This last Thanksgiving, a pair of bald eagles caused me to wonder why we are so comfortable with lies.
I spent the holiday with six members of my family at an isolated cabin on a northern Minnesota lake. The cabin sits on a small point which is dotted by old-growth White Pines, providing an attractive roosting spot for bald eagles. On this visit, as on others, I heard eagles calling in the treetops. The call of a bald eagle is an odd, breathy, whistle. A series of short staccato chirps indicates the bird is roosting or nesting, while a longer cry is issued in flight. The call it makes in flight is wild and thrilling, but it is not the sound most people associate with this beautiful bird. The eagle's cry, as most Americans know it, is a lie.
The cry we associate with the bald eagle is actually a red-tailed hawk. I have heard the fake eagle call many times, on NBC, on Fox, and embedded in patriotic footage issued by various political interests. The Colbert Report also uses this sound (ironically, perhaps) in the intro to the show. The call is typically dubbed over majestic footage of an eagle soaring. The red-tailed hawk has a clear, yearning cry, the sound made by the phoenix as it soars up from its ashes and grazes a wingtip against the clear, Aeolian sky. Next to the red-tail, the bald eagle's call sounds akin to that of an asthmatic loon. (Do loons get asthma? This is what they might sound like if they did.) By itself, however, the eagle's cry is stirring and eldritch, fitting to the bird's appearance.
Why should anyone lie about the call of the eagle? Who knows? Probably some spectacle-obsessed TV broadcast jerk substituted the hawk call during a hasty production that depicted the national symbol. Somehow a precedent was set and it became the standard.
Perhaps the sound of the bald eagle used on TV is understandable. The TV broadcast industry simply attempts to deliver whatever is most likely to keep us watching in order to deliver our attention to the show's sponsors. Forget the motivation behind TV's depiction of the bald eagle for a moment; I am actually more interested in our response to it. Why would production houses assume that we, as media consumers, are more likely to prefer a depiction of our national symbol that is inherently false? I have spoken to a number of people about this, and few of them see it as a big deal.
Maybe it isn't a big deal. As unquenchable consumers of media content we simply accept much of what we see. An attractive lie is a powerful tool to get people organized, or to keep a rival group disorganized. Lies about one group of people have been used throughout human history to create unity within another group. Don't think that we have to invoke Nazis here; this is a standard political tactic. Think about the demonizing of liberals in the early 1980s. To concentrate power under the Republican banner, the Reagan administration launched a focused and successful campaign to make "liberal" a smear word. Liberal politicians soon began flailing to define themselves for over two decades, while Republicans organized, developed influence over the media markets, cultivated conservative images, and created strong, simple catchphrase concepts that appealed to the masses. It is one of the most successful examples of organized political spin in the last century. It is hardly the only instance, however. "Us and them" lies have been used to create solidarity in every war ever fought. We absolutely love these lies. They make us God's chosen people and because of that we defend them fiercely. Campaigns throw these types of lies around frequently, because when one sticks it really is something special to behold. Generating a lie that unites people creates perpetual motion. It is political gold.
Of course those are the big ones, carefully crafted in an attempt to control groups of people. We may repeat them to ourselves but they are generated externally. Let us not forget the personal lies we grasp at regularly, such as the lies we tell ourselves and our partners in a relationship. Why does the abused partner remain in the house? Why does the spouse of an active alcoholic stick around? There is the lie of a philanderer stating to his mistress for the umpteenth time that he will leave his marriage, and the lie to the wife that it will never happen again. He loves me. She will change for me. He really isn't like that. Somehow the lie of hope is preferable over the demands of indifferent reality.
And what about the little lies fed to us? Why do we bite? You might well ask why are willing to believe anything that makes us feel better about ourselves. Why do we act differently in front of a mirror? Posture and facial expressions change when passing a mirror because it makes us happier with our self image. It is a lie, perhaps, but we do it to feel better. Why do we forward strident e-mails warning others of new, frightening schemes employed by carjackers, rapists, child molesters, gang members, political enemies, etc.? We pass along these lies because it makes us feel safer or perhaps a bit heroic by making others safer. The feeling these little lies give us is more important to us than the truth. It's not just a cliché. We can't handle the truth.
As with other lies, lies of imagery are nothing new. Oil portraits of the aristocracy have always been flattering to the subject. The broad acceptance of photography was ultimately wedded to the talent of the airbrush, and later to the magic of the computer. It cannot be denied that skilled, artistic manipulation can bring out the true essence of a photograph, but thanks to graphics software a democratic revolution is taking place in the lies we can create about our lives, about what we experience. Yes, the landscape was that green, I really looked that young, her skin was that clear and tan. There is no doubt in my mind that cave drawings exaggerate the exploits of Paleolithic hunters, the tusks of the mammoth, the size of the herd.
So back to the bald eagle. With all the lies we encounter every day -- advertisements, political distortions, media hyperbole, the large and small lies we tell ourselves and others -- why should it matter that we pretend a national symbol to be something it is not?
It is this: There is something else that is just as essential to human nature as lying, and that is our thirst for truth. The two sit in balance within us, a yin and yang of veracity. One helps us in our quest to deal honestly and effectively with the world around us while the other gives us respite from it. More than that, the balance between these impulses makes us great storytellers, and time and again it is shown how great fiction can illuminate truth. The lie becomes a problem only when it interferes with our quest for truth.
Most intelligent people can admit that no individual sees the world as it truly is. Our own hopes, fears, limitations and prejudices are always there, shielding us from more reality than we can absorb. There is no "keeping it real." We are all spin doctors, and the more we stay aware of that fact the more we can employ our innate love of the lie in the service of seeking truth. The lie is important, but everyone needs to take a long, honest look in the mirror from time to time.
Dubbing the red-tail's cry in place of the bald eagle's does not serve the purpose of illuminating the truth, although exposing it does reveal something about America's self image. The lie of the eagle's cry inflates the image of our nation solely for the purpose of our own vanity. It is the lie of the guilty politician denying wrongdoing, the lie of the abuser promising himself and his bruised spouse never again, never again. It is the lie we find important because it symbolizes the cover-up of something unspeakable. In these cases, the truth is more important than the lie. As a symbol of our nation, and as a breathtaking wild creature, the bald eagle deserves the same consideration.