The search for truth in politics…

…life and art, with nods to Monty Python, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Hannah Arendt. Also, what can the Vietnam War teach us about Brexit? Are there general symptoms of a bad government policy which we should be on the lookout for? Plus, Cambridge Analytica videos.

Lies Mar UK Election Results

With apologies to Boris boosters, there remains some question in my mind as to whether Johnson really has a ‘mandate from the people’ to do anything he pleases (as many in the media are claiming). To the extent that the election was marred by lies, he may lack an ethical mandate; and even some Tory voters would question his entitlement to autocratic carte blanche.

Consider this in the Independent: “Almost every Tory ad dishonest, compared with none of Labour’s, research finds.” And note well this comment by ‘Dianelos’:

It has become quite evident that democracy has stopped being an effective means, as exemplified by how people in countries such as the US and the UK (not to mention Greece) have voted against their interest and have given power to completely inadequate and indeed grossly immoral leaders. The reasons for that phenomenon are complex and the discussion of how to improve the democratic process is both difficult and urgent. But some corrective steps can be taken quickly: One obvious and significant reason for democracy’s affliction is that lying has become a legitimate tool of politics because voters often recompense those politicians who lie. Things have deteriorated so much that some have come to admire as especially successful those politicians who become popular thanks to lies that people like to hear. One solution to this problem is to criminalize lying. Since it’s not always clear whether politicians lie because they wish to con people or because they are just misinformed themselves, I’d say the appropriate punishment rendered by a court of law would be to strip the offenders of their right to be candidates for political office.

And since it’s not just politicians but also media organizations which systematically misinform the people the punishment in that case should be a heavy fine. Media organizations are private companies looking to make a profit, and unfortunately to misinform people is often an effective way to make money. This distortion of capitalism can be corrected by legal means.

In both cases justice should be rendered very quickly – within a matter of days. So a new kind of court would be needed. But it is doable.

There are some good ideas here — and some difficulties. Politicians often include microscopic scraps of truth along with a passel of exaggerations and mischaracterisations. Those scraps of truth are meant (in theory) to shield them from being branded outright liars. They may spin the truth in a variety of ways, including emphasising irrelevant details over crucial ones. I’m reminded of the classic Monty Python cheese shop sketch, in which a customer enters the shop only to gradually discover that no matter what kind of cheese he asks for, the owner claims it’s out of stock. After awhile:

Customer: It’s not much of a cheese shop really, is it?
Owner: Finest in the district, sir!
Customer: And what leads you to that conclusion?
Owner: Well, it’s so clean!
Customer: It’s certainly uncontaminated by cheese.

One can picture a scenario where the UK economy has tanked post-Brexit, but Boris Johnson continues to claim that it’s humming along on all four cylinders due to a ‘fantastic’ free trade deal with Swaziland: “They’ll be sending us goat meat, and we’ll be sending them videos of Downton Abbey.”

That’s as may be (said the man in the crunchy frog sketch), but deals with Swaziland, Sierra Leone, Lichtenstein, Grand Fenwick, and other smallish countries are unlikely to offset losses from lapsed trade deals with major partners. Beautiful plumage, the Norwegian Blue. Yes, but it’s dead. (See also this regarding the ‘blue-lipped bojo.’)

If lying is criminalised, how much truth is needed to act as a fig leaf? Separating out the convoluted claims of politicians isn’t always easy. Said claims aren’t always reducible to the binaries of true and false, but rather invite us to ponder “How many Pinocchios does this claim deserve?” (Boris Johnson collects Pinocchios the way some people collect swizzle sticks.)

Truth is a concept which deeply engages ethicists, civil libertarians, historians, and spiritual seekers. “What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate of Jesus in that famed confrontation. Historians know that truth is determined by the victors. In times of excessive populism truth is determined by the mob, drowning out more reflective views from the margins, including spiritual insights which might serve as cautionary tales. (Under Boris Johnson, will 10 Downing Street become a place “where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal”?

