Viewpoint: The Truth at Stake


Okay, it's pop quiz time. Can you identify Joan of Arc? Time's up. If you said that Joan was "the Maid of Orleans"—a poor peasant girl who rallied France militarily during the Middle Ages—you're wrong. If you added that she was a "saint" who was burned at the stake, you're still no more than technically right (about the saint part) but dead wrong about the burning. Sorry, you don't win the refrigerator.

This example provides delicious proof that you can't believe what you read in the papers (or even in the history books). Not when some powerful group has a strong incentive to concoct evidence and analysis to make you think that essential relationships are other than they are.

Back to Joan. No peasant, she. It turns out, in fact, that she was the daughter of Queen Isabeau of France and Louis d'Orleans, brother of Charles VI. (The good king was a bit mad, which may explain either why or how his brother came to father his wife's daughter). Joan was a princess—illegitimate, perhaps, but a princess nonetheless. Which goes a long way toward explaining how she was able to appear on the scene in the dramatic way she did and why she was so eager to have the Dauphin Charles crowned king. He was her half-brother (and perhaps even her three-quarters-brother, if one wants to be genetically precise).

Alas, her enthusiasm for the cause was impolitic, as a number of French historians have now sorted out—from the safe distance of 550 years. By insisting that her brother be crowned king, she was gumming up negotiations between Charles and the Due de Bourgonne. More or less like a Jesse Helms–type pushing for "victory over communism" when the Republican president is seeking reelection on the strength of arms-control negotiations.

Joan was captured and tried and condemned by the Inquisition. As a princess, she could not be executed; so she was taken secretly to Rouen and held there until a peace treaty was finally concluded between her brother and the duke. Soon after Charles VII entered Paris in April 1436, Joan turned up near Metz. An archivist has actually uncovered a safe-conduct for Cologne made up in her name in 1436—five years after she was allegedly burnt at the stake. (The hooded woman who was burnt that day probably was just a peasant maid, which is why no one has ever heard of her.)

Enough five-century-old gossip. What shines through is the sparkle of truth, so mucked over by politically inspired distortions that its ever coming to light is a miracle. As a conservator of the Bibliotheque Nationale said, it "seems to be veiled behind one of the greatest acts of mass brainwashing…of the past few centuries." (Only a librarian would refer to events in the 1430s as of "the past few centuries," as if he were talking about something just around the corner; but let that go.)

The thing to hold onto is the realization that mass brainwashing is going on constantly. Around the clock. It's not merely done by big shots in medieval courts. It's everywhere. Before most events can be understood, the facts must be ironed out, got at in roundabout ways. And most people, who cannot spare time and attention for doping out the truth, will be as gullible as French school children listening in their classrooms to the legend of Joan the Maid, simple peasant who could hear the whispers of God.

One gets the same sort of fantasy every morning in the Washington Post, but on a hundred different subjects so dull that no one will ever sell the movie rights. From London comes word that some character, who once made a living as the secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, has come to the startling conclusion that there is slavery in London. In Mayfair, even. He probably really believes it. Then there's more drivel from Hobart Rowen about the evils of airline deregulation. He's armed with charts and diagrams to "prove" how the consumer is being stiffed, all kindly prepared by soon-to-be-unemployed airline economists. People believe these things.

Thousands of public-relations experts are employed directly by the government to cultivate the perception that whatever its agencies do is indispensable. Who's going to bother spending hundreds of millions to show otherwise? Answer: Nobody. The flacks in Washington could get somebody sainted—as was done with Joan in France earlier in this century—if there were a political advantage in it. (They have to be careful of the Baptist vote.)

The way most people see life—at least in its distant and abstract relationships, such as those involved in politics and the economy—is the product of a sad arithmetic. Sound, dispassionate analysis plays little part in it. When the Food and Commercial Workers go on strike, they tell the whole world not to buy Chicken McNuggets. "They're made in unsanitary conditions!" The same process produced The Jungle and the perception that free markets lead to putrid meat. Every USDA inspector in Chicago could be certifying that swamp possum was fancy-quality ground sirloin—and it would be 500 years before patient historians could sort out the truth. Such is the profound imbalance of incentives. There is no countervailing group of "un-inspectors" whose descendants will find employment "un-inspecting" the alleged failures of the market.

We ought to rephrase John Maynard Keynes's famous exaggeration about the influence of ideas on events. Mad men, or mad maids, who hear voices in the air don't distill their frenzy from defunct economists. They're just suckers for a press release.

Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union and the author of The Squeeze.