Almost a half century ago I worked briefly for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and occasionally we exchanged information with the CIA. On a visit to the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, I was struck by the biblical quote etched into the wall of its main lobby: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Regardless of what one thinks of the DIA and CIA (and other intelligence agencies like the NSA), intelligence researchers working for these agencies did and do have some respect for the truth.
This is more than one can say for some right-wing organizations like Fox News. In recent years, this indifference to truth has been most evidenced in regard to global warming and climate change. Since I dealt with this subject in an earlier essay, only a few more words about it are necessary here. Just this month four different heads of the EPA under Republican presidents wrote in The New York Times: “There is no longer any credible scientific debate about the basic facts: our world continues to warm, with the last decade the hottest in modern records, and the deep ocean warming faster than the earth’s atmosphere. Sea level is rising. Arctic Sea ice is melting years faster than projected.” Despite such words, many conservatives continue to deny man-made global warming. According to one source, there are 135 climate-change deniers in Congress.
This lack of respect for truth has also been evident for decades in regard to evolution. In the infamous Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925, a Tennessee biology teacher was found guilty of teaching evolution rather than the Biblical account of creation. Almost a century later, many Americans continued to think contrary to what most scientists maintained regarding evolution. According to the 2009 Pew poll, while 87 percent of U. S. scientists maintain “that humans and other living things have evolved over time and that evolution is the result of natural processes such as natural selection,” only “32 percent of the U. S. public accepts this as true.”
Al Gore’s 2007 book, Assault on Reason, bemoaned the lack of respect for facts, reason, and truth that he thought was becoming more prevalent. He perhaps overstated the contrast when he stated, “For all of America’s shortcomings in the past, we did usually strive to honour truth and reason,” but the “Bush administration has resorted to the language and politics of fear in order to short-circuit debate and drive the public agenda without regard to the evidence, the facts, or the public interest.” Yet, the trend he spotted toward less respect for the truth and reason has been born out by other evidence.
The most egregious recent example of some right-wing organizations’ truth-trampling is their praise for newspaper columnist Diana West’s revised version of McCarthyism in American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Character. Two recent essays on the History News Network make clear just how untruthful this book is.
The first essay, by Ronald Radosh, is especially welcome because he is a conservative who reminds us that some conservatives still respect truth. Although I disagree with some of his points and he has his biases, whom among us, right or left, does not? Radosh tells us he changed his mind about reviewing West’s book “after seeing the reckless endorsements of its unhinged theories by a number of conservative individuals and organizations. These included the Heritage Foundation which has hosted her for book promotions at a lunchtime speech and a dinner; Breitbart.com which is serializing America Betrayed; PJ Media which has already run three favorable features on West; Amity Shlaes, who writes unnervingly that West’s book, ‘masterfully reminds us what history is for: to suggest action for the present’; and by conservative political scientist and [Fox News] media commentator Monica Crowley, who called West’s book ‘A monumental achievement.’ West has evidently seduced conservatives.”
But as Radosh makes clear, not all conservatives, not him. He sums up American Betrayal as follows: “During the New Deal the United States was an occupied power, its government controlled by Kremlin agents who had infiltrated the Roosevelt administration and subverted it. Like McCarthy, whom West believes got everything correct, she believes a conspiracy was at work that effectively enabled the Soviets to be the sole victors in World War II and shape American policies in the postwar world.” His review is primarily a rebuttal of five claims she makes that he calls” groundless, and worse.” In his refutation of her claims he cites excellent historical works such as Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956, World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis, and the West, and The Cold War: A New History.
West, however, is unaware of some of the best scholarly books related to her subject or, as Radosh also indicates, ignores their findings when they don’t fit in with her outlandish conspiracy theory.
The second HNN review of her book is by Jeffrey Herf, a professor of modern European and German history. Although shorter than Radosh’s critique, it is no less damming: “West’s claims not only fly in the face of the work of historians of Soviet espionage, they also display striking ignorance of the findings of many historians of World War II, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and the Cold War in Europe.”
