Paragons of Truth

It is beyond difficult to be a paragon of virtue, one free of sin and avarice, a human being to be admired and emulated, a soul who rises far above the rest of poor mortals who can only watch in awe and wonder.

Or so I imagine it must be, for (as my friends will readily attest) that description does not fit me.

There are many who have been thus esteemed, however.  A partial list from my own lifetime might include Leyhma Gbowee, Mahatmas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa, and Malala Yousafzai.  All but one of these worthies were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their character and accomplishments.

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There are others who could be added, as well—people who, for reasons varying by nationality, culture, religion, or political necessity, had bestowed upon them (even if only for a time) an aura of goodness and purity to which we might all have aspired.  They include Churchill (but not Chamberlain), Chang Kai-Shek (but not Mao Zedong), Ben-Gurion (but not Netanyahu), de Gaulle (but not Pétain), Graham (but not Bakker), Kennedy (but not Nixon), and Mulroney (but not Turner).

In truth, however, were all those so proclaimed really paragons of righteousness?  Or were they mere mortals like the rest of us—caught up in events largely beyond their control—but whose endeavours as they grappled with those events were in sync with our western-world point of view?

A close reading today of the historical record of those who have passed away, and of the contemporaneous reporting about those still with us, tells us that, in fact, all these heroes and heroines fall short of the near-mythical status granted them.

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The key to understanding history is knowing it was written by the victors.  But it is pretty much accepted that not everyone who reads that official history will agree with it.  We tend, as human beings, to see truth in accounts that reflect our pre-conceived opinions, and to disagree with reports that run counter to those.

One’s assessment of such historical figures as Columbus, Napoleon, Bismarck, Rhodes, Cochise, Lenin, Roosevelt, Castro, or Thatcher clearly depends upon one’s viewpoint with respect to their accomplishments.  Who among them was good?  Who was bad?

The history of our times that will one day be written will depend to a large extent upon contemporary reporting—by the press, the broadcast media, the social media, and the special interest groups—of the events now occurring in the world around us.  And many of the people who will read that history will have no first-hand knowledge of where the truth really lies—if there even is one truth.

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As a boy, I became an avid reader of the two daily newspapers that came into our home, especially the comics, the sports, and the weather forecasts.  Then, marking the example of my parents, I soon branched out into current events, and became able to identify the important people of the day, those gracing the pages I devoured.  I thought they were above us, those newsmakers, guiding the fate of the world on our behalf.  And I believed what I read about them.

Only later did I come to learn that many of my friends’ homes subscribed to other papers, and that their editorial biases were different from those we favoured.  I was shocked, truly, to realize that not everyone revered the same newsmakers I did—that, in fact, some people actually reviled them.  In an attempt to reconcile the discrepancies, I began to explore those other perspectives with a view to discerning what was true and what was misinformation.  With the advent of television newscasts, the sheer volume soon made that impossible.

But I did discover one thing, at least.  No one—not the most famous person found in the newspaper, nor the lowly paperboy delivering it (my status at the time)—was an unblemished paragon of purity.  All of us, no matter our station in life, had warts, even if those were not always readily seen.

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My mother used to encourage us to look for good in everyone—on the theory, I suppose, that if we didn’t at least look, we’d never find it.  She would remind us of the biblical admonition to mind the mote in our own eyes (I didn’t know for a long time what a mote was, but I dutifully tried to oblige), and the other about not casting stones, literally or figuratively, given our own shortcomings.  Good advice, if not always easy to follow.

So here I am, at the age of three-score-and-fifteen now, no longer believing there are any paragons of virtue in the world, but desperately wanting to believe there could be.  Here I am, not knowing what the real truth is, but desperately hoping there is one, still believing it will set us free.

As Abhijit Naskar has written, “It is a tragedy of modern life that the light of truth scares the society much more than the darkness of ignorance.”

So here I am, still reading, still listening, still exploring—still trying to figure it all out before my own time runs out.

Of the People

Ranking at or near the top of any list of definitions of democracy is this one from Abraham Lincoln:  …government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The phrase was part of his dedicatory remarks at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863, when twenty-five states of the Union were locked in a great civil war against eleven states that had seceded to form the Confederacy.  It was a short speech, ten sentences in length, forever after regarded as a plea for true equality for all people of the American nation.

