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.”