Patricia Smith, fired from her job as a columnist at The Boston Globe after repeatedly writing about imaginary people and faking interviews, defended herself by saying that in her heart she felt her stories were true.
When leftist heroine and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu was found to have falsified much of her book on oppression in her native Guatemala, neither she nor her defenders seemed fazed. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that "Faculty members ... say it doesn't matter if the facts in the book are wrong, because they believe Ms. Menchu's story speaks to a greater truth about the oppression of poor people in Central America." If it's for a good cause and won her a Nobel, who cares if she made it up?
This cynical attitude is strong these days on campus, where postmodern theory erodes basic truthfulness by holding that facts and truth don't really exist. In effect, this allows lying activists to think that they really aren't lying. "We are all engaged in writing a kind of propaganda," two University of Pennsylvania instructors wrote in the Journal of Social History. "Rather than believe in the absolute truth of what we are writing, we must believe in the moral or political positions we are taking with it." (Feelings and political stances count. Facts and truth don't.)
The American Enterprise magazine had this to say: "It is almost impossible to overstate how deeply this kind of thinking has seeped into left-wing intellectual life over the last generation, starting from strongholds on college campuses and then trickling down into other corners of society."
Society has its own truth troubles: docudramas; Oliver Stone; a constant supply of lying but successful politicians, presidents included; a torrent of Internet information, much of it probably untrue, that people feel they must pay attention to anyway.
One sign of the times is that some writers feel free to mix fact and fiction, and wink while doing so, as if tweaking the assumption of basic honesty on its way out the door. The June issue of Esquire contained a profile of rock star Michael Stipe that was largely untrue. Nothing sneaky here -- the magazine referred readers to a Web site that separated fact from fiction. The writer, Tom Junod, said: "I want people to question the enterprise of celebrity journalism, and that's what we've done."
This is unusually lame. If you don't believe in celebrity profiles, don't write them. More likely Junod and Esquire were just exploiting an idea that's clearly in the air now: that fact and fiction are routinely mixed these days, and readers are less sure which is which. All the more reason to take the stream of fibs from a nationally known historian like Joseph Ellis very seriously.