Right-wing praise of her book and its popularity reminds me of a similar phenomenon concerning Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly’s two co-authored books Killing Lincolnand Killing Kennedy. Since I have read neither book, I will only note about them that they were both extremely popular and that in a week-long HNN poll, in which many professional historians participated, Killing Lincoln was listed among the top five “least credible” history books.
O’Reilly attributes some of the criticism by professional historians to jealousy. One source quotes him as saying, “These guys toil in obscurity their whole lives, and a punk like me comes along and sells 2 million copies. They're not happy.”
At the risk of seeming like one of those jealous “guys,” let me suggest some reasons why the untrue and “least credible,” whether regarding global warming, evolution, or books dealing with history or politics often have the popularity they do, especially in right-wing circles.
- Anti-Intellectualism. See, e.g., Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a 1964 Pulitzer Prize winner. In the United States, a land of hard-working, self-made men and women according to the American myth, there has long been a certain degree of contempt for “effete intellectuals” and “eggheads.” Hofstadter believed it played a role in the popularity of McCarthyism and the defeats of Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections.
- A false sense of democracy. According to a certain mindset, “everyone has a right to his own opinion” (which is true) and “one opinion is as good as another” (which is false).
- Both of the above points are related to minimizing the knowledge of experts, whether they are climate scientists or history professors. This trend has become increasingly prevalent in our Internet Age. People rely less on the judgments of scholars or professional art or literary critics and more on popularity ratings, sales, and mass media lists. In the United States by the end of the twentieth century, many more people, especially members of her book club, bought books based on the recommendations of talk-show host Oprah Winfrey than on those of any literary critic—within two weeks of her recommending Tolstoy’s nineteenth-century novel Anna Karenina (in the early twenty-first century), it shot up to the top of New York Times bestseller list.
- By proliferating sources of information, the Internet has made it possible for us to read, hear, and see only what we want. If we, consciously or unconsciously, are looking to reinforce our biases rather than seek the truth, it has become more possible than ever.
- Our culture and the appeal of provocateurs. Bob Keeshan, TVs Captain Kangaroo, once said that in the USA “television is not a tool for nurturing. It is a tool for selling.” And in our media saturated culture where one event (e.g., a killing, a hurricane, a royal baby being born, the latest Anthony Weiner scandal) quickly replaces another and emails and text messages bombard our easily distracted minds, provocateurs like Bill O’Reilly have more appeal to many people than “boring” truth tellers. Al Gore has been one of our most important truth tellers regarding perhaps the most significant contemporary global problem, global warming, but many Americans find him boring and would rather listen to Mr. O’Reilly. Provocation and sensationalism sell. They have helped make Fox News the most popular news channel, and it in turn has helped O’Reilly sell his books and land TV rights deals (e.g., with the National Geographic Channel, which is partially owned by the same Rupert Murdoch parent company as Fox News.) In his The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr claims that at present our former “calm, focused, undistracted . . . linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs . . . information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.” But the old linear mindset was more suited for patient truth-seeking; the new mindset for sensationalism.
In one of President Obama’s finest speeches he quoted former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who once said, “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” We might add that just because everyone has a right to his/her own opinion, it does not follow that one opinion is as good as another. Informed opinions, based on facts, are better than uninformed ones based on biases. Professional opinions, whether of climate scientists, professional historians, doctors, lawyers, or other experts, when relating to their fields of expertise, are better than the less informed opinions of amateurs.
Right-wing adherents are not alone in their truth-trampling. Those on the left can also be guilty. Putting ideology, any ideology, higher than truth is always dangerous. But in the United States, during the twenty-first century, the most frequent antonyms for “truth-seeker” would be those on the political right such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh, many of the Fox News people, the NRA’s Wayne La Pierre, most global-warming deniers, and now Diana West. If HNN conducts a new poll for the “least credible” recent history books, her American Betrayal will almost certainly be nominated.
Walter G. Moss
Wednesday, 14 August 2013