Lying? No, Storytelling!

“What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you today?” he’d ask.  My grandpa, puffing on his pipe.

Pleased to have his attention, and anxious to keep it, I’d rack my brain for a response.  Growing up in the suburbs in the 1950’s was pretty mundane.  Nothing of great interest ever seemed to happen to me.

So, I’d make things up.  Not lying, exactly.  Storytelling.

“I fell in the creek today,” I might tell him.  “Tried to walk across the log, but my foot slipped off .”

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“How’d you get out?” he’d ask, wisps of smoke curling around his head.

“Wasn’t deep,” I’d say.  “But don’t tell my Mum.”

“Nope,” he’d say.  “Be best not to go near the creek anymore, though.”  And he’d give me a broad wink.

On another occasion, I might tell him that my bike got stolen, but I managed to get it back.  Heroically.

“Wasn’t it locked” he’d ask.

“Yeah, the lock was across the forks of the back wheel.  But the guys who took it just picked it up and carried it.  That’s how I caught up to ‘em.”

“What did you say to them?”

“Nothin’ Grandpa.  When they heard me comin’, they dropped the bike and ran away.  I guess I scared ‘em off.”

“Sounds like,” he’d say.  “Maybe you should fasten your wheel to the bike rack from now on.  Be hard to take that.”  His blue eyes would sparkle, and I’d love that I made that happen.

He never tired of asking the same question, and I never got tired of answering.  I might have told him how I won the game for our team when I made the game-ending catch of a long fly-ball in centrefield.

“Jus’ like Willie Mays!” I’d say, omitting the fact that I had actually stumbled and fallen, slid to an ignominious stop, only to have the ball land on my stomach, where I frantically clutched it.

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“Mays is one of the greats,” he’d say.  “You caught it over your shoulder, like he did?  Wish I could have seen it.  Next time, though, try to keep the ball in front of you.  Those over-the-shoulder catches are pretty rare.”  And he’d flash me a knowing smile.

As a grandfather myself now, I know he knew I was padding the truth.  But I didn’t know back then.  I thought it was okay, because it brought us closer together.

He lived to a ripe old age, and in the last few years before he died, he was slowed considerably.  When I’d visit with him, it seemed our roles were reversed.  Now it was I asking the questions, and he searching for answers that would keep me there longer.  I always asked the old chestnut.

“So, what’s the most interesting thing that happened to you today, Grandpa?”

He no longer smoked his pipe, but he’d stroke his mouth as if still holding it, and I could almost hear the gears meshing inside his head.

“Nothing much today,” he’d say.  “But did I ever tell you about the time I saved your father from drowning?  Fell off the dock while we were fishing at the lodge up near Bala, no life-preserver.  I reached down, grabbed his collar, and hauled him straight out of the water.  Poor little guy cried like a baby.  That was pretty interesting, I’ll tell you.”

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I’d heard the story many times, of course, and my father had debunked it every time.  “The water was shallow,” he told me.  “I jumped in, and waded ashore.  And I did have a life-preserver on.  Dad loves to tell the story, though.”

Of course, I never let on that I didn’t believe what my grandpa was telling me.  I remember hearing how he met the King, back in 1939, when he and the Queen, on their tour of Canada, visited the hospital where my grandpa was recuperating from surgery.

“I had a picture of the two of us,” he’d say.  “Don’t know what ever happened to it.  Your grandma must’ve thrown it out.  But that was really interesting!”

Grandma would only smile when I asked about that picture.  “Grandpa was in the hospital in 1937,” was all she’d say.

I heard about the lawn-bowling championship he won, the skip of a Dominion championship team in 1909.  According to him, the mantel clock that still sits in my home was the prize awarded for the victory.

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“There’s no plaque on it, Grandpa,” I once told him.  “How come they didn’t put your name on it?”  The wistful look he gave me made me wish I hadn’t asked.

“Ah, they gave us all a letter,” he said.  “Signed by the prime minister, Mr. Borden.  That’s why your father’s middle name is Borden.  No idea where that letter is now.  But that’s pretty interesting, don’t you think?”

I nodded in agreement, and was circumspect enough not to mention that the prime minister in 1909 was Wilfrid Laurier.  My father was born in 1911, right after Robert Borden’s election.

By then, my grandpa’s eyes no longer sparkled as in days of yore.  But he’d still wink at me while telling his stories, and smile whimsically.  Kind of like my smile now, when I listen to my own grandchildren telling me about the momentous events in their lives.

