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The Importance of Truth

 I saluted the French people in rejecting Le Pen last week. While, as a woman, I would like to see more women in genuine positions of leadership, and they often do the job of leader extremely well (New Zealand’s experience comes to mind), Le Pen represents, in my view, the worst of populism; and populism, and the nationalism that often goes with it, are among our main dangers in modern politics.

Consider the damage done by Trump, by Bolsonaro, and now by Putin, not to mention our own Boris Johnson and company - lesser members of the breed perhaps, but nonetheless shameless in their wooing of the popular vote with false promises and misinformation. And that is the rub. Populism is often the enemy of truth - and truth matters.

In St John's Gospel, Jesus has more than one sharp encounter with a group of religious influencers in the Judaism of his time, known as Pharisees. They claim, as good Jews with a strong sense of heritage, to be ‘children of Abraham’. But in one of these encounters Jesus tells them that they are sons of the Devil, ‘the father of lies’, because they are actually using religious customs to burden people and fetter them.. In another gospel story (John 8), he speaks of himself as the truth and says ‘the truth will set you free’. There is much wisdom here, for you can best judge people not by what they say (which may be untrue) but by what they do, which will show you much more clearly what kind of people they are. This is why in the UK voters are so angry about government ministers imposing (at the time very necessary) restrictions on the population during the pandemic, but failing to follow those rules themselves when it didn’t suit them to do so. It is why the instinct to cover up an alleged misleading of parliament over the matter (still seen as a serious breach of political morality here, I’m glad to say), like previous attempts to change parliamentary rules to save Owen Paterson’s seat (even before Conservatives realised there was a possibility of losing it to the Lib Dems), or pass draconian laws to prevent peaceful political protest, are a sure sign of a government committed to self-serving opportunism rather than honest public service. Even those who voted for Brexit are now beginning to see, uncomfortably, that the Brexit they are experiencing is not the one they voted for, and that some of what they were promised was based on misleading information at best, perhaps even deliberate lies.

Nor are the politicians alone to blame. It is not unfair to hold the American people responsible for voting for Trump and his lies, nor to wish that the Russians were not so keen to believe in their own greatness that they will applaud Putin for the kind of militarism that bears comparison with that of Nazi Germany, and at the same time reject the truth that non-government media are trying to let them see. Populism and nationalism are often allies, and nationalism fosters a comforting, affirming sense of belonging and pride in the place where you live and the people to whom you belong. Unfortunately, it also encourages hostility to migrants and asylum seekers, and sometimes (as in Russia’s case) a desire to strut more visibly and aggressively on the world stage, expanding national borders and trampling people of other nations underfoot. Thus ‘populism’ classically is not just a movement of the people, but of a particular (national) people, and its pandering to the lowest forms of popular passion renders it dangerous and damaging to those whom it identifies as ‘the enemy’. Populism rarely puts forward positive policies but rather depends on negative posturing, in which enemies of various kinds, from bankers and the super-rich to immigrants of all kinds, to minorities at home and foreigners abroad, are to be opposed, denigrated or even overthrown. And what populist leaders tell the people about these enemies is very seldom the truth, because what people want to hear is the negative, which justifies their turning on those enemies and believing that in eradicating them they will achieve all they desire. The Nazis used this to great effect with regard to the Jews, but they did not invent anti-semitism, which was already rife in Europe long before they came to power. Nor have Le Pen, or Trump or Putin invented the enmity that many feel towards those they see as the enemy, whether it be liberal democrats, immigrants and non-whites, or the peoples of Eastern and Northern Europe who were once part of the USSR. These enmities are buried deep in history, and only a truthful examination of that history would uncover how they arose. Such was the inestimable benefit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and a similar operation in Rwanda, which with patient persistence untangled the wrongs of the past and brought people to forgive each other so that they could look for a future together.

By contrast, populists use history as a tool, bent to their own purposes. How else can some of those in the American South still believe the Confederates should have won the Civil War or Russians look at the Communist era through such rose-tinted spectacles? History always involves an interpretation of the events of the past, but it must have regard for the truth first, or it offers only a dangerous distortion. A nation without knowledge of its own history, it was famously said, is like a man without a memory. But a nation or a political group with a distorted notion of history is worse than amnesiac – more like a person with a serious mental illness; for populists suffer from a collective paranoia that approaches psychosis. They are listening to inner voices that tell them lies, that push them into political actions that bode no good for anyone, least of all themselves. For if you follow lies, you walk blindly and in shackles; only the truth can set you free.  

I hope those who are voting today in our local elections will ponder on this and select their candidates carefully – not necessarily by party allegiance but by their reputation as honest men and women committed to public service.




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