In the fourth voyage of Gulliver, Jonathan Swift introduces him to a race of intelligent horses, who are utterly opposed to the routine follies of humankind, including its frequent use of lies, which the horses define as,”saying the thing that is not.” The horses are puzzled that anyone should want to do this, as it flies in the face of the facts. For Swift of course this judgement cuts two ways, exposing both the degeneracy of human beings and the limiting rationalism of the horses.
But let’s stick to human beings.
This morning I received, as a member of the Scottish Nationalist Party, a “letter from Nicola” giving me the Party’s platform for the forthcoming Scottish election. I guess I can excuse the attribution of this letter to Ms. Sturgeon; after all my Bible includes things attributed to Paul, which were certainly never composed by the sage of Tarsus. In fact, if you reply to Nicola the pretence is dropped and an aide answers you in her own name. No, the pseudonymous letter is doubtless a legitimate device in maintaining the Party’s reputation for being modern and direct.
It was the content that got me: a selective list of appealing goodies delivered by the SNP Government in the name of fairness, such as free medical prescriptions for all, and free bus travel for the over 65’s. Now I can see how these might be viewed as goodies, but their contribution to fairness is far from obvious. I am lucky enough to be able to pay, as the English do, a fee for my prescriptions and for my bus travel. It is fair that I get them free? The SNP wants me to think so, and to resist any thought that people like me ought to be contributing more to the public purse. These items in the list are what some have called “persuasive definitions” or what Swift called, “saying the thing that is not” or as I might say, lies. There is also a more deliberate lie in the letter, a sideswipe at the Labour Party, which is accused of wanting to increase the tax burden for ordinary people. No doubt the Labour Party made a pig’s ear of its very modest proposals for income tax increases, but its clear aim was to tax the middle classes a bit more to protect public services used by everyone. This particular lie disguises the SNP’s reluctance to increase taxes, because that might alienate the wealthier section of its supporters. Moreover it insidiously confirms the Tory view that all taxes, and the public services they fund, are an unfair burden on the rich.
As political lying goes, these are modest enough examples. Indeed some readers may be wondering why on earth I’m complaining, as surely no political party could survive without the kind of persuasive definitions ascribed to Nicola. Well, yes, but…
Simone Weil, the French philosopher, believed that lies, especially but not exclusively the kind of lies generated in propaganda, were pernicious and the source of great evils in society. You only need to think about the consequences of the very popular lie that people on benefits are scroungers to see the truth of this proposition. She argued for the existence of a special court which would deal with complaints against the publishers of lies. (She had the same difficulty in inventing a satisfactory way of selecting this court as Plato had in establishing his “guardians” in the Republic.) She recognised however, that political parties could not survive without lies; and therefore proposed the abolition of political parties!
Weil, like Swift’s horses, thought that tolerance for lies, especially public lies, was not only degrading but also likely to lead to catastrophe, as it encouraged people to believe “the thing that is not”, to evade reality.
There is much that is admirable about the SNP and its politicians; so if it feels it has to indulge in routine political lying, it may be assisting Weil’s case for abolition of parties. Without doubt the big parties hold the key to political careers, as well as setting the terms of political debate in this country. The big issues faced by all western democracies are: how to feed, educate and care for their populations; how to control injustice and relieve poverty; how to combat climate change; how to deal with the plight of refugees; how to combat the terrorism of groups and nations. And Nicola wants me to think about my bus pass!
Commentators all round the world commended the Independence Referendum in Scotland for creating a vibrant political culture that involved all ages. Already it’s evident that the enthusiasm of youth is being harnessed, especially by the SNP, to communicate election messages. Or as Jonathan Swift might say, “to promote the thing that is not” or as I might say, to tell lies. This may lead to speedy disillusionment.
Simome Weil, a profound thinker, was seriously loopy about some issues and I until now thought her view on the abolition of parties was one of them. Now, I’m not so sure. Of course some political parties have done some public good, but the time may have come to examine the effects of their relentless propaganda on our ability to face facts.
The readers who wonder what this has got to do with Jesus or theology may be comforted by this verse from Isaiah chapter 59: v 14:
“fair judgement is pushed aside, justice stands far off; for truth has fallen in the public square, and honesty cannot enter.”