Thursday, July 05, 2012

Is the Truth Important?

In this column, Mark Steyn lists at least four events in Barack Obama's Dreams from my Father that are apparently flat-out lies. Steyn got his info from David Maraniss's new book. The lies are:
1. "His Kenyan grandfather was not brutally tortured or even non-brutally detained by his British colonial masters."
2. "The best friend at school portrayed in Obama’s autobiography as 'a symbol of young blackness' was, in fact, half Japanese, and not a close friend."
3. "The white girlfriend he took to an off-Broadway play that prompted an angry post-show exchange about race never saw the play, dated Obama in an entirely different time zone, and had no such world-historically significant conversation with him."
4. "His Indonesian step-grandfather supposedly killed by Dutch soldiers during his people’s valiant struggle against colonialism met his actual demise when he 'fell off a chair at his home while trying to hang drapes.'"

Maraniss, Steyn reminds us, "is no right-winger, and can’t understand why boorish non-literary types have seized on his book as evidence that the president of the United States is a Grade A phony. 'It is a legitimate question about where the line is in memoir,' he told Soledad O’Brien on CNN."

Uh, no it isn't. The line is clear and bright: don't lie. When I write a personal recollection, I try to tell the truth. It is possible to misremember certain things like the time of day or year and maybe you can't remember precisely all the words someone uttered during a conversation, but you know you're close enough to use quotes. (Even this can be doubtful.) Your interpretation of events might vary from another's who is part of the narrative, but you don't tell me he was black when in fact he was Japanese, and you don't tell me that the conversation took place when in fact it didn't. These are big things that you don't forget. If someone convinces you that you are incorrect about one of the lesser things, you still go back and do the right thing: fix it.

Maybe this doesn't matter anymore. I don't watch or read enough MSM to know if it's been adequately reported. I would tend to doubt it. Maybe the defense about lying in your memoirs is akin to the one for lying about sex: the fact that I lied about the facts in my factual book (or had sex or something resembling it with a woman not my wife) has no bearing upon my qualifications for office. Besides, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," and neither did I tell lies in my book. It all depends on what the meaning of the word 'is', is, and we can't know what it means to "lie" in a memoir until we know where the line is drawn.

Maybe it's not important. The liar hired a plagiarist for Vice-President. Nothing seems to hurt these guys' upward mobility. Crime pays.


TS said...

Thank you! So true. I can't believe we're giving memoirists this sudden carte blanche to lie. Author Mary Karr is appalled by it too (I linked to her today).

William Luse said...

I saw the link. I'll check her out in spite of her affinity for vulgar language.

William Luse said...

Okay, I read it (mostly, skimmed some). Things I don't like:
1. she has a frequently foul mouth.
2. she's "not the Pope's favorite Catholic."
3. she never answers the question: why did you become Catholic?
Things I like:
1. There's something delightfully vulnerable behind the bravado, a very feminine quality
2. she's honest about what women want from love (and men should listen)
3. she tries to practice her religion, whatever her conception of it is. God is real (she feels "guided"), and unashamedly admits her love of prayer
4. she's absolutely right and completely intolerant of dishonesty (lying) in a writer
5. She was raped (which I don't like, of course) but it inclines me to cut her some slack on those other things.
6. She's cute (which is irrelevant, but I like it anyway.)

Beth Impson said...

This "oh, where is the line" angst has become fashionably elite. Of course, *the* primary difference between fiction and non-fiction is the absolute identity and reliability of the narrator -- the narrator actually being the author in the latter case, but not considered to be so in the former. The pretense that something can still be memoir and be made up (i.e., lies) comes from the attitude that factual truth doesn't matter as long as the "truth" about the subject matter comes across. So Rigoberta Manchu can lie about her entire childhood and family, but so what? She was telling the "truth" about life in wherever it was in South America (sorry, not invested enough to look it up); so university women can put up random pictures of their male colleagues under the headline "these men are rapists" whether they even know who the men are, but so what? They are telling the "truth" that all men *could* be rapists.

It's a disgusting, vile thing, to lie under the guise of truth. I find that I can't even write simply and confidently that we owned a certain clock (which I stopped at night because the ticking kept me awake) because my mom insists we never had such a clock -- she has to be wrong, the memory is too vivid for me to have made it up, but if I ever bring it up I always find that I must allow that my mother disagrees about its existence . . . There are so many, many ways, too, to write about "iffy" memories, such as conversations, that don't destroy the flow or literary quality - "he said something to the effect of" or "as I recall" or "he would often say" and so on. There's simply no need to lie even about the little things.

I hate that the genres I love the most -- memoir and the familiar essay -- are having their credibility destroyed by liars who put political correctness before truth.

William Luse said...

Ideology is the only truth now, Beth. The particularities (which is where we all live) get crushed by the generalities.

TS said...

I concur whole-heartedly with what you say on Karr.

Perhaps lowering expectations helps me. At this stage of the decline of Western civilization, an artist who even admits to being Catholic seems something of a marvel.

William Luse said...

At this stage of the decline of Western civilization, an artist who even admits to being Catholic seems something of a marvel.