In ancient Greece, a Goddess of truth was born to counter her opposites, Dolos, the god of trickery, Apate, the goddess of deception, and all the the gods of lies – the Pseudologoi.
Some say Aletheia was a daughter of Zeus himself, others say she was crafted by Promoetheus. All I know for sure if she has been burned in a fire which has engulfed the world and the light is fading from her charred being.
We are witnessing the last stand of a goddess – and I say this because we are no longer active participants. Layers of trickery, deception, and lies separate us from direct engagement with Aletheia. Each of us held safely away by her opposites, through a complex construct of politics and media and warfare. Layers obfuscating the facts, buried in alternative narratives and desired outcomes, all for the sake of money, power, and control.
Truth matters because it is how we are kept safe. Its absence – or our ignorance of it – are risks. This is as simple and complex as truth is: without truth there is no justice, without justice there is no fairness, without fairness there is no society, without society there is no humanity. Without humanity we are a virus and nothing more.
Aletheia is dying and we are dying with her. Because we longer understand her value.
In our connected world of malware for the soul we have become immune to her, even. We only see and hear what suits us best, playing to the weapons which tweak and manipulate our emotions to produce action, reaction, and inaction. Rendered pieces on a chessboard as we were once depicted.
Months ago I set about to answer six questions. A sextet of simple demands which go to the heart of what is wrong with our world. But I’m learning, even now as my work of last summer comes home across the world, my word alone is not good enough. So I turned to two people whose words carry more weight than my own: journalist Tim Walker and the multi-faceted John Cleese.
Walker is an award-winning former Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph journalist whose work, he says, is “now used only in the Mirror, Guardian, New Statesman and The New European.”
Cleese is probably one of the best known names in the world, predominantly as an actor and comedian. He is, however, much more than a Python. As long ago as the 1970s he founded The Secret Policeman’s Ball, dedicated to raising funds for Amnesty International.
While John’s replies to my searching questions were short and to the point, Tim was more expansive and I hope Aletheia is reassured that people do still remember her, even as her embers die. I also hope these powerful words resonate with people across the divides of politics.
Its the possibility of an alternative truth which has been used so effectively against populations in recent years. The grey area is a weapon, because alternative facts persuade you not to accept the lie, but to accept that appearance can be as true as fact.
From my own point of view, truth is black and white yet easy to attack with grey. For example, an old philosphical principle springs to mind, in that if you take a straight ruler and dip it in a glass of water it will appear bent. Philosophers say the truth is pliable because you can say the ruler is straight or bent, dependent on how you are looking at it and both statements are true. This is, in of itself, not true. The ruler is straight. That is the truth. In water the ruler appears bent. That is also true. But you cannot say the ruler is bent, because that is not true. However, its the possibility of an alternative truth which has been used so effectively against populations in recent years. The grey area is a weapon, because alternative facts persuade you not to accept the lie, but the possibility appearance can be as true as fact.
So what is truth? The only thing which can ever be true is a fact. Everything else is pliable speculation, a potential truth, facilitated by the human condition: which is to either not see the ugly thing before it or to refuse to accept it as reality, because we don’t like confronting unpleasantaries.
John Keats answered this one a lot better than I ever could in Ode on a Grecian Urn. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all.
1. What is truth?
Cleese: It’s reality viewed from many points of view.
Walker: John Keats answered this one a lot better than I ever could in Ode on a Grecian Urn. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all. Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Truth in the form of honest, accurate, objective intelligence presented to the people – whether by politicians or journalists or whoever – is necessary if they are to make decisions that are in their own best interests.
2. Why does it matter?
Cleese: It matters because everything else leads us to delusion.
Walker: Truth in the form of honest, accurate, objective intelligence presented to the people – whether by politicians or journalists or whoever – is necessary if they are to make decisions that are in their own best interests. The great newspaperman E W Scripps put it thus in 1878: ‘Give light and the people will find their own way.’ The people, however, need to take an interest in what they are being told and perhaps need to ask questions themselves: certainly, democracy only works when enough people are interested.
Greed will destroy the planet.
3. Tell me how you see the world now…
Cleese: Hopeless. Greed will destroy the planet.
