At the end of John Ford’s classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the editor of the local paper decides not to print the truth about who really killed the murderous Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Legends now become facts in America at almost lightning speed. Often when lies are asserted as truth, they become frozen in time. Even the most damning later exposure of their falsity never quite erases their currency. As Jonathan Swift sighed, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”
After the recent shooting tragedy at the Washington Navy Yard, cable news shows, newspaper reports, and talking heads immediately blasted lax gun laws. The killer, Aaron Alexis, had mowed down 20 innocent people — twelve of them fatally — with yet again the satanic AR-15 semi-automatic “assault” rifle. The mass murdering was supposedly more proof of the lethal pathologies of the National Rifle Association and the evil shooter crowd that prevents good people from enacting proper gun-control laws. Once more an iconic tragedy had the chance — in a way that even the near-simultaneous shooting of 13 in Chicago did not — to energize the nation to do the right thing and ensure that no other such mayhem would follow.
Then the assault weapon vanished into fantasy. Instead, over the course of the week, it was slowly learned that the unhinged Alexis had somehow passed at least two background checks, legally bought a shotgun, modified it, and for 30 minutes shot and reloaded it to slaughter the innocent. Are we to outlaw the owning of shotguns despite background checks and lawful purchases? Vice President Joe Biden, remember, had recently urged Americans to obtain old-fashioned, all-American shotguns for protection rather than dangerous semi-automatic assault rifles. If a shotgun could be used to commit mass murder in the middle of a military installation, how could any gun-control law, short of the confiscation of all guns, ensure that such heinous crimes could not be repeated?
Few seem interested in other, less politically correct, less melodramatic solutions. It was reported that Alexis had been treated for severe bouts of mental illness, yet apparently without endangering his security clearances. Like the deranged Sandy Hook mass murderer, Adam Lanza, Alexis was also pathologically addicted to playing violent video games for hours on end. Further controversy arose over the fact that most military personnel are not allowed to carry weapons at facilities like the Navy Yard.
Unfortunately, few of our elites dared to question the mental-health industry’s approach to treating the unstable, especially its resistance to properly monitoring whether those being treated as outpatients are taking their medications. Few faulted the entertainment industry for the savage genre of the modern video game. Should we also blame the incompetence of the agencies that conducted the background checks? Was the Pentagon to blame for not allowing military personnel and contractors to carry weapons while on their own federal military facilities?
After all, none of those considerations served the larger progressive purpose of restricting gun use and ownership. More likely, these other disturbing truths threatened liberal assumptions about First Amendment rights and freedom of expression. If the white extremist Timothy McVeigh, the iconic anti-government terrorist, long ago showed us how generic right-wing extremism could lead to atrocities such as the Oklahoma bombing, then the African-American, pro-Obama, Buddhist, Thai-speaking Aaron Alexis, who murdered without an AR-15, was hardly useful as an indictment of much of anything deemed Neanderthal.
All this is old hat. We still do not know exactly what happened that night of the tragic fatal confrontation between Travyon Martin and George Zimmerman. But we at least do know that most of the fables initially peddled by the media were demonstrably false — but even now not remembered as demonstrably false. George Zimmerman was not a bigoted “white Hispanic” who used racist language in his 911 call as he deliberately hunted down a black suspect. And he really did suffer visibly bleeding head wounds from a hard blow of some sort from Trayvon Martin. The latter was not a diminutive model student or the vulnerable pre-teen pictured in most media photos. Even photoshopping and doctoring tapes could not create a teachable moment out of such chaos.
No matter; such a moment was created anyway. Without any statistical support, our moral censors still wished to traffic in narratives of white racist vigilantes hunting down innocent African-American male teens. That narrative served as a reminder of why we have a civil-rights movement of the sort championed by the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who fiddle while thousands of minority youths are gunned down each year in our inner cities. In other words, as far as the Zimmerman trial went, the human story of tragedy, misjudgment, accident, reaction, and overreaction simply did not serve the larger liberal effort to address perceived issues of social justice. Tragedy was better served by melodrama, and both Zimmerman and Martin became cutout caricatures rather than tragic individuals.
The same may be unfortunately true of the infamous Matthew Shepard case. The savagely murdered gay youth was probably not, as we were told for years, the victim of the rage of Wyoming redneck homophobes, energized in their hatred by the sexual prejudices of an intolerant culture. The truth was more complicated, though Shepard’s fate just as tragic.
