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Notes on Truth and Political Liars

I liked Andrew’s piece on truth and politics, considering how much lucid mileage he gets out of a political truism. The problem with the subject is to my eye largely nominal: truth as a concept (of facts, realities, things that are) simply has no place in politics, and never has. To my eye, politics is a form of relativism of power masquerading as perspective: politics as a power of representation married to interpretations without reference to absolute or distinct ideals of truthfulness. Truth is an idea too austere, too removed from the malleable, dirty little half-truths of politics. Truth is out. It is slightly obscene to talk about truth in politics because truth is and always has been at odds with power. The spectrum of politics is governed by Macchiavellianism on one side and genuine representative lobbying power on the other, with various shades of party in-fighting in between (mostly to do with leadership and jockeying for votes on bills). Truth is meaningless without interpretative spin and power. And further, politics is the garb and dress of seemingly necessary decisions whose sources are often totally at odds with public wellbeing or opinion. We had to go to war because... we had to lift embargoes and tariffs because... we had to free up media ownership because... And ultimately, well, because decisions had to be made and y’all need leadership, so it ain’t gonna be pretty. You, the people, after all, gave us the mandate to do so.

And lies, well, the politicians’ daily fair ain’t so much purely dishonest lying (in relation to truths, facts or special interest intepretations) as a discrete and banal form of dissembling, or disingenousness. The polite dressing up and presentation of half truths to disguise the source of the interpretation or interest, whether it’s industrial lobbying or the party line or any of a hundred forms of corruption. The off chance a politician is being genuinely honest and direct about a difficult decision is meaningless in the face of the sheer amount of perspectivising and spin the pull off every other time (unless, of course, they are the underdog in opposition). It makes politicians great untrusted relativisers and jargon-jockeys (just like lawyers, corporate directors etc. Ever noticed how many big politicians are or were lawyers?) and hence actors working in a fictive (because dishonestly representing facts etc) realm where the media, importantly, plays a strongly supportive role. Any ethics or statesman-like qualities or aristocratic mien a politician might have had up until the early 60s has been totally shafted by the new doctrine of image management and information control. These are the twin axes upon which the spun veracity and the hypocritical dissembling of politics runs today. Elections aren’t won on promises but strong images of leadership and controlled campaigning. Politicians play mercy to their hacks when they conveniently need a fall guy. Politicians now don’t explicitly “misinform” the public, they were misinformed themselves. (I know, how much more obvious a charade can there be? How can they continually mine the gullibility of the public? It’s all down to savvy media presentation. It’s a politico-media system, our system of governance and values) The only real danger to a politician is bad legal advice, which could lead to unexpected or irrational media representation and tainting. Even then Blair got away with a hokey legal case for war. Most wars are illegal anyway. The moral cases for war are allmost all constructed and deeply irrational shambles of thought and self-interested ideology (the word ‘poontang’ springs to mind).

Now more than ever, we live in fictive times. For the public this is largely a glossed-over issue since the media excels at covering its mediation; and what seems like an honest statement is more likely a deliberately conceived act, or a play at truthfulness. But it registers in the broad distrust and cynicism that’s out there, in the powerlessness most people feel even though there’s still great capacity for change and empowerment. (On a tangent, I can’t wait for the popular artist who’s going to mine the seething distrust of American politics and the war and represent the subjective force of the Second Superpower as an expression of artistic conscience.)

So in a way I’m amazed there’s still so much to be said for the case of politicians and truth. These are downright Nietzschean times. There’s so many other perspectives and precedents to draw here: Nixon (probably the most modern of politicians in terms of his naked greed, corruption and irrationality); Churchill downplaying the real carnage of war to prevent public outcry; the way the ‘fragile network’ idea of modern telecommunications, connectivity and globalism fosters not only greater threat from minority interests but actively encourages politicians to seek out greater secrecy and non-disclosure, and hence a broader package of themes and excuses to cover it (the War of Terror being a prime example). Or the fact that to a politician, an untruth does not equal an error (and the great lost idea of accountability, or statesmanship, or dialogue etc). Or the continuing fascination of Spin. Or the prevalence of the Bad Egg argument when the problem is really systemic (Rumsfeld and Abu Graib, Rumsfeld and Guantanamo).

The first thing I jotted down on a stickie when I read Andrew’s piece was this: in terms of honour and accountability, do lying or disingenuous politicians matter in a world that’s bent and crooked? The more perspectives I open up, the more I’m starting to unify and join the dots on them all (and I got a few coming), the more disgusted I am at the state of this world, and the passive participation in the broad dissembling and mediation which holds it all together.

posted by rino breebaart  # 11:13 pm
Rino, cheer up! Sounds like the world's got you a bit down. You're right to emphasise the role of the mass media in all of this - it's crucial to understanding the modern relationship between truth and politics. And as a society I think we're still coming to terms with the nature of the beast; the mass media has only been with us for less than a hundred years. Which may also explain why the whole system is so convoluted, contradictory and at times just plain absurd. But there are limits - the media and its politicians can only live in their own constructed fantasy world for so long before other realities begin to intrude. This is both terrifying, because the crack up may take the form of ecological or social catastrophe; but it's also a source of hope and change, assuming that catastrophe can be avoided.

- Andrew
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Alternatively, read about it at: The Slow Review or the long blog. Or even Nurture Health

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