Truth: 1. Ducks and quarks




Here are two versions of the same story.

A king goes down to the seashore with his courtiers to demonstrate that he is so powerful he can hold back the tide. He is unsuccessful and his feet get wet.

The same king, sick to death of the flattery of courtiers who tell him he can do anything, drags them down to the beach to demonstrate what happens when he tries to hold back the tide. His feet get wet.

Which do you find more convincing? Yes, I know you’ve heard the first version all your life, but which do you believe now? Which occurs more frequently: a king so stupid that he really believes he can rule the forces of nature, or a bunch of  sycophantic courtiers who don’t expect their boss to set a trap for them?

I would think the second. It’s also worth considering who witnessed this embarrassing scene. Probably only the courtiers. What would they say?

Lastly, what else do we know about Canute? Quite a lot, it turns out. Wiki is full of information. He was a wise king, although with a cruel streak; he was a Viking; he was a lawgiver.

No, I can’t see him on the seashore telling the waves to go back. I can see him making a fool of his courtiers, though.

King Canute (Cnut) died in 1035 and you may say that it doesn’t matter what he did. However, what it tells us about the stories we listen to and the way we listen to them does matter. We like the first Canute story more than the second because the second is boring. We know all about courtiers who will say anything to keep their places. But the first story: ah, that’s a story! The hollow pomp, the complacent monarch on whose face the smile is slowly fading… we love it, we feel vindicated, we have vague memories of the Emperor’s new clothes.

So why ask questions?

The French have a word for a story that becomes rooted in popular belief but is false. They call it a canard. Canard means “duck”. Many ducks are harmless. The belief that the Great Wall of China can be seen from outer space is a duck. So are the beliefs that Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake”, that ostriches stick their heads in the sand, and that Polish cavalry charged German tanks with sabres in 1939.

Oh, what a pity.

Yes, well, there you are.

Some ducks are not so harmless. They haven’t just grown up in popular belief, they have been planted there. Of these, many are half-true, half-fantasy, like the one about bananas. The EU – yes, we are in modern times – would not accept the natural shape of the banana. They wanted bananas to be straight, so they could be more easily packed. Or perhaps it was tomatoes. Tomatoes had to be square. Regulations had been issued about the compulsory shape of bananas, or tomatoes, and bananas, or tomatoes, found to be non-compliant would be punished.

It’s very like the Canute story, if you look at it. In one, the target is a stupid and arrogant monarch who thinks he can defy nature; in the other, it is a stupid and arrogant bureaucracy that thinks it can defy nature. In both, the story is deeply attractive to ordinary folk on the emotional and political levels. However, the banana story is an exaggeration ad absurdum of a real EU directive that said bananas should be “free from abnormal curvature.”

Simple: just remove one word.

People believed it.

There is no borderline between ducks and propaganda: there is a large overlap. Propaganda ducks are usually quacking all over the place when a war is about to break out. A very successful one was hatched just before the first Iraq war, claiming that Kuwaiti babies had been thrown out of incubators by Iraqi troops. It worked because it was dramatic, it transfixed every mother in the land, and it was pictorial. We could see it happening. The more clearly we can see something, the better it works. Somalis in luxury housing, Turks massing on the borders of Europe: easily visualised. Racism thrives on these images. Propaganda must strive not to be abstract unless it already has a firm basis in belief, in which case it will count as “further information.” Once it is recognised as propaganda, it’s dead. Nobody accepts propaganda. “Do they think we’re stupid?” No, they think we’re easily fooled.

Why does this stuff get by?

Because it appeals to our prejudices, including those we don’t like to acknowledge we have. Even better if it seems to explain something we didn’t understand. And, usually, it is cleverly presented (by whom and why? this is crucial, but most people don’t have the resources to investigate it). Finally, the stories are good stories, and we are story-hungry animals.

“Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day, but it will not rise to the price of a diamond or carbuncle [ruby], that showeth best in varied lights,” wrote Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). “A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.”

Sir Francis knew what he was talking about. As a lawyer, he advised Elizabeth I’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, but turned counsel for the prosecution when Essex fell from favour. As Lord Chancellor under James I, he amassed a fortune. He was up to his neck in truth and lies. His essay Of Truth betrays its age only in the beauty of its language: he could be writing about today.

“It is not only the difficulty and labour that men take in finding out of truth, nor again that, when it is found, it imposeth upon men’s thoughts, that doth bring lies in favour; but a natural, though corrupt, love of the lie itself.”

