(The picture above is a print from 1790 showing the mutiny on the Bounty.)
Fairy tales are enjoyable on one level and, on another level, they’re quite useful to pass on cultural messages. Little Red Riding Hood is a great story with its exciting (for kids) repetition of the “But grandmother, what big (eyes, ears, teeth) you have” theme. It’s also an ancient reminder not to talk to strangers. Cinderella is a story that is tremendously satisfying, since virtue triumphs, but it was also told as a way to remind children, especially girls, to be passive and good, no matter how heinous their situation. In so many fairy tales, the underlying moral message is clear on its face. After all, as Lewis Carroll’s Duchess says, “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” In other words, you don’t need the creepy, anti-Semitic, misogynistic Bruno Bettelheim to spell out these stories’ deeper meanings.
Sometimes, real stories mutate into a form of fairy tale in order to satisfy deeper societal needs or provide stronger societal messages. I was thinking about this as I listened from the front seat of our car to the classic 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty, which the kids were watching on the video screen in the back. It’s a great story. Captain Bligh, played magnificently by Charles Laughton, is the most sadistic of all sea captains, glorying in the almost unlimited power the British Navy bestowed on its captains. Clark Gable is the kind and virtuous First Mate, Fletcher Christian, who eventually chafes to the point of mutiny as he sees Laughton torture the helpless men under his command. The men are evenly divided into good types, who while not perfect embody the virtues of all free men, and bad types, who give free rein to their corruption. It was a story that began to resonate shortly after the actual events took place, and that had special meaning in the mid-1930s as fascism grew in Europe.
The only problem, though, is that the story is all wrong. Caroline Alexander went back and examined contemporaneous documents and, in a marvelous book called The Bounty, described what really happened. It turns out that Captain Bligh, who had sailed with Captain Cook, was an exemplary Captain. Taking his cue from Captain Cook, he kept an immaculate ship and forced food rich in Vitamin C on his reluctant sailors (who wanted only grog and beef), thereby almost completely wiping out on his ship the scurvy that had been the scourge of the sea for so many centuries. In an era when the Naval Code mandated the lash for even the most minor infractions, Captain Bligh’s documented record shows him to have been an unusually humane captain. He used the lash, but with much less frequency than his peers. He preferred tongue lashings, which did humiliate the more sensitive men serving under him.
Fletcher Christian on the other hand was a much less exemplary man. He was a malcontent and a trouble maker. He came from small gentry and considered Captain Bligh, who had worked his way up, to be beneath him.
Things on the outward journey to Tahiti were relatively uneventful. The problem began on the island, which truly was a paradise. While Captain Bligh was busily fulfilling his mission to acquire hundreds of breadfruit plans for scientific experiments in England, the sailors — who had been cooped for almost a year on a small, smelly, hot British ship, eating the normal rotten (truly) limited diet that was available in the pre-refrigeration era — were glorying in their freedom. Suddenly, they had a finite work load, abundant amounts of fresh food and, most importantly, unlimited access to women who were remarkably free with their favors by any standards (not just 18th Century British standards).
When the Tahitian idyll ended, the sailors went back on ship reluctantly, and very quickly decided that they simply would not accept another year on board, especially since, for most of them, that year would be followed by a possible lifetime of servitude to the British Navy. So they rebelled. None of the mutineers had the stomach to murder the captain or his men, so they put them in small launch in the middle of the Pacific. In a stunning feat of navigation, one to which even the 1935 movie pays homage, Bligh steered his men over thousands of miles of open sea to safe harbor.
The true story is a great one, but it certainly isn’t the “slaves successfully take on a tyrant” story that has been so popular in the modern era. The truth also wasn’t very useful when some of the mutineers were captured and returned to England for court martial. These men’s families, in an effort to improve their cases, began to slander Captain Bligh so as to white wash their own relatives’ conduct during the whole of the mutiny. Thus, the story morphed from the probable truth, which was that malcontents mutinied against a fairly humane captain (a manifestly hanging offense), to an almost certain lie that had brave and free Englishmen rebelling against a sadistic captain’s blood lust (a much better tale in court). And because the false narrative was culturally the better one, for 200 years Captain Bligh has been one of the most unjustly maligned people in history.
