“Either we are brothers and sisters or we will destroy each other” said Pope Francis just a year ago. Next week the Pope will visit Iraq where the stark logic of his warning is tragically visible.
Popes began making visits outside Italy only in the 1960s. Such journeys are meticulously planned and tightly organised. But this journey must rate as the most dangerous. Last month in Baghdad where the visit begins two Da’esh suicide bombers attacked a market killing 32 and injuring scores of others. The military base in the airport of the Kurdish regional capital Erbil, also on Francis’ itinerary, recently came under rocket attack from an obscure Shi’a militia group, the Guardians of Blood, killing a contractor and wounding several American coalition forces. The Iraq government has negligible control over sectarian conflict.
Iraq has long been blighted by Sunni-Shi’a violence dating from disputes about leadership in the 7th century. Sunnis make up at least 85% of the world’s Muslim population. The majority of Iraqis, 65% of its 39 million people, are Shi’a. As in Iran, their allegiance is to the family and descendants of the Prophet, Imam Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and Husayn, his martyred grandson. Sunni leadership, though, dates back to Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet considered the first to convert to Islam and the first of the ‘rightly guided Caliphs’, the Rashidun. Over the centuries, further differences in beliefs, law and pious practice developed. Today religious identity still fuels sectarian political conflict throughout the Middle East. It intensified after the 2003 invasion.
For some time, the Middle East, with Iranian, Saudi and Trump’s help, has been shaping up for its own Thirty Years War. Within Iraq the remnants of ISIS have used the pandemic to regroup even calling on adherents to catch the virus and infect the West. They hate Shi’a as much as they hate Yazidis, Jews and Christians. Not surprisingly Iraq’s Christian population, formerly 1.5 million, has been reduced by emigration to possibly as low as 400,000. Those remaining feel like second-class citizens. This is the political and religious minefield into which Pope Francis will shortly be stepping.
What has impelled the Pope to undertake this hazardous journey? First, solidarity with Iraq’s many displaced people and with its dwindling Christian communities. As well as Latin rite Roman Catholics, Iraq is home to ancient Christian Churches in communion with Rome, the Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Maronites – who retained the original Aramaic spoken by Christ himself as their liturgical language. In the Bible the Nineveh plain is the location of Abraham’s home in Ur. Ninevah is the Babylon of Jewish exile. Francis is visiting the geography and roots of Christian faith.
Second, the Pope is committed to following the example of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi in working for Muslim-Christian dialogue and reconciliation. A quarter of his foreign visits have been to Muslim majority countries. In Cairo in February 2019 he met with the Sunni Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam and former President of Al-Azhar University. From this meeting, and after much preparation, emerged the joint document Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, a manifesto for ending global conflicts. Given the dangers of sectarian wars, Shi’a leadership is an important element in the process.
So this time the Pope is scheduled to meet with Grand Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani in Najaf, the Shi’a equivalent of Rome, a town of some million people south of Baghdad, the site of ‘founding father’ Imam Ali’s tomb. Born in the Iranian town of Mashad, Al-Sistani studied jurisprudence in Iran’s theological centre of Qom and, in 1952, moved to the pilgrimage site of Najaf in Iraq where he taught in the seminary. In 1993 he was formally recognised as a Grand Ayatollah, Marja, one of a tiny number of the most senior and respected clerics in Shi’a Islam. The rank of Marja means ‘emulation of Islam’. Title holders are authoritative guides to understanding the Qu’rān and the Prophet’s sayings, Hadith, and thus to living a fully Muslim life. Al-Sistani could bring many Shi’a Muslims to engage with the vision of Human Fraternity.
