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Home > Manufacturing Consent > The Difficult Art of Telling the Truth
The Difficult Art of Telling the Truth:
How to Lose Friends and Be Excluded by Influential People
David Edwards, June 2001
|"...The problem with telling the truth is that much of what happens in the world is made possible by lies, and so much of the world is actively opposed to truth. We might respond to this with the great ‘So what!’ of modern culture: maybe the world doesn’t need truth, maybe the world is just fine as it is....All too often, those who edit our media – our ‘alternative’ media included - are happy to bow down to the ignoble, the complacent, the comfortable, the wealthy and uncompassionate - those who do not wish to be reminded of bad smells and unpleasant truths... It is not virtuous, or even amoral, to remain silent while terrible crimes are perpetrated in our name – sometimes to be silent is to lie. Ultimately, as Zinn tells us, we have to make a choice: “There are victims, there are executioners, and there are bystanders... Unless we wrench free from being what we like to call ‘objective’, we are closer psychologically, whether we like to admit it or not, to the executioner than to the victim.”|
The problem with telling the truth is that much of what happens in the world is made possible by lies, and so much of the world is actively opposed to truth. We might respond to this with the great ‘So what!’ of modern culture: maybe the world doesn’t need truth, maybe the world is just fine as it is. When I write, I like to remind myself of exactly why it is I’m writing. Iraq is the kind of reality-anchor I like to use.
In September 1998, Denis Halliday, the UN Assistant Secretary-General, resigned after 34 years with the UN, declaring the US and British sanctions regime imposed on Iraq “genocidal”. Halliday, who ran the UN’s “oil for food” programme in Iraq, continues to openly place blame for the excess deaths of 600,000 Iraqi children under five, as reported by the United Nations Children’s Fund, squarely on the shoulders of the US and British governments.
In February 2000, Halliday’s successor as UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned after 30 years with the UN, asking, “How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?” Two days later, Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Programme in Iraq, resigned, saying privately that what was being done to the people of Iraq was intolerable.
Halliday and von Sponeck have both dismissed British and US government claims that the Iraqi government is withholding medicine and food, that it is exploiting the suffering of its people for propaganda purposes. Halliday has said:
“In my mind I have no doubt in saying that there is not one person in the Ministry of Health or anywhere else in the Iraqi government who is deliberately trying to damage the health, or allowing children or others to die by deliberately not distributing medical supplies. That’s just nonsense.”
In an interview in May 2000, Halliday told me:
“Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years – it’s a deliberate ploy. For the British Government to say that the quantities [of drugs] involved for vaccinating kids are going to produce weapons of mass destruction, this is just nonsense. That’s why I’ve been using the word genocide, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage.”
On recent talk of “smart sanctions”, von Sponeck has this to say:
“Fundamentally, to me, it is really tinkering at the edges of a sanctions regime and that isn’t at all what Iraq and the civilian population need. What they need is a lifting, a full lifting [of the sanctions], and nothing else.”
Halliday and von Sponeck are credible, authoritative voices. What they describe, in my view, belongs in the same category as the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews. After all, did the Nazis kill many more than 600,000 Jewish children under five? Halliday and von Sponeck have been all but blanked by the British and US media; they are non-people. Whereas claims of atrocities by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, by Iraq in Kuwait, and by Serbia in Kosovo, received massive coverage throughout the media, our responsibility for comparable suffering in Iraq has been the subject of no such campaign. Instead, there have been sporadic articles, mostly repeating the favoured government line: Saddam is to blame.
If you want to get an idea of the severity of the sickness afflicting our society and democracy, you should visit the Guardian, Independent and New Statesman on-line archives. If you search for Denis Halliday on Guardian Unlimited, you will (as of June 2001) generate 12 mentions since September 1, 1998. These mentions include four letters to the editor, an announcement of John Pilger’s film, ‘Paying the Price – Killing the Children of Iraq’, and an article by Pilger on the subject of the film. That is, since September 1998 there have been twelve mentions of Halliday’s name in the country’s flagship ‘liberal’ newspaper – twelve mentions of a credible voice accusing our government of genocide, of literally slaughtering hundreds of thousands of children. Submitting ‘Big Brother’ generates 1029 mentions, the vast majority relating to the Channel 4 game show of the same name.
