The better lesson of George Washington's cherry tree
There's more to the fable than the message that people of character don't lie
(Detail from ‘Parson Weems’ Fable,’ by Grant Wood, 1939, Amon Carter Museum of American Art)
Long before it became politically fashionable to dispute the myths of impeccable virtue that had grown around our nation’s founders, we figured out that George Washington probably did not, in fact, chop down a cherry tree when he was six years old and then promptly admit guilt to his annoyed father.
The story was first told by Mason Locke Weems, an itinerant preacher and bookseller, who quickly produced a profitable biography shortly after Washington’s 1799 death. “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet,” Weems quotes the little boy blurting out.
But the cherry tree tale did not appear until the fifth edition of the book, in 1806, and Weems credited an unnamed elderly woman who said she knew the family.If Parson Weems were a 21st-century journalist, of course, his editor would bark that a single anonymous source isn’t enough to make a story credible. Still, the tale of the chopped cherry tree, true or not, has endured for more than two centuries as the best-known anecdote about the Father of our Country, one even now faithfully related to children as a lesson in morality: Little George could not tell a lie, and neither should you.
Quaint idea, truth-telling, don’t you think? It’s a mark of how far we’ve fallen in our expectations of public servants that the leading contender for the presidential nomination of one of our two major political parties is an inveterate liar — or is he a congenital liar, or a sociopathic liar? — and he has a very good chance right now of being our president again come 2025. Certainly Donald Trump is in a class all his own, as we are reminded by his firehose of falsehoods that drenched a live CNN broadcast this week.But before we start comparing liars in politics — note, please, this week’s indictment of George Santos, no slouch as a prevaricator — we might want to reframe what sort of integrity, exactly, we ought to expect from those in public life.
Is it that they must speak the truth, with all the earnestness we imagined in young GW? Or do we simply need politicians to take responsibility for their actions? There’s a difference: Our democratic institutions can tolerate moderate fibbing, but when our leaders shirk responsibility for what they’ve done or need to do, our system is at risk.
In fact, most of the crises on our horizon could be solved if those who we’ve elected would shoulder their responsibilities. Let me offer three examples that just now threaten to upend whatever tranquility may remain for ourselves and our posterity, as our founders might have phrased it.
Take the looming crisis over the federal debt limit. For a member of Congress to vote against raising the debt ceiling in the coming weeks, no matter what excuse might be offered, would be like me declining to pay my credit card bill: “Yeah, I wanted to buy that stuff, but you mean I have to pay for it, too? Hah, sucker!”
One-fourth of today’s total federal debt was added during the Trump administration, some of it for Covid relief and a big chunk because of the drain on the Treasury from Trump’s tax cut, which mainly benefited higher-income taxpayers and corporations.Now the Republicans who control the U.S. House don’t want to pay those bills, though they’re happy to take credit for what the debt has bought, and though they joined Democrats in voting three times during the Trump years to raise the debt limit.
How can you vote to increase the debt, but then refuse to support the legislation that would allow the government to pay that debt? Only by blithely refusing to take responsibility for your actions. Maybe things would be better now if members of Congress (average age: 58) had taken a different message from the story of George Washington’s cherry tree caper in their childhood. “I can’t fail to do what’s right, Pa,” little George might have said. “You know I have to take responsibility for my own actions.”
The crisis on America’s southern border, likewise, is a direct result of lawmakers failing to take responsibility for an issue that has been confronting the nation for decades. Ten years ago, a bipartisan group of eight senators pulled together a comprehensive immigration package that cleared the Senate. It was a memorable moment, as key members of both parties — including Chuck Schumer among Democrats and Republicans Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham — took seriously the responsibility of a rich nation to temper the expectations and hopes of citizens of poorer countries in its hemisphere.
But demagoguery quickly took over. Conservative Republicans, empowered by the tea party movement of the time, saw more benefit in using immigration as a political cudgel than in solving the problem, and forced the House speaker, John Boehner, to pull the bill from the calendar. Even the bill’s authors retreated to the safer ground of appeasing primary voters who responded to exaggerated fears fueled by Fox News. Now it would be even harder to implement the solutions that in past years might have prevented the surge that is overwhelming our southern border. Blame should properly be assigned to those who refused to take responsibility for the matter when a solution was at hand.
