Essay

When politicians lie: reflections on truth, politics and patriotism

SIMONE WEIL SAID in her book The Need for Roots (Routledge and Paul, 1952) that truth is "a need of the soul". She went on to say: "The need for truth is a need more sacred than any other need. Yet it is never mentioned. One feels afraid to read once one has realised the quantity and monstrousness of the material falsehoods paraded in even the books of the most reputable authors. Thereafter one reads as though one were drinking from a contaminated well."

Weil was a deeply religious woman but one need not be religious in order to appreciate her use of the words "sacred" and "soul". Instead of thinking of the soul as an immaterial entity, perhaps, or as in other ways affected by religious doctrine, it is better to think of how we speak of soul-destroying work or of affliction that can lacerate a person's soul or even of soul music. Weil often quoted the ancient Greek saying, that: "a man loses half his soul the day he becomes a slave". We do not need to locate such ways of speaking in a religious context in order to understand them fully. To see that they still work for us, try substituting "psyche" for "soul". "Self" or "personality" will fare no better. "Soul" appears to take us to deeper things.

Primo Levi was not religious. In The Periodic Table (Schocken, 1995) he lamented how the fascists "polluted" the political life of Italy during World War II. Only if our need for truth goes deeper than our practical need for it – the need for it to serve other interests and needs – could one seriously believe, as Weil and Levi did, that lying could pollute – defile – a life, a past, institutions or almost the entire life of a nation.

In politics mendacity can affect the kind of collective that citizens can honestly believe themselves to be, what kind of "we" they can honestly say that they are – we Australians, we French, we Italians, and so on. Even if the lies of their politicians do not at all affect their material interests, pervasive mendacity can defile citizens' love of country, making it impossible for them to love clear-sightedly without pain. In one of the great speeches of our recent history, former prime minister Paul Keating expressed his pained love for Australia in the shame he felt because of past injustices and our refusal to acknowledge them adequately in full truthfulness. "We took the traditional lands, committed the murders, took the children," he said in his 1992 Redfern address.

"Not me!" said John Howard and he seems to have convinced many others to say the same. The hopes that Keating's speech inspired seem almost to belong to another era. But Keating did not, of course, mean that most of us literally did those things, nor even that we were accomplices. He meant much the same as John Howard would, if he (Howard) were to say, "We cleared the land, suffered the fires, the drought and the flood; we built the nation; we fought at Gallipoli and later in Europe and Asia against tyranny".

Whether it is said with pride or with shame, that "we" is not one that merely designates members of a group for purposes of classification. It is a "we" of fellowship – the kind people mean when they suffer together or rejoice together, or the kind they mean when they speak of their common mortality and intend to refer to more than the fact that all human beings die. The ancient Greeks expressed a fellowship of all humankind when, in accents of sorrow and pity, they referred to human beings as "The Mortals". Keating's "we" is one of national fellowship, or if "national" carries the wrong kinds of political implications, then a fellowship formed by love of country.

 

TRUTH AND TRUTHFULNESS matter to us in politics for at least three reasons. Most obviously they matter because they bring practical benefits. We want contracts to be honoured; we are reliant on information that we cannot ourselves secure, so we need to trust the media. We also want our bridges to stand, our doctors to cure us, our lawyers to defend us competently, and so on. In a society such as ours, standards of truthfulness need to be high and the means of discovering truths – medical, scientific, and so on – very sophisticated. For such practical reasons we even encourage people to seek truth for non-practical reasons – for its own sake – because we hope that it will increase the yield of groundbreaking work.

Highly sophisticated though that kind of concern with truth and truthfulness might be, it remains a servant to needs and desires that can be characterised independently of our need for truth. The need for truth does not enter into the characterisation of our desire to be safe, though high degrees of truthfulness might be needed to assure our safety. In this respect, our need for truth and truthfulness is quite different from the need for truth about the integrity of our relationships where our need to be lucid about their meaning may have no further practical consequences. Often we can be lucid about the meaning of aspects of our lives only because we can rely on the truthfulness of others. That takes me to the second of the reasons we are concerned with truth and truthfulness in politics.