And when they ask me about the interesting things in my day, I try not to lie to them.  Elaborating is not the same as lying.

“Nothing much today,” I tell them.  “But did I ever tell you about the time I saved my brother from the big kid across the road who was beating him up?  I ended up with a bloody nose and a black eye, but that kid never picked on my brother again.  That was pretty interesting.”

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“Really, Gramps?” they marvel.  Or pretend to.

Of course, I don’t tell them the real reason my brother was safe afterwards; the kid’s family moved away.

To this day, I have a warm feeling inside when I remember my grandpa, and those conversations we used to have.  And I love the exchanges now with my grandchildren, swapping tales about our lives.

Not lying, exactly.  Storytelling.

Which is what I do.

Avoiding the Truth

How we know when politicians are lying to us, the old story goes, is that their lips are moving.  Cynical as that point of view may be, I find it increasingly difficult to believe what I hear from elected officials, be they municipal, provincial, or federal.

Mind you, it is rarely, if at all, that I actually have a face-to-face conversation with government office-holders.  My contact with them comes through newspapers and periodicals, the broadcast media (mainly television), and the innumerable digital streaming platforms that seem to be rapidly taking over the information age.

I have long been a quasi-political junkie—more queasy now than quasi, alas—‘though I have never aspired to enter the fray directly.  Perhaps, given my background as a student of history, I’ve always enjoyed seeing events unfold in real-time, even if vicariously through reading about or watching the news of the world.  My first visceral, voyeuristic exposure to that happened shortly after the Kennedy assassination, when I watched a Dallas hoodlum shoot the alleged assassin on live TV.  The blunt shock of that resonates still in my memory.

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So today, many years after that seminal event in broadcast history, I still read about, watch, and listen to the newsmakers of our present era.  But it is in the visual media that they look most real, even if sounding less than authentic.  And over time, I have come to accept everything I see and hear from them with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The main reason, I think, is that they never seem to answer the questions asked of them.  I have seen them in front of their supporters, in media scrums, at formal press briefings, even in parliamentary Question Period, deliberately avoiding a direct reply to a clearly-stated question.

If I were to be charitable, I might concede that, perhaps, they are not lying to us.  Maybe they are merely obfuscating.  Evading.  Deflecting.  Or maybe they really believe what they are telling us.  Or, most ominously, maybe they don’t know the answers.

But if I am to be honest, I think they are lying.  Deliberately.  Through their teeth.

Imagine, if you will, that you are watching a televised (or streamed) interview, conducted by a respected journalist, with me as the subject (and in order for this metaphor to work, you must also imagine that I might be a world-renowned, best-selling author worthy of the journalist’s time).  Listen to the questions the interviewer poses, listen to my answers, and determine for yourself which of my responses, if any, constitute a direct reply, or an honest one.

I’ll give you the score at the end of the interview.

Q.  Thank you for sitting down with me today. Do you consider yourself a worthy successor to the likes of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner?

A.  I appreciate the comparison. You’re very gracious in your praise.

Q.  Yes, but what about those other writers?

A.  You know, of course, that they were American, right? And I’m not.

Q.  Okay, so what is it about your writing that so captivates your audience?

A.  Writers write, and readers read. There’s a difference.

Q.  Well, sure. But how is it that you’ve captured readers’ imaginations so thoroughly?  What sets you apart?

A.  Asked and answered. Next question?

Q.  Ummm…okay, what are you working on now? Can we look forward to another blockbuster?

A.  The great thing about our capitalist system in North America is that market forces determine what’s up or what’s down.

Q.  There are rumors abounding that a Nobel Literature Prize might be in your future.  Any thoughts about that?

A.  Alfred Nobel was a great humanitarian, an example to us all.  And I really like Bob Dylan.

Q.  Alright, let’s switch gears for a moment. Have you ever experienced what the pundits call ‘writer’s block’?

A.  You know, the wonderful Italian operatic composer, Gioachino Rossini, never wrote another masterpiece after the age of thirty-seven. Isn’t that interesting?

Q.  Yes, but what does Rossini have to do with your writing process?

A.  One or the other of his operas is always playing in the background when I write.

Only one of these eight answers was straight-up honest, rather than misleading or outright untrue—the final one.  The rest were as if taken from prepared talking-points, to be used regardless of the questions asked.

That, in a nutshell, is what I find so annoying about politicians today.  With few exceptions, and but for rare occasions, they refuse to tell me the truth.

What is the truth about climate change?

What is the truth about the mid-east peace process?