Nowadays, with a very liberal cadre of reporters controlling the mainstream media, the fairy tales our media creates out of actual facts are actually similar in theme to the fairy tale that, for more than 200 years, has so besmirched poor Captain Bligh. I’m thinking here of the Duke lacrosse case, which was “Bligh-ed” to fit a racial, rather than a class, narrative. Here’s how John Leo describes that fairy tale:
If anyone ever starts a museum of horrible explanations, the one-liner by Newsweek’s Evan Thomas about his magazine’s dubious reporting on the Duke non-rape case — “The narrative was right but the facts were wrong” — is destined to become a popular exhibit, right up there with “we had to destroy the village to save it.”
What Mr. Thomas seems to mean is that the newsroom view of the lacrosse players as privileged, sexist, and arrogant white male jocks was the correct angle on the story. It wasn’t.
According to Duke’s female lacrosse team and other women on campus, the male players are solid citizens who treat women well. Many players volunteer to tutor poor children in Durham. Some players are privileged, but most come from ordinary middle-class homes. There is no evidence of a racist team culture.
One objectionable racial comment was reported that night, in response to a racial taunt from one of the strippers. It occurred after the party and the player involved was not one of those indicted. The mainstream press, most conspicuously the New York Times, botched the story by imposing a race-gender-class narrative line. The facts were wrong, as Mr. Thomas said, but the narrative line was wrong too.
The lacrosse case isn’t the only one in which liberal reporters perverted the facts to support a more important (to them) narrative. Rathergate springs to mind quickly as an example of the “false but accurate” idea. That is, the facts were false, but the ideas the media was putting forward — Bush was a manipulative rich boy who traded on political contacts to cheat America — were entirely accurate if you’re a left leaning member of the American media. (You can go here, to Media Mythbusters, for a comprehensive list of news myths, all of which are politely debunked.)
In the same article I quoted from above, John Leo details other popular narratives in which the media has deemed the facts entirely irrelevant as long as the fairy tale created suits the socialist/liberal message. For example:
Sometimes a narrative line is so powerful it can resist even a massive array of facts. When Rigoberta Menchu’s account of class and ethnic warfare in Guatemala was revealed to be largely false, many professors and critics said this didn’t matter much because her book contained emotional truth. If it’s good for the Left and since it won her a Nobel Prize, who cares if she made it up?
Ms. Menchu’s black-and-white depiction of villainous landowners and virtuous oppressed peasants was too simple — the landowners often cooperated with the peasants. The great land struggle she described between her father and the wealthy landowners was actually between her father and his in-laws. Her allegedly poor and oppressed father had title to 6,800 acres of land. Liberal sociologist David Stoll interviewed 120 people in Ms. Menchu’s hometown and revealed an astonishing amount of mendacity. But her book “I Rigoberta Menchu” is still revered and studied on campuses across the country. The narrative line is useful.
After the Tawana Brawley hoax was exposed, the Nation magazine ran an article saying that “in cultural perspective, if not in fact, it doesn’t matter whether the crime occurred or not,” since the pattern of whites abusing blacks is true. Whatever.
We like to think that we’re sophisticated enough to see through these falsehoods, or at least to suspect their existence. Certainly the blogosphere helps serve as the type of instant corrective that never existed before. That’s how Rathergate and the Fauxtography scandals were so quickly exposed. Nevertheless, to true believers, no amount of actual facts can corrupt their belief in the purity of the underlying ideological narrative. Also, for the many who aren’t true believers, but who are simply ill informed or disinterested, a good story is enough in itself. That’s why we remember Captain Bligh as a bad guy, not the decent soul he was — the former is a better story.
In today’s world, where we admire underdogs, the Left’s ability to fashion underdog narratives gives it a striking advantage in promulgating modern political fairy tales that capture the average American’s fancy and quickly wipe out any interest a credulous audience might have in the actual facts. This is a profoundly worrisome problem for conservatives, who need to figure out either (a) how to take the factual facts and spin good stories with those facts or (b) how to shout loudly enough, or in a manner interesting enough, that conservatives can expose the truth behind the fairy tales in a way that will capture the public’s interest before the narrative becomes set in stone. Blogs are a good start but, until we take control of the narrative stream, we may win in the ballot box, but we face the risk of being on the losing side of history.
UPDATE: Here’s Mark Steyn discussing fact free myth-making when it came to John F. Kennedy — and how those myths changed the face of modern liberalism.
Filed under: Media matters