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Telling the Truth

When we were young we were told to always tell the truth. The search for truth is an ideal all genuine scholars aim for. But in the real world things are different; most people evade telling the truth for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. In the credibility stakes, car salesmen, politicians and journalists rank near the bottom.  Nurses and teachers reign supreme.  We need to assert the principle that there are no higher values in life than truth, honour, individual freedom and balanced justice;  striving for these is the essence of human existence.

What is the truth?  Are there Universal, absolute or eternal Truths? Philosophers have pondered this for yonks. 

  • Aristotle wrote: “Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth”. 
  • A Biblical exhortation assures us that: “The truth shall set you free”
  • From the 17th C. comes the anonymous declaration used in court oaths: “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.
  •  However, William Blake warns us that, “Truth that’s told with bad intent, Beats all the lies you can invent”.
  • Andre Gide suggests:  “Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who claim to have found it”.
  • Solzhenitsyn  - “In the right moment, one word of truth outweighs the world”.
  • Truth may be free;  but bullshit – propaganda costs a fortune.
  • Orwell:  The truth is not hard to find; but first you need to want to find it.
  • Shopenauer: "All truth passes through three stages; First it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, third it is accepted as being self-evident.. 
  • Czesław Miłosz    “In a room, where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”
  • In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.  Solzhenitzyn  quoted in The Observer (29 December 1974)
  • The Kite Runner  "When you tell a lie you steal someone’s right to the truth."
  • German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:   "I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you".

What you maintain to be true is not necessarily true for everyone.  What is universally recognised as a truth in one generation will not necessarily be true in the next generation or as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, There  are no facts, only interpretations. Tallyrand’s assertion is that what matters in politics is not the truth, but what people perceive to be the truth.  Most wars are fought defending an arbitrary version of a truth - truth can be a bit fluid, mercurial, or protean.

Albert Einstein distinguished between “what is true and what is real; truth is subjective and abstract while reality is objective and concrete.  In the Real World and the World of Tabloid Journalism truth is malleable and can be manipulated, distorted, selective and sacrificed for ulterior motives.

Historically we have myriads of precedences to either follow or justify the use of falsehoods or deception.  Nietzsche advised that “if you are going to tell a lie in the marketplace, make sure it is a big one and you repeat it often enough.”  Hitler, Goebbels and modern politicians have been inspired by this.  People prefer a good story to the truth.  George Orwell stated that “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful, murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”Or as my brother Ernst says:  “the truth is free, but bullshit (spin) can be very expensive”.

The habit of lying is not nearly so extraordinary as people’s readiness to believe them. It is indeed because of human credulity that lies flourish.

Machiavelli insisted that deception was vital for pragmatic leaders to use without compunction to maintain power.  Some advice from Machiavelli to rulers:

"The promise given was a necessity of the past; the word broken is a necessity of the present." "He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how."

It is generally recognised that the first casualty in war is truth (Aeschylus).  Churchill reportedly stated: In wartime truth is so precious she must be attended to at all times by a bodyguard of lies” and later, a lie gets halfway around the world before truth gets its pants on”.

John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole, admits to lying and recommends it: “Lies can be used to brighten up an otherwise bleak and underpopulated life”  Even Freud could demonstrate that self-deception had benefits if it helped us move on.  It is a creeping assumption of the modern world that there are things more important than the truth; the concept of truth has been devalued and modern society shows an almost unprecedented tolerance of falsehood. 

Lies come in many guises.  Disraeli held that there are three kinds of lies: 1. White Lies, 2. Black Lies, and 3. Statistics (Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics).  Lies are so prevalent today that we have invented a host of euphemisms for them including:  fibs,  deceit, misrepresentation of the truth,  a terminological inexactitude,  an inoperative statement,  porkers (Pork pies=lies), economical with the truth, tale, yarn,, misstatement, careless with the facts, falsehood, excuse,  strategic misrepresentation, perception management, mendacity, patent untruth….. Political life is rife with examples:  Lincoln once said of a rival,  “he has such a high regard for the truth; that’s why he uses it so sparingly” ,… a gross distortion of the truth

Winston Churchill’s immortal phrase, “either he is labouring under a misapprehension or he was guilty of a terminological inexactitude”  -- in other words, he was either a fool or a liar.

