Some People Say That Truth Is Dead. Shouldn’t We Decide If We Ever Agreed on What it Was?
Part 1: You Can Have Your Own Facts and Your Own Truth. Just Ask Oliver Stone
In the last decade there has been a huge amount of debate among the talking heads and pundits if we live in a ‘post-truth’ era. This particular phrase is one that the media loves to say anytime anyone from the GOP makes a statement that they can easily contradict.
Sometime in the past year I heard a talking head on CNN use a particular phrase to sum up what they feel about so much of the conservative media and politicians: “You can have your own truth. You can not have your own facts.”
That’s a pithy phrase. I can hear it being uttered by Allison Janney to the White House Press Corps or Jeff Daniels to his audience. Because it has the aura of being deep and irrefutable but like so much of Aaron Sorkin idealistic dialogue — and indeed, so many soundbites, fictional or real — it does not hold up under any kind of scrutiny.
It argues that since the beginning of time there has been a giant musty tome somewhere with the title ‘Facts’ that anyone could turn to at any given moment and there would always be universal agreement that this has been a fact and always would be until those hoity-toity conservatives didn’t agree with the book and wrote their own or started banning the book. And the thing is, that’s simply not true.
Indeed anyone who has even a rudimentary understanding of science knows that its not true: what we thought of was the truth about the planets or the makeup of life or how old the universe is has always been in flux. So many people argue about how no one can ever refute science when breakthroughs in science have almost always depended on science being refuted.
I think before we declare that the era of truth is well truly over, we have to have a discussion about truth and facts. Not a philosophical one — I would be ludicrously unqualified to do so — but one that deals with the reality that we have always lived in. So in this occasional series I’m going to point out that many of our concepts of what are facts and truth are have frequently been in flux and so often rely on perception more than subjective reality. And I think the best place to begin this series is with an event cable news and historians will be lavishing a great deal of attention to in the next month, mainly because it is the prime example of proving that no matter what the facts are, some people will insist on their own truth despite them.
Ever since JFK was assassinated in 1963, the myth of Camelot was built. In my first series on history I made it very clear that Americans of a certain age have spent their entire adult lives convinced of the grandeur of the Kennedy family and JFK in particularly. I don’t deny the fundamental nature of the tragedy of his death (though as we shall see that has led to its own mythology) but it has fundamentally warped everything Americans have thought and said about John F. Kennedy ever since.
I don’t even need to repeat the stories: we ‘know’ them by heart. He was a young, charismatic President whose speeches inspired millions and asked the best of America. He was the propelling force of the 1960s and we’ve never had a President like him since. He was a dynamic leader who helped America enter the New Frontier on civil rights and fighting Communism. He and the people around him were by far the best and the brightest. He spoke with empathy and power that no President has done since. And his untimely death doomed America to involvement in the unending conflict of Vietnam.
All of these statements are not merely opinions but have been proven false with each coming year. JFK was a millionaire elitist who constantly had affairs to the point that he flaunted national security. His family had ties to organized crime which very well may have helped Kennedy win both the Democratic nomination and the Presidency in 1960; their money definitely gave them a level of organization no candidate could hope to match. His efforts on civil rights were always half-hearted and only began to be forced when it became too much of a political liability — LBJ did far more for it in his first year than Kennedy did his entire term. His wealth did far more shelter him from the average citizen then it did to enlighten him. And in his entire administration he not only did nothing to get troops out of Vietnam, he was leaning towards accelerating the war.
But the more ‘facts’ we learn about JFK, the more his defenders and those who lived through that era seem determine that they are irrelevant and will try to twist them to fit their own narrative. Kennedy used his influence to steal the election from Nixon? It wouldn’t have a difference in the count and besides Nixon deserved to lose anyway. He was never strong on civil rights legislation? He said the right things and did work behind the scenes. Even the fact that Kennedy was a frequent user of the CIA to attempt to have Castro assassinated has done nothing to undermine the idea that he was working to have the CIA underfunded and undermined.
No one has been a bigger abuser of these facts about JFK than Oliver Stone. In 1991, he made what was essentially a 3 hour plus polemic in which the investigation into Kennedy’s assassination somehow did everything but look into his enemies. Kennedy could have done a lot in his personal life to make enemies but Stone insists that JFK was a martyr and saint. Foremost is, of course, the theory that Kennedy was killed by powerful interests because he was planning to get America out of Vietnam — a conspiracy theory so flagrantly detached from reality that Stone did a disservice to America by making it the center of his movie. And of course at the climax of the film Jim Garrison takes the report of the Warren Commission — ‘the facts of the case’ — and contorts them to say that science itself is not logical. He admits the single bullet theory can be proven by theoretical physics and then in the next line, argues that science has nothing to do with the truth. Even as vaunted a critic as Roger Ebert said that the truth of Stone’s film didn’t matter; he loved it because it agreed with ‘what he felt about the assassination.’ That’s fine for film criticism but for history and truth, it’s dangerous territory and its one of the few things Ebert ever said that I am completely in disagreement with him about.
Now in more than thirty years there is still no evidence to refute one word of the Warren Commission’s report. In fact, there has been even more evidence to prove Oswald was the sole assassin and that there was no conspiracy. None of this has done one thing to alter Stone’s ’truth’. Indeed, in both his ‘Untold History of The United States’ in 2012 and ‘JFK Through The Looking Glass’ which was released two years ago. Stone is more convinced in his truth and is more determined to contort the facts to fit them. His Untold History is a travesty that practically reads like a talking point for every leftist argument that every President in the 20th century has made America an empire. However, Stone deliberately leaves out his sainted JFK. He has no new evidence, then or now, to support his claims: nothing more than a few noted theories that honestly look like the ravings of the tinfoil hat brigade. But he claims they are facts because they support his version of events.
And Stone does not act in a vacuum. For more than sixty years there has been a healthy contingent of Americans convinced in their heart of hearts that JFK was killed because he was going to change things and the government thought he was dangerous. You can argue the facts with them as much as you want; you can say that there is no evidence to tell them otherwise. But you won’t convince them because to them, this is their truth and the facts won’t change that.
Now I realize that this last bit may make people believe I have lost the thread by focusing on conspiracy theories but I haven’t entirely. JFK’s legacy is almost entirely wrapped up in his untimely death. By any standard his Presidency deserves to be considered, at best, above average and even much of that has to do with rhetoric more than accomplishments. Yet JFK routinely makes the list of the top ten Presidents in American history. The most recent ranking has him at number 9, which is ridiculously high for a President who didn’t finish his term. Kennedy is ranked not for what he did but because of what he meant and his potential which is a grade that applies to no other President but him. Historians of all people are supposed to make their judgments based on the record and facts but he gets more credit for ‘public persuasion’ rather than his accomplishments. Kennedy in the minds of millions is not a great President because of his Presidential record, but because of how he makes them feel. The facts have nothing to do with their truth.