No one wants to die in cloud-cuckoo-land and few people want to kill in that state either. It is a dramatic example, but I write after our invasion of Iraq and its continuing legacy of sorrow. Truth, the cliché tells us, is the first casualty of war, but in war it can be desperately important to know the truth. A widow who was consoled by government propaganda about the cause for which her husband gave his life may become suspicious of that propaganda and, with mounting desperation, seek the truth about what is fast appearing to her to have been an unjust war. She is reliant on the truthfulness of the institutions that can give her the information she needs – most obviously, independent media. Those institutions are the instruments that are necessary to satisfy a need for truth that is not itself instrumental. It is consistent, however, with that kind of need for truthful institutions – political and others – that she have no feelings for the country and its government that would enable her to think that the mendacious propaganda she had exposed polluted the political realm. It may have done, but she cannot think it has because her lack of feeling for the country prohibits her from applying a concept like "pollution" to the political realm.

It will now be clear, I hope, what the third kind of concern for truth and truthfulness in politics is. Lovers of their country need politicians to honour that love. Citizens who also love their country can hold their politicians to account when the mendacity of their politicians affects their material interest and when it undermines their capacity to be lucid about important events or aspects of their lives. They can also hold them to account when their mendacity defiles anything that counts as the serious love of country.

If I am right, it is a bad mistake to contrast in a general way our need for truthfulness and justice with the national interest. An adequate conception of the national interest will include our interests as citizens but it will also include our interests as patriots. Inclusion of the latter is not consistent with a conception of politics in which truthfulness is needed only for the former – to satisfy the first two of the three concerns that I elaborated earlier. To put it simply: no one who believes that love of country matters can seriously believe it is in the national interest to undermine the conditions that make lucid forms of it possible.

Fundamental to every kind of love is the distinction between its real form and its many false semblances. Someone who could not even try to distinguish between love and infatuation, for example, perhaps because she was severely brain damaged, could not love, though she could form affectionate attachments. Acknowledgement that love is in part constituted by the need to make those distinctions, and a capacity and desire to make them, is a condition of love itself, at least in human beings. People will, of course, differ in how they draw those distinctions. There are few truths about love that could be entered in an encyclopedia or textbook. Not anything goes, however. Someone who says that she knows what real love is and that pervasive mendacity on the part of lovers is no obstacle to it, would betray the degree to which she is an outsider to the language of love – a stranger to love as much as to its language.

Why then should we not conclude that those Australians who do not care about the mendacity of the Howard Government cannot rightly describe whatever attachments they have to Australia – even if they are fierce – as love of country? Would we credit anyone with a serious conception of the love of country – a conception that is distinguished from jingoism – who denied that mendacity could pollute that love? And can anyone seriously deny that Howard's government has been deeply and pervasively mendacious? Howard's cynical pact with the electorate – he (at best) insulates himself from the truth and much of the electorate lets it pass for so long as its material and security interests are satisfied – has undermined the possibility for Australians to celebrate lucidly the love of country that he so often professes to feel and to have promoted.

 

ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS ARE integral to any serious conception of politics, including of the national interest. It may also be true, as Aristotle and Marx believed, that the ethical requires completion by the political. Consistent with those beliefs is the suspicion – not of itself the expression of cynicism – that ethics and politics are in deep ways irreconcilable. That suspicion goes back a long way. The Platonic Socrates of the early dialogues seems to believe that a preparedness to do evil when necessary is internal to serious political commitment and that those who refuse to do it will be judged to be irresponsible by their fellow citizens. Even as late as Republic, where Plato presents portraits of the perfectly just and the perfectly unjust man, it is the perfectly unjust man who is praised as a benefactor of mankind and who is favoured even by the Gods.