The Americans had reason to be grateful to Grand Ayatollah in 2005 when he mediated between them and the Shi’a militia led by the fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr besieging Najaf’s Imam Ali Mosque. Al-Sistani had the personal qualities needed to lower the temperature: he was and is courteous and respectful of other people’s opinions, he leads a simple life in an ordinary house shunning ostentation - not unlike Pope Francis himself. He also rejects violence, does not approve of the velayat-e faqih, the theocratic rule of the jurists in Iran, though he supports state promotion of Shi’a teaching. His interpretation of Qur’ān takes into account, to some degree, the need to understand its historical context and Arab culture. But this does not make Al-Sistani a modern progressive liberal. He shares strict views about the relationships between young men and women with the Shi’a clerical class in general. No dancing outside marriage, modest dress code, plenty of prohibitions. Yet, his 2015 Advice to Believing Youth has more touching, tender and paternal wisdom in it than prohibitions. He is a jurist with deep pastoral concerns. There is clear water between him and the bellicose Iranian Supreme Leader.
Even amongst the Iranian clerics there is, of course, a spectrum of opinion though not a wide one. I remember listening through a translator in Tehran to Ayatollah Emami Kashani, head of Shahid Motahari University, denouncing Iranian youth for lack of piety and thinking this could be my parish priest in Galway in the 1960s. Ayatollah Kashani had initially impressed me, not to say puzzled me, when his translator described how he had talked with a ‘rock-singer’ during his visit to Rome. How very open-minded. The translator had misheard: the meeting had been with Ratzinger, a Cardinal at the time but of course later Pope Benedict XVI.
When Al-Sistani and Pope Francis meet and talk with accurate translation, there could be a profound meeting of minds. Whether Human Fraternity can generate tolerance for and between the many religions of Iraq, including the cruelly persecuted Bahai’s and Yazidis, remains to be seen. But it is clearly Francis’ intention to create an opportunity for the healing of Iraq’s wounds.
The Pope’s schedule – worryingly – has been published well in advance. One of the stops is Mosul, formerly an ISIS stronghold retaken in a bloodbath by US and Iraqi troops but with ISIS remnants, sleeper cells, still lingering. No political leader would risk releasing such a detailed itinerary in Iraq so far in advance. This is a brave Pope. His safety during this journey should feature in bidding prayers in all parishes this Sunday.
See TheArticle 24/02/2021
"Desecration, violation, sacrosanct”, words used to denounce the Trump-inspired invasion of the Capitol in Washington, terms more usually expressing religious sentiment. The Council Chamber where America’s elected representatives cowered as security officers drew their weapons was described in language suited to a secular Holy of Holies. The Capitol was the Temple of Democracy, “hallowed ground” where a civic religion was practised. This was not the capture of the radio station in a tin-pot dictatorship. It was something approaching blasphemy.
Tom Holland in his much praised 2019 Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind charts the persistence of Christian ways of thinking up to and beyond the Enlightenment’s rejection of religion and the triumph of secular scientific certainties. People still respect sacred national spaces, - or perhaps it would be better to say sacred places - buildings, land, monuments set apart. Think of the outrage when in 2010 a pop star’s son swung on the Cenotaph. Just as the chancel of a church is separated from the nave, or in the Catholic Church before the second Vatican Council, altar rails divided the sanctuary from the body of the church, or in an Orthodox church the iconostasis divides priest-celebrants from the congregation, so are some secular buildings and monuments set apart. The idea of sacred space persists.
If a space is sacred the corollary is that only people of a certain standing or condition can enter it and only for specific purposes - prayer and worship, national remembrance, governance. Congregations feel the sacredness of space set apart in churches as if it diffuses outwards into the rest of the building demanding the special kinds of behaviour, and clothing, appropriate to religious buildings. Similarly for national monuments, sombre black in proximity to the Cenotaph marks ceremonial occasions. When a Republican senator shouted “You lie” at President Obama speaking in 2009 to a joint session of Congress in the Capitol Council chamber, though his backers enjoyed it the assembly’s reaction was “not in this setting”.
