We can handle the truth
THIS month saw the most unpleasant group photograph of 2016. It featured Donald Trump and Nigel Farage standing in front of the vulgar golden gates that guard the entrance to Mr Trump’s opulent New York residence. Flanked by their sinister confederates, these two children of immigrant families, both married to foreigners, were celebrating the success of campaigns in which they vilified immigrants, stirred up resentment against neighbours and undermined the very institutions, national and international, that have given security and peace to their nations. These exponents of the lie direct concentrated on real and imaginary fears to blame others for the misfortunes and grievances of those who feel left behind in this fast-changing world.
Their success depended upon the willingness of the press and the public to ignore evidence, distrust experts and deny facts. Truth has been the casualty on both sides of the Atlantic and looks seriously challenged in the forthcoming French and German elections. ‘What is truth,’ said Pilate and would not stay for an answer—but he did know there was an answer and that’s why he wouldn’t stay. Truth would challenge his assumptions and so he moved on.
The parallel with Britain’s popular newspapers is all too exact. Apologising in the small print for wholly fictitious headlines has become a daily occurrence. Many ‘journalists’ don’t go out to seek stories, but sit behind screens, tailoring the information of others to produce articles that fit in with the prejudices of their paper and its proprietor. They do not ask what is the truth, but what is the story.
For decent politicians, this is a serious challenge—they weren’t trusted in the first place. It was assumed that they told lies. After all, the newspapers have been saying that for years. And, sometimes, it’s true, but the Stonehouses, Aitkens and Hanningfields are a tiny minority. Much more typical would be Ken Clarke, Hilary Benn or Shirley Williams, for whom truth matters and who could honestly say they hadn’t told a public lie in their political lives. You don’t have to agree with them, but they represent the dominant tradition in British politics. Flawed like all of us, they went into public life to improve the society into which they were born and the lives of the people they were called to represent.
Mr Trump’s campaign turned its back on all that. He said what he thought would appeal. Truth played no part in the expression of his views. He never did reveal those tax returns lest they would blow apart the view of himself he had manufactured. Whether it was the Mexican wall, his treatment of women or his part in the ‘birthing’ libel, the lie direct was his constant weapon. His success is a serious blow to standards in public life around the globe. If blatant dishonesty can win election to the most powerful job in the world, what hope have we of encouraging and insisting upon hearing the truth from any of our representatives?
And hearing is the operative word. Cardinal Newman defined truth as what the listener heard and not what the speaker said. There is nothing subtle about Mr Trump’s lies. What he says and what you hear are identical. However, in this post-truth age, there are many others who frame their words in order to convey a false impression. The lie implied is as much a lie as the lie direct. And we all have to learn that once more if our democracy is to recover. Whether it’s getting Leveson implemented or rejecting lying politicians, we must insist that commitment to truth is a prerequisite of power.
We must insist that commitment to truth is a prerequisite of power
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