When Richard M. Nixon resigned from the presidency in disgrace in 1974, thousands of people around the country thought poignantly of one person—not Vice President Gerald R. Ford, thrust unexpectedly into the White House because of the Watergate break-in, or Senator George S. McGovern, defeated by Nixon in a landslide two years earlier, but Helen Gahagan Douglas. Douglas was the former opera singer and Broadway star who became a three-term congresswoman and was defeated by Nixon in the 1950 California senatorial race, still remembered as one of the dirtiest elections ever. It was that election that made Nixon’s ascent to the presidency possible.
Douglas worked tirelessly for social justice and has been lauded as “one of the grandest, most eloquent, deepest-thinking people we have had in American politics.”[i] Yet as we’ll see in Chapter 6, Nixon stopped at nothing to destroy Douglas’s career and reputation, forcing her permanently from public office. His campaign against her became the prototype for all his subsequent campaigns, and opened the door to the kind of dirty politics that have become increasingly normative in the United States. Despite what Nixon had done to her, Douglas refused to be vindictive, explaining that “when I woke up the next morning [after the election] I felt free, uninjured, whole. Nixon had his victory but I had mine.”[ii] She went on to lead an extraordinarily productive life working on behalf of causes she cared deeply about, from the plight of farmworkers to environmental issues, from civil rights to disarmament.
Douglas is remembered as a model of courage and grace—as someone who found her own truth and remained loyal to it. After her death in 1980, hundreds of people and organizations paid tribute to her. A typical tribute came from a Sacramento newspaper, editorializing that “one of the several faces of courage is just being true to oneself in one’s own place and in one’s own time. Such was the courage of Helen Gahagan Douglas, the actress-turned-Congresswoman whose political career ended in a bitter clash with Richard M. Nixon in 1950.”[iii] We’ll examine many kinds of truth and falsity in this book. Because the book is meant to provide you with useful, concrete information, the following chapters often focus on the minutiae of deception in everyday life—duplicitous advertising, sweepstakes scams, and the like. Underlying all the chapters, though, is the notion that like Douglas, we live the richest, most productive lives when we’re truest to ourselves.
Deception in Contemporary Society
We’re all bombarded on a daily basis by messages for the purpose of convincing us to make decisions or form opinions based on what we are being told is true. Statistics, poll results, and professional opinions may be cited to give credibility to these messages. Yet we’ve all had the experience of eventually finding out the messages were incorrect, misleading, and often outright lies. In the words of an Advertising Age editorial, “Whether it’s about agency billings and income or high-stakes geopolitical strategy, disinformation is part of the communications arsenal. Efforts to confuse, misdirect, mislead, or confound a public are part of today’s world.”[iv]
Some of this misinformation is so trivial or outlandish that it could be considered a minor annoyance, even a source of amusement—like the exaggerated claims some advertisers make to entice us to buy their products. But most misinformation isn’t harmless, and sometimes it’s profoundly destructive. Who can forget the Enron scandal, in which employees and investors lost millions? Enron was, for a time, the world’s largest energy trader. Then it declared bankruptcy and thousands found themselves without a job. Many employees also lost their life savings when their 401(k) retirement plans were frozen and when the company’s stock dropped from $90 to $1 a share. Among the tragedies was that of Cathy Peterson and her husband Bill, an Enron employee being treated for cancer when the company went under. “We really suffered. We suffered financially and emotionally,” Cathy Peterson recalled. “We sold our home, our second car, anything we could live without we did without, cell phones, newspapers. I learned to buy the cheapest food we could buy. We moved in with my twin sister. My husband was not allowed the dignity of dying in his own home.”[v]
The Madoff scandal also left a swath of destruction in its wake. Thousands of individuals lost everything and dozens of charities had to shut down as a result of financier Bernard Madoff’s predatory practices. Referring to the disproportionate number of Jewish investors who had been victimized, one woman who lost “double-digit millions” said, “What Hitler didn’t finish, he did!”[vi] One of the most shocking aspects of the Madoff scheme was that he victimized Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, costing Wiesel and his wife Marion their life savings of $7 million and bilking the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity out of $15.2 million.[vii]
The Enron and Madoff examples show how high the stakes can be when we’re fed misleading information. When we make decisions based on incorrect or deceptive information, we can not only lose money in a financial investment but can opt for the wrong medical treatment, take out an inappropriate insurance policy, vote for the wrong political candidate, buy a house we shouldn’t buy, or even marry the wrong person. More generally, a society in which a high level of deception prevails is a society that breeds disrespect and distrust among its citizens. Diving Deep: How to Find Truth in a Sea of Lies, Bias, Spin, Scams, and Fraud is intended to address these problems; it’s about the deception surrounding all of us, and how you can dive through it to find truth.
Why This Book?
My parents were uneducated immigrants from Italy who didn’t speak English. In my early childhood, we lived in a Boston attic with no bathroom. We survived on bread, milk, beans, and other staples dispensed by a federal program created under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. My parents’ dream was for me to attend parochial school, but to qualify, I had to be able to speak proper English. My parents couldn’t teach me, so I mastered English pronunciation by listening to the radio.
