All of us have been confronted with the tall tale of “the big fish that got away.” Our usual response is, “How big did you say he was?” The teller of the tale stretches out his arms as far as they can go. “C’mon, nothing in this lake is that big,” retorts the questioner. The storyteller grudgingly admits, “Well, now that you mention it, maybe it was about this big,” as his outstretched arms shrink to a more believable length. We can all laugh, because we have all been there, perhaps on both sides of the story. But to take the thought a step further, the questioner is assuming that the teller of the tale actually went fishing.
Yes, a lot of leeway with measurements is offered when it comes to fishing. The yarns and tales of the “almost” are part and parcel of “falling for it hook, line and sinker.” But such distortions of fact need to be left at the dock, and never be allowed to enter the greater world of transmitting truth to new and eager minds.
Recently, a Pulitzer Prize winner named Joseph J. Ellis was called into question regarding the tall tales he spun while teaching a course on Vietnam at Mount Holyoke College, where he is the Ford Foundation professor of history. His story is a painful one, but it needs retelling. It reminds each of us, be we parents, teachers, ministers or writers, who project knowledge and understanding to an eager audience, that we must get the story right the first time.
Simply put, unlike the comical scenario of the “shrinking fish,” we may not be given another opportunity to get the size of the story right. Mixing history with lies can mess up people’s minds. This story is about telling the truth the first time around.
It’s a lesson brought out through two pieces that appeared in The Los Angeles Times on June 22, 2001. One was an article titled, “For Historian’s Students, a Hard Lesson on Lying” by Times staff writers Lynn Smith and Tim Rutten. The other was an op-ed piece penned by John Balzar titled, “A Lie of the Mind,” that appeared in the Opinion section. How important is telling the truth? Let’s find out.
“Then he was unmasked”
Joseph E. Ellis is not just anybody. He is a “somebody.” As Smith and Rutten point out, Ellis was a popular professor at Mount Holyoke College who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in history for his book Founding Brothers . As Balzar brings out in his piece, Ellis, who also won the National Book Award for his earlier book American Sphinx , was a pathfinder among a contrary group of historians. With the skills of a scholar, the compression ability of a journalist, the story telling power of an entertainer, he broadened our vision by returning our attention “to the greatest generation of political talent in American history. He reminded us of the noble calling of democracy.”
Seemingly, Ellis had the ability and the credentials to refocus history to the very basics of reasonable interpretation of major historical patterns rather than be swept aside by the current fascinations over minute details of secondary movements or the personal intrigues of historical characters.
As Balzar puts it, “then he was unmasked.” He broke a basic premise set forth by the Roman philosopher Cicero: “The first law of a historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth.” This was done in a class that Ellis was teaching on the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
As Smith and Rutten point out, “Ellis set his own trap through an interview published last fall in The Boston Globe. ” In an interview related to the promotion of his book, Founding Brothers, the professor mentioned that he had been a civil rights worker in Mississippi in 1964, a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and a platoon leader in Vietnam in 1965, as well as an anti-war activist later on. He also had commonly told these tales in his classroom lectures, adding stories of his personal exploits in Vietnam.
There was only one problem, and a big one at that. He never served in Vietnam. The Globe’s widespread reading audience began to place a finer focus on Ellis’ prior activities than ever before. Some of the readership began putting two and two together. There is truth to the old adage, “You may fool all of the people some of the time. You can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
It came to light that Ellis’ on-the-ground Vietnam exploits never occurred. They were false. His actual service during this tumultuous time in U.S. history was spent teaching history at a U.S military academy. Cicero is not alone in offering maxims to ponder. Ellis had offered his own maxim once when stating “the teaching side of my life and the writing side of my life are part of the same collective whole.” Ellis himself had suggested the measurements by which he would be judged.
“The older a man gets, the faster he ran as a boy”
To say the least this has set off a firestorm in the world of academia. Initially, the administrators of Holyoke implied that the fiction regarding his own life did not diminish his scholarship. But Balzar, the columnist, weighs in, “No! It diminishes all scholarship. If the historian himself is a man of deception as well as achievement, what are we to think of his subjects?” Ellis’ sad example throws grains of salt on what he sought to illuminate-the exceptional character of those who by luck and wisdom and timing altered the course of events.
Balzar goes on to say, “Perhaps we’re wiser for this reminder that humans are, well, human. But, it’s a short step from there to cynicism. Ellis’ double standard for the truth, depreciates truth itself. If students can’t believe in their professors, why believe in anyone? If book buyers cannot trust the endorsement of the Pulitzer Prize, why trust anything? It’s just plain jarring-creepy-when a man who seeks to reconcile us with the purpose of our past, cannot square himself with his own life history.”
Robinson, The Globe reporter who had written about Ellis’ exploits, said, “Students who had held Ellis in high esteem were deeply shaken and his deception to The Globe seemed insignificant in comparison.”
Since these revelations were made known, Ellis has officially apologized in a written statement: “Even in the best of lives, mistakes are made.” He is no longer teaching the course on Vietnam. But the jury is still out! Some fellow historians, academicians and Vietnam veterans refuse to let him off the hook.