Searching the Independent website generates 4 stories mentioning Halliday since Jan 1, 1999. He has been mentioned 9 times in the New Statesman - 8 of them in John Pilger’s fortnightly column, and once in a letter. Pilger aside, not one New Statesman journalist or editorial has mentioned Halliday’s name. The words ‘Big Brother’ generate 59 records.
While the media indulged itself in the Big Brother spectacle in August 2000, Joanne Baker, a Bristol housewife, visited Iraq. This is what she found:
“There are terrible problems with birth defects and leukaemia, which have been linked to the use of around 350 tons of depleted uranium munitions during the war. They don’t have enough drugs for chemotherapy. They don’t have enough blood, enough oxygen, or anaesthetics. Women are having caesarean operations without anaesthetics; it’s just horrendous. There are no proper pain killers.”
Unsurprisingly, during the general election, there was literally no mention made of any of this by any of the political parties or the mass media – Iraq was ignored as a non-issue. The fact that senior UN diplomats had resigned in 1998 and 2000 declaring Tony Blair’s government guilty of genocide, was deemed irrelevant in judging its performance since 1997.
You might think it makes sense that our press tends to underplay our crimes – they are on ‘our side’ after all. Exactly the opposite should be true – we are most able to resist our own government’s crimes, relatively powerless to influence those of other governments, and so our press should devote far more attention to British and US crimes. Also our crimes are our responsibility – we voted in the government perpetrating them – and so, morally, and in fact legally, it makes far more sense for our press to emphasise the crimes of our own government.
So when I ask myself if truth matters, I recall that if we decide that the failure to report the truth about Iraq does not matter, then we must accept that whatever our government does is of no concern to us, which is to sink to the level of the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. This would be monstrous.
Sorry, We Don’t Do Truth!
Since the publication of Free to be Human in 1995, and particularly since the publication of The Compassionate Revolution in 1998, I have had some tremendous first-hand experience of the extent to which our society holds truth in contempt. We can divine society’s attitude to truth by gauging its willingness to entertain different views. What has become overwhelmingly obvious to me in the last few years, is that much of society – all the way from the green/radical left, through the corporate mainstream, to the radical right - for a variety of different reasons, just will not tell the truth.
Of course the mainstream works hard to give the impression that it does nothing but tell us the truth, that we have any amount of choice. During the recent general election, the BBC ceaselessly declared: “The BBC is fighting the election on a single issue: the truth!” The papers and broadcast media were swamped with election coverage (approximately ten times the coverage granted to the second most covered story). Newspapers continuously exhorted voters to vote while simultaneously ridiculing non-voters. Thus the Independent:
“The same refrain is heard at every election: they are all the same; they are all out for themselves; they are not saying what they will do for me. This is the ignorant anti-politics of the great tradition of British indifference... To suggest that this election campaign has not seen a serious debate about serious policies is bizarre... There are vitally important issues at stake in this election, and they have been debated in depth.”
In the Guardian, AC Grayling waxed historical on the importance of democracy:
“The United Kingdom achieved universal adult suffrage in 1929, when women were at last allowed to vote on equal terms with men. France attained the same democratic heights in 1944. When blacks were enfranchised in the United States in the 1960s, that great bastion of democracy at last itself became democratic. These amazingly recent achievements were built on dead bodies. For centuries ordinary people struggled against absolute monarchs, rich aristocrats, princely bishops, colonisers, landowners and industrial magnates for a say in the running of their own lives. They did it on barricades, in demonstrations charged by sabre-wielding mounted cavalry, in sit-ins crushed by tanks. These people are dishonoured by stay-at-homes on polling day.”
