In Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, a pompous eighteenth-century professor asks the idiot-savant Kaspar Hauser a variant of the classic logical puzzle: You are traveling down a path and come to a fork in the road. One fork leads to a village where everyone tells the truth and the other to a village where everyone tells lies. Someone from one of the villages is standing at the fork, but you don’t know which village he comes from. You may ask him one question to determine which path goes to which village.
According to the professor there is only one correct solution to the puzzle, and he is completely flummoxed – and angered – when the uneducated wild boy Kaspar says that he would ask the stranger ‘ Are you a tree frog? ‘ – a left-field question which nevertheless resolves the puzzle.
I was reminded of this episode by an article by Jonathan Freedland today, lamenting the rise of ‘post-truth’ politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. In Freedland’s view, both Trump and Johnson come from the village of lies, but you wouldn’t bet on either of them to admit it unless they thought that such an admission would advance their careers.
Freedland rightly excoriates the narcissism and vacuousness of both politicians, and their indifferent attitude to fact-based arguments and empirical evidence. But his lament seems to regard these two dangerous clowns as some kind of freakish aberration – a manifestation of some inexplicable of intellectual and political decline that is particularly striking in the United States.
‘In this era of post-truth politics, an unhesitating liar can be king, ‘ he wails. ‘ The more brazen his dishonesty, the less he minds being caught with his pants on fire, the more he can prosper. And those pedants still hung up on facts and evidence and all that boring stuff are left for dust, their boots barely laced while the lie has spread halfway around the world.’
A depressing state of affairs, to be sure, but ‘post-truth’ politics didn’t begin with vapid mountebanks like Trump and Johnson. There are few brazen examples political dishonesty than the manipulation of the 9/11 attacks by the American and British governments as a justification for endless war against enemies of strategic choice that had nothing to do with the attacks. .
You may quibble about whether politicians like Bush, Cheney, Rice and Freedland’s hero Tony Blair lied directly or lied by omission to justify war against Iraq, but their relationship with ‘the truth’ was no less contingent on short-term calculations that Trump’s or Johnson’s, and the ‘pedants still hung up on facts and evidence and all that boring stuff’ were often conspicuously absent when it came to holding their spurious claims to account.
These weren’t ‘mistakes’; they were lies and fantasies, intended to mislead and terrify their populations and realize certain strategic objectives, and there are many, many others where these came from. The Republican Party has certainly lowered the benchmark for evidence-free political lying. For years rightwing politicians in the United States like Tom Tancredo have claimed that the US-Mexico border is being regularly infiltrated by Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.
No such groups have ever been seen – why would they? Talk like that and you can’t be surprised if you get Trump offering to ‘build a wall’. And it isn’t only Republicans with orange hair who tell lies. We also have Hillary Clinton, one of the most breathtakingly mendacious politicians in living memory. ‘ Crooked Hillary’, as Trump calls her, is no less dishonest than Trump himself, yet Freedland doesn’t mention her.
Closer to home we have a government that routinely disseminates lies and half-truths for political advantage, whether falsely accusing Naz Shah of calling for Jews to be ‘transported’ to the US, inventing phony stories of jobseekers who supposedly benefited from Ian Duncan-Smith’s welfare reforms, or peddling fake death rate stats at weekends to justify imposing a new contract on doctors.
Freedland quotes Washington Post editor Marty Baron, who asks ‘How can we have a functioning democracy when we cannot agree on the most basic facts?’ It’s a good question, but the fact is we haven’t had such a democracy for a long time, and its partly because we have tolerated this situation for so long, that men like Trump and Johnson feel able to say whatever they like.