In secular Britain quite passionate debates are sparked when churches or cathedrals are used for secular purposes. Classical music with its sung masses by famous composers are acceptable. I remember a deeply moving art-work depicting the Holocaust in Chichester cathedral; it would have been hard to find a better place to display it. But what should we make of cathedrals sporting a helter skelter, like Norwich, or an adventure mini-golf course, like Rochester? Defended as an innovative way to draw people in – and most visitors were willing to stop and say, or listen to, the Lord’s Prayer - but greeted with derision by many, these experiments got a bad press. Vaccinating in Lichfield cathedral, an ancient pilgrimage centre for the sick, feels right. Healing and care for the vulnerable is part of the Christian story continuing in a modern secular form. And no one has laughed at the organ music accompanying the vaccinations in Salisbury cathedral. This use of church space as a hub for vaccinations seems to be entirely appropriate to the public.
The sanctity of sacred space in Catholic churches is intensified by the presence of the Eucharist in the tabernacle. In the Septuagint, an early translation of Hebrew Scriptures, the word for ‘tent’ - translated via 3rd century BC koine Greek - becomes in Latin tabernaculum. So sacredness is directly linked to the presence of divinity as the place where God pitches a tent amongst us. A space to which only certain dedicated individuals, priests and their assistants, should have access, by tradition all were men, a tradition enshrined in law. Section 230 of the Church’s legal code, Canon Law, allows laymen called ‘acolytes’ to assist the – male - priest during mass, read the scriptures except the Gospel and to distribute communion. In the absence of any mention of laywomen female presence was deemed to be officially precluded by law. After the Second Vatican Council, a law honoured in the breach. That is until 11 January when Pope Francis amended the legal text to ‘lay persons’.
As in all matters involving changes in Catholic worship this amendment evoked a variety of responses. For some, it was another promising sign that the Pope was cautiously edging the Vatican onto the nursery slopes of gender equality. For others, it was an underwhelming piece of catch-up. Women had for years been present in the sanctuary, happily unaware of canon 230, assisting the priest - who was supposed to have heard of it - by reading the lesson and, as Eucharistic ministers, distributing communion to those in church and to the sick in their homes. The ‘mind of the Church’ was way out in front of the mind of the Vatican. And contrariwise some traditionalists saw the Pope’s intervention as yet another sign of the damage done by the Second Vatican Council to the calm uniformity of the Catholic liturgy.
Sacred spaces with their charge of solemnity can unexpectedly produce the exact opposite. A few years ago a North London parish with a large congregation of African origin was delighted at news of a visit from a conservative African Cardinal. At this church women regularly did all that Canon Law 230 implied they shouldn’t. The Cardinal let it be known that there were to be no women on the sanctuary when he said mass or the visit would have to be cancelled. The priest in charge pleaded for some tolerance of local practice and a negotiation followed. From it came the remarkable compromise that women could be on the sanctuary but they must not move, for example to present the cardinal with the Gospel, if he was able to see them. You might say an ecclesiastical variation on Nelson raising the telescope to his blind eye. But as I said to the priest in charge, there was also an unfortunate similarity to the law controlling nudity in strip-clubs in the 1950s. But all concerned were appeased and the visit was successful.
The sense of the sacred is common to all cultures and goes back to the beginnings of human society. Secular scientific society has not killed it off. It is constitutive of religion. The feeling for the sacred has carried over in varying degrees into contemporary western societies. In others, for example Hindu societies the religious-secular distinction makes little sense, the concept of ‘religions’ being an imperial import. So is any of this of more than passing anthropological interest? Well, yes. In a world in which sacred trust in government is badly eroded and the pandemic has caused widespread anxiety and fear, we need to treasure our places of stillness, calm and symbolic meaning. The crypt of the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Vézelay comes to mind, almost dark, full of young people silently praying, a dampness and cool humidity coming from walls saturated with prayer. Whether it is around a national monument, the Capitol in Washington, or in an Anglican cathedral, sacred spaces, secular or religious, should be respected and cherished for the wonder is that we create them.
The United States Senate impeachment proceedings against former President Trump have been many things: a contested Truth Commission, a national political reckoning for the history books, a nunca mas (never again).
