Lies Which Are Better Than the Truth

The Smiths and Goodbears have a land dispute. The Goodbears own certain land that the Smiths want, and refuse to move off of it.  To force the issue, three Smith brothers break into the Goodbears house wielding knives.  They sexually assault one girl before they are chased off by the girl’s brother wielding a baseball bat.  While being driven off, one Smith brother is killed, another has his arm broken, and the third escapes with the angry Goodbear boy in pursuit.  The third Smith brother is cornered, beaten up and turned over to the police, by then also sporting a broken arm.

“Man,” he said, as the police took him into custody, “that guy was going crazy with that bat. You should lock him up too.”

This incident is later reported in a history book in the following manner. “In the land dispute between the Smiths and Goodbears, there were assaults and injuries on both sides. Contrary to the way the story has been told in the past, both sides, not just the Goodbears, exhibited ‘uncivilized’ behaviour.”

If you are an Aboriginal person, you are probably familiar with this kind of ‘balanced’ reporting by historians, which is not balanced at all.  Admittedly, it is fairer than the kind of reporting which preceded it, the kind that turned a genocidal gloryhound like James Armstrong Custer into a folk hero, celebrated in Hollywood movies like “They Died With Their Boots On.”  But Custer was most notable for making war against civilian populations, attacking Aboriginal encampments while the people slept.  Cavalry generals quoted slogans like “Nits become lice” in defense of Custer’s strategy of killing children as well as women and the elderly in his early morning raids.

Another example of old time history telling is exemplified in the painting, “The Death of Captain Cook.”  The painting depicts Captain Cook on shore, surrounded by agitated Hawaiians, signaling to some of his men in boats just offshore to hold back, to desist from attacking the natives.  The image is of the quintessentially civilized European protecting the Hawaiians from attack and bringing on his own death because of it.

In fact Cook had started out that day attempting to kidnap the Hawaiian king, and that is why he was standing on that beach and why the natives around him were agitated.  It was an attempted act of political terrorism which didn’t turn out as well as similar acts Cook had carried out earlier in his travels.  Yet he still might have lived if he hadn’t discharged his pistol upon one of the angry Hawaiians, thus prompting at last their fatal attack upon him and his men.  The Cook who stood upon that beach in Hawaii was not noble nor was he a hero, whatever else you might say about a remarkable man and a remarkable life.  And the lie told is against the Hawaiians who are forever vilified in history for merely resisting a criminal act by a dangerous and ill-intentioned foreigner.

History is filled with such lies, many of which have yet to be untold.

The historian of my fictional feud between the Goodbears and the Smiths at least did not pretend that the Smith brothers were heroes.  But that doesn’t mean the reporting was balanced, either.  The Smiths died or were injured while engaging in criminal acts.  The death and the injuries they sustained were brought on by themselves, and the Goodbear who fought them off was defending his family and his home.

Since the legitimate point of view of the Goodbears is not made clear in the telling, the impression that the reader takes away with him from my fictional historian is fundamentally a lie.  It is a lie because it pretends to be balanced, and it is not.  It is a lie which is not only a lie, but a hypocritical lie, the kind of lie which pretends to be better than the truth.

And no, telling history in that way “without taking sides” is not good enough.  Custer was a war criminal.  Cook was killed while committing a crime.  These characterizations are judgements based on the idea that acts committed in self-defense are not equal to the same acts committed by criminal assailants.  It matters who is in the wrong in a given situation.

This is “taking sides,” I suppose.

It is also telling the truth.

~ by fathertheo on July 29, 2008.

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