Walker: It feels like we have lost our way, or, as Antony put it in Julius Caesar: ‘O Judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts. And men have lost their reason.’ The world wide web has, for a start, been a disaster for humanity, and, goodness knows, we have all encountered enough ‘brutish beasts’ on there.
The peoples of the world seem unable to process the vast amount of information this invention is disseminating every second of every day and too many of them no longer possess the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction. Maybe they have information fatigue.
Too often, people are allowing themselves to be distracted by insignificant showbusiness news. An awful lot started to go wrong in this country when I first saw in the Eighties a Rupert Murdoch tabloid leading not on something that had actually happened in real life, but on what was about to happen in a TV soap opera. I sometimes think Putin could walk into 10 Downing Street and take power unchallenged if he were to do it during a Strictly Come Dancing final.
It doesn’t help that media outlets are in the business now of confirming the prejudices of their audiences, and seldom, if ever, challenging them. There are no rules any more: there is simply an undignified race to the bottom. Extreme views make for great ‘click bait’ and they get you on to TV programmes and talk shows and they have certainly created some dubious stars.
The world wide web has, for a start, been a disaster for humanity…The peoples of the world seem unable to process the vast amount of information this invention is disseminating every second of every day and too many of them no longer possess the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction.
In the Sixties, after Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood speech’ – with its open appeal to racial intolerance – newspaper editors and broadcasters took the patrician view that, while he was clearly ‘box office,’ it would not be in the wider interests of society to give him the oxygen of publicity. Powell sort of disappeared from public view after that speech. There is now no longer than kind of restraint or good taste.
Journalists are not, however, the confident individualists that they were in the days before the internet busted the business model of newspapers – most of that generation of journalists have actually been sacked now, in any case – and, accordingly, there are a lot of frightened, over-worked and expendable youngsters producing the news every day. And there is a blind, unquestioning obedience among them to the powers-that-be. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of journalists I have had lunch with who will tell me, usually over the second bottle of wine, why they haven’t agreed with a single word they have been made to write on the subject of Brexit for their newspapers.
The limited resources of media organisations is also setting effective limits on knowledge, often disastrously. I don’t believe any mainstream British newspaper had, for example, a staff man based in Baghdad, who, in the run up to the Iraq war, could have written a piece that posed what now seems the bleeding obvious question: ‘after this war is won, then what?’
On the extreme Right and the extreme Left, no one seems very interested any more in hearing out those who disagree with them. In this coarse new world, we are conducting our politics according to the rules of ancient Sparta: the will of whoever shouts the loudest prevails. Idealism has in the process all but died – I can’t actually remember when I last heard an idealistic speech from a mainstream politician along the lines of “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” This hatred of intellectuals and experts that is so much a part of the whole Trump-Brexit thing is nothing new among despotic powers – Pol Pot of course used to round up and execute people who wore glasses because he figured they would be smart enough to see what he was up to.
Unscrupulous politicians, businessmen and foreign powers – sometimes operating in collusion – are doing what’s in their own good, rather than the common good. Donald Trump is arguably the natural consequence of this whole unhappy state of affairs: a meeting of celebrity and politics, the master manipulator, but also a disturbed man-child who cannot himself distinguish any more between the ugliness of deceit and the beauty of truth. A man who represents his people at their very worst, not their very best.
People need to be educated now to recognise truth. Ultimately, we all have to learn to live together. We have to learn to accept that hatred is not a viable, long-term modus operandi.
4. Where does truth fit in?
Cleese: Everything should be fitted round the truth, not the other way round.
Walker: Truth has been made to feel ill at ease, if not actually incompatible, with the world these days. A friend of mine who was the victim of terrorism in Afghanistan memorably said that the only sensible answer to the hand grenade that nearly killed him is education. The people need to be educated now to recognise truth. Ultimately, we all have to learn to live together. We have to learn to accept that hatred is not a viable, long-term modus operandi. I say to people who tell me they hate Muslims, ‘well, fine, where does that end? You cannot hate a huge swathe of humanity. Hitler was the last one to go down that route and it didn’t end well.’