Superficially, all of this gives the appearance of passionate support for a free and fair election, of vibrant democracy at work. And yet research conducted by Loughborough University confirms that “there has been little sign of real issues” in media election coverage, where “few issues make the news”.
Consider the Independent, and Grayling’s, high-flown rhetoric in the light of the fact that in the first three weeks of campaigning the environment comprised 0.8 percent of election themes covered, that defence comprised 0.6 percent, employment 0.8 percent, and medical and health (excluding the NHS – BSE and foot and mouth, for example) 0.4 percent – vital issues of massive concern to the public, all ignored.
There was no mention of New Labour’s “ethical foreign policy” deception, no review of the non-existent “genocide” used as a pretext for Blair’s bombing of Serbia, of his silence as East Timor burned, or of the vast suffering inflicted on Iraq. There was no mention of global warming (despite record breaking floods last year), or of globalisation, an issue that has brought thousands of people onto the streets. There was no mention of GM food, of food safety in the wake of BSE (with a hundred dead and rising).
The impression given is that the debate is thus limited because citizens are thus limited: people are only concerned with investment in public services, taxation, the amount of money in their pockets. Writing in the Observer, Nick Cohen – one of a handful of honest commentators – exposes the deception that pervades all of politics and media:
“The focus-group organisers’ claim that they are engineers of democracy who objectively record public desire and recommend pragmatic policies which Blair and Hague can sell to the masses. According to the polls the parties are meant to worship, large majorities want the railways renationalised, the state to fund long-term nursing care for the elderly and the private sector to be kept out of the NHS. Yet when the market research tells stories which upset business interests, the populist leaders of the two main parties somehow find the inner strength and sheer bloody guts to be very unpopular indeed.”
This is an object lesson in modern thought control: massive quantities of impassioned rhetoric by commentators declaring support for a principle that is simultaneously being betrayed by those self-same commentators.
On the cover of my first book, Free to be Human, I pictured an individual reaching beyond the normal-seeming world (the usual conception of things) to perceive a devastated landscape beyond. In just the same way, our society tirelessly seeks to persuade us that our society is rational, just, civilised and free. But this is merely a façade maintained by power. The instant that power is disconnected, for example by rational thought, or by history (looking back fifty years, say), we can see that we are, or were, free to act only within bounds delimited by powerful interests.
Tolstoy, one of the great heroes of truth, explained the many motives and reasons for suppressing the truth:
“One man does not assert the truth which he knows, because he feels himself bound to the people with whom he is engaged; another, because the truth might deprive him of the profitable position by which he maintains his family; a third, because he desires to attain reputation and authority, and then use them in the service of mankind; a fourth, because he does not wish to destroy old sacred traditions; a fifth, because he has no desire to offend people; a sixth, because the expression of the truth would arouse persecution, and disturb the excellent social activity to which he has devoted himself.” (Tolstoy, p.118)
Nick Cohen is honest about politics, for example, and yet he has little to say about the role of the media. But how can we discuss the fact that politics is “the shadow cast on society by big business”, as John Dewey put it, without discussing the fact that the media is the shadow cast on culture and thought by big business, that the media indeed +is+ business? The two are so obviously linked: it would not be a problem that politicians deceive us if the media exposed their deceptions. It is one of the great curiosities of our age that someone as honest as Nick Cohen can tell one half of the truth but keep silent on the rest.
Killed By Compromise - The ‘Alternative’ Media
Many of us are complacent about the ease and importance of telling the truth. We live in a society so accustomed to compromising the truth, ‘just a little’, for ‘strategic’ reasons, that we have become hopelessly accustomed to the habit of compromise. Everybody is intent on ‘working the system’, hardly anyone believes that there is nothing more powerful than truth.
Corporations are obviously keen not to report whatever will hurt corporations. Governments, supported by and dependent on those corporations, are keen not to report what might hurt those same interests - they have an interest in a ‘strong economy’, are part of the same elite group and mindset, and are dependent on corporate patronage and support. The mass media entities, themselves corporations, are keen not to report what damages advertisers, and so their own profits, or government news sources on which they depend (try being an editor or journalist without sympathetic high-level contacts). The media are keen not to report stories that question the status quo in which they are embedded and flourishing – this would be like hacking at the limb of the tree on which they are sitting.