One problem with the definition, however, is that it also aptly described the government of the enemy, which was elected in 1861—presumably of the people, by the people, and for the people of the Confederate states.

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And complicating the case further, under both governments, almost without exception, only white males were deemed citizens with full voting rights.  Where was equality for all?

The lesson I take from this is that any definition of democracy is only as legitimate as the people who profess it.

No one anywhere ever said that democracy is a form of government imposed upon a people whose traditions run to the autocratic, totalitarian model, for that would betray the very notion espoused by Lincoln, that democracy is of the people—that is, arrived at through the exercise of their own free will.

Nevertheless, many nations have tried over hundreds of years to do that very thing, and many still do so today.  It rarely takes. Until those under the yoke of oppression decide of their own volition to rise up, to throw off that yoke, and to determine their own form of self-government—as it was with the signing of the Magna Carta—there will be no democracy for them.

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Look at it this way.  If you tell me that your objective is to help me learn how to think for myself, and if together we are successful, what will happen when you realize that my independent thinking leads me to a different end-point than yours leads you on substantive issues?  Will you applaud, despite our contrarian viewpoints?  Or will you seek to correct me, to bring my thinking in line with yours?

If the latter, you will likely succeed if you are more powerful than I.  But by forcing me back into your own thinking, will you not have failed in your original objective?

Democracy is like that.  If it is truly of the people, it almost certainly will not look the same in every society claiming to embrace it—because people, despite our biological similarities, are shaped by our environment, our experiences, our learning, and our culture.  And those are distinct from place to place to place.

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Even within one democracy—our own, for example, or that of the great republic of Lincoln—there are differences among the governed people.  Because majority rules in democratic elections, there will always be those happy with their government, and those in opposition.

Joseph de Maistre, a nineteenth-century writer and diplomat, wrote that, in every democracy, people get the government they deserve.  I suspect that is true, even more so today, given the woefully-low voter turnout in our elections.

He also wrote, …false opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing.  In our democracy, we can choose what we want to believe, and we are free to espouse it.  Many of us, alas, have no idea of the origin or veracity of the so-called truths we champion.  We simply echo them, as if truth can be created through the repetition of a lie.

Being intellectually lazy, many of us choose to accept, with no critical reflection, what we are told by our democratically-elected leaders.  Or, if we don’t like the sound of that, we opt for what we are told by those who democratically oppose our leaders.  A few of us choose neither, opting instead to believe what we hear from demagogues and the lunatic fringe.

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And so, we find ourselves in a metaphorical darkness—facing each other in a circle of sorts, hunkered around the fire of our democracy—chanting our respective mantras back and forth, as if in a ritual war-dance, none of us listening to the other.  To those lurking in the dark, beyond the flickering light cast by the fire, our chants must sound like caterwauling—loud, nonsensical, and pointless.  And if those lurkers mean us harm, our brayings must also sound welcome.

In 1944, Winston Churchill said, …[the people] together decide what government, or…what form of government, they wish to have in their country.  When the people of any democracy, including our own, decide through their actions—through the exercise of their civic responsibilities, one of which is to become informed—the majority will rightfully have its way.

But we can also decide not to act, thereby abrogating our democratic opportunity to choose the government we prefer.  And when we do that, we leave the right to choose in the hands of others—others whose opinions and beliefs we may not agree with.  In that case, we have no right to bewail the government we end up with.

In the end, I suppose, it comes down to one simple truth.  If we are to get the government we deserve, we had better be sure we represent the sort of people we want to be choosing it.

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Avoiding the Truth

How we know when politicians are lying to us, the old story goes, is that their lips are moving.  Cynical as that point of view may be, I find it increasingly difficult to believe what I hear from elected officials, be they municipal, provincial, or federal.

Mind you, it is rarely, if at all, that I actually have a face-to-face conversation with government office-holders.  My contact with them comes through newspapers and periodicals, the broadcast media (mainly television), and the innumerable digital streaming platforms that seem to be rapidly taking over the information age.