In modern times Max Weber distinguished, in his essay "Politics as a Vocation", between the "ethics of absolute ends" and an "ethic of responsibility". There is much confusion in Weber's essay, but it is deservedly a classic, partly because of the way it captures the age-old sense that to make politics everywhere answerable to the ethical is to undermine the distinctive sense of responsibility to the world that a politician who is sensible of the terrors of his or her vocation must possess. Readiness to do evil when it is necessary to safeguard the conditions of political communality is, as Weber put it, the most salient aspect of the "ethic of responsibility" that defines a political vocation. But it defines it only when it is in genuine tension with what he called the "ethics of absolute ends". He tended to identify that with a form of Christian pacifism, but he need not have done. His purposes would have been served equally well if he had contrasted an "ethic of responsibility" with the Socratic doctrine that it is better to suffer evil than to do it, or with St Paul's injunction (with which the Socratic doctrine is often associated) that one must not do evil though good may come of it. Both are examples of an ethic of renunciation and, for over-determined reasons, renunciation cannot be the way of politics. These doctrines and their challenge to politics have shaped a fundamental part of our tradition. Politics that avoids or subverts that tension declines into moralism of a kind that threatens the conditions of political communality, into reckless adventurism or into the ruthless pursuit of economic or strategic interests justified by appeal to necessity when none exists. Politicians must, as politicians, sometimes do what morally they must not do. That dilemma, soberly acknowledged, constitutes the misery and the dignity of a political vocation.

It would therefore be quite absurd to deny that politicians must sometimes lie if they are honourably to rise to the responsibilities of their calling. Acknowledgement of that, however, is a far cry from the cynical expectation that politicians will lie to protect their parties and even their careers. Because our political language is now so debased, we think little of the difference between what belongs to the very nature of politics, and what, contingently if pervasively, politicians do. There is no good reason to think that our expectation that politicians will routinely lie to promote party and career is an insight into the nature of politics. It seems, to the contrary, to reveal incapacity to understand the possibilities in politics. Our cynicism is not so much a moral failing as it is the expression of how impoverished our life with the language of politics has become.

Many people think that only an ethical imperative can compete with another ethical imperative for a serious person. From that perspective, what looks like a conflict between ethics and politics is really a conflict within the ethical. I cannot argue the case here but the belief that it must be so is itself a moralisation (in the pejorative sense) of both the ethical and values that might seriously conflict with it. The tensions are not eased by distinguishing between ethics and morality.

Politics seriously pursued represents, I believe, a distinctive form of loyalty to the world, loyalty to an activitysui generis, whose responsibilities are informed by, often answerable to, and sometimes in conflict with, the ethical. But perhaps I do not need to argue the case here, for I have made the point against someone who believes that politics is always answerable to the ethical. Against such a person I have suggested that her belief is as dangerous to a sober sense of political responsibility as the belief that it is never answerable to the ethical. In their different ways, but just as surely, each undermines an understanding of the integrity of a politics that must rise to a lucid love of country. Most – perhaps all – loves stand in complex, sometimes tense, relations to ethics. Love of country is no exception.

 

EARLIER I SUGGESTED that most Australians appear not to be dismayed by the pervasive mendacity of the Howard Government because they do not believe that it seriously threatens the interests that politicians are elected to promote and to protect. They believe, I think, that their cynicism expresses their common sense. They feel that their feet are planted firmly in reality and that there are no slippery slopes in sight.

From the perspective that I have been sketching, that kind of cynicism is not a realistic assessment of human frailties, not a down-to-earth acknowledgement that it is foolish to impose standards that will not be met. It is a failure even to recognise certain standards. More accurately, it is a failure to recognise that some standards do not merely regulate a practice; they define the kind of practice that it is. If I am right, Australian cynicism expresses not so much the abandonment of standards as the loss of key political concepts.

It is sometimes hard in this discussion to know what is cause and what is effect. The ubiquity of free-enterprise jargon in the description of much of our public life – we call passengers, students, even hospital patients, customers, for example – is a case in point. From one perspective it looks as though economic practices caused a conceptual shift. From another, it looks as though such causes could have the effects they did only because our hold on why it matters that we are patients rather than customers, for example, was so weak. The tendency – now second nature to us – to describe politics as "running the country" and to think of law as nothing more than a set of rules intended to facilitate it, flourished long before we came to think that running a business is the best model for running a country. The fact that managerial economic paradigms could so quickly, so pervasively and, it seems so deeply, determine the way we speak of many aspects of public life shows that we did not have it in us to resist.

