The strategy of truth

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This week’s New Yorker carries a fascinating piece about propaganda and how the Nazi sort was countered by the US during the war.

Hitler had written in Mein Kampf that « most people are more easily victimized by a large rather than by a small lie, since they sometimes tell petty lies themselves but would be ashamed to tell the big ones. » In October 1941 Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing a new government information agency, the Office of Facts and Figures. He appointed Archibald MacLeish to run it.

Archibald MacLeish was a poet who had fought in the First World War, then lived in Paris working at Fortune. FDR appointed him Librarian of Congress in 1939. MacLeish said things such as : « democracy is never a thing done, it is always something that a nation must be doing ». He also had in mind that « the duty of the government is to provide a basis for judgment and when it goes beyond that, it goes beyond the prime scope of its duty ».

In April 1942, MacLeish proposed a strategy for the US propaganda, a strategy which opposes « to the frauds and the deceits by which our enemies have confused and conquered other peoples, the simple and clarifying truths by which a nation such as ours must guide itself. But the strategy of truth is not, because it deals in truth, devoid of strategy. It is not enough, in this war of hoaxes and delusions and perpetuated lies, to be merely honest. It is necessary also to be wise ».

The New Yorker’s piece is written with Trump’s flexible relation to facts in mind but I chose to read it in the light of what happened in London yesterday.

One of the big lies having currency in the land is that of an islamic terrorism being rooted in another soil than itself. Islamic radicalism is never itself according to many intellectuals : if there is such a thing as terrorism in the name of Islam, that is because of the economic conditions or because of the French acception of laicity, or because of post-colonial grudges, or something else, anything else as long as such thing is detached from cultural aspects of the islamic faith.

The strategy of truth is to oppose facts and figures. The fact that there is a kind of terrorism which uses Islam as its enabling tool, the fact that there is complacency towards violence amongst muslim clerics, numerous enough to matter. The fact that there is relative apathy in the muslim world toward the nefarious uses of the religious message, and in the oumma there are still too few vocal voices to matter.

When Baruch Goldstein went to the Cave of the Patriachs and killed 29 palestinians in 1994, I did not think he was just a crazy extremist. As a jew, my reaction was rather : hold on, this is coming from us, we must own this, it is a reading of the Torah that is possible and such is done by some. And to this day, I still believe we ought to apply the strategy of truth to every cultural piece of our jewish faith.

It is a strange reality when poets are those who can, over the years, provide guidelines for very practical issues. I am certain of this because, as you may have expected, I’ll finish with the recollection of Vaclav Havel formidable strategy. His simple but extraordinary idea was that the most effective way to defeat a totalitarian regime was for citizens to reject its lies and “live in truth.” That meant, first of all, telling the truth in answer to official propaganda, but also behaving as if fundamental human rights — which most dictatorships claim to respect — could be taken for granted.

We are facing a new kind of totalitarian assault on the world, one which is rooted in religion. The strategy of truth is the only way we know to deal with such kind of threats. Let us use it always, let us use it anew.

Image credit : Michael Robinson Chavez

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