I have long been a quasi-political junkie—more queasy now than quasi, alas—‘though I have never aspired to enter the fray directly.  Perhaps, given my background as a student of history, I’ve always enjoyed seeing events unfold in real-time, even if vicariously through reading about or watching the news of the world.  My first visceral, voyeuristic exposure to that happened shortly after the Kennedy assassination, when I watched a Dallas hoodlum shoot the alleged assassin on live TV.  The blunt shock of that resonates still in my memory.

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So today, many years after that seminal event in broadcast history, I still read about, watch, and listen to the newsmakers of our present era.  But it is in the visual media that they look most real, even if sounding less than authentic.  And over time, I have come to accept everything I see and hear from them with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The main reason, I think, is that they never seem to answer the questions asked of them.  I have seen them in front of their supporters, in media scrums, at formal press briefings, even in parliamentary Question Period, deliberately avoiding a direct reply to a clearly-stated question.

If I were to be charitable, I might concede that, perhaps, they are not lying to us.  Maybe they are merely obfuscating.  Evading.  Deflecting.  Or maybe they really believe what they are telling us.  Or, most ominously, maybe they don’t know the answers.

But if I am to be honest, I think they are lying.  Deliberately.  Through their teeth.

Imagine, if you will, that you are watching a televised (or streamed) interview, conducted by a respected journalist, with me as the subject (and in order for this metaphor to work, you must also imagine that I might be a world-renowned, best-selling author worthy of the journalist’s time).  Listen to the questions the interviewer poses, listen to my answers, and determine for yourself which of my responses, if any, constitute a direct reply, or an honest one.

I’ll give you the score at the end of the interview.

Q.  Thank you for sitting down with me today. Do you consider yourself a worthy successor to the likes of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner?

A.  I appreciate the comparison. You’re very gracious in your praise.

Q.  Yes, but what about those other writers?

A.  You know, of course, that they were American, right? And I’m not.

Q.  Okay, so what is it about your writing that so captivates your audience?

A.  Writers write, and readers read. There’s a difference.

Q.  Well, sure. But how is it that you’ve captured readers’ imaginations so thoroughly?  What sets you apart?

A.  Asked and answered. Next question?

Q.  Ummm…okay, what are you working on now? Can we look forward to another blockbuster?

A.  The great thing about our capitalist system in North America is that market forces determine what’s up or what’s down.

Q.  There are rumors abounding that a Nobel Literature Prize might be in your future.  Any thoughts about that?

A.  Alfred Nobel was a great humanitarian, an example to us all.  And I really like Bob Dylan.

Q.  Alright, let’s switch gears for a moment. Have you ever experienced what the pundits call ‘writer’s block’?

A.  You know, the wonderful Italian operatic composer, Gioachino Rossini, never wrote another masterpiece after the age of thirty-seven. Isn’t that interesting?

Q.  Yes, but what does Rossini have to do with your writing process?

A.  One or the other of his operas is always playing in the background when I write.

Only one of these eight answers was straight-up honest, rather than misleading or outright untrue—the final one.  The rest were as if taken from prepared talking-points, to be used regardless of the questions asked.

That, in a nutshell, is what I find so annoying about politicians today.  With few exceptions, and but for rare occasions, they refuse to tell me the truth.

What is the truth about climate change?

What is the truth about the mid-east peace process?

What is the truth about the sub-prime mortgage scandal?

What is the truth about the nuclear arms race?

What is the truth about our planet’s impending freshwater shortage?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and nor do you, I suspect, because our elected leaders refuse us the information that would help us make informed decisions.

It seems not to matter who they are—a dreamy prime minister, a buffoon president, a thuggish dictator—none comes clean with us.

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In the burgeoning development of artificial intelligence, AI, I wonder if there is perhaps a glimmer of hope that we might someday be governed by unemotional, clear-thinking, moralistic leaders—smart machines—unimpeded by the failings of human arrogance.

But no, that would be too ridiculous to contemplate, a substitution of artificial intelligence for the limited or nefarious intelligence we deal with today.

Wouldn’t it?