|Apr/May 2015 Salon|
Photograph by Rus Bowden
I recently reread Ball Four, Jim Bouton's first-hand diary of a season in the major leagues. The book was bitterly resented at the time it was published. Then-commissioner of baseball (i.e. chief shill for the team owners) Bowie Kuhn tried to suppress it. Members of the Yankees, for whom Bouton had pitched spectacularly for two seasons, reacted by throwing Bouton's old uniform into a toilet and defecating on it. He had done the unforgivable: He had told the truth, or at least some version of the truth, about a sport Americans held sacred.
Today Ball Four is being called one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century. It's credited with changing not just the reporting of sports from a kind of Homeric praise-song to something more down to earth and is probably responsible for the more realistic way we now view politicians and other celebrities, however much the new journalism may at times descend into rank sensationalism. Without Ball Four it's impossible to imagine the tale of Micky Mantle's alcoholism coming to light even after his liver had gone south permanently. It may even be credited for the revelations about John F. Kennedy's sexual escapades in the White House, not to mention his predecessors' and successors'.
Ball Four's a fun read not just because it's a "tell-all" book but because it's well-written and genuinely entertaining. The cast of characters are as engaging as any you'll find in a contemporary novel—far more so if my own reading is any gauge of current literature. But, more than any of this, the reason why a book like Ball Four succeeds is because of what its author advocates as the secret to its success: Tell the truth. Bouton's advice to any cub reporter is to go out and cover whatever is relevant to their community, take careful notes (he jotted down everything, especially verbatim material as it occurred, not half an hour later; he carried his notebook in the back pocket of his uniform). The truth, which usually means the opposite of what we're told in our schooling and in mass media, is, as some obscure idealist once pointed out, liberating. And freedom is a great high, maybe the greatest. Only those who have something to hide can't appreciate it—them and those of us who never know what it feels like because we never have the opportunity, or are too afraid of the truth to seek it out.
The historian A.J.P. Taylor's work would seem to represent the other end of the spectrum from a book about bull-pen and locker-room antics. But Taylor is the Jim Bouton of his own field. His books about the first and second world wars as well as his account of the inter-war period stand the conventional narratives of that period on their heads. In those books stupidity and ignorance are the predominant characteristics of national leaders and military brass. He never says as much outright, but the theme of blind fortune favoring the least incompetent is constant and pervasive in the narrative.
Taylor's history of Europe in the the 1920s and 1930s is no less forgiving. Hitler is no evil genius with a plan for world domination, at least not to start, but a temporizing, tentative mediocrity who plays the game of power politics as if it were a game of poker (the Germans invented poker). He out-bluffs well-meaning naifs like Britain's Chamberlain, who comes off better in Taylor's estimation than he does in the usual narratives of "appeasement," a much more rational choice in Taylor's than in the usual histories or the cable-TV version. The Fuerher wins the hand for the Sudetenland but overplays his cards for Poland, and after that it's too late to turn back, unprepared as the German military was for the kind of war they got themselves into.
Also contrary to the usual saga of a glorious victory over Nazism gained all but singlehandedly by gallant Brits and Americans, Taylor makes clear that the great substance of the war was bitterly fought on the eastern front, which accounted for the egregious casualties suffered by the Russians (20 million killed) followed by the Germans (8 million). By contrast, America lost 420,000 and Britain, even counting victims of the Blitz, 451,000. Taylor's books are liberation of a grim and scary kind (think of the near-misses of nuclear holocaust we've experienced in recent decades and apparently still are prone to, a lone minor official usually being the one to avert apocalypse). I sometimes feel as if I should read more of the traditional histories so as not to be taken in by what might be Taylor's exaggerations or, worse, biases. But I already know most of the standard version of the history of that period through every film, television documentary and newspaper article I've been exposed to since my earliest youth: It was American bravery and military smarts, aided in a minor way by British pluck, that defeated the Nazis. The first world war was fought to make the world safe for democracy, not to protect American loans made to Britain and France. Hitler was superhuman or at least a certifiably evil genius beyond the competence of historiography, not a monomaniacal politician who happened to be good at bluffing and had a lot of post-world-war-one guilt and a world depression working in his favor. We dropped atom bombs on Japan in order to end the war without suffering the tens of thousands of casualties an invasion of the Japanese mainland would have entailed (Curtis LeMay killed more with his incendiaries than did the Enola Gay or her sister ship)—not because we had spent so much time and money developing those bombs and felt on that account obliged to use them (an Air Force general who served in Vietnam is quoted as saying the main reason why we bombed North Vietnam and adjacent countries so unmercifully was because after we had gone to the expense of bringing all those B-52s across the Pacific they were just sitting idle on runways in the Philippines).