I was lamenting seeing so little of the Democrats presenting a coherent, detailed case for finding former President Trump guilty of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ when I received an email from my friend in Oregon.
Here’s one perspective from a Democrat voter in a progressive State:
“I have been sitting glued to the TV for about two days watching the House Democrats present the case against Trump and I must say that I was very impressed by the nine House managers, most of them previously prosecutors I suspect, especially Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin the manager. It was an extremely well organized and well-argued case and all in less than two days. Not that anybody used the word 'coup', they did not except that the word slipped out of Jamie Raskin's mouth once. I think the Democrats learned from the previous failed impeachment to keep it short and sweet and forceful. Trump learned from that experience also; unfortunately the lesson he learned was that he could do anything he wanted.
The case made did not rest solely upon the rally and subsequent assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6th. Rather and logically to my mind, the prosecutors returned to the six months prior to the election. You’ll remember before the election actually took place, Trump, supported by Fox News and his followers, kept pushing the idea in hundreds of tweets that the election was 'rigged'. Mark you, this was before anyone actually voted. On election night itself, while votes were still being counted, Trump tweeted at 2:30 am that he had won the election by millions of votes. After the election there were many lawsuits (someone mentioned 62 today) filed by Trump concerning counting of ballots, dead people, boxes of ballots for Biden smuggled in at dead of night and various other nonsense, and they all failed. In some cases a judge just threw the lawsuit out before even hearing it because of the lack of any supporting evidence whatsoever. After a few weeks, in early December, all the states had certified their ballot counts, so then Trump started harassing election officials in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and the like. The family of Raffensberger, the Georgia official who refused to change the election totals to suit Trump, was threatened by armed Trump supporters who turned up at the family house.
So it went on for weeks and weeks with Trump holding more rallies on the theme of 'Stop the Steal', which became the favorite slogan of the Trumpies. There were many threats of violence, not just the ones made and very nearly implemented at the Jan. 6th rally. The irony of all this is that this was not some hidden conspiracy, where all the evidence has to be searched for and assembled, but all took place in plain public view, so it was not difficult for Democrats to collect evidence about Trump's intentions. My personal comment on why nobody was alarmed enough to do anything effective about it: I think by this time everybody was just looking forward to Joe Biden taking over, so most of the mainstream media just ignored what was taking place in Trump-world, suffering from a general Trump fatigue with fresh outrage every day becomes tiring.
So we arrive at the fatal day of Jan.6th, where Trump and his supporters invited any 'patriot' to come to Washington and stop the steal. And in fact people took flights, booked hotels, drove and made their way to Washington by any means they could, often subsidized by a Trump related fund of some kind. I'm sure you have seen videos of the riot in the Capitol, in fact everyone is much too focused on that single event, horrible though it was. An interesting thought is that many Senators had not previously seen the video footage of the riot in full gory detail for the very simple reason that they were part of the event and being hastily hurried off to a safe place. A bit like personally being in an accident, when one is not usually paying much attention to the surroundings. There was a gallows set up outside with signs that said "Hang Mike Pence" (he had told Trump that he could not change the state election results) and a rioter talked about shooting Nancy Pelosi in the head if she could be found. So, as many of the prosecutors have repeated, it is hard to imagine anything worse: if this is not an impeachable offence, what is??
And, if more were needed, the prosecutors detailed the fact that Trump sat in the White House (delighted they say), refused to tell the rioters to stop and did not call in reinforcements for a couple of hours - all a matter of public record.
Yes, Trump has a defence team of lawyers - but definitely a couple from the B team as opposed to the A team who declined to represent Trump and bailed out a few days earlier. On first viewing, one of them got very bad reviews, rambling, disorganized etc. Perhaps it makes no difference and the Senate will not vote to find Trump guilty. This is what most people predict. As the Democrat team points out: "If you do not find Trump guilty, then another future President will feel free to do the same thing again." Which is true of course and one can only hope that the very convincing case presented by the Democrats might change some minds in the Senate”.
