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History rewritten to make us feel good

Funny how books you’ve had for a while suddenly seem to jump from the shelves and speak to the present.

You’ve read or thumbed through them, and perhaps forgotten them. Then, years later, the titles either resonate anew or take on different meaning, commanding you to revisit their pages.

That happened recently with “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” a 1995 monograph by James W. Loewen that he subtitled: “Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.”

Aha! There it was, another reminder that today’s most persuasive American history teacher -- one often telling especially big whoppers -- is television. Yes, from its lips to your ears, home delivery of tall stories deluxe. In one headline-making case, a war story.

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Think New York and Hollywood as a Coalition of the Willing to Do Anything for a Buck.

Think heroes, and the assembly belt that delivers them.

Think Jessica Lynch.

When you cover a beat for as long as some of us have, you achieve clairvoyance. So take this to the bank.

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* The Jessica Lynch-is-a-hero convoy won’t be stopped soon.

* Coming TV movies about her will contain substantial fantasy without identifying the fantasy. It may even present her story “Rashomon"-style, juxtaposing conflicting accounts, but in doing so clearing up nothing.

* They will attract huge audiences because Americans want heroes, choose them arbitrarily with a big assist from the media, and Lynch now fits the bill, even if stories about her heroism turn out to be greatly inflated, if not mythical.

* By making Lynch an all-American metaphor epitomizing the best of us, the TV movies will yield a pro-war rub-off, bulking up support for the U.S. decision to invade Iraq.

Theatrical movies also burn in searing historical images that shape our perceptions of the past in powerful ways, influencing our feelings about the present. Yet ...

From the credible documentaries of “American Experience” on PBS to the incredible distortions of fact by many small-screen movies, TV for years has been this culture’s greatest pop historian, claiming to beam enlightenment to the multitudes.

It’s a pat on the back NBC and A&E; will surely give themselves when airing their planned movies about 20-year-old Lynch, ripped-from-war, quickie biographies likely to contain at least as much fiction and speculation as fact.

But do these opportunists care? Nah.

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TV biographies have a history of addiction to fable. The genre took one of its biggest hits in the early 1990s when ABC, CBS and NBC aired separate movies about Amy Fisher within a week, giving conflicting accounts of events leading to the so-called Long Island Lolita’s shooting of Joey Buttafuoco’s wife.

In its own way, the scramble to splash unauthorized versions of Lynch’s story onto the screen is even more cynical.

“All made-for-TV movies based on fact have some fiction in them,” Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, said recently. Well, that’s comforting to know.

Not surprisingly, Zucker went on to anoint Lynch as “heroic,” even though the smoke of spin still obscures what happened to the Army private from Palestine, W.Va., during the Iraq war, when she was captured, hospitalized and later liberated by U.S. commandos.

In effect lip-synching the Pentagon, much of the media initially reported Lynch had courageously resisted her captors with her finger on the trigger, making her sound almost like Sgt. York, while extending hero status to her and the Americans who brought her out.

These days, however, just about all accounts of what happened are in dispute to some degree, and a BBC report -- refuted by the Pentagon -- last month called the initial version of the story “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived.”

Was it? You won’t learn the answer here. Or from Lynch, at least for the time being. She is recovering in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where opportunists from publishing and TV hover nearby, hoping to make a deal for her authorized story. And where she is said to have no memory of what happened to her -- the very events that NBC and A&E; are preparing to depict.

This is where Loewen’s message applies, even though his focus is elsewhere. It’s on the American history taught in classrooms, and how tedious much of it is to students even after being candied and glaceed to ease digestion.

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Take Christopher Columbus, iconic star of movies as well as history volumes. “When textbooks paint simplistic portraits of a pious, heroic Columbus, they provide feel-good history that bores everyone,” Loewen writes in a chapter offering largely unflattering views of the Italian explorer’s colonizing efforts, while avoiding the trap of judging him by contemporary standards.

Loewen may be wrong about overcooked heroes causing boredom. For many viewers, the bigger the faux, the bigger the fun. But he offers much to chew on in his opening chapter laying out “heroification, a degenerative process (much like calcification) that makes people over into heroes.”

One he cites is Helen Keller. College students he asked about Keller knew, from their readings, that she was a “blind and deaf girl” who later did good things for others, but not that she was a “radical socialist” throughout her adult life. You can extrapolate from this that a humanist triumphing over adversity is a simpler concept to grasp -- affirmed by Keller’s depictions on stage and screen -- than a complex adult driven by radical politics.

No women could be less alike than Helen Keller and Jessica Lynch. When the entertainment industry’s long reach is factored in, however, the gap narrows.

Lynch may deserve her star treatment. If she does, it’s a great saga. On the other hand, she may not. And there is nothing more absurd than a movie granting this sainthood prematurely, when Jessica’s full story appears unknown even to Jessica.

*

Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@latimes. com.


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