The rich fear the poor in this world of ours and the poor fear the rich. The problem with the politics of Trump and Brexit is that while it may make the super rich even richer, it will create a world where they will have to live in well guarded compounds or castles in the Channel Islands. The streets won’t be safe to walk any more. If we don’t care for the least among us, then, honestly, the strongest and richest and most powerful among us will pay the price.
The new order is operating on the age-old basis of divide and rule. They divide in particular on the basis of nationality and religion. I was a toddler during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation, but this period we are living through now feels a lot more dangerous.
5. How will this end?
Cleese: The poisoning of planet Earth.
Walker: How will this end? Greedy, unscrupulous, power-hungry people are in charge for now. Their enemies – necessarily more urbane and thoughtful – are being bludgeoned into submission. Two of the most reasonable and mild-mannered people I have personally ever known in my life – Gina Miller and Lord Adonis – are in receipt of death threats. This is intolerable. Ronald Reagan was absolutely right when he said that freedom and democracy are only ever one generation away from extinction.
The new order is operating on the age-old basis of divide and rule. They divide in particular on the basis of nationality and religion. I was a toddler during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation, but this period we are living through now feels a lot more dangerous than that because of the immaturity of the people in charge of our weapons of mass destruction.
The problem with nationalism is that so many of the really big problems humanity faces – not least climate change – can only be tackled internationally. Climate change can’t of course be tackled just up to the White Cliffs of Dover and so it’s wearily predictable that prominent Brexit supporters like Lord Lawson are also prominent climate change deniers. Their daft ideology means they can’t afford to admit their is a problem .
What’s worse is people are fretting about what is not in the scheme of things important. I was doing some PR work for a company where one of the directors happened to have been ex-intelligence services. One day, he turned to me and my colleague – another journalist – and said ‘out of interest, why do the newspapers keep banging on about Muslim terrorism? These terrorists who act in the name of religion come and go. We saw all that with the IRA and we were never that bothered about them in my last job. What worried us was Russia. What they were and are up to now is terrifying.’
First, however, we all have to survive it. And that, at this particular juncture, is by no means certain.
6. Where is hope?
Cleese: Any set of beliefs that teaches us how to reduce the power of our egos. But this is not a popular pastime!
Walker: I think it is interesting that America has withstood Trump a lot better than we have Brexit here – true, our judiciary stood up to enormous pressure when Gina Miller challenged the Government over Article 50 first in the High Court and then, on appeal, in the Supreme Court, but our politicians – certainly our party of Opposition – is not providing the checks and balances of their American counterparts. Our Press, too, has not shown itself to be as independent and resilient on this side of the Atlantic. It could even be argued that the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph are now full-time PR operations for the Government.
Speaking more broadly, I am aware that there is a self-destructive steak in all of us – it is a part of the human condition – but most of us learn to overcome it. I think collectively we will, by the same token, overcome this period of global self-destructiveness. Ultimately, truth will out. It always does. We learn more from our mistakes than from what we get right, so I believe that, at least for a generation because memories are short, we will eventually be the better for this experience. First, however, we all have to survive it. And that, at this particular juncture, is by no means certain.
Every step we take is more fragile than the last, because the web spins thinner and thinner until we cannot proceed upon it. From marriages to nations, nothing has ever successfully been built to last upon deceit.
Truth matters because we cannot proceed without it.
Every step we take based upon a lie is more fragile than the last, because the web spins thinner and thinner until we cannot go on. From relationships to nations, nothing has ever successfully been built to last upon deceit.
Truth matters because it is how we are kept safe.
Its absence – or our ignorance of it – are risks. This is as simple and complex as truth is: without truth there is no justice, without justice there is no fairness, without fairness there is no society, without society there is no humanity. Without humanity we are a virus and nothing more.
For many months I’ve been confronting this most basic truth – that Aletheia is dying and we are dying with her – this time on a shoestring and without official backing after my last escapade into such a battle at Scotland Yard. A lifetime ago, when I was a different person.
And I’m tired.
And the end is coming.
Since I asked these questions, the world has fallen further into the grasp of madness and the question of whether or not we survive is almost as big as the first question I asked Cleese and Walker. Bigger, perhaps.
The truth is, based on the available facts, we may not.
It appears that Dolos, Apate, and the Pseudologoi have won.