Lincoln once said of a rival,  “he has such a high regard for the truth; that’s why he uses it so sparingly” ,… a gross distortion of the truth

Winston Churchill’s immortal phrase, “either he is labouring under a misapprehension or he was guilty of a terminological inexactitude”  -- in other words, he was either a fool or a liar.

Nixon’s defence: “That Statement is no longer operative” 1. ,

Clinton: “I did not have sex with that woman” ,

Keating: Read my lips, Tax Cuts

Howard:  “No GST! Never, ever!”  The Children overboard affair, the Iraqi War, Manildra and ethanol, the cultural wars and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.  John Howard advised his party to “construct a narrative” to convince voters to vote for them. 

Kevin Rudd: tried to find his own refuge behind desperate weasel words such as "non-extraordinary", in the deal during the Tamil refugee debacle.

  1. It was said of Nixon that he could be a little creative with the truth; if he touched his nose, he was telling the truth, if he touched his ear, he was telling the truth, but if his lips were moving, he was lying.

As Michael Kinsley pointed out  in 1984,  "a 'gaffe' occurs not when a politician lies, but when he inadvertently tells the truth."

T.S. Eliot maintained most of us cannot face reality or handle the truth about ourselves so we need our illusions, self-deceptions, fantasies to cope with life.  Sometimes we may need to constrain ourselves from telling the truth about our loved ones and especially our enemies. “The greater the truth, the greater the libel; therefore the greater the liability.”

The Truth and Governance

Until lately, under the Westminster System, a politician found deliberately lying or misleading the public or Parliament was expected to resign in disgrace immediately. The 1976 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration identified misleading Parliament as one of the offences for which a minister should be sacked or resign.  Recent trends indicate that this is “more honoured (practiced) in the breach than the observance” and it is evident that voters no longer regard lying by politicians as seriously as they once did. Ethics, honesty and truth are not perceived to be of such significance in public or private life. 

Politicians on both sides dissemble with utter impunity.  In 1971, Malcolm Fraser assured his Prime Minister, John Gorton of his loyalty, yet next morning resigned destroying the ministry, claiming it was a legitimate tactic to avoid being sacked.  Graham Richardson not only used much the same subterfuge when Hayden was replaced by Hawke, but actually wrote a book divulging the seamier side and bragging about it.  (Richo, in his book Whatever it Takes, on being a politician in the Westminster system?  ''You have to lie to keep your job,'' he wrote. ''If you have to lie, it is probably a good system.'')  Hawke later justified his lie to the electorate omitting to disclose his secret deal with Keating to hand over the reins of power because it was likely to lose him the election. 

John Howard was for years nick-named “Honest John”2  and while in opposition was a great upholder of parliamentary accountability.  He once declared: We want to assert the very simple principle that truth is absolute, truth is supreme, truth is never disposable in national political life.”  Yet over the past years countless ministers of his government have been exposed as misrepresenting the truth with impunity and his lame justification of the deceit regarding the Children Overboard Affair was that he did not need to apologise because he had believed what he said to be true at the time so that was it.  Lately he has justified his lies by merely claiming he had not been informed of the true situations.

"When the going gets tough - you have to lie."

That's the quote attributed to the politician heading the European Union efforts to solve the Euro financial crisis.   Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg's Prime Minister, gave that explanation of some misleading comments he made concerning the Greek financial restructuring and bailout possibilities.

Just something to keep in mind as the saga of the new financial crisis unfolds: don't believe a word a politician tells you.

Most Australians don’t trust govt to tell the truth:

The annual trust survey, released by PR firm Edelman, found that just 33% of Australians 18 and over trust their government, with 60% responding that they do not have faith in their leaders to tell the truth.

