Downside UP

A Voice of Contemporary Political Economy Volume IV, Issue 10: December, 2004
Ronald G. Woodbury

History, Politics, and the Art of Lying

The following editorial was published in the St. Augustine Record on Thanksgiving day, Thursday, November 25, 2004 (p.10A) - RGW

Here's one version of Thanksgiving to ponder

History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Because historians "weren't there," they rely on often sketchy accounts of actual events with which to write history. It is open to interpretation and as vulnerable to "spin" as any political issue.

We'd like to share one such "history" of Thanksgiving.

The pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620 had a tough first year. They were forced to carve out basic shelter and plant their crops, rushing against a deadline set by winter.

The efforts were fully communal. The colonists built structures to house the many. They planted common fields for a collective harvest. There were those who worked hard and those who labored sparingly. This caused resentments and bickering among the group.

The results were disastrous. Poor crops and a ruthless winter took its toll on the pilgrims. That first winter fully half the company perished.

In the spring of 1621 Gov. William Bradford assessed the dire situation. He made a decision. This time around, he took the few seeds and other supplies left and rationed them out to each family. It would be the responsibility of each to grow their crops and build their houses and make do for themselves.

When survival and comfort was placed squarely on the individual, things began to change. That fall the harvest was abundant. Something was born in the New World. Certainly fair weather, ample rains and a group of 90 savvy Wampanoag Indians conspired to help out. But the pilgrims took care of their own, and then held out their hand to friends and neighbors when needed.

So when the pilgrims and natives together shared a bounty of corn, turkeys, geese, ducks, cod, bass, barley, venison and cornbread, that first Thanksgiving day, it was a celebration of the individual as much as the harvest.

America has never looked back.

The country was built on self-reliance, self-determination and the belief that each man and (eventually) woman has the responsibility to lift themselves to the level of achievement they determine. That's the tough part. But the genius of the American experience and the real gift of our heritage is this. That along with the responsibility we placed upon ourselves, America granted itself the inalienable rights with which to pursue the goals and dreams unfettered by anything but our own weaknesses or sloth.

This is the one-two punch that remains the promise of America.

We have many things to be thankful for today, but all flow from that fountain of responsibility and rights. It is a blessing, and one that we should consider on this special day of thanks.

In many ways we are all still pilgrims and the winter of our Republic may yet lie ahead.

In response and restrained by a 400 word limit, I submitted the following letter to the editor, and have been notified that it will be published soon, hopefully unedited. -- RGW:

Another side of Thanksgiving

Thank you for your intriguing November 25 editorial, “Here’s one version of Thanksgiving to ponder.” I found reasonable much of your basic theme about American individualism and productivity and did not even take too much offense at the idea that history is “as vulnerable to ‘spin’ as any political issue.”

Unfortunately, equating historical interpretation with political “spin” appears in this case a cover for distorting our past. In my 35 year career as a professional historian, I delighted in challenging students with diverse interpretations of the same events. I emphasized the place of values and assumptions in molding how we understand the world. I often noted how different facts are emphasized in different historical interpretations.

But I always insisted on a fair use of facts, including an honest recognition of facts which supported alternative interpretations. This philosophy, I fear, did not guide your editorial.

I have William Bradford’s far from “sketchy” journal in my lap as I write. Since the Pilgrims did not land at Plymouth Rock until December 21, 1620, the poor harvest of that year can hardly be blamed on communal labor. In fact, the first Thanksgiving, in 1621, was a product of communal labor. It was not until 1623 that Bradford, searching for a way to “raise as much corne as they could,… gave way that they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler.”

My quarrel is not with the idea that individual responsibility promotes greater productivity, nor that this is, as you say, a central part of our heritage. Rather, it is with your notion that the rest of the “one-two punch” is the “inalienable rights” to pursue “unfettered” goals and dreams.

Your second punch is but an extensions of the first. The real second pillar (punch) of our heritage is, as you mention but otherwise ignore, what the Pilgrims recognized as their responsibility to have “held out their hand to friends and neighbors when needed.” Bradford reluctantly gave up communal labor but did not give up his Christian commitment to those who failed to prosper in an “unfettered” world.

By ignoring half our heritage, your argument becomes an apology for a society like ours which has forsaken social responsibility, even equal opportunity. It is for this we may indeed be facing “the winter of our Republic.”


Bill Clinton is excoriated for drawing too fine a line between smoking marijuana and inhaling. He is impeached for the same kind of hair-splitting shave of the truth regarding his sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. The right-wing press goes on and on about his alleged cheating on his golf score.

Ronald Reagan breaks the law; lies about guns for hostages, the Contras, and Iraq; 50,000 Nicaraguans die; and it is just poor Ronnie forgetting a few things.