Despite defeat the Democrats have achieved important aims. They have told the nation the true story. It’s indelibly on the record. The Republican senators were demonstrably complicit in Trump’s offences. They continue to be so. Seven only voted for conviction. The wily Republican former Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell denounced Trump but voted for acquittal. The majority were never going to admit his guilt because they shared in it. It is more than notable that to avoid the Party splitting and/or a Kamala Harris Presidency they haven’t concluded Trump must be made ineligible to stand again, unable to contest the next Presidential election. Many would have faced deselection at the next Primaries had they done so. They look over their shoulders at the Republican voters for whom belief in and loyalty to Trump was, and remains, paramount. So Trump, diminished, remains a menace to American democracy.
See TheArticle 13/02.2021
“Nature is a blind spot in economics that we ignore at our peril”. Pithy comment from respected Cambridge Professor of Economics, Sir Partha Dasgupta. On 2 February the BBC’s Today programme ran a story about his new report The Economics of Bio-diversity. A supportive response from Sir David Attenborough provided a popular touch. It is not reality that has blind spots. They belong to the economists whose tunnel vision of economic growth as the key measure of progress is increasingly irrational. Professor Dasgupta argues convincingly that a narrow and exclusive focus on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – meaning the total value of economic activity within a state’s borders in goods and services – is a misleading measure of economic success.
The inadequacy of growth as the unique economic measure has been debated for decades. What has made this report a news story? Has there been a major theoretical breakthrough, a rethinking of economics triggered by the pandemic and climate change? There seem to be three principal reasons that made The Economics of Bio-Diversity newsworthy. First, it was commissioned by H.M. Treasury. Second, its strong and clear injunction that good economics must respect and manage nature better. And third the UK will be hosting and chairing the UN Climate Change Conference, COP 26, in Glasgow this November.
After the Second World War Mark Twain’s old aphorism, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics”, took on a whole new dimension: the economic measurement of progress. Success in the competition between nation-states was measured by a single statistic, the value of Gross National Product (GNP), later recalibrated as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). An annual increase of GDP of several percentage points meant pride and progress; low or negative growth, despondency and decline. As economics, its language, theoreticians, statisticians and beneficiaries, came to dominate political life so for governments economic growth became the overriding proof of political virtue.
But what counted as economic activity? What was excluded from the aggregated calculations that made up GDP? By definition ‘externalities’, such as women’s domestic labour and childrearing and the large ‘informal sector’ in the developing world. On the debit side, the social, health and environmental costs of material production were ignored. And this despite perennial challenges from sociologists, developmentalists, progressive economists, environmentalists, trades unions, religious leaders and feminists all contesting the adequacy of the prevailing economic growth paradigm.
Progress, critics of GDP argued, could be measured in a completely different way: by improvement in the standard of living, by increase in the well-being and happiness of a population, clean air, bio-diversity, leisure time, increase in human capabilities, decrease in the harms of inequality, and so on. In 1972, Sicco Mansholt, a Dutch former farmer, a founding father of the European Union and the fourth President of the European Commission, coined the term "Gross National Happiness (GNH)”. But only tiny Bhutan, which shares borders with India, Nepal and Bangladesh, adopted GNH as a national policy with a strong Buddhist flavour.
Critics of the growth paradigm seem to gain momentum when the stability of the global economy is shaken by crises. In the early 1970s, after the events of 1968, limits to growth became a UN conference topic. After the 1973 oil-shock when OAPEC (Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) raised oil prices fourfold. After the 2008 banking meltdown, fantasies of unlimited natural resources and the benefits of unregulated markets were challenged by reality. Stephen Macekura’s scholarly The Mismeasure of Progress: Economic Growth and its Critics charts in detail the history from the 1940s of such alternative economics and their failure to gain traction once the crisis has passed.
