Tuesday, October 13, 2015

You Have to Dig For It

Children believe whatever you tell them -- mostly. They're children. They have little experience of the world. They often haven't reached the age where Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy haven't been taken away from them. They still believe in magic and fairy tales and their elders. They are innocent. They have not yet been perverted by candy, food, and money.

Nowadays the perversions begin a whole lot earlier. There's barely enough time to get used to the truth that the Easter Bunny doesn't exist nor does the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus/St. Nick/Father Christmas. Still reeling from the hidden lies told with straight faces by their parents and people they have trusted to care for them and guide them, they find out people do not live in the TV and shows are just regular people paid to pretend. Peter Pan is beginning to look pretty good and dreams about being whisked off to Never Never Land as a Lost Boy are nightly events not worth waking up from. They still have a sneaking belief in fairies and will shout loudly, "I believe," when Tinkerbell is dying on the stage and screen. They want to believe.

Children become adults and some small part of them still shouts, "I believe," when Tinkerbell's twinkling life slows and dims. They also believe in politicians and almost everyone they see on TV or in the papers or on the Internet because people who feature so prominently in the media must be doing something right. They will be pulled from one side to the other politically -- depending on who stirs their emotions, especially anger and outrage, the most. They follow the path of least resistance, herding together with the rest of the ill informed masses afraid to break from the pack and go it alone. They are afraid of being singled out and being made fun of for standing against the pack -- even for a brief moment.

Or they rage against the lies, half truths, and empty promises that vanish like soap bubbles in a hurricane -- or light breeze. Reveling in their rebellion and their ability to stand out and become famous for half a second for swimming against the current. After all, a little bit of fame, even for the wrong thing, is better than living and dying without anyone noticing.

The truth is out there, but it will take time and effort to find it out. Be a skeptic. Find the truth. Dig for it. Believe no one. It's the only path to enlightenment.

George Washington was truthful -- even as a child. After all, he chopped down a cherry tree and admitted it to his father when asked. He took his punishment for cutting down the tree and was praised for his honesty. He was a model of honesty. Too bad his biographer wasn't.

Parson Weems was a minister who wrote George Washington's biography. The publisher told Weems that his book about George Washington was boring and wouldn't sell. Weems spiced it up by adding the cherry tree story, claiming it came from an interview with an old man who knew Washington. More than likely the story was part of a parable dreamed up to illustrate that even famous men, men like General George Washington, were honest even as children and even faced with a father's wrath over losing his favorite cherry tree. After all, who would believe that Washington was an ordinary child growing up on a farm who knew the value of a healthy cherry tree producing good fruit that could be used to feed the family or sold to provide income for the family. Cutting down the tree and admitting, "I cannot tell a lie, Pa," when confronted with his crime was a far more powerful -- and in publishing terms, more lucrative -- story. Pastor Weems could salve his conscience with royalty checks and the acclaim that came with illuminating Washington's life for future generations of children learning early on that it is better to be truthful even in the face of an angry parent and the certainty of punishment. Tell the truth like George Washington and you will grow up to be a great man.

Though it is unlikely Weems thought of telling a lie in order to illustrate how important it is to tell the truth, one wonders. I wonder. The thing is, I cannot know for sure how Pastor Weems felt. I didn't know him and he never recanted the story he told from his pulpit and published in his biography of Washington. In for a penny, in for a pound as the saying goes.

There is always someone to -- or something -- to lead the honest man off the path of truth. That is where Diogenes should have begun his search -- off the beaten path and deep into the forest darkness.

Anna Leonowens was an ordinary English woman whose husband died and left her with a child to raise and insufficient funds to live in the style her husband had accustomed her to when he was alive and well and earning a good income. Her husband, Thomas Leon Owens (shortening his name to Leonowens at some point), was a clerk, but earned enough to support his wife and soon his family. Thomas and Anna had four children. Two died in infancy and two, Avis and Louis, thrived.

