Politics: Ruling by lying?

Politicians seem to get away with their lies. Even worse for their country, their lies can take them to victory, possibly because ‘people have a tendency to ditch the facts first’

In the wake of the election of Donald Trump as the president-elect of the United States, there has been a plethora of analyses everyday across the world, which is still to adjust to the reality that come 20th January 2017 Mr Trump is going to be installed as President of the US, and will henceforth be known by a new acronym: POTUS.

The exit of the UK from the European Union gave rise to a new term too, Brexit. But even before the unexpected result in the US, the idea of ‘post-truth’ was floated. The Economist of September 10th, 2016 in its leader titled ‘Art of the lie’ qualified Mr Trump as ‘the leading exponent of post-truth politics’, and defined it as ‘reliance on assertions that “feel” true but have no basis in fact.’

This reminds us of what Goebbels, the German propagandist of Hitler said: ‘Repeat a lie a thousand times and it becomes the truth’ – a Goebbelsian truth. For practical purposes, a Goebbelsian truth and post-truth are equivalent, for their ultimate result is the same: people begin to believe the lie as truth, and act on that with game-changing consequences where politics is concerned. As these post-truths feed on feelings of fear, prejudice and anxiety – mostly perceived – rather than facts, the outcome of elections creates surprises. Was ‘vire mam’ one such surprise for us? In retrospect some people seem to think that this may have been so, given the way that events have been unfolding since December 2014.

The UK and US have had a longer experience of democracy that us, and The Economist issue gives some insights from these two countries which may serve as lessons for us. The following excerpts from the leader as well as from the Briefing, ‘The post-truth world’, will no doubt be of great interest.

‘Dictators and democrats seeking to deflect blame for their own incompetence have always manipulated the truth’. ‘The questioning of institutions and received wisdom is a democratic virtue. A sceptical lack of deference towards leaders is the first step to reform’. ‘…lies, rumour and gossip spread with alarming speed. Lies that are widely shared (through social media) can quickly take on the appearance of truth… lies make the political system dysfunctional’.

But there’s more. ‘Dishonesty in politics is nothing new; but the manner in which some politicians now lie, and the havoc they may wreak by doing so, are worrying’. But it is ‘hardly as though politics has ever been synonymous with truthfulness.’ The article goes on to say that ‘British ministers and prime ministers have lied to the press and to Parliament, as Anthony Eden did during the Suez affair. Lyndon Johnson misinformed the American people about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, thus getting the country into Vietnam. In 1986 Ronald Reagan insisted that his administration did not trade weapons for hostages with Iran, before having to admit a few months later…’

Since we have inherited the Westminsterian system, it seems that we have good political pedigree! In this context, here is a ready-made apologia that may well come in handy to our local leaders in a future contest: ‘pas moi sa, Westminster sa’. This is only a suggestion of course.

If it were children caught lying, they would get a scolding or a spanking. If it was a criminal who was found out, he would land in the gallows. But politicians? They seem to get away with their lies. Even worse for their country, their lies can take them to victory, possibly because ‘people have a tendency to ditch the facts first’. Meanwhile, as all the world can see, harm is done that very often it is not possible to correct. In fact, as a result things can get much worse.

The Economist notes further ‘how dirty a business politics has always been’ and that ‘in America and elsewhere, there is a shift towards a politics in which feelings trump facts more freely and with less resistance than used to be the case. Helped by the new technology… some politicians are getting away with a new depth and pervasiveness of falsehood’.

But more worrying is the indifference that has set in and looks like becoming mainstream. ‘Political lies used to imply that there was a truth – one that had to be prevented from coming out. Evidence, consistency and scholarship had political power. Today a growing number of politicians and pundits simply no longer care. They deal in insinuations and question the provenance rather than the accuracy of anything that goes against them’.

As we can well imagine, the consequences of all these dysfunctions can be very serious for any country. Big countries have the means and the resources to cope with such a scourge, but for small countries like ours one wonders how much of capacity or resilience we must possess to be able to deal with the challenges and distortions that arise.

These, as we have been witnessing, distract from attending to the important business of taking the crucial decisions needed for the proper running of the country, besides consuming a lot of government time and resources and producing what ought to have been avoidable collateral damage to the image of the country as well as to its economy.

That is why it is critically important for us to have robust, autonomous institutions which we can trust to bring justice to bear in situations where the true facts seem to be held back by the powers that be. And for the same reason, those responsible for the institutions must not only possess the required qualifications and competencies but must also have the strength of character to put the dots on the ‘i’ and bring those who are erring back on track where this is mandated, for the sake of the country and the citizenry.

We may be in for a very hard spell ahead, and let us at least learn and apply some of the lessons that we may draw from the insights presented above.

RN Gopee

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