The Liars Club


We have a right to expect consistency in scholarship. Integrity, honesty, good faith—without these qualities we have only more fiction. Of course, there are those who say that historiography is, in some sense, fiction, for it suffers from the creeping bias of the writer’s point of view. Thus, they claim, there is no history—only interpretation. And there is a good deal of truth in this, though not enough to make us surrender all pretense or approximation of objectivity. We want facts to be true.

Maybe this is why we are so prone to putting scholars, journalists, and other purported truth-tellers in the pillory when they lie—not in their work, but about their personal lives.

Commentary magazine did this to Edward Said two years ago, publishing a lengthy exposé of the Columbia professor’s early life in Egypt. Claiming that Said had lied (for political gain) about growing up in Palestine, the reporter proceeded to lay the evidence on the table as if it were a pat poker hand. Said denied the charges, and they have not since been proven to the satisfaction of anyone but inveterate Israeli sympathizers to whom Said’s inherent treachery always has been a foregone conclusion. Still, the damage to the man’s private life had been done, and yet another jaunty journalist had gotten his wings hurling ad hominem abuse of no historical or scholarly import. Then, this past month it was gay journalist Andrew Sullivan who had his private life (his preference for unprotected sex with other HIV-positive men, to be exact) dissected in print for the sole purpose of discrediting his unpopular political ideas. Again, neither history nor scholarship was in any way served by the intrusion.

Now, the most recent victim of the truth-and-consistency-in-all-things police has been Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and Mount Holyoke professor, Joseph J. Ellis. Author of the highly acclaimed books Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation; American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson; and Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, Ellis is widely respected among his peers. On June 18, The Boston Globe revealed that Ellis, who had spoken proudly and at some length about serving in Vietnam, as well as his involvement in the antiwar movement, hadn’t served in Vietnam at all, and had exaggerated his involvement in peace protests. Instead, he’d pursued a rather more staid graduate career at West Point and Yale.

When confronted with the Globe‘s bony, pointed finger, Ellis admitted that he had indeed distorted his past, and expressed deep regret for having done so.

Since then, public opinion has swirled feverishly around the obvious question: Why? Why would such an accomplished historian, someone whose profession it has been to uncover at least some scrupulously cobbled “truth” about the past, tell plainly detectable lies about his own history?

The answer may be simply that Ellis told a few unpremeditated, white-seeming lies of the kind we all tell from time to time when playing the raconteur. Or maybe it was a case of assuming a virtue if you have it not—a pose to which writers and scholars are especially prone, because they must appear to be omniscient, though they are, of necessity, as Socratically ignorant as the rest of us.

Whatever the reason, in this case it hardly matters. First, because Ellis had the rectitude to admit his fault openly, and what’s more, the good character to blame himself. Everybody lies, but the vast majority of people won’t admit it, much less take responsibility for their bad behavior. Because Ellis did both, perhaps we should admire him much more, not less, than we did before. Second, because Ellis’s professional reputation—and the high quality of his work—remains unblemished, we should get off our soapboxes and take aim at more worthy targets, like professional pseudologue David Irving, who has made a living denying the Holocaust.

One positive result of Ellis’s public humiliation may be a collective tendency to think a little harder about our own mistakes, in effect, to say to ourselves and to each other: Those among us who have never hedged, never embellished, never lied, nor ever been wrong may cast the first aspersion.

With any luck, the collective memory—which is these days notoriously short—will forgive by forgetting, and Ellis will emerge from this humiliating ordeal professionally unscathed. He deserves as much, and more.