Most good history does this, stands the standard narrative on its head, whether it's Colin Calloway's books about American Indians, Ilan Pappe's revisions of official Israeli history or contemporary accounts of slavery in the American South by Frederick Law Olmsted. Noam Chomsky does it for just about any modern period of American history, and any number of younger journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Max Blumenthal, and Jeremy Scahill, to name just three, are busy correcting the official lies we are fed on a daily basis. It's a good time for truth.
What annoys me despite the pleasure I get from all this intellectual liberation is that I should be experiencing it only now in the latter part of my life rather than in my youth or middle years. And I've found that late disillusionment like this is not particular to myself. Others, some of them a good deal older than me, confess to only now, in their last years, losing their belief in the religion they have practiced their entire lives not without reservation but with no expectation of ever abandoning it entirely. It's a strange phenomenon. Most recently, in the course of just several months I have found myself losing all confidence in the medical profession. This isn't just a whim, there's plenty of evidence to support such an attitude. But that evidence existed before as well. Until now I noted it, took it into account, but acted as if my own health-care providers were exceptions to the gross ignorance that informs what most doctors do or don't do in their examining rooms and hospitals. Then, all of a sudden I was like a man who had stopped believing in God, overnight. Only, the existence or non-existence of a deity is something whose consequences can be temporized, while the disappearance of a trustworthy medical profession from my life can have immediate effects, good and bad.
Why is it that the truth makes us free, liberated, if sometimes anxious as well? What did that itinerant rabbi have in mind 2,000 years ago when he gave us the assurance which has endured so well even to the point of having lost the identity of its origins for most people? Atheists are as likely to quote it, perhaps more so, than believers. What did he mean by "truth," the same word Pilate is reported to have used in such a cynical way just before he handed the would-be Messiah over to the mob to be crucified by his soldiers. If there is any veracity to the gospels, it lies in the quotations they contain. The words of the slain rabbi were what ordinary people as well as his disciples preserved and remembered after he was gone. Yet, that particular quote, "The truth shall make you free," has always struck me as enigmatic, powerful as it is. Did he mean by "free," freedom from the onerous laws of Deuteronomy and Numbers that prescribed and proscribed so much that was natural to human life—the Torah Paul was to declare null and void a few years later? Was he talking from personal experience, sharing the liberating experience he had gained from his long wrestle with the strict but sterile Pharisees versus a more essential and universal idea of godliness?
Whatever Jesus meant, humankind has since recognized in those words a simple fact: learning how things really are, whether it be on the great cosmic scale or in more mundane matters, gives us a sense of joyful liberation. It's as if truth were our natural state of mind, the only happy place where we find contentment and inspiration. And we find it in Beethoven and Shakespeare as much if not more so as in A.J.P. Taylor and Noam Chomsky, in the Beatles and Henry David Thoreau as much as in Newton and Aristotle. It's for the sake of this truth that we put our children, the very dearest of all we hold dear in this life, into the hands of perfect strangers in order to have them learn the means of finding it for themselves, though most of the time they learn its very opposite and come out of that process more ignorant than they entered. Which may explain why formal education is no indicator of either intellectual or moral integrity, qualities that may survive and flourish despite rather than because of it.
Which brings me to Edward Snowden. If Snowden practices any recognizable religion, he does a good job of keeping it to himself. My suspicion is he's agnostic if not atheist. Yet, who is a better example than he as an agent of truth? I've watched a lot of interviews and talks Snowden has given in the last year and a half since he handed over his trove of NSA documents to the journalist Glenn Greenwald. You may consider Snowden the bravest and most patriotic of men or a traitor and a scoundrel, but I cannot see how anyone can doubt his deep sincerity and commitment to what he believes to be the telling of a truth that must be told if we are all to maintain any semblance of our freedom, not just in America but anywhere in the world.
It's men and women like Snowden and Chomsky who represent and continue the spirit of espousing the truth that makes us free, along with other "secular" Christians and Jews like Ralph Nader and Max Blumenthal, along with millions of their like whose names will never appear in a newspaper or videos on YouTube but who do the same work every day in an unassuming, unacknowledged way. I've known dozens of such people. They don't all devote themselves to righting the wrongs of the world by exposing the lies of the powerful. They do so by practicing justice and showing concern for their fellow human beings in the course of their ordinary lives. Some of them are even members of the clergy.
Freedom is elastic. You can have as much of it as you wish and can bear. Most of us choose a modest portion, just as much truth as we can deal with. Others want the whole hog, and they sometimes pay a big price for that appetite, even a capital one. But, thank God they do make that choice for the rest of us. Thank God, or whomever you choose to thank, for the Edward Snowdens and Jim Boutons, for Isaiah and Jesus and A.J.P. Taylor. For those of us more faint of heart, they make all the difference between the chains of ignorance and the freedom of truth.