The People of the Lie

In the recent leaders’ debate between Johnson and Corbyn, there was open and derisive laughter from the floor when Johnson was asked about the issue of trust.

This is not surprising; Johnson’s commitment to truth is fleeting at best. More on that anon. But even the Tory journalist, Peter Oborne – he of the far-right Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail – is disturbed as he surveys the massacre of candour.

‘As someone who has voted Conservative pretty well all my life,’ writes Oborne, ‘this upsets me. As the philosopher Sissela Bok has explained, political lying is a form of theft. It means that voters make democratic judgements on the basis of falsehoods. Their rights are stripped away.’

In theory, of course, Johnson should not be able to get away with this scale of deceit. In a keen-eyed democracy, liars should be exposed and held to account, surely?

But clearly this isn’t happening in the UK, just as it isn’t in the United States. Neither Johnson nor Trump pay any political price for lying. So why would they stop?

The permission granted them by the media is disturbing. Oborne notes that Andrew Marr recently allowed Johnson to go unchallenged in saying the Tories ‘don’t do deals with other political parties’.

‘What about the coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010?’ asks Oborne. ‘Or the £1bn “confidence and supply” deal struck with the Democratic Unionist party just two years ago? Marr let Johnson get away with it.’

And there are other examples, too many and too spineless to mention. I find colluding interviewers as hard to watch as the dissembling politicians.

The danger to democracy is that we normalise dissembling, normalise Johnson, by shrugging our shoulders and saying ‘Well, all politicians are the same.’

Not all politicians are the same; for many, the truth matters; but in the present climate, like a dog in a flea circus, they are liable to suffer by association.

‘Politicians, eh?!’ And democracy is quietly strangled.

It is power that matters to Johnson, not truth. It is the journey to power that sets his moral compass, and he’ll happily use both truth and lie to that end, without distinguishing between the two.

‘Why bother?’

When I interviewed Johnson in 2004, what struck me most, beneath the meandering bluster, was his interior despair and the accompanying cynicism towards life.

And not much has changed since then; the brutal and systematically dishonest election machine he has created echoes that inner state.

In his disturbingly truthful book, ‘The People of the Lie’ Scott Peck looks at ordinary people doing terrible things.

These are not ‘criminals’, but often high-functioning and highly-regarded individuals willing to behave appallingly towards certain people.

They are people willing to disregard their conscience either to protect their self-image or to further their journey to power.

Here is what Peck describes as ‘the lazy reptilian torpor’ of denial. It can be shocking to meet. We witness it in many; and we certainly witness it in Trump and Johnson. If we can lie to ourselves, lying to others becomes a great deal easier.

The colluding media in this bleak Circus of Deceit is disturbing; but perhaps more disturbing is the fact that we, the electorate, don’t seem to mind. The more Johnson lies, the higher he climbs in the polls.

It happens. It happened for Trump in the States; it happened for the Nazis in Germany. If a lie strikes some chord in us, we may waive it through and dance with it around the fire in dismal celebration.

So the first act of political resistance and creativity is not to get hysterical about others, not to leap into ‘denounce’ mode… but rather, to be honest with ourselves. We might then be able to be honest with others.

The Labour party has struggled with this as a community in the past few years, and here is their present weakness as an opposition. Their sword of truth is tarnished.  Experience shows the Tories do not have a monopoly on denial.

So we start with self-honesty, demand it in others, and see where the journey leads.

I hope the current political scene is a high-water mark of deceit; if it energises truthfulness, then all is far from lost.

There is such energy in truth, as Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Hildegard of Bingen, Hafiz, Julian of Norwich, Shakespeare, Gandhi, Mandela, Greta Thunberg, etc etc please add your own, remind us.

A glorious cloud of witnesses…and such energy.


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