It might be relatively easy to criminalise the telling of massive, Trump-sized porkies, but questions requiring nicety of judgment would still remain elusive. Judges are, after all, lawyers installed through a political process; and juries consist of lay people who may themselves fall victim to popular prejudices. Can a judge and jury determine the existence or non-existence of God, or ferret out the differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism? Waxing Pythonish again: “Tonight, instead of discussing the existence or non-existence of God, they have decided to fight for it… To be determined by two falls, two submissions, or a knockout. All right boys, let’s get to it. Your master of ceremonies for this evening – Mr Arthur Waring.”

There’s clearly a need for greater truth in our collective societies, but we do run up against the postmodern dilemma of having no ultimate authority, no final referee. People must be free to discuss different ideas, different theoretical constructs and life experiences without fear of prosecution. In these debased times, we may well ask whether any but a small minority even care for truth. See “The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Sources.”

Does truth itself partake of a multidimensional quality or ‘fusion of horizons’ in which seeming opposites might be reconciled? Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics calls for skills like listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy — skills which are conspicuous by their absence in today’s political climate, where truth is determined by which colour rosette you’re wearing.

For more on Gadamer, see Art and Hermeneutics Part 1 and Part 2, where I try to provide a fun introduction to some challenging concepts, while learning myself. A footnote is that it’s easier to reconcile opposing truths in art than it is in politics. What was it F. Scott Fitzgerald said? “An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional.” As I wrote previously:

Music is far more instructive than, say, a polarized political debate for understanding [Gadamer’s] fusion of horizons. In the typical political debate to which we are subjected, two politicians with fixed points of view slug it out, neither hearing the other or learning from the other, and neither being changed by the other’s point of view. But music by its very nature requires cooperative skills. Rather than treating the other as the enemy, a sensitive musician fuses with the other and counters in a manner which presents the other in the best light.

Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics has a distinctly modern feel to it because it implies the abandonment of the fixed point of view clutched fiercely (and leading to strife or warfare). In its place, we are offered (as a people) the opportunity to engage in listening, dialogue and empathy, and to experience a fusion of horizons which allows us to understand what we had perhaps previously regarded with consternation, suspicion or hostility.

Gadamer’s approach is well-suited to the global village. It is recognized as anti-dogmatic in nature and humble in its awareness that the other’s viewpoint may be equally valid. It carves out a helpful middle ground between absolutism and relativism, holding out hope that through dialogue we might gain essential insights that would allow us to live together, respecting diversity without obliterating difference.

Kurt Vonnegut was no great beacon of truth, but in his novel The Sirens of Titan he did reframe the search for some unified field theory in this fetching manner:

Almost any brief explanation of chrono-synclastic infundibula is certain to be offensive to specialists in the field. Be that as it may, the best brief explanation is probably that of Dr. Cyril Hall, which appears in the fourteenth edition of A Child’s Cyclopedia of Wonders and Things to Do. The article is here reproduced in full, with gracious permission from the publishers:

Chrono-Synclastic Infundibula — Just imagine that your Daddy is the smartest man who ever lived on Earth, and he knows everything there is to find out, and he is exactly right about everything, and he can prove he is right about everything. Now imagine another little child on some nice world a million light years away, and that little child’s Daddy is the smartest man who ever lived on that nice world so far away. And he is just as smart and just as right as your Daddy is. Both Daddies are smart, and both Daddies are right.

Only if they ever met each other they would get into a terrible argument, because they wouldn’t agree on anything. Now, you can say that your Daddy is right and the other little child’s Daddy is wrong, but the Universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.

The reason both Daddies can be right and still get into terrible fights is because there are so many different ways of being right. There are places in the Universe, though, where each Daddy could finally catch on to what the other Daddy was talking about. These places are where all the different kinds of truths fit together as nicely as the parts in your Daddy’s solar watch. We call these places chrono-synclastic infundibula.

It might be Gadamer for preschoolers, but how can we apply this wisdom in a practical way? Simply transport Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn to a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, and there they will agree!

