Would It Weren't So, Joe, But ...


Mr. Weisberger is a contributing editor at American Heritage and a member of the advisory board of HNN.

I have had some slight and friendly contacts with Professor Ellis by mail and through third parties, which I mention as a disclaimer of total objectivity. I also greatly admire his writings, and take note that there seems to be no suggestion whatever that any of his work as an real historian fails to meet the most exacting professional standards of integrity.

What then, do I think of his being caught in lies about what he did during the Vietnam War? In a nutshell that it’s both sad and mystifying. Sad because it compromises a deservedly good reputation, and mystifying because I can’t conceive of someone like Ellis not realizing that with military, academic and police records all open to scrutiny , no one in the public eye can be unaware that his or her past is almost literally an open book that someone sooner or later is going to examine. Prudence, if nothing else, ought to override the powerful urge (which I’ve experienced myself) to imagine a better past for oneself and substitute it for the reality.

I think Ellis did the only thing he could do acknowledging the truth, apologizing to friends, students, colleagues and family, and granting no further interviews on the subject. But I wouldn’t impose any new burdens on him other than the embarrassment and pain he’s undoubtedly feeling and the shadow that will always hang over him.

Do I, then, agree with the Mount Holyoke president and administration in questioning the public value of the Boston Globe’s exposure? No. This isn’t the exposure of some past and best-forgotten personal sin. Lying is a social—better, a societal offense—and a serious one, especially in a teacher, and especially nowadays.

Why? Because ours is an age of hype—of political and corporate cover-ups—of public relations and advertising and the making of images which are not completely false but at best misleading—of propaganda and disinformation—of academics and natural and social scientists who contest the very existence of such things as"facts" and describe all reality as"socially constructed"—of movies that splice together fake and real footage to create a kind of confusion by fusion—of massive continuing assaults on the very idea that truth matters, and deserves respect. There’s a kind of growing indifference"out there" to how much the line between fact and non-fact is blurred. The assumption is that if a liar hasn’t done demonstrable wrong to someone—committed bigamy, say, or taken a job away from a competitor with phony credentials—the offense is trivial, a"victimless crime" best ignored. But indifference of that kind leaves us open to charlatanry and manipulation of every kind. To the question often asked about a lie:"Who got hurt by it?" the answer is"All of us."

So I think it’s important for everyone, but especially officials of educational institutions presumably devoted to the pursuit of truth, to tell the truth. All the time. To everyone. About everything. Yes, I recognize the value of minor social lies that protect people’s feelings and self-images. I’ve read Moliere’s The Misanthrope and O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and that some forms of total truthfulness can be simply hostile. And I’m aware of the philosophical problems of what is"true," and how sometimes, as I believe Henry Adams once said (and I paraphrase) an historian’s choice of facts can get in the way of the truth.

But there’s a clear and unmistakable distinction between things that actually happened and things that didn’t, and substituting the latter for the former, or deliberately fogging the boundary between the two, is unacceptable in anyone and doubly so in one committed to what used to be called, without sarcasm, the advancement of learning. Ellis was wrong, and the college president is wrong in assuming that it wasn’t anyone else’s business. He will have to live with this episode and its fallout. He doesn’t deserve any more harassment and any penalties beyond what his conscience-–and I believe that he has one--will impose on him. But he doesn’t deserve any less, either.

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