George Bush raises lying to crude political tactic and his spokespeople refine it in case any voters are actually paying attention. His programs for “Clear Skies,” “Healthy Forests,” “No Child Left Behind,” and most of all, tax “reform,” become a catalogue of deliberate distortions artfully constructed to hide the real Republican agenda because the American people would never vote for it if they knew what it was. During the 2000 election campaign, Bush plays “compassionate conservative” and supports the Kyoto Treaty against global warming but immediately reverses himself after being elected. During the 2004 campaign, he studiously refuses to commit himself about Social Security during his reelection campaign and denounces John Kerry for accusing him of planning to privatize it. Within a week of election, Bush announces that “reforming” – and privatizing – Social Security is his highest priority. When some object, he claims that he openly talked about it throughout the campaign.

Then there is the dying. When Bill Clinton lied, he only embarrassed himself and his family. When George Bush lies, ten thousand Americans are killed or wounded (so far), and likely as many as 100,000 Iraqis die. But “Iraqis are better off without Saddam Hussein.” And Bush’s minions go right on lying even after the truth is recognized by all, even admitted by some of his own. Saddam was an ally of Bin Laden. He was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was a hotbed of international terrorists about to strike against the United States.

Colin Powell was not the only one to sacrifice his integrity. R. Glenn Hubbard, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (who maybe didn’t have any integrity anyway), lumps Medicare with Social Security to argue with a straight face that Social Security, without privatization, cannot be saved from bankruptcy. History itself is turned on its head. The prosperity of the 1990’s are the result of Reagan’s tax cuts. Government social programs hurt the middle class and stand in the way of “free trade” and “free enterprise” which has alone made the country great. Tax cuts for the rich stimulate the economy and “raise all boats.” Wealth “trickles down” to the middle class and the poor. Raising taxes on the top one per cent (with incomes over $300,000 a year) would “hurt a lot of small businesses” (a Cheney favorite – I’ll bet a lot of small business people would be shocked to learn they earned over $300,000). Our country must return to the days (before Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930’s or further back) when an “ownership society” rewarded hard work with well-deserved wealth.

So be it that facts, statistics, and history deny what the Right asserts, They will simply tell another lie, distort another truth, and undermine the whole concept of truth. It has long troubled me how incapable I have been of understanding how so many people could believe so much that was so patently untrue. Finally, it was listening to some of my tennis buddies that opened my ears to at least part of an answer. Presented with unpleasant but real facts contrary to their beliefs, they talk about how “statistics lie” or “statistics can be used to say anything you want.” Or “all politicians lie.” Then here, in the St. Augustine Record’s Thanksgiving editorial, one finds all history turned into nothing but “spin.” Where no facts are any more verifiable than any others and all are distorted, truth dissolves. They are all the same. It is all opinion. What I assert blindly is as good a truth as anyone’s. Not even fair consideration and alternative perspectives merit ink in this reporting of the world.

Finally, there is no truth because there is no difference between truth and lie. My world has gone Orwellian.(1)

1. An interesting side note is the role which the academic left has played in the process of degrading and destroying the Enlightenment notion of truth and fairness. In the 1960’s, many young social scientists came to the conclusion that the pure “objectivity” asserted by social scientists of an earlier generation, could not hold up in the face of the reality of different, valid – and controversial – interpretations of social and historical phenomena. I am making essentially this argument in response to the Record editorial: we have to understand and accept different interpretations of events seen through different sets of values and assumptions, but there exists nonetheless a core of facts which everyone should accept. Since then, however, so-called “post-modernists” (post-Enlightenment, post-industrial(!)) thinkers have expounded the idea that through “deconstruction” of events, all perception is revealed as culturally determined. Indeed, out on the fringes, what almost everyone else would call “facts” are not facts. While biologists are demonstrating more and more evidence of the chemical and biological basis of human behavior, some academics in the humanities and social sciences are claiming that even something like male and female as most of society identifies them, is culturally determined – and I am not referring to gender uncertainties, homosexuality, or transsexuals

I have no idea how much the argument in some of the halls of academia has influenced the agenda of right-wing “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. I have, in my own teaching not so long ago, seen how the post-modernist position can, in the undeveloped minds of college students, easily become exactly what I have found among the right wing politicians and advisers around George Bush. Those college students, clueless about the Enlightenment and badly molded by a few faculty influenced by post-modernism, can become a receptive audience for the Right. To claim that “it’s all opinion” is certainly a lot easier than hard thinking about difficult questions. I can only hope that the post-modernists influence remains on the fringes.

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Ronald Woodbury is the publisher, editor, and general flunkey for all of Downside Up. While publication benefits from the editorial advice of one of his daughters and occasional other pre-publication readers, they will, for their own privacy and sanity, remain anonymous. The web spinner's name is also best left anonymous.

Woodbury has a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in history and economics from Amherst College and Columbia University. In addition to many professional articles, he has published a column, also called Downside Up, in the Lacey, WA, Leader. After a 36 year career as a teacher and administrator at six different colleges and universities, he retired with his wife to St. Augustine, FL, where he continues to be active in church and community. He has two daughters, one a physician and one an anthropologist, and six grandchildren.