Hannah Arendt’s “Lying in Politics”

I recently stumbled on this 2016 article by Maria Popova rich in quotes from Hannah Arendt’s 1971 essay “Lying in Politics.” The original essay includes detailed discussion of the Vietnam War and the (then newly released) Pentagon Papers, but Popova has extracted quotes which are more universal and relevant to recent political crises. Those ‘teaser’ quotes inspired me to read the original.

It’s easy to see why there’s been a resurgence of interest in Arendt. Those who are gobsmacked by the rise of Trump and the general decline of truth will even look so far afield as simulation theory, which posits that some advanced race in the future has created our world as a computer simulation; and in order to liven things up a bit or stress-test our system, they’ve installed Donald Trump in the White House. I consider simulation theory nonsense suitable for enriching lawns, but it is a barometer of how perplexing the present situation has become, and how desperate people are for explanations. Arendt is one of the few political theorists in the past half-century to deal specifically with the connection between lying in politics, populism, and totalitarianism. So like Jonathan Winters in that old Twilight Zone episode “A Game of Pool,” she’s now on call 24 hours a day. 😉

Decades before Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts,” Arendt had already written incisively about the problem of “defactualization” in politics and government:

The first explanation that comes to mind to answer the question “How could they?” is likely to point to the interconnectedness of deception and self-deception. In the contest between public statements [about the Vietnam War], always over-optimistic, and the truthful reports of the intelligence community, persistently bleak and ominous, the public statements were likely to win simply because they were public. The great advantage of publicly established and accepted propositions over whatever an individual may secretly know or believe to be the truth is neatly illustrated by a medieval anecdote, according to which a sentry, on duty to watch and warn the townspeople of the approach of the enemy, jokingly sounded a false alarm, and was the last to rush to the walls to defend the town against his imagined enemies. From this, one may conclude that the more successful a liar is, the more people he has convinced, the more likely it is that he will end by believing his own lies.

In the Pentagon Papers, we deal with people who did their utmost to win the minds of the people, that is, to manipulate them, but since they labored in a free country where all kinds of information were available, they never really succeeded. Because of their relatively high station and their position in government, they were better shielded—in spite of their privileged knowledge of “top secrets”—against this public information, which also more or less told the factual truth, than those whom they tried to convince and of whom they were likely to think in terms of mere audiences, “silent majorities,” who were supposed to watch the scenarists’ productions. The fact that the Pentagon Papers revealed hardly any spectacular news testifies to the liars’ failure to create the convinced audience which they then could join themselves.

Still, the presence of what [Daniel] Ellsberg has called the process of “internal self-deception” is beyond doubt, but it is as though the normal process of self-deceiving were reversed; it was not as though deception ended with self-deception. The deceivers started with self-deception. Probably because of their high station and their astounding self-assurance, they were so convinced of overwhelming success, not on the battlefield but on the grounds of public relations, and so certain of the soundness of their psychological premises about the unlimited possibilities in manipulating people, that they anticipated general belief and victory in the battle for people’s minds. And since they lived anyhow in a defactualized world, they did not find it difficult to pay no more attention to the fact that their audience refused to be convinced than to other facts.

The internal world of government, with its bureaucracy on one hand, its social life on the other, made self-deception relatively easy. It seems that no ivory tower of the scholars has ever better prepared the mind for wholly ignoring the facts of life than the various think tanks did for the problem-solvers and the reputation of the White House for the President’s advisers. It was in this atmosphere, where defeat was less feared than admitting defeat, that the misleading statements about the disasters of the Têt offensive and the Cambodian invasion were concocted. But what is even more important is that the truth about such decisive matters could be successfully covered up only in these internal circles by worries about how to avoid becoming “the first American President to lose a war” and by the always present preoccupations with the next election.

So far as problem solving, in contrast to public relations managing, is concerned, self-deception, even “internal self-deception,” is no satisfactory answer to the question “How could they?” Self-deception still pre-supposes a distinction between truth and falsehood, between fact and fantasy, which disappears in an entirely defactualized mind. In the realm of politics, where secrecy and deliberate deception have always played a significant role, self-deception is the danger par excellence; the self-deceived deceiver loses all contact, not only with his audience but with the real world which will catch up with him, as he can remove only his mind from it and not his body.

