Column

Penkava: When truth is as slippery as a liar’s conscience

Michael Penkava
Michael Penkava

Lest we think we are something uniquely special, here’s a news flash: There’s really nothing new under the sun.

If you strip off the fancy techy-preppy veneer from us, we’re not very different from the “us” of the past. The common denominators of life are pretty much the same, and any differences are blanketed by the dust of history.

If anything, today we come off as a bit of a disappointment on the Richter Scale of earthshaking upswings. We don’t know what the truth is, who to trust, where the facts are and why it’s so doggone impossible to believe anything.

But enough of the cheerful frivolity.

I thought it might be interesting to go back in time and find some examples of fake news from the past.

Maybe seeing how our forefathers were led down the garden path can show us that we’re just as misled and confused as they were.

First, let’s go back some 3,300 years. Ramses II was one of the greatest warrior pharaohs of ancient Egypt. At least according to him.

In seeking glory, Ramses II re-inscribed monuments dedicated to other pharaohs, carving his name and taking credit for their victories. His fake news literally lasted for centuries until modern day archaeologists uncovered the truth about him.

Then there’s the smear campaign of Octavian against Marc Antony in the first century. Marc was branded a drunkard, a womanizer and, worse yet, a puppet of Cleopatra.

Octavian published a fictitious will, purported to be Antony’s, in which his final wish was to be buried among the pharaohs. This sat poorly with the Roman Senate, and Octavian and his army were sent to Egypt and eliminated Antony.

Closer to home, Benjamin Franklin had a fake story published in a Boston newspaper claiming that bags were bound for England and King George. Inside these bags were 700 scalps of colonial soldiers and white settlers, the booty of a massive slaughter at the hands of the Indians in service to the British.

The phony story was published in other newspapers throughout the colonies and the public was outraged against the British, motivated to amp up their resistance to the Red Coats and hatred for the Indians. King George’s troops lost the war, and the Indians eventually lost the continent.

Finally, we have the premature death of Mark Twain. In 1897, he was on a speaking tour when he first was pronounced dead. Then in 1907, the New York Times reported that he had been lost at sea.

He finally died in 1910. They got it right that time.

And what about the quote from him when he said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”? Well, that was not true, as well. He actually said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” So, in Mr. Twain’s case, we actually have fake news about fake news.

But Twain knew better than to believe everything he heard and read. He observed, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”

Maybe we need to let the ink dry for a while before we trust what it says.

• Michael Penkava taught a bunch of kids and wrote a bunch of stuff. Twain also said, “A wise man makes his own decisions, an ignorant man follows public opinion.” He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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