So Dasgupta and his Treasury report are a continuation of a long tradition that even includes popular writers: Rachel Carson published her readable Silent Spring in 1962 and Ernst Friedrich Schumacher his Small is Beautiful in 1973. During the same period pioneering developmental economists such as Barbara Ward, Mahbub ul Haq and Dudley Seers were grappling with the problems of achieving what they called ‘sustainable development’ and with environmental issues in the newly independent ‘Third World’ countries. Macekura shows that despite the best efforts of the growth critics, the dominant economic ideology never lost its self-confidence and power to convince, even though slowly but unsurely big guns such as the World Bank began to support some aspects of alternative economics and its vision of progress. Human development indexes burgeoned with measures of health, literacy, social inclusion and wellbeing to the fore. The intended beneficiaries of development aid were consulted about what they wanted rather than what governmental donors following the latest economic theory prescribed. But economic growth with GDP as its indicator remained the global orthodoxy, the common sense of Economics and Progress, with a dismissive ‘this-is-the-way-we-measure-things-around-here’ being the last word.
Today we inhabit a deranged world of economic statistics in which, according to the BBC Today programme’s introductory script, Amazon, the company, is valued at $1.6 trillion and Amazon, the river and forests at nothing - unless and until they are cut down for wood and farm-land. Nothing on the debit side, rivers silting up, extreme weather conditions, global warming. And the pandemic has woken us up to just how poorly equipped we are to evaluate statistics, even those which count ‘excess deaths’.
Dasgupta deploys economic language to get his message across. But it grates. He refers to our demands for nature’s “assets”, its “goods and services” have to be balanced against the earth’s capacity “to supply them”. The concept of the earth’s “natural capital” stretches the meaning of words to the limit. Don’t biodiversity and the environment have an incommensurable value? But ‘talking the economic talk’ is the most likely way to convince economists to ‘walk the walk’, heed their critics’ arguments, and avoid catastrophe. The assumption that a technological fix is going to make unnecessary a major change in how we measure economic success and how we conduct our lives, is a dangerous gamble and verges on magical thinking; as far as containing irreversible climate change is concerned current half-measures are set to fail.
One consequence of an emerging conceptual dissonance at the heart of the dominant economics is that we repeatedly hear politicians placing surviving the pandemic in binary opposition to saving our economy. Only an economy that has the nation’s health not as an ‘externality’ but as one of its key measures of success is worthy of being described as rational. Mark Twain was right. The statistics that have embedded economic growth in our minds as the only measure of progress hide a particularly insidious lie. So well done the BBC for giving a heads-up to a report about how we might now move on, at last, to a rational economics.
See TheArticle 05/02.2021
Lying, half-truths, ‘misspeaking’, or obfuscation are now political skills much as was rhetoric in ancient Greece. Honesty and frankness – and there are many honest politicians – come as a welcome surprise. Many blame governments’ general disposition to avoid the truth and cover up how they got us into our current mess. They have certainly contributed to mushrooming belief in conspiracies.
The implausible has becomes plausible. A public accustomed to being hoodwinked and manipulated has become prone to mistrusting the trustworthy as trust in those with power evaporates and the line between truth and falsehood is deliberately blurred. Groups form networks around misinformation shared on the internet. It is not all to governments’ disadvantage. People confused are easier to control.
The internet has accelerated a privatisation of truth creating different worlds, mind-sets and ideologies each with their different certainties. The internet giants now sustain political sub-cultures with targeted flows of information and misinformation alongside targeted advertising. And targeting depends on what the data-brokers know about us, what we think and what we want. In the digital world the idea that the CIA staged 9/11 as well as the type of sweater you like are both passed on in ‘packages’ of data travelling at lightning speed along networks of cables. Someone in the internet’s human infrastructure gets vastly richer in the process. And it is not going to be me or you.