There is so much in that paragraph. It’s hard to get at truth, he says. It is. It wasn’t difficult to get under the shell of the Canute story, using basic tools, but most propaganda is constructed by experts. We don’t have the range of knowledge, the expertise, perhaps the education, the will to question authority; we don’t have the time. All we have is a Swiss Army knife and our lunch hour. And he is quite right that the truth “imposeth upon men’s thoughts.” Once you’ve got it, it puts an obligation on you. Is that welcome?

As for “the natural, though corrupt, love of the lie itself”… Anyone for Trump?

We are all capable of lying but, in Trump, surely we see the man with a natural love of the lie itself. (He is also the only man I can think of who might sit in a chair and try to turn back the tide.) Trump’s lies are ridiculous and childish; this is inevitable, because they arise out of a bruised ego. He does not seem to be in control of them: they spill from his mouth. The latest and not the least risible, as I write, is that his chaotic administration is “running like a well-tuned machine.” When we have stopped laughing, we are again appalled, because this supremely powerful man seems to have not the slightest respect for the truth. Yet he does respect it – he is afraid of it – because he denies that his lies are lies. They are “alternative facts.”

Now, there’s a phrase. Whoever thought of it should be instantly promoted to whatever high office of state is currently vacant, probably Vice-President by now. It’s clever, with its conjuring of alternative universes and its invocation of quantum mechanics, relativity and unreliable narrators.  Just for a moment, it stops us in our tracks. For, after all, what is a fact? Isn’t it as unstable as… well, anything else, a quark, say? And don’t we all know that if a quarrel breaks out over dinner and there are four people sitting around the table, there will be four versions of that quarrel next day? And which is the true one?

The inference is that there is no true one.

We protest, we see through it, and yet somehow, in the moment that it stopped us, it has disempowered us. There is just enough truth in it, important truth, un-dismissable. And it’s all around, this destabilising discourse. Relativism. Post-Truth. Anything is as true as anything else. To put it another way, the authority to say what is true has gone.

But this is not true.

Please consider that last statement for a moment. You may think you don’t agree with it, but I assume you understood it.

If you understood it, you agree with it.

We cannot manage without the concept of truth and a word for it. In the paragraph starting “We protest,” above, I used the word “truth” twice in a sentence, with its normal meaning, because I had no choice. I doubt if you even noticed.

That means that the concept of truth is still valid currency. And, since truth has a unique claim on our belief (or what are our criteria for belief?), it means that the truth is still the only valid currency.

A philosopher would not accept this. I have not observed the right procedures or filled in the right forms. I don’t care. They have been talking about truth for two and a half thousand years and are still arguing. This is urgent.

The boot has to be put into this quantum-babble, because it may be the science of the future and it may be great fun in a film, but in everyday life it is nothing but destructive. We cannot do anything, on the macro level, with that perception of the cosmos. Time as we experience it may not exist, and if it doesn’t, everything is predetermined, including these words, but we cannot live as if it were. Try it. In any given court case, it may be impossible to decide what really happened, but if that principle is followed there is no law. Try that. Try engaging in any argument with another person without appealing, very quickly, to the idea of an objective reality or truth which both of you recognise. Then come back and tell me how far you got.

This is a strange situation, because it means that we at the same time accept that the ground we stand on is shifting sand, and build everything on it. It’s all illusion, say Buddhists, and they are surely right; but the illusion, I think they would also say, has to be respected. It’s the reality we are given, and if you reject the theological assumption that seems implicit in that statement, you must agree that it is the reality given us by our senses. We cannot go beyond it. That is, we cannot go beyond it and live in the realm we get to.

Our reality, in other words, is us.

This accounts, I think, for the religious aura which tends to cling to truth. At bottom, we have a vague but fierce intuition that if the truth goes, everything goes. The gentle and rational Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels have no word for lying because they do not understand it. It is “saying the thing which is not.” Who would want to do that? It is sullying the spring from which everyone drinks.

But if it is the spring from which everyone drinks, then… what is it? For we are not talking literally about water.

I cannot answer this. Of course I can’t. And Sir Francis, although he starts his essay with the question, doesn’t answer it, either. However, he points in a certain direction, and the direction has a deep, familiar tug.

Truth “showeth best by day,” he says.  It is “a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene.”


Someone should tell her


No-one should have believed her for a moment. When did she ever mean anything she sounded as if she meant? If she means something, she doesn’t say it. When she says something, it’s what she wants you to think she means.

She aims off, as a hunter does. Don’t look where the gun is pointing, look where it hits. That was the target.

Labour jubilation on Tuesday that the castle they had been besieging had apparently fallen was followed after a few moments by stunned silence when it was realised that no such thing had happened. Then there were howls – of rage, presumably, since they are used to a lot of things in the Chamber but they are not used to being made fools of.