Others are willing to let it lapse, like his editor, Ashbel Green of Knopf Publishing, who gave Ellis a pass by stating, “We intend to keep publishing him, as a new book is under discussion, and it is safely in the 18th century. I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t exaggerated his past in some fashion, not perhaps as much as he did. It seems to be a part of human nature that ‘the older a man gets, the faster he ran as a boy.’”
But again, this editor leaves out a vital thought regarding the older man. Did he ever run as a boy?
Why is sticking with the facts, and “nothing but the truth,” so essential today, be it at home, in the church or at school? Perhaps reporters Rutten and Smith’s interview with author Jim Sleeper, who teaches at Yale, puts it all in earnest perspective to today’s needs for truth. “More than mere conveyors of facts, college professors are mentors teaching students how to behave in the real world. Today’s students have come of age in an era of relativism. They watch President Clinton grow more popular after his own public deceptions and learn history through fictional films such as Pearl Harbor and JFK . Precisely at times such as these,” he said, “students need good teachers to help them sort fact from fiction.”
What have you done to us?
Even some of the noblest characters have succumbed to the temptation to “color the truth.” Long ago and far away Abraham told “a whopper” to Abimelech, the king of Gerar. It seems that the king’s eye had fallen on Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and he thought of taking her into his harem. We find Abraham, being scared of personal harm, altering the facts by stating, “She is my sister” (Genesis 20:2 Genesis 20:2And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister: and Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.
American King James Version×). Students of the Bible will know this was a partial truth as Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister. As a matter of fact, he had this lie “down pat,” as he had used it once before in a similar situation in Egypt.
But God Himself stepped in to shape human history. He came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said, “Indeed you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” But Abimelech came back with, “Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also?” Abimelech assured God that he and Sarah had not been intimate. Nonetheless, God warned the king, “If you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” When the king came to himself, he confronted Abraham head on: “What have you done to us? How have I offended you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done.” The tables were turned, as the man who should have been the teacher had to be reminded by the student what really is important in life’s ABCs.
If the “father of the faithful” could fall prey to this mistake, shouldn’t we all be on our guard?
Perhaps Leroy Brownlow, in his book Today Is Mine , describes the ultimate futility of falsehoods under his entry for July 20 titled, “A Dressed Up Lie.” He writes, “Dressing up a lie just makes a bigger lie. The ornaments add to the wrong, and make it more attractive but more hurtful, for it’s more deceptive. Then, why do men lie? Why do they clothe falsehood with more fabrications? They blindly think perversion will do more for them than truth. It is their crafty manner of acquisition. Their cunning form of equalization. Their supposed help in time of trouble. But a lie can never be whitened by simply clothing it in white. A lie is a lie, dress it or undress it as you will.”
Let’s face it, we’ve all had our hands in the cookie jar at one time or another. “What are you doing in there?” “Oh, I lost something.” Let’s admit that all of us can learn a lesson from Ellis’ error before sharing the next story of our lives which is polished with subtle or not so subtle embellishments.
The fact stands that Ellis got caught-got stuck-and the chocolate chips melted all over him. From his example, we need to realize that even when the truth may cost us, lying is much more expensive. It can morally bankrupt us, as well as cause possible harm to others whose lives rely on us. Trust lost is trust twice as hard to regain and three times as long in the making. It makes for a long life-for you and others. The best thing about honesty is that when you tell the truth you don’t have to remember what you said. The story comes out the same every time.
Long ago in Roman times, statues would be transported over the Roman roads by carts drawn by oxen. As good as those famous roads were for their time, those statues would take more than a few bumps. In fact, often they would crack, and the fissures and holes would later be sealed with wax. Every so often, a statue would come through an arduous journey totally intact without one patch of wax. The statue was labeled as being sincere , which is Latin for “without wax.”
Words and events are like statues. Often, they have to be carried long distances over the path of time. While the Romans had to measure their steps, we have to measure our hearts to make sure there are no holes in our stories that need patching up. Rightful attention to the true facts, and nothing but the facts, the first time around, is always more effective than the most sincere apology after the fact.
Isaiah 30:20-21 Isaiah 30:20-21 20 And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity, and the water of affliction, yet shall not your teachers be removed into a corner any more, but your eyes shall see your teachers:
21 And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk you in it, when you turn to the right hand, and when you turn to the left.
American King James Version×describes a future society under the direct rule of Jesus Christ, right here on earth, which will be an incredible learning environment. The whole world is going to go back to school to learn about God and His ways. It tells us, “But your eyes shall see your teachers. Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it.’”
God is basically telling us we will be able to trust our teachers, see them for what they are and trust their teachings. But we don’t have to wait till that millennial time to read from one of their lesson plans. It’s already here and found in Proverbs 12:17-19 Proverbs 12:17-19 17 He that speaks truth shows forth righteousness: but a false witness deceit.
18 There is that speaks like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health.
19 The lip of truth shall be established for ever: but a lying tongue is but for a moment.
American King James Version×. “He who speaks truth declares righteousness, but a false witness, deceit. There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health. The truthful lip shall be established forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.”
Allow me to share a parting thought to consider, as I bring us full cycle with my opening line about the big fish that got away. So, how big was that fish? Only you can answer that, but there is one thing I can tell you for sure-there is none of that other kind of fishin’ allowed in this school. WNP