July 20 will be the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, a day of achievement, hope and pride for Americans that seems very long ago and far away in the bleak cynicism of 2014. As I was pondering how to note the landmark in an ethics context, I remembered a section of a post on the Ethics Scoreboard that dealt with the controversy surrounding Armstrong’s famous quote upon placing his foot on the moon’s surface. Here it is, my earliest foray into what has become a frequent theme on Ethics Alarms, “print the legend” ethics:
“When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.”
This cynical endorsement of our culture’s preference for soothing fantasy over harsh historical truth was the intentionally disturbing message of John Ford’s film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” But rejecting Ford’s grizzled old newspaper editor’s warped ethic does not justify the equally objectionable modern practice of using spurious logic to substitute one dubious historical account for another. Even more ethically suspect is the common practice of replacing an accepted, well-supported version of an historical event with a “new improved” version that exists less because of its accuracy than because of its advocates’ biases….
An Australian computer programmer says he has discovered that Neil Armstrong’s first words after he stepped onto the moon in 1969, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” were misquoted by NASA, misheard by millions of listeners around the world, and printed incorrectly in the history books. For decades, wags have criticized Armstrong for botching his iconic moment, since “man” and “mankind” mean the same thing, so the literal meaning of his famous words would be “One small step for man, one giant leap for man.” Armstrong has sometimes grudgingly acknowledged his gaffe and at other times maintained that he thought he included the elusive “a.” He hasn’t fought the consensus verdict very vigorously, as represented by NASA’a transcript:
109:24:48 Armstrong: That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind. (Long Pause)…
But Peter Ford claims that he found the missing “a” by analyzing the NASA audio through a special computer program. Armstrong is, of course, delighted, and corrections to all the accounts are now underway. Yet nobody actually heard the new version of his statement (“One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”), at the time he supposedly said it, which is the usual requirement for famous quotations. A notable exception, though fictional, is Charles Foster Kane’s last word “Rosebud!” which launches the plot in “Citizen Kane” that follows a reporter’s fevered search to find out what he meant. Kane utters the name of his cherished childhood sled as he dies alone. How did anyone find out what he said?
Listening to the tape, one is struck by the non-existent space between between “for” and “man,” as well as the long pause Armstrong takes after “man,” during which you can almost hear him thinking, “Rats! I said that wrong! Should I start again? No, that would sound terrible…maybe nobody will notice…” before he continues with “…one giant leap for mankind.”
Shouldn’t the quote that is preserved for history be what was said, rather than what the speaker intended to say or wishes he had said? The man was landing on the moon; he was excited and nervous and didn’t give the perfect quote. So what? Everyone knew what he meant; everyone knows today. If Armstrong had said, “One small step…Yippeeee! We made it!!!” would we record what he had planned to say?
I agree that ignoring the truth to “print the legend” is wrong, but before we discard an established historical account, it is only right to hold the proposed new version to a higher standard of reliability. Too often the primary virtue of a revised historical account isn’t that it is proven or well-supported, but that it serves someone’s agenda.
When that is the real motivation, Ford’s old newspaper editor is right.
“Print the legend.”