For some people, telling lies seems to be a sort of party game! Is this history repeating itself?
However, telling lies does matter. It creates discord and distrust in values, which democratic countries should hold as precious. Every truth requires a contextual perspective (we sometimes change our opinions!) but the cynical distortion, manipulation and adulteration of truth has corrosive and dangerous implications, not only to governments but also to people and their families.
It’s happening today and its happened before. Take the Dreyfus affair. This was a late nineteenth century French controversy where a series of lies and corrupted evidence were used by the army and political establishment to convict a man of crimes he did not commit. Dreyfus, accused of passing information to Germany, spoke with a German accent, was a Jew and therefore, in the eyes of some, not a ‘real Frenchman.’ The army knew the evidence was corrupted, yet their leaders continued to lie and knowingly, with the support of ultra right wing newspapers, pushed a false conspiracy theory. After he had spent years in Devil’s Island prison, Dreyfus’ supporters eventually won their case, proved his innocence, and in 1899, he was brought home, pardoned and re-joined the army to serve his country in WW1.
However, the ensuing toxic controversy divided French society along lines which have become very familiar to us during the poisonous Brexit debates. They mirror so many of the divisions in recent British politics where lies, cover up and ambiguity devalue notions of truth and standards in public life.
France went on to develop a concept of nationhood based on justice, honesty, objectivity and the neutrality of the courts. Yet, despite the eventual defeat of Hitler and fascism in WW2, there is still support for the ‘France for the French’ nationalism of Marine Le Pen and for ultra right wing politics across Europe. In America, the Trump regime cynically exploited a warped view of patriotism, flags and ‘fake news’ to promote his ‘America First’ agenda and undermine America’s institutions. Meanwhile, in Brexit Britain, it seems the union flag is now an obligatory backdrop to any politician making a filmed statement.
Division in Brexit Britain
During Britain’s noxious, divisive Brexit debate, objective truth was often replaced by half-truths, lies and extreme ideas of patriotism, which some factions used to promote their own negative views of foreigners, immigrants and people from the EU in general. These sentiments were encouraged by sections of the British press and various online trolls who used these platforms to spread further distortions of information. As with the Dreyfus affair, there were the added, murky undertones of racism, religious intolerance plus a contaminated, nostalgic sense of nationalism and patriotism. Waving a flag of patriotism and creating a singular, emotional notion of nationhood is regularly used by dictators and would be world kings!
Today, within Europe, where the EU itself was in part built out of the wreckage of WW2, there are continuing attempts to close down opposition media, undermine independent judiciaries and to crush dissent. This is typified by blaming others, usually minorities and foreigners in general, or, in Britain’s case, immigrants and ‘The French!’. There are the political parties within Europe who are looking for a return to extreme versions of nationhood in direct contrast to the unity in diversity represented by the EU, which is still regarded by many as “first and foremost a peace project”. But, embracing diversity, tolerance and any kind of truth becomes more difficult to sustain when the evidence supplied by those in power is corrupted and lies are told by the establishment, seemingly without a conscience.
Politicians may come and go but these are dangerous times and, as in the Dreyfus affair, the political establishment not only lied and corrupted evidence but they knew they were doing so. They and their nineteenth century trolls knowingly promoted a false conspiracy theory while claiming to be the true patriots.
The parallels between Dreyfus and the mendacity of this British government are there to see. Certainly, some of Britain’s recent events are looking less like ‘the sunny uplands’ and appear bleak, threatening and increasingly shameful. I leave you with an encouraging quote from ‘Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends’ by Anne Applebaum.
“… but maybe, picking our way through the darkness, we will find that together we can resist them”.