Journalist and historian Anne Applebaum is credited in the Guardian newspaper this week with a brilliant insight into the nature of political lying.
“Sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe a lie – it’s to make people fear the liar,” columnist Nick Cohen quotes Applebaum’s words in the Atlantic.
Cohen adds a perspicacious unpacking of her axiom: “Acknowledge the liar’s power, and your career takes off without the need to pass exams or to display an elementary level of competence.”
The context is review of Applebaum’s new book Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends. It recounts her betrayal when personal and political circles in Eastern Europe, the U. K. and the U.S. traded off practical pursuit of liberty for the chimera of careerism. She is already a pariah on two continents for previous critiques of her erstwhile comrades. Cohen notes the positive aspect: “Heretics make the best writers.”
Not so long ago, of course, heretics often made the crispiest writers, too. Their getaway lines were traditionally left not in ink, but in charcoal. The welcome rise in popularity of mutual non-burning pacts between heretics and true believers opened the 20th century to understanding that heresy and truth are complements. For as G.K. Chesterton said in his 1905 book Heretics, truth is fully realized by seeking to defend it from those who’ve turned to challenge it.
The perfidy of our current “cancel culture” isn’t only in the habituated apologies it coerces, the reputations it irrevocably scores, or even the thoughts it suppresses, though obviously all are substantial in number and disgraceful in effect. What is most dangerous is the quelling of a natural human impulse. It’s the one evident in every wisenheimer who ever raised a hand to say: “I think your facts aren’t quite right there because….” Or alternatively, “I’ve heard the story told a bit differently, you know, my dad said….” Or simply: “Are you sure that’s true?”
Heretics can be wrong, of course. Dead wrong, not just wrongly dead. But to lose their wisenheimer impulse to question authoritative lies, without fear of the authoritative liar, is to the very purpose of political life, which is the eternal discernment of justice.
It is, as the title of Applebaum’s book expresses it, to enter the twilight of democracy that falls with the failure of politics. It is, as Augustine College’s Dean Edward Tingley wrote so eloquently on Convivium.ca last week, to let rot the “golden apple” of liberty on which modern democracies were whelped, and by which we as modern citizens are nourished.
“Given the right conditions any society can turn against democracy,” Applebaum is quoted in the Guardian column.
The direct direness of her warning must not provoke in us the time-honoured True Norther’s reflex to wriggle away squeaking: “But not here! We’re Canadians!” Granted, we’re not Eastern Europe. We’re not even on the democratic knife edge being danced along by our good neighbours to the south. Let’s not exaggerate. Neither should we depreciate, however, troubling diminishments in our own democratic responses over a generation.
Much of the loss accrued courtesy of the thoughtless partisanship that marked the Liberal Opposition as far back as the Mulroney years. It correlated with an increased narrowing, even then, of acceptable thought, a process productive of intellectual rigor mortis in the body politic.
Consolidation of control in the Prime Minister’s Office during the Harper administrations exacerbated the baffling stubborn refusal of Conservatives to bring at least the power of Socratic inquiry to bear on exhausted liberal-progressive moral and cultural pieties.
The lack of asking – just asking – points to the greatest weakening of all: the expanding paucity of wisenheimers eager and willing to ask what’s what and discern lie from truth without fear or favour. Fear, that is, of a potential liar’s power, or favour to be curried from it. The current kerfuffle over Prime Minister Trudeau’s involvement with the WE charity conglomerate and the Kielburger brothers tells the tale to perfection.
The saga so far has been treated as a programmatic ethical morality play in which the Little Pigs go “WE-WE-We all the way home.” The focus of both media coverage and yesterday’s Finance Committee hearing into the imbroglio has been exclusively on which rules might have been broken and by whom.
Fair enough as far as it goes. There’s no question the ethical issues at stake are serious. But the question that cries out to be asked is not about the breaking of rules. It’s about the character of power.
One way of framing it is this: “How is it that no one in a 36-member cabinet, whose members are each paid $265,000 a year to conduct federal business appropriately, asked if it was proper to give $900 million to a mega-charity all present knew was closely linked to the Prime Minister and his entire family?”
Another way is this: “Did no one in that cabinet room during discussion of the $900 million contract think to say ‘Uh, Prime Minister, given your well-known admiration for the Kielburger brothers, shouldn’t you go and straighten the photos in the hallway outside the cabinet room while we discuss this? Optics and all, sir.”
Or this: “What would Jody Wilson-Raybould do?”
Wilson-Raybould, of course, is the former federal Attorney-General reduced to political heretic status for daring to pose tough questions of the Prime Minister during one of his previous “ethical failures,” the one involving corruption charges against SNC-Lavalin. Wilson-Raybould refused to be intimidated, or to choose careerism over correct conduct. She learned the hard way the full cost of heresy.
I know we live in a day when the very word “history” can frighten the horses and the children. Yet it remains instructive to go back to the spring of 2019 and re-read the transcript of Wilson-Raybould’s call from Michael Wernick, then the top bureaucrat in the Prime Minister’s Office.
On at least three occasions during that call, Wernick pressures, if not threatens, the Attorney-General of Canada with Justin Trudeau’s wrath. And “wrath” is not meant figuratively.
“He is in that kinda mood,” the bureaucrat warns the Minister of the Crown. “I wanted you to be aware of that.”
And again: “His is quite determined, quite firm…and he is gonna find a way to get it done one way or the other.”
Finally: “I am worried about a collision…because he is firm about this….”
Wernicke is but the messenger boy here obviously. The message he’s been sent to deliver is not about reason or rules or principles or ethics. It’s about political muscle, about will and who will win in a collision. The Prime Minister’s “mood” hangs above it all.
Watch out. Daddy’s angry. Daddy wants us to do what Daddy wants us to do. Or else. Or else what? Do you really want a collision with Daddy? It’s has the ring, at least, of being a Canadian political reminder that, to borrow Anne Applebaum’s phrase, “sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe the bull – it’s to make people fear the bully.”
Given that 36 Ministers of the Crown, each earning $265,000 a year to work for us, sat around table divvying up almost a billion dollars without asking basic question, it seems a fair question to ask where the fine line is between effective use of leadership power, and unreconstructed bullying. Or we could put other considerations first, avoid the risk of heresy, and just let ourselves slip into the twilight of democracy and the failure of politics.