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Is Lying Getting Tougher?

(Last week, On Violence discussed its “Most Thought Provoking Event of the First Six Months of 2011”, the event that probably isn’t the most important, but intrigues us the most. For this half year, that is the investigative reporting on Greg Mortenson by Steve Kroft and Jon Krakauer.

To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

We didn’t post this post last week--because we needed to put the finishing touches on it--and I’m glad we didn’t. News just broke that another post-9/11 war memoirist lied. Read about it here.

So, along with Mortenson and Luttrell & Robinson, there are at least three memoirs in the tiny post-9/11 war niche have been exposed as lies. It begs the question: is lying getting tougher?

I think so, even though I don’t like exceptionalism. Except for changes in technology, it’s hard to prove that the current era is any different than previous eras. Is our culture today cruder or more prudish than the culture in the fifties? The twenties? The 10th century? Are we more or less moral? No one really knows.

The most classic example, for me, is violence. Many people--but not long time On Violence readers--believe the world is more violent today than it was in the past. We’re not. Or take this New York Times Magazine profile on Newt Gingrich’s writing. In it, the former House Speaker states that America is at a precipice. Except Gingrich has written that America is on a precipice, and we’ve been standing on it for the last 28 years.

Arguing that it is harder to lie today constitutes a bit of current-moment exceptionalism, but in this case, I buy it. Looking at my least favorite medium, the memoir, it is way harder to lie in a memoir these days. At least, it is harder to get away with it. And we can thank technology for that.

First, research is just too damn easy. To prove it, I’ll compare the Three Cups of Tea fiasco to the debunked slave memoirs in the 19th century I mentioned last week.

Imagine you’re a pro-slavery Southerner in the 1836. Abolitionist memoirs by “Archy Moore” and “James Williams” take the North by storm. But you’re suspicious. They don’t seem authentic. What do you do?


But mail takes weeks to get anywhere. Trains aren’t even popular yet, certainly not in the South. The telegraph only gets invented that year. In short, absolutely everything takes much longer to disprove.

Flash forward to today. Steve Kroft Skype-chatted a Pakistani man from literally the other side of the planet to verify Mortenson’s story. It almost doesn’t seem fair. In short, and yes it is cliched, information is at our finger tips.

Second, it is so much easier to get the word out.

So, you’re still a pro-slavery Southerner and let’s say, as was the case, you disproved an anti-slavery memoir. What now? Basically, you write newspaper articles about it, because that’s the only form of mass communication available. (The modern widely circulated newspaper began in 1833.) But what if you live on a remote farm? Chances are you’ll never read the debunking (assuming you had access to the book anyway...)

Today, we have TV, radio and print. Most importantly, we have the Internet, which provides a permanent, unarguable record of debunking. Any curious reader can Google a questionable assertion. And in the era of Wikipedia, Snopes, Politifact, etc, the lifetime of a lie is much shorter.

(Which isn’t to say everyone looks for it. Just last year I found comments on websites about A Million Little Pieces by multiple people who thought the book was a memoir. Check out some brilliant comment threads here.)

I’m not arguing that memoirists don’t lie. Clearly they do, and probably at the same rate as they ever have. I just think we have more tools now to keep the liars from getting away with it.

four comments

While problems with Lone Survivor have been robustly outlined here, is the level of scrutiny comparable to Three Cups of Tea?

In today’s domestic politics, a critique of Lone Survivor of the kind that aired on 60 Minutes isn’t politically palable. Strongly suspect that if any of the technical inconistencies in Lone Survivor were the subject of a similar expose as Krakauer pursued, it would be portrayed as politically partisan and villified as an attack on Luttrell/the military. Those criticizing the book would be attacked. Luttrell &/or his co-author were savvy in constructing his story in a way that it would become embedded deeply in right-wing domestic politics.

@ MEK – You’re totally right. We want to get that message out there, but we’re afraid about the backlash from the entertainment industry.

I’ll just say this, before the movie is released, the Luttrell story will get the same amount of attention.

Gen. Powell had some good advice on this. He was telling a story about how during President Obama’s inauguration, he was having a conversation with Elie Wiesel. He looked up, and saw that he was on the ‘jumbotron’ talking with Elie. He thought nothing of it, and continued his conversation.

Later, someone sent him a link to that same video of them on the jumbotron, with subtitles along the bottom. Someone had lipread the conversation and attached the words to the video.

Nothing bad was said, but if it were, it would have been revealed. Even if you try to stay anonymous (Gen. Powell doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter account) the world will find you.

His advice for life in the 21st, century: Don’t mess up.

That’s rough advice about General Powell.

As for Lone Survivor, I think it also benefits from having no other eye witnesses. The old cliche from lawyers goes, “One witness you have a conviction, two witnesses you have a mistrial.”

Basically, no one can call really dispute what Luttrell said unless he changed his story.