– Hannah Arendt from “Lying in Politics” (footnotes omitted)

Arendt’s prose can be dense, but her ideas provide significant food for thought. She endeavours to answer the question “How could they?”, which is an enduring moral and practical one. When facts no longer matter, theories can run wild, and theorists may be well-insulated by the political bureaucracy and culture, so that they don’t see the bodies on the ground — whether the bodies of napalmed Vietnamese villagers, or the (more recent) “children in cages” which are a result of the Trump administration’s family separation policy. (Think also Windrush scandal.)

In a defactualized environment, it is not only the targets of deception who suffer. The deceivers themselves ultimately become casualties, because they lose contact with reality. The narcissist spins a version of reality in which he is always at the centre of the universe, always the star, and always right. In the case of Trump, he cannot tolerate the notion that it rained on the day of his inauguration, or that Obama had a bigger crowd. So the event must be defactualized to conform to his unreal expectations.

However, life is (among other things) our way of training for death, disease and suffering. Having lost contact with reality, the narcissist eventually encounters great suffering. His ego has become brittle; therefore, when death, disease and suffering overtake him, he is shattered.

Spiritual philosophy can help us gain insights into the human condition, as well as the Divine Nature. It can help us lead our lives consciously, with humility, understanding our limitations and weaknesses, and striving to overcome them. We have to accept reality before we can transform it.

Death is a part of life, not in a morbid sense, but in the sense that it is the completion of a cycle. The narcissist is not conscious of his own mortality, or refuses to accept it because the notion would rain on his parade. Therefore, how can he accept life, or make sound decisions in life-or-death matters? He is obsessed to an unnatural degree with preserving an illusion, therefore he is untrustworthy.

Arendt’s analysis of the Vietnam War in “Lying in Politics” includes many insights which help to explain Brexit. In fact, we can use it to derive a general profile of a potentially bad government policy, based on a list of common symptoms:

Symptoms of a Potentially Bad Government Policy

– defactualization (in which facts about the policy no longer matter, being ‘trumped’ by rhetoric)

– shifting rationales for the policy, while the policy itself remains the same

– reports penned by civil servants showing actual effects of the policy, but marked CLASSIFIED, SECRET, or SENSITIVE

– such reports, when leaked to the public, denied as to their accuracy by senior politicians

– the policy persisting even after any initial justification for it has been thoroughly debunked

– an overarching concern with public perceptions about the policy, rather than actual results (image over substance)

– the supposed benefits of the policy are largely theoretical, while the problems associated with pursuing the policy are real world problems

– the policy takes on the air of an end in itself, rather than a means to an end

– early indicators that the policy may be ineffectual, detrimental, or even morally unconscionable are ignored

– because such early indicators are discouraging, the policy ultimately becomes a matter of faith, or a shibboleth of party loyalty or patriotic sentiment

– media reports calling attention to drawbacks of the policy are branded ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘fake news’

While this is anecdotal, I’m reminded once again of the ITV report about British fruit rotting on the vines because EU seasonal workers are no longer willing to brave the ‘hostile environment’ consciously created by successive Tory governments, culminating in Brexit:

To my knowledge, none of the people sporting ‘Believe in Britain’ or ‘Get Brexit Done’ stickers have been willing to go and pick that fruit. This is one early indicator that the ideals of Brexit are out of alignment with the reality on the ground. In the real world, the UK made a decision 45 years ago to become more closely interdependent with other European nations. Such increased interdependence was and is the direction in which the world is moving; and while not unproblemmatical, this movement is largely for the best. Early indicators suggest that retrograde motion a la Brexit may be ineffectual, detrimental, or even morally unconscionable in its impact on the poor, and those in need of social care.