Essentially, the Government announcement was a two-sentence statement of which the first part said, “MPs will be given a vote on the terms of the Brexit deal before it is signed,” and the second part said, “If you don’t like the terms you can jump off a cliff.”

This sort of thing is normally called an ultimatum.

What takes some explaining is that not all the Opposition was outraged. Before the day was out, people who should have known better were calling this insolent piece of sleight-of-hand a “concession.” That of course is exactly how the Government presented it, but never can a wolf have looked so unconvincing in its fleece.

No matter: the people who needed to be convinced were convinced. Mrs May feared a revolt on her back benches before the Article 50 vote. This duplicitous announcement, a smile followed by a bite, was intended to buy the rebels off. It worked: the vote went through by a large majority. Why it worked is a mystery, since it is clear that once you add the second sentence, the first is meaningless. A vote is not a real vote, as a choice is not a real choice, if the alternative proposed is unacceptable. The alternative, in case you missed it, really is a cliff. It’s nothing, nada, it’s the outer darkness, in which faintly glimmers the vast holding net of the WTO trade rules.

The WTO is probably an excellent organisation which is doing its best for the peoples of the world. A set of international trade rules is better than piracy, dumping, unfair competition and economic warfare. Yes, I know that we have these anyway, but there would be more of them. And it is true that the WTO strives to bring down tariffs and simplify non-tariff barriers, but it has not got there yet and the latest round of negotiations, Doha, having been stuck for years like a boot in cement, has now been abandoned.

It was partly the complexity of international trade relations that led to the creation of the EU. Inside the single market there is a single set of rules. Outside it, there is the jungle. Norway, if it wants to export to the EU, must supply a mass of paperwork proving either that its products are made inside the European Economic Area, or that they comply with up to 500 different rules specific to whatever product it happens to be.

Well, we’d better not export to the EU, then. What’s that? It’s 44 per cent of our export market and it’s on the doorstep?

There’s Trump.

Why are we doing this at all?

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the unpleasant combination of bullying and dishonesty that characterises this Government, and ask why MPs so tamely put up with it. Someone should tell Theresa May to be careful. There are precedents concerning arrogance. Blair lost his reputation and cannot return to British politics. Charles I lost his head. However, Nemesis travels slowly, and meanwhile the present House of Commons does not seem capable of setting a mousetrap, let alone standing up to an overweening Prime Minister.

Many reasons for this spinelessness are adduced. They include the fact that pro- and anti- Europe sentiment cuts across all parties, which confuses everyone; that the only party aside from the SNP  that has a clearly-articulated anti-Brexit policy is the Lib Dems, who are few in number and alienated multitudes of potential voters over tuition fees; and that Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition cannot, apparently, make up its mind whom or what to be loyal to.

That’s the first clutch of reasons. Here come another couple. Yes, a majority of Labour MPs would oppose Brexit in the House if they were free to follow their consciences, but they are not because they represent constituencies that voted Leave. Or because (Diane Abbott, where are you? come out, come out, it’s quiet now) they support a party leader who, while not actually sure what he thinks about Europe, has imposed a three-line whip as if he were.

And, finally, the big one. This cannot be dealt with adequately here because it demands a post to itself, but it underlies everything and is the one nobody can get beyond. There was a referendum. The Government is implementing “the will of the people”, so there is no point in Parliament’s being consulted at all. This is the bludgeon that lurks, ultimately, behind the Government’s insulting behaviour towards MPs and their powerlessness to respond.

Quite a package, isn’t it? No wonder, poor things, they just have to lie down and take it.

Does something occur to you? Too many reasons?

Here is an answering shot from the woods. The real reason why most MPs who know that Brexit is a disaster do not vote against it is that they are afraid of losing their seats. This is one of the problems with democracy and nobody has solved it. The argument about representation is sound as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Nor does the universal baa-ing about the will of the people.

Lastly, I could be wrong about Nemesis. Sometimes I think I hear a distant noise: is it a clattering of wheels? I heard it on Tuesday when John Bercow declared that he would not, as Speaker, invite President Trump to speak in Westminster Hall. The right piled in to condemn him for violating the neutrality of the Chair, but it was too late. A spark had flared in the place where it is most needed. It wasn’t the first: at the weekend, the streets had blazed up like a firework.

Inadvertently, Theresa May has roused a sleeping dragon. Sleeping? It was thought to be dead, its memorials a show of flags at football matches, its name a prisoner of the far right and the fondly-deluded.

It is not dead, it is not a delusion, and it is not anyone’s prisoner, least of all this Government’s.

See, here it comes, lumbering a bit and looking surprised, but steady on its feet, and that is real fire.

Be careful, Theresa.





