All right, maybe you've heard enough about James Frey and the whopping, wicked lies he told about himself in his mega-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Frey's was the ultimate confessional blockbuster, an "Oprah's Book Club" pick and blazing ray of hope to untold numbers of recovering alcoholics, addicts, ne'er-do-wells, soul-searchers and narcissists. At least 3.5 million people, which is how many copies A Million Little Pieces reportedly sold in hardcover. What Oprah had sanctified as "a gut-wrenching memoir" turns out to be a tissue of untruths.
Or maybe you haven't heard anything at all about James Frey. Maybe you've been too busy keeping your eye on your job, the kids, your credit rating, Judge Cashman, that pervert down the street and the price of gas. Maybe you're old or disabled, and have been too worried about your new, "improved" Medicare prescription drug benefits to concern yourself with "literary" scandals.
Either way, I'm sick of all the media wind that's been expended on Frey and his shocking crime against the Truth. What difference does it make? Most Americans, apparently, don't mind being lied to.
Don't believe me? Go out West and hear what they're saying about "gay cowboys" -- i.e., there aren't any, despite the huge success of director Ang Lee's homo-western, Brokeback Mountain.
"They've gone and killed John Wayne with this movie," says Jim-Bob Zimmerschied, a disgruntled ranch hand in Sheridan, Wyoming, in an interview with the London Telegraph. "I've been doing this job all my life and I ain't never met no gay cowboy."
That's what he thinks. In fact, cancer killed John Wayne, but even then he was persistently described as "a survivor." So you see what I mean -- the truth has nothing to do with it. Just consider Bush spokesman Scott McClellan's straight-faced announcement last week: "The president remains fully committed to building a culture of life, a culture of life that is built on valuing life at all stages."
You'll forgive me for saying that the accuracy of McClellan's statement depends entirely on what kind of life you have -- or what kind of life you are. If you're an acre of wilderness or a polar bear or a whale up the Thames, your chances aren't very good. And if you're an Iraqi or an Afghan or a Pakistani, your life isn't valued at all. On January 13, in Bajaur, Pakistan, a U.S. air strike that was meant to "take out" Osama bin Laden's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, instead resulted in the deaths of 18 civilians, among them a dozen women and children. Once again, the intelligence was "faulty."
"Officials first indicated that the U.S. had killed [Zawahiri]," writes Maureen Dowd in The New York Times -- "or at least his son-in-law or a friend of his son-in-law, or maybe the guy who delivered a kabob to him."
Maybe. According to the Associated Press, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has instructed the United States that the January 13 strike "must not be repeated." But it probably will be, and it will be lied about again.
"The president is more determined than ever to stay the course," says a former defense official to The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh. "He doesn't feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage, 'People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.'"
It sure does. In a recent ABC holiday special entitled "Heaven: Where Is It? How Do We Get There?" Barbara Walters asked a whole slew of celebrities what they thought about this subject. And while she didn't actually come up with a "road map" to Elysium, Walters did explain in her tough, penetrating way that heaven is "a journey, an exploration into life as an interlude." Walters is like Oprah in that way, only with more facelifts.
No, Americans don't mind being lied to at all. We're used to it. Sure, some people out there may honestly believe that Brad and Angie aren't "involved" -- even though Brad has adopted Angie's children and they're having a baby of their own -- or that The Da Vinci Code represents a serious theological discussion. But these are a minority, I expect; most of us are fully aware that we're lied to constantly. And most would agree with the Times' Frank Rich when he says, "No one except pesky nitpickers much cares whether Mr. Frey's autobiography is true." As Frey's former editor Nan Talese remarks, "We aren't talking about weapons of mass destruction here."
I think the reason James Frey is in so much trouble is because he made up stories about himself instead of something else. That's a big no-no in America, where the myth of redemption holds heavy sway, allowing us not just to write best-selling balderdash but to bomb other people with impunity.
You see, Americans are always right. We're always sincere. And if you believe that, it's just as well to leave the last word to Frey, who turned up on "Larry King Live" to defend himself -- with his mother, no less -- and actually told the truth: "We're dealing with a very subjective memory."
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I am a historian and have been a member of the Coolidge Foundation since 1972.