Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Dishonest Truth

We all know how to mislead without telling a lie; we simply are selective about what truths we mention.

All history books, even when accurate, are similarly selective. Popular conceptions of history are even more so. Here is an example. Do the names Hanson, Boudinot, Mifflin, Lee, Gorham, St. Clair, and Griffin ring a bell? If they do, you belong to fewer than 5% of Americans or to a vanishing percentage of anyone else. Many average-length general histories of the USA don’t mention any of these men at all.

So, who the hell are these guys? They are the first 7 presidents of the United States. For reasons that are unclear to me, most Americans simply choose to forget that our current Constitution, drafted in 1787 and in force with modifications since 1789 (the year Washington took office), is our second constitution. The first one, The Articles of Confederation, was adopted in 1781. Presidents under it served 1-year terms. The first one, John Hanson, was responsible for adopting a number of enduring symbols, including the Great Seal of the United States and, yes, the Presidential Seal still in use.

We see a similar selectivity in contemporary news – and not just political news. The trial of Casey Anthony, accused of killing her daughter, is currently a major news story in Florida, for example. Roughly 200 kids are killed by their mothers in this country every year. Why does this particular case (and perhaps one or two others) get relentless media coverage while nearly all the rest are just statistics? I don’t really have an answer.

There is something in this akin to the old Boss Tweed, dictum, "It doesn't matter who votes - it matters who counts the votes." Who picks what is newsworthy matters more than who reports it or how. Selective news reporting always has been and remains the rule. (Analysts at MSNBC and Fox correctly accuse each other of it all the time.) At bottom, there is no way around this. We can’t possibly record or report everything, and so we rely on our own subjective judgments about what facts are important.

This necessary selectivity stirs up extreme conspiracy theorists (themselves notoriously selective), of course, since they see that information they deem important has been left out of official or mainstream accounts. Birthers and 9/11 Truthers accordingly scoff at each other while defending their own views by insisting, “Ah, but you didn’t mention or explain this detail.” And we probably didn’t. We didn’t think it mattered. In fact, going back again to the 18th century, why do we so seldom hear that 1776, in addition to being the year of the American Revolution, also was the year of the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the publication of Gibbon’s first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the founding by Adam Weishaupt of the subversive secret society The Illuminati in Bavaria? Have those in power conspired to downplay the coincidence so that we would miss it? I kid you not that some people think so – and think The Illuminati achieved power and are still at work pulling strings.

Are the conspiracy theorists crazy? Maybe, but their beliefs, right or wrong, don’t necessarily prove it. These people simply select and dismiss evidence eccentrically. They are useful, if for no other reason, because they force us to question how wisely we make our own selections.

By the way, if you Illuminati folks really are running things behind the curtain, you’re doing a lousy job.


  1. I find it very funny when folks complain about the selective press these days, as if it was a new concept. That's been going on since BC, along with the illuminati. ;)

  2. You don't think Caesar's Commentaries on Gaul were objective?