In Truth

A History of Lies from Ancient Rome to Modern America

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Not sure why I put this book on my get-via-Interlibrary Loan list, but the good folks at the University Near Here procured it from UPenn. I found it to be a vaguely irritating treatment of an important subject. The subtitle claims its sweep is vast. I thought it was more like half-vast, if you catch my drift. For one thing, it only goes back as far as Ancient Rome? What about the first lie? (Genesis 4:9, Cain to God: "Nope, haven't seen Abel lately. When did it become my job to keep track of him, Mr. Omniscience?")

And you know a lot of historical figures famous for powerlust, murder, greed, sexual appetites and perversions, etc.? Well, it turns out they weren't always completely honest either. Shocker, I know.

The author, Matthew Fraser, tells a history of dishonesty starting with the Caesars (Julius, Augustus, Nero, …). He moves smartly along to early Christianity, Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, Savonarola, Martin Luther, Henry VIII, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon III, Bismarck. the Spanish-American War, Ida Tarbell, the World Wars, the Cold War, and (eventually and finally) Donald J. Trump. At a number of places the "Truth" theme gets pretty tangential; what Fraser presents is pretty much plain old historical story-telling, with perhaps a greater emphasis on sex and violence than dishonesty. The history of journalism is also mixed in; its relationship to facts, reality, and respectability is troubled and mixed.

You know when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door? Yeah, that probably didn't actually happen. As a very poor Lutheran, I'm ashamed to say I didn't know that.

Fraser's coverage of the modern era focuses on Trump; he really despises Trump. ('m no fan myself, but really…) The book was published in early 2020, which means it misses a lot of recent stuff involving Biden, the 2020 election, Covid, … His analysis of the 2016 election is spun as a victory for the "post-truth" era; he neatly avoids mentioning an important factor: Trump's opponent. Hillary doesn't even rate an index entry of her own, but anyone who was paying attention knows that she had her own honesty problems. Overall, the adjectives that kept coming to my mind when reading the last couple chapters were "simplistic", "repetitive", "unoriginal", "clichéd", etc.

The book is marred by sloppiness. I caught a few minor typos. On page 134, Oliver Cromwell's death is pegged as (both) 1558 and 1658 in the same paragraph. On page 194, the quote "A lie can get halfway round the world while the truth is still getting its shoes on" is attributed to Mark Twain; almost certainly untrue. (Ironic, that.) On page 290, a paragraph about James Bond identifies the evildoing SPECTRE as a "Russian spy agency"; even a glance at the relevant Wikipedia page could have told the author that it was a fictional criminal organization unaffilated with any country or ideology.

I'm a casual reader; when I notice such blunders, it's a safe bet there are more.

And there's just plain old bias. For example (page 311), describing Fox News as "right-wing" while MSNBC merely offers "a more left-leaning perspective". Fraser is scathing on Heidegger's Nazi affinities; Hannah Arendt is dinged for her apologies for that sordid record. But Fraser's heroine for "truth" is Ida Tarbell, crusader against Rockefeller and Standard Oil; her moon-eyed praise of Mussolini goes unmentioned.

Fraser's lionization of Ida Tarbell brings up another problem with "truth"; her broadsides against Standard Oil were (at best) misguided, especially her criticism of Standard's alleged "predatory pricing." A world of "facts", carefully selected and assembled under the guidance of narrative, is no substitute for (in this case) careful and skeptical economic analysis. I don't think this occurs to Fraser at all.

Last Modified 2024-01-14 4:30 AM EDT