Theresa May is a puzzle. For a start, what does she want?

Not “the best possible deal for the British people.” We already have the best deal we are ever going to get. If she thinks she can blackmail, schmooze or bully a deal that is almost as good out of 27 EU member states which have a vested interest in denying it to her, she’s a fool. Which does not seem to be the case.

While talking of the “best possible deal”, she is going for a brutalist one. Out of the single market, which means “no” to free movement of peoples among other things. Goodbye fruit pickers, hello low-wage labour. Farewell, already, the advance cohorts of several banks.

Is she reckless? Hardly. Even recklessness needs to be coherent. In any case, observe the deliberate calm, the mantle of unflinching resolution, the watchful eyes (though there is more to be said about the eyes). Reflect on her choice of subject at university: Geography. Does it stir the pulse? Yet the course is reckless.

Could she be playing a deep game? At the beginning of this sorry saga, there was a theory afloat that she had set Davis, Fox and Johnson up to fail. If she had, that would explain the hard Brexit. The fact that Boris has not yet imploded, and that the wheels have not yet come off the chariot although it is rocking alarmingly, does not prove this hope groundless. However, over the months it has ceased to convince. The reason for this is rooted in May’s character. It would take courage and a difficult kind of integrity, qualities appropriate to a spy working under cover, to carry through what May is doing if she secretly wants Brexit to fail. And the suspicion is that she simply isn’t up to it.

But, undeniably, she is working like Boxer in Animal Farm. “I will fly harder,” one imagines her saying over her cocoa. The first thing she did after becoming Prime Minister was go to Edinburgh to see Nicola Sturgeon. This was sensible enough, given the distinct possibility that if Britain left the EU, Scotland might leave Britain. But then came Berlin, Paris, The Hague, Rome, Belfast, Dublin, Warsaw, Washington, Ankara, Malta… she is in ceaseless motion like a hamster on a wheel. Such to-ing and fro-ing is reminiscent of Kissinger in the 1970s. But Kissinger was America’s fixer-in-chief and there was a nuclear war to prevent. There may once again be a nuclear war to prevent, but May’s shuttling between European capitals will not prevent it. And she is the Prime Minister. Frankly, it’s starting to look undignified. It’s a bit embarrassing. Can’t Boris do some of it? He must be good for something.

Why do people work as if under the whip? Some are, of course. Of those who aren’t, it may be they have a remorseless work ethic. It seems likely Theresa May has. After all, she is a Vicar’s daughter and may be expected to have a strong sense of duty. Yet somehow, on inspection, this reason doesn’t fit quite as well as one thought it would. It slips sideways, like the wrong saddle on a horse. Duty is a straightforward thing. There is a transparency to it. Through the effort, one can see the goal.

There is no transparency in Theresa May. Since taking office as Prime Minister, she has perfected opacity. She started by iterating, and reiterating, a tautology which, although widely mocked, was successful in that it reduced thought to baffled rage: “Brexit means Brexit.” She further announced that she would give no “running commentary” on Britain’s talks with the EU, thus simultaneously refusing legitimate requests for information and insulting her questioners. She honed the habit of dropping what sounded like hints of policy and retracting them immediately afterwards. She used plain language (to masterly effect, sometimes), but behind the language there was nothing. She intended to say nothing. Everything she said, in effect, was a riddle.

She is still speaking in riddles. She is still saying that she intends to deliver to the British people something which she knows is not on offer and working inhumanly hard to achieve it. Meanwhile, she is playing dice with the economy and Britain’s future, and throwing herself figuratively and almost literally into the arms of the last man on the planet who should be allowed to have any influence over her country.

And she knows that, too. Look at her body-language as she walks with Donald Trump down the White House steps, her hand in his hand. Her face is a mask, her body is silently screaming.

Why is she doing this?

Theresa May is sane and stone-cold sober. But look at the face again. Refusal to communicate has turned it sphinx-like. Occasionally there is a flash of panic in the eyes.

The sphinx asked a riddle. It said nothing else. It was always the same riddle, and not particularly interesting, but no-one could answer it. Until someone answered it, the sphinx was clearly going to go on doing what it was doing, which was terrorise Thebes. The riddle was eventually answered by Oedipus.

There’s another way of telling this story. It wasn’t that the sphinx refused to communicate. It wanted very badly to communicate but it could only ask its riddle. Oedipus released it.

What is imprisoning Theresa May? For something is. It feels as if she is waiting for someone to break open her silence. Waiting for someone to stop her destroying Thebes – because she, now, cannot stop.

You find this too poetic? She is, after all, a woman made of prose.

But it’s either that, or that she will do anything, anything at all, to stay in power.

Take your pick.