Local media, owned by giant media corporations, are part of all this and in addition are not keen to report many serious issues because their stories are required to have a ‘local angle’. This excludes anything that does not have a specific human or geographical connection to the given ‘local’ area. It is not enough that the killing of Iraqis has clear moral import for everyone living in the South West, for example - someone in the South West has to be physically campaigning, or physically demonstrating, or travelling to Iraq, for it to be deemed a ‘local issue’.
To argue that the local press should run regular stories on the slaughter of Iraqi children by our government because people in the South West elected the government killing them, cuts no ice - moral responsibility for genocide is not a ‘local’ issue.
We can only speculate on how those editors – who in reality are salesmen selling audiences to advertisers and are not overly concerned whether their arguments make rational or moral sense - would view editors of the German provincial press in the 1930s rejecting articles on the Nazis treatment of Jews. Presumably they would agree wholeheartedly that they had a point. The ‘local’ argument, like many others I have encountered in the media, is merely an excuse for rejecting what does not fit the pro-establishment agenda.
Green magazines like the Ecologist sometimes appear reluctant to be overly critical of the mainstream media for fear of being excluded and marginalised even further (the Ecologist’s editors vigorously deny that this is the case). If so, it is an understandable concern, given the mainstream’s extreme intolerance of criticism.
The remarkable result of the current state of affairs is that British analysts offering a systemic critique of the media can publish their work only in the United States – there is almost literally no print outlet in this country that will tolerate the kind of arguments being made here, for example. Most radical bookshops have closed, and as investigative journalists know, honest work is increasingly difficult to publish or broadcast. This is death by a thousand compromises, facilitating a suppression of media criticism that is indistinguishable from conditions found in totalitarian societies.
The absurdity is clear when you consider that the media is not like a fragile ego, it should not be damaged by criticism. Instead, the media is like a cardiovascular system supplying the life-blood of democracy. It should welcome investigation, examination, diagnosis, and the preventative and curative medicine of honest analysis and truth. To treat the press with kid gloves is to allow power to wield an iron fist unrestrained by an unknowing and deceived public.
Other Green magazines, like Resurgence, reject arguments of the kind presented above on the grounds that they are “negative”. It is an interesting concept to explore. Imagine that my government has trapped six hundred infants and their teachers in a school building and set it ablaze. Imagine that a government official assures concerned citizens that someone else started the fire, and that anyway no children or teachers are in the building. Now imagine that a group of people, aware of the reality, contact an editor to tell him or her that the government’s claims are false, that in fact the government, our government, is responsible for burning those children and teachers alive. Would we describe this claim as “negative”? In what way is it negative?
Certainly it is negative in that it is not good news: who wants to believe that their government is responsible for killing children? It is also negative in that it involves criticising individuals who forever portray themselves, and who are forever portrayed by the media, as basically reasonable people. Connected to this is the negativity of the fact that we tend to look up to and even emotionally depend on power. Erich Fromm called this the “authoritarian” mentality, and gave as examples the tendency to worship the state and its politicians:
“In authoritarian religion, sin is primarily disobedience to authority and only secondarily a violation of ethical norms. In humanistic religion, conscience is not the internalised voice of authority but man’s own voice, the guardian of our integrity which recalls us to ourselves. Sin is not primarily sin against God but sin against ourselves.”
For the authoritarian mindset, criticising authority is negative because it is a kind of sin. From this point of view, even failing to show due deference to leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton is a scandal. To accuse them of genocide is simply monstrous.
The above claims are also negative, from the point of view of power, because they are extremely potent antidotes to the deceptions on which power depends. Fromm also made the point that many modern beliefs disseminated by power are extremely fragile, based on nothing more than repetition. This is why powerful groups are terrified of rational dissident arguments and work tirelessly to suppress them. As Fromm says:
“A thought may be an empty shell, nothing but an opinion held because it is the thought pattern of the culture which one adopts easily and could shed easily provided public opinion changes.”
