For reasons too tedious to detail, I’ve been thinking about Lies today. This is pertinent in our so-called post-truth, or post-fact world, where the truth or the fact of something is discarded in favour of a prejudicial viewpoint.
Some friends and I are facing the promulgation of lies about us and certain actions, and I am reminded of how such lies come into being and grow to become the accepted form of being. As Hollywood had it, in the classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ‘when the truth becomes legend, print the legend!’.
There is a classic historical example. Ask people to talk about l’Empereur Napoleon Bonaparte and, if they even know who you’re talking about, over 90% will, at some point, come out with the famous words, “Not tonight, Josephine”, which everybody knows Boney said, the night before Waterloo, in response to a sexual proposition from his wife, l’Empress Josephine. Everybody knows that, except that it’s a blatant lie.
How can we be sure? Little, subtle details like, how he divorced her in 1810 and, rather more definitive, that she died in 1814, the year before the aforementioned battle. So, it’s a lie, right? When the truth becomes legend, print the legend!
Rather closer to the present day, I have seen a lie of this nature develop from its beginnings to unquestioned, much-repeated truth, whilst remaining a lie throughout.
In 1977, Manchester United won the FA Cup under manager Tommy Docherty. To the considerable surprise of the footballing world, Docherty was sacked a couple of weeks later, obviously not on footballing grounds.
What had happened was that Docherty was carrying on an affair with the wife of one of his subordinates. This was an unpleasant situation which attracted rather more moral opprobrium than it would forty years later, and if that were all, Docherty would probably have rode it out.
But Docherty had abused his position as manager to alter his subordinate’s duties, moving him from club physio to scout, and sending him on a succession of long scouting trips that involved overnight stays, thus clearing the way for Docherty to go round to this employee’s home and screw the man’s wife in his own bed. I hope that the majority of you would agree that that’s pretty shitty behaviour, and that Docherty richly deserved to lose his job, irrespective of the success he had brought, and might continue to bring the club.
However, that is not how Docherty’s sacking is remembered. Assiduously, determinedly, relentlessly, from that day forward, Docherty has claimed that he was sacked for ‘falling in love’. And it’s true that as soon as the divorce went through, he and the woman married and remained together thereafter.
But Docherty’s claims, always made in wistful tones, have from the beginning been intended to obscure the turth. They paint Docherty as the victim, ruined by the heartlessness of ruthless owners not prepared to accept the effect of a simple human emotion.
It should also be pointed out that Docherty is an admitted liar. After suing two former United players for defamation, Docherty made such an awful job of his testimony in Court that he ended up admitting in the witness box that he was lying, on Oath. Notwithstanding that, he has continued to lie about the case ever since, blaming the two players for causing this by suing him, when it was he who sued them.
But Docherty is and always has been a good talker, friend to the press. Over and over he would regretfully muse about being sacked for ‘falling in love’, until that ‘fact’ has come to be as much a part of his story as ‘Not tonight Josephine’ is for Bonaparte. Docherty was the victim. And over the years, the number of challenges to this obscuring lie, the number of times the true facts about his scumbag actions have been asserted has died away. A couple of generations have come along who know only the Doc’s air of puzzled regret. Only those of us who were around at the time remember the true story.
Because that’s the thing about lies. The liar is free to spread them, over and over, spinning the story away from his faults and shifting the responsibility onto those who, unjustifiably, brought him down. It’s what he wants, and he can expend infinite energy in pursuing it.
What’s needed is the truth, to be brought up at every term, to counter the lie. But that requires either a very neutral attachment to explicit fact, or it takes the same kind of dedication as the liar possesses, to continually bring up the negative, to run the risk of being seen as obsessive, vindictive, screwy, the bad guy.
In the end, the lie wins. The legend forms itself into the truth and people print it that way. Docherty got away with it. I’ve watched that slowly coalesce over the last forty years, the perfect example of the technique, and I’ve seen how it’s next to impossible to counter it.
We’re on a hiding to nothing, my friends and I. We just have to accept that it’s not worth opposing, and to decide to ourselves that, as this issue is pretty local, the opinions being formed on lies and misrepresentations are just not worth taking into consideration.
And the bad guys win, just as they have down all of history. And it sucks.