January 30, 2013
When Debe Terhar decided to share a Facebook post that included a cautionary quote on gun control attributed to Hitler, she inadvertently stirred a cauldron of questions. In the days that followed, we asked ourselves – and anyone else who cared to listen – “is it a sign she’s immature?” “Is it a sign she’s irresponsible?” “Is it a sign she’s just not that bright?”
For all the questions, we missed the one we should have asked first.
Is it true?
As President of the Ohio State Board of Education, Terhar’s Facebook repost brought her the sort of attention most of us wouldn’t have to deal with. Some of her fellow board members and a few politicians said she should step down, accusing her of linking President Obama with Hitler. Her boss, Gov. John Kasich, took her side and said she had learned a valuable lesson and we should all move on. Commentators across the state suggested that the bulk of those worked up about the situation were offended not by her post, but by the fact that it illustrated what side she has taken in the current national shouting match over whether or not we should place limits on gun ownership.
At some level, it was one of those teaching moments we all like to talk about. Apropos, I suppose, given Terhar’s role in education. We used the incident as a cautionary tale on the use of social media and the need to realize that people actually do read what you post. We discussed the divisive nature of contemporary politics and how it sullies every public debate. But we still missed the one lesson we all need desperately to learn: if you are going to repeat something, make sure it’s true.
In Terhar’s case, it wasn’t.
What Terhar posted was a quote: “To conquer a nation, one must first disarm its citizens.” In the posting, the quote was attributed to Adolf Hitler. There’s a good chance you saw the same quote posted on your own Facebook page in the past few weeks. I found it at least a half dozen times on my own page, in some cases by “friends” who should know better.
There is some debate over where the original quote may have come from and how it came to be attributed to Hitler, but there is no debating the fact that there is no record whatsoever of Hitler either speaking or writing those words, which means it is not true. It took me about five minutes of weeding through articles on Google to figure that out.
In that five minutes, I also learned that there are recorded quotes from Hitler that do give us a sense of his attitude toward an armed citizenry. Not surprisingly, it was that the people he considered the good guys – folks that looked and thought like him – should be allowed to have guns. The other people – Jews, gypsies and anyone else who might disagree with him – should not be allowed to have guns. I also learned that the German people had strict gun control imposed on them after World War I by the Treaty of Versailles and that Hitler actually loosened gun ownership laws for some – those aforementioned “good guys” in the Nazi world. It’s fair to argue that the quote sounds like something Hitler would have said. It’s also fair to argue that the disarming of minorities made them susceptible to the horrors of Hitler’s reign. It’s human to wish for a way the Holocaust could have been avoided. But fair and human are not what we’re talking about. It’s truth I wish we would demand.
Terhar acknowledged that she “did not research to check that the quote was accurate. Not sure everyone does.” In other words, the woman charged with steering the education of our state’s children didn’t really care if the statement she shared was true or not and suspects no one else does either. The saddest part of that is, she’s probably right.
The fact that no politician, educator or newspaper editorial board cared enough to delve into the validity of Terhar’s post is disturbing. As is the fact that I will receive a plethora of hate email tomorrow arguing that the quote was close enough to true to make its case. It had, in the relatively famous words of comedian Stephen Colbert, a “truthiness” about it.
Truthy isn’t good enough. We need to have the discipline to make sure what we share as truth is, indeed, true. We need to hold others to the same standard and when they fail to meet that standard, they need to be punished with derision and shame. This is not an issue of politics. Truth is not the property of the right or the left. It is a necessary element of honest debate and something we should hold as dear and sacred as our liberty.
And we need to remember that more often than not, bad men have risen to power on the propaganda of half-truths and lies. It was, after all, Hitler who said “It is not truth that matters, but victory.”
And I sincerely hope you do look that one up.