that such information can prejudice my thinking. so I hope to learn from historians how to handle this sort of information. I wan't sure whether I wanted to learn from historians or criminologists, but from what you've written, I sense that historians have a lot to offer me in this area. Would you agree?