A sign of the conceptual loss that I have been pointing to can be seen in the fact that in the universities, serious talk of a vocation gave way to talk of a profession and that in politics, talk of a vocation moved quickly past talk of a profession onto talk of a career. Perhaps that is why so many people accept that there is nothing in the very nature of politics, as there is in professions like law or medicine, for example, that should make politicians ashamed to lie as often as they seem to – ashamed, not just as human beings but as politicians. Few people believe that politicians who lie regularly disgrace their profession. The ethical standards of a profession do not only regulate the conduct of its practitioners, they define what it is to be a professional of this or that kind. Were they merely regulative rules, like the rules of the road, observance of them could not be a deep source of pride and satisfaction, so deep as to be partly constitutive of a person's identify. Our failure to see politics as more than a career may be the effect of longstanding disillusionment with the conduct of politicians. If that is so, it is nonetheless important to see that what were once standards constitutive of an honourable profession (and before that, a vocation) are now merely rules (considerably relaxed) that protect us from the low behaviour that we have come to expect of many politicians.

I have put my point by speaking of a conceptual loss we have suffered because I think it would be misleading to say that we have ceased to believe in vocations, for example. We have not, for good or for bad reasons, come to believe that the concept of a profession is better suited to characterising the defining responsibilities (in both senses) of teaching, nursing, doctoring and so on. Rather, the concept has fallen away from us, or perhaps we from it. We see it only intermittently and dimly. Certain ways of speaking have gone dead on us. To put it that way is less intellectualist and it avoids the danger of reifying concepts, or worse, conceptual frameworks. For that reason it is perhaps better to speak of what is available to us in living speech, in the language of politics, or the life of the mind. It also makes more evident, than does talk of conceptual frameworks, the interdependencies between language and thought, and between these and the way we live.

 

THE IDEA OF politics as a real sui generis – a realm whose distinctive concerns are not merely the satisfaction of our pre-political interests (security, economic wellbeing and so on and nor merely a combination of these and moral concerns) – has its dangers. Its potential slide into romanticism is obvious enough. Yet, as I have put it, it merely elaborates the implications of what it means to have that identity-forming attachment to a country that we call patriotism and distinguish it from its false semblance, jingoism.

It is hard to deny, however – especially in the aftermath of war – that the fear that patriotism will almost always degenerate into jingoism, tempting good people to defend and even to glory in what is morally indefensible, is potent and justified. It is tempting to say that we should settle for responsible citizenship with an internationalist outlook, extending and strengthening international law.

Understandable though that temptation is, it would be a mistake to yield to it. It is just a fact of human life that many, perhaps most people, develop identity-forming attachments to places and to institutions. Not all of them, it is true. Trees have roots whereas human beings have legs, author George Steiner reminded us. But most people don't like to wander all their lives, especially not at the beginning of their lives nor at the end. The human soul needs warmth, and for most people that comes from belonging, from being in surroundings that are familiar and to which they have affectionate attachments.

For most people, their deepest attachments are local, to a particular part of a country, perhaps a farm or a town, sometimes a city. Often it requires something unusual for them to realise that their identity-forming attachments are wider, to the state (in the sense in which NSW is a state) and also, more often than not, to the nation. They may realise that their attachments are more extensive than to their local towns only when they are abroad and discover just how pleased they are, if they are Australian, to hear an Australian accent. It's not superficial. A person's relation to his or her mother tongue can go deep. Poets sometimes dry up in exile. For many people, less fortunate than Australians, the realisation might come when they have lost their country and live under foreign occupation, denied the right to speak their language, to honour their national institutions, to fully remember their past and to pass on its treasure to future generations. In such terrible circumstances people realise that responsible love of country will seek protection for what is loved and is owed to future generations. In modern times, the means of protection is almost always the nation state, for it alone has the necessary military power, of itself, or more commonly, in alliance with other nation states. Protection is sought not just for the institutions of citizenship – the rule of law, democracy and so on, as these might be relatively interchangeable between different countries – but also for those institutions as they are infused by the spirit of a particular people.

It would be foolish even to try to say in the space remaining to me what might be done to increase the prospects for love of country over jingoism. Clearly though, if we do not care for truth, then the prospects are zero. Our responses to lying will be a function of the kind of value we place on truth and truthfulness. A serious concern about truthfulness must extend beyond a concern with lying. If we cease to care about it more extensively; cease to care, for example, about the seriousness with which academia and the media seek the truth, and protect the conditions under which it can seriously be sought, then after a time it will matter less to us whether our politicians lie to us so long as their mendacity does not affect our material interests. I believe that has happened.