So, yes, these claims are indeed negative. Some lend weight to this argument for rejecting “negative” views by reference to spiritual traditions which, it is said, warn us against “harsh speech” that is critical of others. What could be harsher than accusing government ministers of genocide?
Nothing in fact could be further from the truth. In his work, The Marvellous Companion, Aryasura quotes the Buddha on his path to enlightenment. In the presence of a king and his ministers, the Buddha tells the truth about the dangers of Machiavellian politics and the deception that accompanies them. Referring to the ministers before him, the Buddha says:
“Alas for those shameless ones who, in the name of expediency, oppress humanity and extend amorality. I do not see that such actions have gained you either pleasure or joy...”
Turning to the king, the Buddha advises him in no uncertain terms:
“As jackals are betrayed by their howling, so do adherents of false doctrines betray themselves by their harsh ways of speaking. Therefore the wise do not depend on such persons, but rather work for their good if they are able to do so. No one, no matter how illustrious, should make friends with such people, even if they are famous and you have need of them. For even the moon is overshadowed by the gloom of a winter’s day.”
Alas, for the shameless ones today who kill children for strategic and economic power - to control vital oil reserves and sell arms, essentially. And alas, for those radical editors who refuse to come to the aid of those children on the grounds that the criticism of powerful people is “negative”. Buddhist writer Peter Harvey notes that, according to the sage Asanga, a Bodhisattva will lie so as to protect others from death or mutilation, though he will not lie to save his own life. In addition:
“He will slander an unwholesome adviser of a person, and use harsh, severe words to move someone from unwholesome to wholesome action.”
Motivation is everything. If we are truly motivated by compassion, rather than hatred for those perpetrating crimes in our name, then surely the goal of relief of suffering, and the motivation to help in achieving that goal, are enough to qualify harsh criticism as profoundly positive.
Truth does offend those who depend on deceptions, and those who are interested in ‘radical’ ideas that ‘nurture’ the ‘soul and spirit’ in a pleasant enough way, but who are not at all interested in attending to the stench of burning flesh from burning school buildings, much less of trying to rescue any survivors.
Are these images uncomfortable, perhaps even disgusting, horrible and ‘over the top’? Do we describe as “negative” those who propose that we even think about such horrors? Do we shoot those messengers? Or is it negative to refuse to have our comfort disturbed by even imaginary images of actual, real suffering for which we are democratically responsible and that we in our comfortable lives cannot even begin to understand?
Historian Howard Zinn warns of how suffering can be “hidden from sight by the foliage of the suburbs.” The problem being that “the poor, like the black, become invisible in a society blinded by the glitter of its own luxury... The sounds of prosperity drown out all else, and the voices of the well-off dominate history.”
Most often the “negativity” is felt by those who do not wish to disturb the very real and very powerful forces that can make their lives difficult, preferring instead to stick to ‘safe’ truth-telling. The great Buddhist sage Nagarjuna warned us against doing exactly this:
“Not doing harm to others,
Not bowing down to the ignoble,
Not abandoning the path of virtue –
These are small points, but of great
All too often, those who edit our media – our ‘alternative’ media included - are happy to bow down to the ignoble, the complacent, the comfortable, the wealthy and uncompassionate - those who do not wish to be reminded of bad smells and unpleasant truths. By so doing, they indeed do abandon the path of virtue, which cannot possibly lie in a direction other than that of telling both comfortable and uncomfortable truths. It is not virtuous, or even amoral, to remain silent while terrible crimes are perpetrated in our name – sometimes to be silent is to lie. Ultimately, as Zinn tells us, we have to make a choice:
“There are victims, there are executioners, and there are bystanders... Unless we wrench free from being what we like to call ‘objective’, we are closer psychologically, whether we like to admit it or not, to the executioner than to the victim.”