Like most British families, the Leonowens traveled about the British Empire and seeing the empire on which the sun never set until Thomas died, leaving his wife and two children to fend for themselves. Luckily, Anna had taught school and was offered the position of teacher to the new king of Siam (Thailand), Mongkut's children, the result of frequent visits to his wives and concubines in his well stocked harem. After all, he had time to make up since his early life had been lived in a Buddhist monastery before he became king and conjugal visits were not allowed. He wasn't married. He was a Buddhist priest, so marriage wasn't part of the package.

Anna took the position after sending her daughter, Avis, back to England to school and taking her son, Louis, with her. She taught the king and his children and wives the English language and about the world and current events, as she knew them. She later wrote her memoirs about her experiences in two versions: The Favorite of the Harem and The English Governess at the Siamese Court. She also wrote several travel articles using her life and experiences. Much of what she wrote was from the point of view of the feminist who saw the Siamese court and the harem in terms of subjugation, especially where it concerned women.

Her husband became a British Army officer instead of a clerk. One wonders if it was a matter of gilding the lily or romanticizing her life and her dead husband for prestige or simply vanity.

Margaret Landon turned Anna's public lectures and writings into a novel: Anna and the King of Siam, which was a fictionalized version of the stories and published in 1946. The book became a movie with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne and eventually with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner after Rodgers and Hammerstein bought the book for the stage in which Yul Brynner created his version of Mongkut the scientific King of Siam that resonated with the public.

Two Siamese authors wrote their own account in 1948 and sent it to America, but the image of Anna and the King based on the movie and stage versions remains the true one in the West.

As romantic as the story has come to be, an English governess and her unspoken tenderness towards the despotic and cruel, but compelling figure of the King of Siam, most recently played by Jodie Foster as Anna Leonowens and Chow Yun-fat as King Mongkut, the idea of such a romance in reality is one that Asians, and in particular to the newly independent India as an inaccurate western insult to an Eastern monarch.

Consider how much more outraged ancient kings and pharaohs would be if they could see what we have turned their lives and history into in our zealous pursuit of historically accurate entertainment and scholarship.

Let's forget for a moment the outrage the Siamese, now Thai, people feel that Mrs. Leonowens had lied about their king who would never in a million years have given her a second lingering and longing look -- let alone a first. After all, the British, and most white races, fancied themselves more seductive and sought after by brown-skinned princes, rajahs, and kings than is possible, forgetting for a moment that Indian rajahs saw English women as pale and unappetizing next to the dark-eyed beauties of their own subjects. Japanese women did not long for British officers or kill themselves when their British lovers leave them to return to the fleet and home taking their illegitimate children, as in Madame Butterfly, and no Siamese King ever thought more of the British woman he hired to teach English to his children, princes and princesses, and to the women of his harem, than he would have thought of any servant. One might even sigh and say, "Oh, those British. They are such romantics -- and liars, but what can one do?"

Anna's lie has been instilled into popular memory because of its romance, not because it is true (it is not) but because it gives the romantics among us the hope that even in danger in a foreign country, if one is audacious and courageous anything is possible -- even when one doesn't take advantage of the situation. After all, there are standards to maintain and one mustn't lose sight of the differences between civilized British women and savage and backward Eastern despots no matter what.

When the facts of recent events being portrayed by people with their own views and agendas aren't remotely correct, how can we expect to find truth in the suppositions and theories of men and women of science and history reconstructing the past from a perch thousands of years later and without an understanding of what life was like? I am reminded of a little book, a pamphlet really, called Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay.

The time is 4022 CE (common era) written about a civilization that perished in a day in 2025.  Macaulay's story is much like Jonathan Swift's essay, A Modest Proposal, that advocated cannibalism of the poor's children to provide food for the British people and relieving the burden of raising too many children on the poor. Motel of the Mysteries is a spoof of Howard Carter and Lord George Carnarvon's discovery of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankamun and illustrates the point that using such finds to recreate the entire history and reality of a culture and its civilization is less science and more fantasy. YouTube has an interesting recreation of Macaulay's spoof here. Keep in mind the video is an adaptation of the story. Pick up the book, about the size of a large coloring book, and read it.