Further Thoughts, and Cambridge Analytica Videos

Each individual has to care for truth. This comes down (in part) to education, ethics, and insight. Unfortunately, the more you cut education funding, and the more you propagate a purely materialistic view of the universe, the less people will care about lying politicians, as long as they’re entertaining on telly and appeal to the lowest common denominator of human emotions. That is why, in one of my earliest posts about Boris Johnson, I noted that as with Donald Trump, his rise to power represents a triumph of entertainment value over character value.

Each individual has free will. Those who have proved untrustworthy in the past may yet redeem themselves and develop trustworthiness. But that’s an iffy proposition, given the leopard/spots conundrum. Those who choose to trust Boris Johnson today may want to consider his very recent betrayal of the DUP.

The problem of lying politicians cannot be considered in isolation from questions about the use of modern technology as a weapon for disseminating propaganda, about how elections are funded, and about transparency. We are nearing the point (or have perhaps already passed it) where those who can afford to buy the best tech can gain unfair advantage having little to do with the quality of their ideas, character, or truthfulness. Manipulation of the masses has become part science, part dark art — and such systematised manipulation poses a very real threat to democracy. Taken together, these four videos concerning Cambridge Analytica underscore the problem:

There’s a kind of story arc to the sequence. The first video includes footage from November 2015, with Cambridge Analytica’s Brittany Kaiser seated next to Arron Banks, explaining how her company would be helping Leave-dot-EU. The last video is a 2019 interview with Kaiser, who has since written a tell-all book highly critical of Cambridge Analytica. She continues to maintain that CA did help Leave-dot-EU win the Brexit referendum. In between are various clips of CEO Alexander Nix denying that CA helped win the Brexit referendum, and elsewhere bragging that it did. As the old Clairol ad goes: Only his hairdresser knows for sure…

The story arc also spans a period encompassing both Cambridge Analytica’s existence and its demise. As France 24 interviewer Jessica Le Masurier notes at time 10:17 in the final video: “Cambridge Analytica is defunct, yet there are many other new or pre-existing companies doing exactly the same thing.”

Of many possible takeaways, one is the palpable perception that voters aren’t being ‘persuaded’ in the traditional (and acceptable) sense. Rather (and especially in the third video concerning Trinidad elections), voters are being subjected to psyops of which they are wholly unaware, by cynical manipulators who seek to actively exploit them. Those Trinidadians persuaded by Cambridge Analytica not to vote at all were seemingly manipulated into doing something which would harm their own (obvious) self-interest in having political representation. This is a form of fraud, but not necessarily one that’s on the statute books.

The implication is that hi-tech con men with big money bankrollers have found ways to undermine the democratic process — putting their thumb on the scale to the tune of a few percentage points, thus changing the outcome. Those touting their ability to win votes through psychological manipulation may exaggerate, but there seems little doubt that their machinations do have some effect. That effect is difficult to quantify, not only because they operate in the shadows, but because the nature of the con is such that if it is done well, voters won’t even be conscious of how they were conned (as in the 1973 crime drama The Sting).

In 2014, prior to the ascendancy of Brexit as a populist movement, it does not appear that there was any great demand on the part of the voting public to leave the EU. The concept had to be mass-marketed and invested with emotional energy, so that by the end of 2019 many voters would end up feeling passionately that “We must get Brexit done!” (Why? Rationale for the policy has continued to shift. Outside the UK, Brexit is widely considered a “solution in search of a problem.”)

There are also deep metaphysical questions related to the issue of lying. What is the nature of Reality? Put into a succinct Einsteinian equation, R = WL + I. That is, Reality equals White Light plus Illusion. If there were zero illusion, then there would just be white light — no creation at all. But when there is too much illusion, then life becomes painful and incomprehensible, as it is for people who suffer from severe mental illness.

So we cannot force or extract absolute truthfulness from anyone, but still there needs to be some shared standard below which we should not fall as individuals, or as a society. That is at least the concept underlying laws against perjury, libel, and securities fraud. Not all forms of persuasion are ethical or legal. Yet, as noted in the Independent article:

Some 88 per cent of the most widely circulated Tory ads during the first four days of December included inaccurate claims, according to disinformation tracking organisation First Draft.

