(T.E. Lawrence aka: Lawrence of Arabia. Even the dressup was part of the sham)
Myths, it seems don't last for very long these days - sometimes they're debunked within hours. And with some myths, that's a good thing. But not so long ago myths, urban legends and wild flights of fancy stuck around long enough to become part of our national psyche, wound up become acknowledged facts which everybody seemed to know and swear by.
One of the earlier myths of the 20th century came in the guise of T.E. Lawrence, a British Army officer stationed in the Middle East during World War One. By all accounts he was your average officer - nothing too special or unusual. But somewhere along the line a legend grew up around him and, by all accounts, he was happy to oblige. Soon he became the stuff of books and rumors of his heroic exploits crammed the pages of magazines all over the world after the war.
But in 1956, a book was published exploding the myth and it started a controversy that raged for years - the basis of which still holds today. In February of 1956, NBC Radio as part of their New World series ran a panel discussion on the art of debunking and posed the question to a number of scholars both here and in England, where the Lawrence myth was alive and well.
Napier Wilt (English Professor-Dean of Humanities, Univ. of Chicago): “It seems to me that an attack on a popular hero should be taken for granted, ever since the 20s we rather assume that anybody who attains the heights to being a hero is going to be debunked within a week or two.”
A.J.P. Taylor (British historian): “The Lawrence myth, the buildup of Lawrence as a hero has been rather a sham affair, rather a made up affair all the time. As far back as I can remember there’ve been people writing, hysterically exaggerated books about Lawrence immediately after the (first World) war, if fact even during the first war popular magazines did it – he was deliberately plugged , and mind you he was very skillful at plugging himself. Nobody has been a smarter advertiser and I think that this heightening of the tempo – look at any of the pro-Lawrence biographies, look at the things in which say, Winston Churchill said about him, well they’re so grotesquely exaggerated that it’s not surprising that we get grotesque exaggeration on the other side.”
Grotesque exaggerations - sounds familiar.
What is a myth? What starts a myth and who gains from the myth.
With all the myths and urban legends currently floating around, and being shot down almost as fast as they are sent up, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the fine art of Debunking was all about in the 1950s.
Maybe there are similarities.