There are many examples of lies becoming the stuff of legends and given out as truth. Mostly, those flights of fancy are called fiction, but when one puts memoir or biography or history in the title, the masses will believe everything between the covers is fact -- and truth. Add science to the title or letters to the author's name and the Truth-o-meter automatically goes to the top -- even when there is little more than theory and conjecture on the pages. Consumed as we are with reality television and factual exposes that contain few facts and even less reality, we seldom go looking farther than a friend or talking head for validation, neither of which will have looked beyond the words printed on the page or hot gossip over the back fence.

The point of being able to read is that one is often obliged to go to the library or search beyond Wikipedia or Google to find answers, to get to the bottom of the story. If one does nothing else it is best to keep this in mind: Everyone lies. The more letters behind the name, the higher a holy man gets in his chosen religious profession, the more money he gets from publishers and producers, the better the likelihood the lies will increase along with the balance in his bank account and the length of the limo that chauffeurs him to his latest appearance for readings, lectures, sermons, talk shows, etc. Trust no one and nothing, not even books.

In today's world, the pressure to publish or perish has increased with the popularity of and pervasiveness of the media. Newspapers and magazines will flourish for a year or a few decades and then disappear from view if they fail to titillate and attract the fickle public. Academic halls are full of teachers and teaching assistants hoping for their chance to earn tenure and be noticed, neither of which will happen if they buck ignore the politics of the academic world, fail to publish, and buck the system (in other words, refuse to toe the party line). The pressure is even greater in the modern world to conform and produce. That is how to get funding for digs and be granted tenure. Anything else means living in limbo and ending up a talking head on a radio talk show on conspiracy theories and aliens or in a cheap video with as much respect as any huckster or con artist promoting the latest hoax and conspiracy theory. In other words, one ends up on the academic heap with a shattered reputation and no professional future. Start drinking heavily and mainlining heroin now. Don't waste your time.

The chance of finding the facts in that kind of environment decreases daily. Photoshop stands in for actual photographs of wars and skirmishes and video footage of atrocities are staged for effect. It takes a lot of digging in dusty books and among the cobwebbed stacks in secondhand bookstores and libraries to get within spitting distance of an obscure bit of data or an actual fact that rings with truth.

Take no one's word at face value. Believe nothing and no one, and especially discount the testimony from insiders. They are about as useful as a tip at the race track from a groom that was just fired. Keep in mind that everybody lies, some with thoughts of fame and money on their minds and some with visions of recreating the past within the confines of academic pursuits but with a mind nurtured and fed on fantasy and fairy tales. Not everyone lies in the same way or for the same motives, but mankind is not often pure in its intentions. We create the worlds we wish to see, blending fact and fiction and possibilities into reality -- or at least what is seen as a version of reality that has little relationship to truth.

It means living in a world where suspicion is the norm and where you might have to get out the magnifying glass to get a closer look, but at least the chances of being hoodwinked are less.

Or you can read and keep an open mind -- or at least make up your own mind without relying on gossip or the media to make up your mind for you. Beware the herd -- or mob -- mentality. The IQ goes down faster the longer one follows the crowd. In short, figure it out for yourself. You might end up using the education you were given in public school for something other than reading cereal boxes and filling out quizzes on what the shape of your fingers says about you. Have fun, but beware the easy answer.

It's not easy making up one's own mind and avoiding the urge to gossip or follow the mob with the pitchforks and torches and it is certain more difficult fighting against the crowd when the put-downs and personal attacks begin, but the payoff is in being sufficiently informed to make an informed decision. It might make the world around you better if you hold yourself -- and everyone around you -- to a higher standard of truth.

That is all. Disperse.

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