At an early age I became aware of the prejudice and misinformation that existed about Italians, Jews, and blacks in the Boston area, which gave me a lifelong sensitivity to social injustice. Prejudice against Italians was often intense. Some of it had been stirred up by the Sacco and Vanzetti case, which people still talked about throughout my childhood.
The Sacco and Vanzetti case, profiled in Chapter 5, was one of the most notorious of the twentieth century. In 1920, a paymaster and guard transporting a factory payroll of just under $16,000 in South Braintree, Massachusetts, had been robbed and murdered. Two suspects were quickly rounded up and charged with the crime. Both were working-class Italian immigrants; Nicola Sacco was a shoemaker and Bartolomeo Vanzetti sold fish for a living. Based only on circumstantial evidence, they were convicted and sentenced to death in a trial lasting just a few weeks. Despite international outrage—demonstrators from Paris to Tokyo to Mexico City protested the unfairness of the trial—Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. Many still see their executions as a miscarriage of justice and blame anti-immigrant and anti-Italian prejudice.
With determination and hard work, I was able to overcome prejudice and realize another dream my parents had for me: to go to college. My interest in health issues and in social problems led me to choose a career path in hospital administration. My experience spanning many years as a hospital administrator, Public Health Advisor for the U.S. Public Health Service, and activist on behalf of judicial and political reform provides the backdrop for this book.
Much of my professional life as well as my community service has focused on helping clients and community members cut through the morass of deception and hype that ordinary Americans are confronted with every day—government bureaucracy, legal duplicity, deceptive advertising, financial scams, and the like. This experience has convinced me of the need for a succinct, readable book that surveys the major forms of deception people are likely to encounter and that offers strategies the average person can follow to minimize their risk.
In short, Diving Deep grew out of my experiences, research, much thought, and a strong desire to help others know how to find the truth. It’s the culmination of my lifelong passion for social justice and is meant to fill a need not filled by any other book.
A Practical Guide
This book is not intended to be a discourse on philosophical truth or certitude. It’s meant to be a practical guide on how to determine useful truths from the oral and written information presented to us. It’s written for ordinary people like you who have to make decisions every day about politics, jobs, finances, personal relationships—in short, about every aspect of your life. In the following pages, you’ll learn how to cut through the charade of words you hear and read in order to arrive at a basic stratum of truth. With this awareness, you’ll have the clarity of mind to form opinions and make decisions that are right for you.
Diving Deep has ten chapters and an appendix. Chapter 1, “Finding Truth,” lays the groundwork by providing basic definitions of truth, lies, spin, and other concepts. Chapter 2, “Propaganda: From Nazism to Soft-Drink Ads and Soft Porn,” is also foundational because it shows how propaganda underlies many other forms of deception. (You might be surprised to know, for example, that propaganda was an early term for advertising—or maybe you’re not surprised.) Chapter 3, “Big Brother, Brainwashing, and You,” takes George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a starting point and explores how brainwashing techniques are being used to deceive others in forums that go way beyond government interrogation sessions. Chapter 4, “The Brave New World of Advertising,” looks at the incursion of advertising and public relations in our lives. Chapter 5, “Media Bias and What You Can Do about It,” examines an ever-worsening problem in U.S. society and touches on some of the ways you can cut through it. Chapter 6, “Truth and Lies in Politics,” covers honesty and deception in the political arena. Chapter 7, “Bigots and Demagogues,” considers the extremes of hate and deception. Chapter 8, “The Legal Web,” discusses how ordinary people can become ensnared in the legal system and suggests some things you can do to avoid this trap. Chapter 9, “Fighting Scams,” focuses on recognizing and combating financial scams. Chapter 10, “Science: Not Always ‘Scientific,’” alerts you to the problems of scientific bias and fraud. Finally, an appendix titled “Diving Deep and Thinking Critically” ties the threads of the previous chapters together by providing a quick-reference guide to the critical-thinking skills you’ll need in your search for truth.
Supplementary materials in each chapter give you additional tools to help you achieve that goal. In the “Test Your Skills” boxes, you can apply what you’ve just learned to hypothetical cases of deception and fraud. At the end of each chapter, a “What You Can Do” section suggests actions you can take to address problems ranging from media bias to political deception to scientific fraud. “Further Reading” lists key works so you can follow up on topics you’re interested in.
I hope this book will give you the awareness as well as the resources to help you know the truth—your truth. By becoming more aware of the myriad forms of deception in our society and taking concrete steps to minimize their impact, you can also help build a better, more just society for everyone, just as Helen Gahagan Douglas managed to do despite the campaign of lies and character assassination Richard Nixon waged against her.
[i] Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA), eulogy delivered in the Senate on August 5, 1980, a few weeks after Douglas’s death; in Helen Gahagan Douglas’s memoir (published posthumously), A Full Life (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982), 418–419 (quote on 418).
[iv] “Defining Disinformation Dispensers,” editorial, Advertising Age, October 20, 1986, 17; quoted in David Shenk, Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 139.
[v] Cathy Peterson; quoted in Gina Sunseri, “Enron Victims Look Forward to Justice at Trial,” ABC News, January 30, 2006, www.abcnews.go.com/Business/LegalCenter/story?id=1556334.
[vi] Quoted in Mark Seal, “Madoff’s World,” Vanity Fair, April 2009, 124–135, 166–173 (quote on 134), www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2009/04/madoff200904.