What is the truth about the sub-prime mortgage scandal?

What is the truth about the nuclear arms race?

What is the truth about our planet’s impending freshwater shortage?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and nor do you, I suspect, because our elected leaders refuse us the information that would help us make informed decisions.

It seems not to matter who they are—a dreamy prime minister, a buffoon president, a thuggish dictator—none comes clean with us.

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In the burgeoning development of artificial intelligence, AI, I wonder if there is perhaps a glimmer of hope that we might someday be governed by unemotional, clear-thinking, moralistic leaders—smart machines—unimpeded by the failings of human arrogance.

But no, that would be too ridiculous to contemplate, a substitution of artificial intelligence for the limited or nefarious intelligence we deal with today.

Wouldn’t it?

Alternative Facts? Really?

The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!

So proclaimed Chicken Little on her hysterical run about the barnyard, a story I first heard as a child.  Fortunately for us all, she was wrong, and the sky stayed where it’s supposed to be, high o’erhead.

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I remember being terrified at the time, wondering if the sky actually could fall in upon us.  Later on, I imagined that the poor hen was either lying or profoundly deluded.  Now, though, I wonder if she may have merely been asserting an ‘alternative fact’—something she truly believed despite reliable evidence to the contrary.

Another childhood tale concerned the shepherd boy who cried wolf.  Perhaps bored by his lonely work, or maybe seeking attention to satisfy a needy personality, he repeatedly roused the neighbouring villagers with his false alarms.

Wolf!  Wolf!  The wolf is attacking my sheep!

The villagers, of course, rallied to his rescue each time, only to discover they had been fooled, not just once but again and again.  Predictably, when the wolf really did attack, the boy’s alarms went unheeded by his protectors, unwilling any longer to believe what they were hearing.  And the boy lost his sheep to the ravenous wolf.

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I wonder if he might have tried to explain his behaviour afterwards by claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that he had not been lying; that, indeed, the wolf really had been lurking on each occasion—an ‘alternative fact’ not apparent to the villagers, but truly believed by the boy.

It was accepted by most people, once upon a long-ago time, that lying was just that—lying.  Untrue.  False.  Not supported by rational analysis of available evidence.  And, most importantly, wrong.

Both Chicken Little and the shepherd boy appeared not to subscribe to that tenet.  But their stories are fables, intended as moral teachings—much like the likely-apocryphal story of George Washington’s declaration after cutting down a prized cherry tree: I cannot tell a lie!  There was no actual harm done to real people by either of them.

Alas, in our world today, immersed to the point of drowning in a sea of social media and instant news, we are in danger of being sorely harmed by those who would deliberately lie to us.  Or, as they might claim, present us with ‘alternative facts’.

In 1905, in his book, The Life of Reason, George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Orwell, in his 1949 opus, 1984, presented a society that not only did not remember the past, but actively sought to eliminate it through newspeak—defined by Merriam-Webster as: a language…designed to diminish the range of thought…characterized by the elimination or alteration of certain words, the substitution of one word for another…and the creation of words for political purposes.

Ah, yes—the creation of words for political purposes, and the use of those words to craft phrases and pronouncements designed to bamboozle the common folk naïve enough to trust their leaders.  Does that sound familiar?

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It is as if a strategy from the past has resurrected itself (from a psychological profile composed by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, describing Hitler’s rules of political conduct and media coverage):

…never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame…people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one… [and] will sooner or later believe it.

And if these big lies are called ‘alternative facts’, well so much the better for the tellers of tall tales, the snake-oil salespeople of our modern era.  It is as if the wolf has returned to the shepherd boy’s flock, this time disguised in sheep’s clothing.  And who among the villagers will hear the anguished cries for help, and respond before it is too late?

Après nous, le deluge!  This phrase, attributed to Madame de Pompadour, courtesan to Louis XV of France, might be interpreted as—After us, let the flood come; we don’t care what happens when we’re gone.  No one in power today utters such thoughts so baldly, of course, but their actions speak more loudly than words ever could.

Those who are left behind will certainly care what happens, however.  But sadly, it may be much too late for them to restore what they will have lost.  How does one go about putting the sky back in the…..well, in the sky?

Beware the demagogue who claims that only (s)he knows what’s wrong, and only (s)he can fix it.  Resist the temptation to believe the easy, convenient, so-called truths (s)he presents.  And protest—long and loud and disbelievingly, with evidence to back you up—whenever those falsehoods are presented as bona fide.

Alternative facts?  Really?