And what about the nation’s epidemic of gun violence? You may blame the easy accessibility of firearms: With about 120 guns for every 100 citizens, the United States is the only country with more civilian-owned firearms than people, which can’t be coincidental with this being the only nation with so many gun crimes.Potential solutions were stymied after the Supreme Court in 2008 radically reinterpreted the 2nd Amendment, ruling 5-4 in the Heller case that individual citizens have a constitutional right to carry arms in self-defense, a view that had been rejected in hundreds of prior cases.
Supreme Court decisions don’t arise in a vacuum. Heller happened because nobody took responsibility for stopping the race-inspired four-decade arming of America. Only in the 1960s did gun rights begin to emerge as a potent issue -- after the Black Panthers advanced the notion of an individual’s right to be armed, which prompted the National Rifle Association to take the same stance. As the NRA accumulated political power, it reshaped the view of guns in America, notes Timothy Walbeck, director of Temple University’s Center for Anti-Racism: “That fear became baked into the propaganda for gun ownership that we still hear in a coded way today: ‘You need a gun because what happens if a scary Black person comes at you and you can’t defend yourself?’ ”
Where were the public officials who might have calmed Americans’ fears and turned down the heated rhetoric that made guns today the nation’s leading public health threat? Too many of them were eager to capitalize on racism and fear in their own drive to win and hold power.
And what about today’s lawmakers? Because Supreme Court justices have lifetime appointments, senators who stacked the court with a right-wing majority during the Trump administration have likely blocked the path for rethinking the murderous Heller ruling for a generation to come. An appropriate shouldering of responsibility for that offense might be a multi-pronged anti-violence initiative – including funds for public education and reinvestment in communities wracked by poverty, which often breeds violence. That, too, would require politicians to adopt a solutions-oriented approach, rather than responding to mass shootings with a shrug and a prayer.
In each of those issues — gun violence, immigration, the federal debt — it may seem naïve to expect our leaders to take responsibility for today’s challenges, since people seem to get re-elected even as they avoid the hard task of solutions. But a key impediment may be politicians’ own sense that it wouldn’t matter — that change won’t happen, anyway.
Social scientists have found that to be true in individuals: People are more likely to take responsibility for change based on how strongly they believe that change is possible, according to researchers at Stanford University.Tragically, today’s political dysfunction seems to be feeding on itself, causing politicians to lose initiative because they think they can’t be effective, anyway. Yet it has always been easier to blame somebody else for a problem than to take on the responsibility for your own role in the problem’s creation, or your opportunity to help shape its solution.
That’s not a phenomenon of just this era. “One of the most common tendencies of human nature,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, in a sermon he wrote in 1953, “is that of placing responsibility on some external agency for sins we have committed or mistakes we have made. We are forever attempting to find some scapegoat on which we cast responsibility for our actions.”
Maybe we wouldn’t be so inclined to do that if we had absorbed the more useful lesson from young George Washington’s misdeed with his hatchet — not only that it’s wrong to lie, but that it’s admirable to take responsibility for our own actions and for the tasks at hand.
Though, certainly, you could look back much further than colonial America if you want antecedent for today’s irresponsibility.
In the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden, Adam blames Eve for giving him the forbidden fruit. Eve, for her part, blames the serpent who enticed her. Apparently disgusted with the perfidy of his creation, God tells Adam, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Indeed. In the meantime, we have a chance to take responsibility for making things better. Or, of course, we could simply shrug off our failures, or blame others. Taking the latter course invites appropriately harsh judgment.
Slow learners, these humans.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Columbia, S.C. (The Greenville News, goupstate.com)
Columbia, Mo. (Columbia Daily Tribune, columbiatribune.com)
Carlsbad, N.M. (Carlsbad Current-Argus, currentargus.com)
Providence, R.I. (Providence Journal, providencejournal.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes each Wednesday, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Can secrecy bring back capital punishment in state?
South Carolina hasn’t executed a prisoner since 2011, largely because pharmaceutical companies stopped selling the drugs used for lethal injections. Meanwhile, courts are grappling with challenges to the state’s other two means of capital punishment: the firing squad and the electric chair. Now, reports Kathryn Casteel in The Greenville News, a bill is on the governor’s desk aimed at making executions easier, by imposing a legal shield that would hide the identities of pharmaceutical companies and drug manufacturers involved with lethal injection executions. The legislation states that any identifying information about a person or entity that participates in the planning or administration of an execution will be confidential, even through legal discovery. It also would make disclosure of such information about a former or current member of an execution team or their immediate family subject to imprisonment for up to three years. South Carolina spent around $56,000 in renovations to establish the firing squad last year.