Power Index, Crikey.com  Feb 07, 2012.

Ramifications of this trend

The serious ramifications of this trend are that it trickles down the levels; Corporations fail to disclose losses and eventually collapse, leaving thousands of investors and employees destitute.  Business is renowned for sharp practices.  Boards overstate profits while concealing losses to salvage share market savaging.  Groucho Marx’s famous quote; “The secret of success in business is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Public servants evade their public duty and accountability, and eventually ordinary citizens begin to justify dishonesty in dealing with tax offices, Centrelink and so on and on.  Where does it stop?

In the field of Literature, the whole basis of fiction functions on the ability to tell the truth through brilliant lies.  While Myths are based on incredible and implausible exploits of epic heroes, we still maintain that they tell universal truths about the human condition.  As for painting, Picasso comments: Art is a lie which makes us realise the truth”.

In the domestic sphere, husbands tell wives; “that hat makes you look younger” or I didn’t lose money at the races, it’s tied up in long term investments. Parents too, tell young children awe-inspiring stories about tooth fairies, Santa Claus, monsters .. to placate, entertain or frighten them.  Other classic lies include: 

The cheque’s in the mail,”  

“ I’ll marry you as soon I get on my feet financially,”  

“Hi, I’m from the government, I’m here to help you.”

Any sound form of government, especially a democratic one depends on free, open and enlightening media outlets so that people can make informed and intelligent decisions at elections.  Two factors counter this; governments rather than be transparent, hide their mistakes and attempt to extol their successes while media outlets need to sell advertising space.  These two factors militate against the free and open transfer of information.  It is the contest for the advertising dollar that dictates much of what is called “infotainment”.

Telling the truth is laudable, salutary and commendable.  It elevates, edifies and is transcendent, rising to noble living, while lies are despicable, shameful, contemptible, degrading and descendant, catering to our base nature.  As Orwell once said, “it’s usually not hard to find the truth – but first you have to want to know”. Martin Luther opined: Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter while Edmund Burke asserted that the only way evil can exist is if good people stand by and do nothing.  Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” is still relevant today.  The biblical salutation “the truth shall make you free” is a final consolation.  The last word goes to Solzhenitsyn  -In the right moment, one word of truth outweighs the world”.

If “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, is this why Politics is so ugly?

We need to re-assert the value of honesty, decency, honor as virtues worth maintaining if we wish to call ourselves a civilised human society. 

Shakespeare has one of his most shallow character creations to express some of his most profound ideas, such as Polonius's advice to Leartes,

This above all: to thine own self be true,  then it follows thou canst not be false to any man.”     (Act I, Scene iii) 

The biblical salutation “the truth shall make you free” is a final consolation.  The last word goes to Solzhenitsyn  - “In the right moment, one word of truth outweighs the world”.

Finally:  Truth is free!  Bullshit commands ever increasing premiums. 

2 Chris Virtue writes : (Crikey May 25, 2011)

I can recall when the term "Honest John" was created.  It was during the ABC's federal election night coverage in 1990.

Andrew Peacock was opposition leader and Howard was on the ABC's tally room panel. When it became apparent that the Liberals were being flogged, Howard mused about how the result might have been had "an honest man" being leading the party. This lead compere Andrew Olle to quip ironically, "Honest John Howard, eh?", to which Howard emphatically said "Yes".

Olle chose not to follow up on this claim of honesty from the man who massively mislead the electorate about the size of the domestic deficit during the 1983 election. Some would say that by 1990 Howard was a proven liar, but I'm too polite.

A study on lying quoted that it's the ability to lie successfully that denotes a good executive brain. Tony Abbott has yet to achieve this.

With apologies to Gershwin:

It ain't necessarily so,

It ain't necessarily so.

The things that you're liable

To hear from his Bible.

They ain't necessarily so.

“That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be”    P.C. Hodgell




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