A 13-year-long investigation by a gay writer, who reexamined the Shepard case with the intention of writing a screenplay, instead suggests that it might be more likely that Shepard was cruelly tortured and beaten into a coma by methamphetamine-crazed psychotics, who may on prior occasions have shared their drug use with Shepard and intended to rob him. For all their crude macho talk, the two evil perpetrators may have been bisexual themselves. Shepard’s own homosexuality, in other words, seems to have been incidental to, not the cause of, his lamentable death. If Shepard’s sad fate must be an icon of anything, it more likely serves as a warning that the vicious meth cartels in rural America are out of control, and the addicted can ensnare and murder anyone, including naïve college students. Again, no matter — what was false has served noble purposes in a way that what was true will not.
Many of the progressive tales that Americans grew up with in the 20th century have also been proven either noble lies or half-truths. The American Left has canonized the narrative that anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were framed, subjected to a show trial, and then executed as a result of widespread American prejudice, xenophobia, and reactionary fear-mongering. Their executions sparked worldwide protests, novels, and plays reacting to the intolerance of a morally suspect America. Yet decades later, most historians, while they concede that the trials of 1921 did not match jurisprudence of a near-century later — nevertheless also quietly accept that the two were indeed anarchist terrorists, and at least one was probably guilty of armed robbery and murder, and the other of being an accessory after the fact. Bigots do not always arrive at bigoted verdicts.
Liberal culture likewise assumed that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on false charges of spying for the Soviet Union and that at least one of them had not really passed on secrets about the American atomic-bomb project. The two accused became causes célèbres as thousands worldwide rallied to save them from dangerous American know-nothings. Their messy electrocutions were supposedly likewise symptomatic of a paranoid America lashing out at easy victims in an era of Red-baiting, anti-Semitism, and rank McCarthyism.
The truth was in comparison banal. While we know that the Soviets would probably have gotten the H-bomb soon anyway, and that they claimed they were still our allies when they received top-secret American information, and while we know too that today the Rosenbergs would probably have received 20-year sentences, we also know from Soviet archives that they both worked as Soviet spies, who passed to our enemies information about nuclear weapons and other valuable classified projects.
There was no greater liberal icon than Alger Hiss, a smooth, debonair diplomat and foundation head, who likewise was supposedly ground up by the right-wing buzz saw with unfounded charges of spying and treason. While we are still not sure of the degree of damage that Hiss actually did, it is clear that he was at some point in his life a Soviet spy — a damning fact for an American diplomat at times entrusted with matters of the nation’s security during the early Cold War. That disturbing truth, however, was minor in comparison to the larger untruth that the Hiss case represented the dangerous excesses of reactionary America. So Hiss became a sort of progressive Great Gatsby, a fake, self-inventing himself into something grand that he was not.
In recent memory, several popular icons of revolutionary resistance have been revealed as frauds and worse. Che Guevara — locks, beard, and motorcycle — was a psychotic thug who enjoyed executing his political opponents. Bill Ayers by his own admission was “guilty as hell” of being a violent terrorist; until he had the bad luck of hawking on 9/11 his memoir of his terrorist days, he was on the road to canonization. Rigoberta Menchú was not quite a gifted author who revealed the horrors of right-wing repression in a cry-of-the-heart memoir of resistance. More likely, she fabricated stories in service to her perceived higher calling of exposing brutal reactionary class violence against the poor.
Popular icon Mumia Abu-Jamal was not framed for a crime he did not commit because of endemic institutionalized racism, but rather really did shoot and kill a Philadelphia police officer. All the progressive protests in the world cannot alter that fact. Angela Davis was not quite a sincere advocate of those unduly incarcerated. While a jury found that the guns she supplied a number of San Francisco murderers did not constitute her own culpability for the attack on the Marin County courthouse, she was nonetheless an unrepentant Stalinist. Of those who suffered in the Communist archipelago, she once scoffed, “They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison.”
In more recent days, from Tawana Brawley to the Duke lacrosse team, the theme remains disturbingly the same: The original progressive untruth proves far stronger than subsequent pedestrian correction. The point was not that the Duke players did not rape a black stripper and commit a “hate crime,” but that they were the sort who in theory could have, and she was the sort who in theory could have been raped by virtue of her race and gender — a virtual truth that trumps a known lie.
We are left not with the truth that Aaron Alexis bought a shotgun to murder, but with the conjecture that he could have bought legally an AR-15 and therefore in some sense figuratively did — despite the later and less publicized corrections. If it takes some mythologies about Matthew Shepard to expose the plague of homophobia, why indict a noble lie to promote an ignoble truth? What difference does it make what actually happened between shooter Wesley Cook and slain officer Daniel Faulkner, when the Mumia myth serves larger agencies of social change?
Like Orwell’s dead souls, we live in an age of statist mythology, in which unpleasant facts are replaced by socially useful lies. So we print the legend that better serves our fantasies.