School board member quits, saying state isn’t safe for her family
A member of the Columbia Board of Education has resigned, saying that state legislation aimed at LGBTQ+ students and their families has made Missouri an unsafe place for her transgender daughter. Board member Katherine Sasser said the family would be leaving Missouri, according to reporting by Roger McKinney in the Columbia Daily Tribune. "I'm afraid of classrooms whose bookshelves only represent one point of view, students who aren't free to show up as their full selves and educators not being trusted to make the decisions they need in order to serve each and every student under their care,” Sasser said, as she announced her decision.
Senate would strip protection for endangered prairie chicken
The lesser prairie chicken, a grouse species that once numbered in the millions across the West, has dwindled to perhaps 21,500 birds, according to reporting in the Carlsbad Current-Argus by Adrian Hedden. But a Republican-sponsored bill that passed the U.S. Senate 50-48 this week would rescind the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bird as “endangered,” and free the bird’s habitat for agriculture or oil and gas extraction. The bill’s sponsor, Kansas Republican Roger Marshall, said the Endangered Species Act is “another weaponized tool Biden is using to attack rural America,” and said he was proud “to stand up for our farmers and ranchers.” But Stephanie Kurose at the Center for Biological Diversity countered, "After waiting three decades for protection, this beautiful dancing bird deserves a fighting chance at survival.”
Big offshore wind farm advances, but not without opposition
A 65-turbine offshore wind farm got approval from Rhode Island state regulators this week, becoming the third such facility cleared for construction in America. Alex Kuffner reports in the Providence Journal that the joint project of a Danish company and a New England electric supplier will be built far offshore between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard. The vote came despite objections from fishermen, who say the project and others like it will shut them out of fishing grounds and cause economic losses in their industry. The approval of the Coastal Resource Management Council came conditioned on the creation of a $12.9-million fund to pay fishermen for any losses.
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ENDNOTE 05.13.23: You can’t treat Trump like all the rest
If I learned anything in my four decades plus in journalism, it’s that no one story is quite like any other. “Yeah, I’ve seen this before,” is the lazy journalist’s tired excuse for not listening closely. We have to resist the temptation to short-circuit the fair consideration of each story by applying a rigid rule of coverage that we’ve used before.
That applies to political stories, surely, even though we know that partisans will pounce on any deviation from a cookie-cutter approach to reporting. Especially when it comes to Donald Trump, though, we ought to recognize that, first, any fair reporting will result in Trumpian attacks (though not on the sycophants posing as journalists, as they grovel to please Trump’s right-wing base) and, second, that he does not follow the standards of any other politician — and so must be treated differently if journalists are to meet the goal of giving people a true picture of what lies beyond their own experience.
CNN should have understood that, which is what made this week’s live Town Hall featuring Trump a bit of journalistic malpractice. It’s not that the network shouldn’t have aired an interview with Trump, who hadn’t sat down with a CNN correspondent since 2016, nor that the correspondent, Kaitlan Collins, wasn’t capable. It’s that the format the network chose gave the ex-president leeway to spout lies and slip away from Collins’ most most determined efforts to elicit a shred of truth and insight. In a live interview format before an audience of only Republicans and known Trump supporters, it was impossible for Collins to counter Trump’s torrent of lies. He uttered few sentences that didn’t deserve a fact-check, but by the time one lie was countered, there were two more piled atop it. Tragically, his howlers have consequences: People believe him and therefore vote for him. You can watch him for the spectacle — did he really say that? — until you realize that he could become president again, and potentially upend what stability remains in the world. He is a threat to democracy.
Journalism doesn’t always benefit by speed, and that’s true when covering something live. Giving Trump a live shot means giving up the opportunity to check untruths and insert facts. By his proven record of deceit, Trump has yielded any claim to the privilege of instant access to an audience assembled by a private enterprise (like CNN).
Although it’s not the image conveyed by movies and TV shows, it’s true that thoughtful journalists make allowances for individual circumstances all the time: We slow down our questioning for someone who has trouble understanding or speaking; we try to be gentle with people who are bereaved. In the same way, we need to handle Donald Trump’s mental state appropriately. Recognizing that he almost surely displays narcissistic personality disorder, we need to modify our behavior to avoid making all the citizens of the country its victims.
Yes, Trump partisans will scream. But our responsibility is to the whole community, and to the fact that this democracy’s future may hinge on how well journalists do their jobs throughout this particular election.
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It needs to be read by more people, quickly!
Profound summary of where we are. If only our politicians would read and heed what you wrote.