The ads included false claims about the NHS and income tax, as well as the Labour Party and its plans, it said.

Many of those ads – such as the misleadingly edited video of the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer – would be banned if they were commercial advertising, noted the non-partisan Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising (CRPA) in a new report. [Editor’s note: Their acronym comes with a warning for dyslexics.]

Now, it must be said that lies are already omnipresent in commercial ads for products and services — for example, in the form of puffery and speeded-up (or illegible) disclaimers. My friends at Mystery Science Theater 3000 once created a satire on toy commercials which included the disclaimers “Some parts may not exist” and “Some parts may be made of chicken”!

If politicians cannot be held to even the low standards of commercial advertising, then surely something is amiss! Politicians are also lawmakers, and if they’re benefiting from lies and graft, then how can you force them to pass strict laws against lying and graft? Here in the US, we have some (not very effective) laws against telemarketing, but the politicians conveniently exempt themselves from such laws, so in election season you may be bombarded with calls from bots programmed to play you pre-recorded campaign ads. Likewise, there are laws against libel, but there are also loopholes which (under some circumstances) exempt MPs, Congresspeople, and the owners of social media sites (even if they profit from the libel).

When is graft not graft? When it becomes widespread in the form of cronyism or regulatory capture. One pernicious form of regulatory capture occurs when a regulatory agency is stuffed with personnel from the industry it’s supposed to be regulating, or with personnel who largely oppose regulation of the type which is the agency’s core mission. For example: stuffing an agency which was set up to combat global warming with climate change deniers, or lobbyists from the oil, gas, and auto industries, who then proceed to lower emissions standards. See “EPA staff say the Trump administration is changing their mission…” or my own “Scott Pruitt Jokes,” which purports to reveal the (former) EPA chief’s day planner.

The relevance is that the Tories, including Boris Johnson himself, have been accused of being in thrall to an elite dining club consisting of rich donors from the hedge fund industry, fossil fuel industry, as well as a Russian contingent. See, for example, the Open Democracy article “Who’s behind the ‘dark money’ bankrolling our politics?” As with many such articles, there is no claim of outright illegality, but the appearance of cronyism, and the implication that the Tories’ primary mission is to please their mega donors by moving the UK in the direction of a low tax, low regulation, low services ‘Singapore-on-Thames.’

Big money from elite mega donors is arguably what fuels the Tory steamroller with its big media buys. Yet, Boris Johnson is a populist figure who’s good at selling elitist policies like Brexit to working class voters. So, the trust issues surrounding Johnson are not just about his pliable relationship with the truth, but the concern that he may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, pitching pleasant-sounding One Nation platitudes while advancing a long-term agenda which is harmful to workers and the environment. Time will tell.

A great many people have placed their ‘confidence’ in Johnson and ‘supplied’ him with votes. It remains to be seen whether he will repay them in the same manner he has repaid the DUP. After Johnson’s blindingly obvious betrayal of Nigel Dodds, Dodds was handed the proverbial ‘one-way ticket to Palookaville’ by voters in Northern Ireland. Politics remains a cutthroat business.

No one knows for certain how Johnson will govern, but one thing to watch out for is a continued cognitive dissonance between Tory statistics claiming that life is getting better and better every day (in every way), and the evidence of one’s own eyes. If the epidemic in food bank usage and rough sleeping continues to worsen, the book of NHS horror stories continues to thicken, and life after Brexit seems filled with privation, then mayhaps trust in Johnson will prove to have been misplaced. After years of Tory austerity, turning on the money spigots for a short period post-election should not be allowed to confuse the issue.

I should really punctuate this post with a freshly made Bojo parody pic, but haven’t got one ready. So how about this: Here’s Bojo holding up a blank cue card. Make your own meme!

Or you can always fall back on this cornucopia of Boris Johnson Funnies. Collect them all!

From about a year ago (meant purely in fun):

I will close with one more Cambridge Analytica exposé for good measure

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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One comment on “The search for truth in politics…

  1. Pingback: UK Elections – Such a Sad Result! Part 1 | Ethics and Spirituality

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