What happens after we lift the lid on our laptop and log on, or pull down the endless tweets on our mobile phone, is hidden from all but the canniest members of the IT aristocracy. Talking heads on TV lying to us risk being exposed in their lies but there is no transparency whatsoever on the internet. There we are plied with cookies and the cookies make our data available, data which is sold on by whom or to whom we know not. This is just one reason I recommend in passing James Ball’s The System: who owns the internet, and how it owns us, published by Bloomsbury last year. It tries to explain to my generation, those who sat at school desks with inkwells not laptops, how it all began, what goes on, why and how something can be done about it, and how the paradox of the ‘privatisation’ of our politics accompanies our loss of privacy.
The overall impact of the internet is ambiguous like that of all epoch-changing technologies. On the one hand it is a tool of direct democracy. People find each other, are alerted to their strength in numbers, decide to act, sometimes to take to the streets against authoritarian rulers. We are beginning to see the impact in Russia. The original dream of Tim Berners-Lee and other founders of the internet - still glimpsed in Jimmy Wales Wikipedia - that they were creating a benign mode of communication and information flow that would defeat the limitations of time and distance, still lingers on. Families and friends can keep in touch, or rather communicate with each other though not ‘in touch’, and whole libraries of information are a few taps away.
On the other hand people in reinforcing cyber-enclaves share and absorb misinformation and pernicious fantasies. The silo syndrome is older than you think. Amongst the earliest users of the nascent internet in the 1980s were US white supremacists and militias. A quarter of a century ago, the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh’s bedroom was reported to be like a computer laboratory. More recently Da’esh online recruitment was famously professional. The 2017 Unite the Right riots in Charlottesville showed how effective online recruitment can be in bringing together disparate groups.
Why this receptiveness to lies? Yale history professor, Timothy Snyder’s believes that the decline of local newspapers ended the kind of reporting that readers could verify for themselves. If you spelt the names right of the winners of the flower show people were going to believe you got the big stories right too. And heaven help you if you didn’t. National newspapers were too distanced for many - and thus a shared local community perception of social reality was lost, replaced by shock-jocks’ ranting, extreme right websites, and whatever Big Lie was circulating nationally or even internationally. Enter far right the heterogeneous mob that attacked the Capitol.
Authoritarian regimes are well aware that the truth is their enemy. We owe the rapid spread of the Coronavirus to an entrenched culture of falsehood and deception within the Chinese Communist Party. At all costs Party officials tried to avoid delivering bad news for fear of the messenger being punished. Putin seems genuinely frightened by Alexei Navalny because he is brave enough to defy the kleptocracy’s terror tactics to the point of repeatedly risking his own life. His courage and ability to survive assassination attempts have inspired Russian youth. The truth may not always set you free but it has got 100,000 people out onto the streets of Russia’s cities.
Against this grim background are there lessons for our own small island? First, democracy cannot thrive if the electorate is routinely misinformed by government and by a partly supportive Press disguising deceit, incompetence or worse. We are becoming aware that democracy cannot be taken for granted. And increasingly citizens are taking action to defend it.
Finally, there is an accepted right to truth. The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides a basis for the right of victims of grave human rights violations and their families, as well as society as a whole, to find out the truth. It has not been without results, notably the Truth Commissions. The UN has an annual Right to Truth Day on 24 March chosen to coincide with the date of St. Oscar Romero’s assassination in El Salvador. It is an interesting example of Catholic thinking about human dignity converging with UN thinking about human rights, two approaches often thought of, and presented as, dissonant.
Actually the Catholic tradition also puts truth into a wider human rights context. Pope John XXIII, less than two months before he died of cancer in 1963, writing in his encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) addressed not just his Church but all people: “before a society can be considered well-ordered, creative, and consonant with human dignity, it must be based on truth. St. Paul expressed this as follows: ‘Putting away lying speak ye the truth every man with his neighbour for we are members one of the other’. (Ephesians IV.25). Not a bad text for the Republicans in the USA and the Johnson coterie here in the UK to consider.
See TheArticle 01/02/2021