Cynicism, if it has not descended into nihilism, is often a species of thoughtlessness, and thoughtlessness as pervasive as the kind that shows itself in cynicism is not in the end a deficiency of intellectual skills, not at any rate, of the kind that can be taught in the way logic can be taught. We can teach people to reason better. Logic in schools would be a good idea. But we cannot teach them to use those logical abilities in the service of truth rather than to win arguments, or to refine capacities for self-deception. We can teach them to be alert to many distinctions. Civilisation, author G.K. Chesterton said, is suspended on a spider's web of fine distinctions. But pedants also make many and fine distinctions. We cannot, in the same way that we can teach people to make distinctions, teach them to see the forest for the trees and perhaps we cannot teach this at all. We can teach people how to find facts, but we cannot in the same way teach them seriously to search for them.

Albert Camus said that he admired intelligence but that he distinguished between intelligent intelligence and stupid intelligence. More than it depends on teachable intellectual skills, intelligent intelligence depends on virtues of character and on the kind of judgement that is the effect of good teaching but which cannot, I think, be the direct purpose of it. It depends on humility, a sense of justice (in the sense of being just to those with whom you disagree) and courage and on much more of the same kind; it depends, in short, on a capacity to resist the blandishments of what writer Iris Murdoch called "the fat relentless ego". It depends on our capacity to resist cliché or our vulnerability to bathos and sentimentality and other afflictions.

Am I naive to speak so unselfconsciously of truth and truthfulness? Have we not been shown that these are highly problematic concepts? I doubt that official scepticism about truth of the kind attributed in our culture wars to postmodernism (often unjustly) has played much part in the decline of many of our public institutions into untruthfulness. Anything that counts as serious reflection will acknowledge itself to be answerable to the contrast between how things appear to us and how they are. Everyone knows that we must struggle to adjust distorting perspectives, free ourselves from prejudice, try to resist propaganda, try to resist the fashions of the times, try to overcome vanity and fears, try to resist our vulnerability to sentimentality, bathos and cliché, and so on. This is as true of narrative as it is of philosophy. These efforts are not efforts to be objective with a capital "O", they are just what it means to try to be objective in its ordinary, workaday sense of efforts "oriented towards truth". To seek to avoid sentimentality, for example, is to seek to avoid falsehood, as much as efforts to check on the facts are efforts to avoid falsehood. But then, one could put the point the other way about – perhaps more congenial to those who fear that talk of truth disguises an inclination to reach for a capital "T". To try to be truthful, to orient one's efforts towards truth, is nothing more than to make one's efforts answerable to those critical concepts whose applications mark our efforts to overcome vanity, seek out the relevant facts, overcome sentimentality and so on.

We fully understand value and meaning in personal relationships and in politics when we see them in lives deepened by them. That is why there are no whiz kids in this area. Understanding of value and meaning is, I believe, necessarily mediated by example, example that moves us and which we take as authoritative. There is no purely discursive route, available to any reasonably intelligent person of goodwill, to the appreciation of the value of anything important, let alone the value of a lifetime seriously devoted to politics.

There is no proof waiting to be discovered and written into textbooks, encyclopedias or private notebooks that we can consult when we are in doubt about which things are really valuable. Inescapably, we learn by being moved, and that would be so even in Heaven. Though we must reflect critically on what has moved us, often we must, at the crux, trust the authority of what moves us and ourselves in doing so. But we deserve to trust only if our trust is disciplined and sober – a product of the continuous exercise of those capacities that I described as essential to "intelligent intelligence".

The mendacity that now pollutes the life of this nation provokes a degree of understandable cynicism that makes trust an almost saintly virtue. Lower standards and a diminished regard for truthfulness in the public institutions entrusted to serve our need for truth – most notably in the universities and media – make it difficult for us to develop the kind of judgment necessary for trust to be lucid. Both undermine the space in which we must try to learn again about the nature of political virtue and what it can mean for politics to be a vocation.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review