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14 December 2021

From the NS archive: Shame the Devil

30 January 1937: What then, are we ordinary people to believe?

By New Statesman

This article published in the New Statesman in 1937 suggests there has always been scepticism in our government’s capability to tell the truth. In fact the author, who signs with the initials YY, accuses many institutions of their inability to be honest. Within the police force, an “admirable body of men though they are”, YY is acutely aware that they “cannot all be George Washingtons” and in parliament “even politicians do not always speak the truth”. The writer acknowledges that dishonesty is often without malicious or deceptive intent, rather “they are the result of bad observation or bad memory-observation or memory coloured by prejudice”, yet there is still the concern that in “the court of law, however, the object of which is to discover the truth, seems to foster the spirit of lying”. In this atmosphere of accusations and confusion, it is the public who are becoming “incapable of seeing the truth or of hearing the truth or of remembering the truth”.

In war, it has been said, truth is always the first casualty. It is a profound saying and yet in one respect misleading, since it implies that truth goes into war in sound condition. Unfortunately, even in peace-time truth is something of a cripple, constantly being waylaid and bruised and left badly in need of attention from a good Samaritan. Truth, indeed, has for as long as anybody can remember, hobbled about looking like “one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit” – that tragic figure of whom Marie Lloyd used to sing. In wartime the unhappy creature merely gets knocked about still more violently, still more disastrously. Sand bagged, bound and gagged, with her eyes bandaged, she looks a mere wreck of her former self. Yet, as I have suggested, her former self was nothing to boast of. All that has happened is that a comparative wreck has become a superlative wreck.

I sometimes wonder whether truth has not grown increasingly feeble during my own lifetime. Did people always be as freely as they lie today? I seldom read the report of a prosecution of a motorist without feeling that lying roust be a good deal easier than it used to be. In one case after another it becomes perfectly clear that either the police are lying or the motorist and his friends are lying. The police say, for example, that just before an accident the motorist was travelling at between 6o and 70 miles an hour. The motorist and his friends give evidence that he was travelling at between 30 and 35 miles an hour. In cases such as this the lying must be deliberate. Even in the roughest estimate it is impossible to confuse a speed of 70 miles an hour with a speed of 35. Unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to tell which side is fabricating the evidence. The police, an admirable body of men though they are, cannot all be George Washingtons. And the motorists–many of whom, perhaps even most of whom, are good fathers, good mothers, good husbands, good wives, good sons or good daughters–would certainly not all come through the cherry-tree test with flying colours.

Can it be that there is something demoralising in the possession of a motor car? Is there any other invention that has led so many human beings from the strict path of truth? The fishing-rod, it may be urged. But angling was never a universal cult like motoring. The golf ball? As to that, I have never found any substantiation of the theory that golfers are given to lying about the number of their strokes. The croquet mallet? Ah, yes! There is – or used to be – plenty of lying and cheating on the croquet lawn. (This itself may be a lie, for I am merely repeating gossip.) But, even if we take the darkest view of croquet, does the imagination of the croquet-player ever rise to the same heights as the imagination of the motorist? It was Lord Hewart, I think, who once said that he was constantly trying cases about head-on collisions between two cars, each of them on its own side of the road and each stationary. To own a motor car is for many people to enter the spiritual company of Grimm and Hans Andersen. The motorist possesses a magic wand by means of which, when giving evidence, he can transform a dozen bottles of Bass into two light lagers or a skinful of whisky into one small Scotch and a couple of aspirins taken as a cure for influenza. Then there is a small band of motorists – not one in a thousand, I am sure, even among those who cause fatal accidents – who explain that they did not stop after an accident because they did not realise that they had knocked someone down. I am not suggesting that this excuse is always untrue, but I have myself been in a car which knocked down a small boy who had run without warning into the road, and, though the car swerved enough to catch only his elbow, no one could have mistaken the bump for anything but what it was. Hence I cannot believe that all the motorists who say that they did not understand the meaning of the bump are speaking the truth.

[See also: From the NS archive: Bitten by dogs]

The court of law, however, the object of which is to discover the truth, seems to foster the spirit of lying. If one believed all the defendants, one would be driven to the conclusion that scarcely any but innocent people are prosecuted in England. Murderers often seem able almost to convince themselves of their innocence. Fraudulent company promoters wear the air of wronged Sunday-school teachers. And the more they swear they are speaking the truth, the more stoutly they lie. An oath, indeed, instead of preventing human beings from lying, seems to encourage many of them to lie by making the lie sound more plausible. Perjury in the name of God savours of saintliness.

It is, perhaps, foolish to expect criminals to tell the truth when we who are still outside the gaols give them so poor an example. Even politicians do not always speak the truth. They become extremely indignant when accused of making false statements, but they find it curiously easy to believe that their opponents make false statements. “A frigid and calculated lie,” was Lord Balfour’s description of a remark made by a Liberal minister. “Allow me to call the honourable gentleman a damned liar,” was the reply of John Dillon to the suggestion of Joseph Chamberlain that he was a “good judge of traitors”. If the word “liar” were not forbidden in the House of Commons as unparliamentary, I am sure that it would be hurled backwards and forwards from back bench to back bench-perhaps, even from front bench to front bench-during many a critical debate. For people who are most convinced that it would be impossible for themselves to tell lies are the most convinced that it is possible for other people to tell lies.

Half the lies that are told, I agree, are involuntary. They are the result of bad observation or bad memory-observation or memory coloured by prejudice. Many people are incapable of seeing the truth or of hearing the truth or of remembering the truth. They misunderstand even the plainest statements, if made by an opponent. I remember how a good many years ago an editor was sent a copy of a new paper, the organ of a hostile party, with a slip asking for “the favour of a review”. In the following week’s issue he declared that he had been asked by the rival editor for “a favourable review,“ expressed the deepest indignation at this piece of impudence, and went on to tear the paper to pieces. Now, that editor was a man of noble character beyond the common, who regarded “liar” as the most damning epithet that could be applied to a human being; yet, when his prejudices were engaged, he believed simply what he wanted to believe about those who were opposed to him.

[See also: From the NS archive: The Christmas of unemployment]

It is one of the vices of propaganda that the propagandist becomes more and more tempted to sacrifice the truth to the cause. In propaganda, as in war, truth is the first casualty. In dictatorial countries, where propaganda flourishes like horse-radish in a Steyning garden, to tell more than half the truth would be treason. Sometimes one wonders whether the propagandists are themselves deceived or whether they are simply gallant liars sacrificing their souls for their country’s sake. Whichever may be the case, they are making it very difficult for the ordinary man in other countries to believe a word they say. It is an old saying that a diplomatist is a man who is sent abroad to lie for his country: looking at the world today, a cynic might say that a government is a body of men kept at home to lie for their country. And where governments lead, their partisans enthusiastically follow. Everything good that is told about Ruritania, they declare, is true: everything bad that is told about it is lies. As for Urbitania, everything bad that is told about it is true, and everything good that is told about it is lies. It is all very bewildering to ordinary human beings. These huge nations of Yes-men cannot all be speaking the truth, especially as they are forbidden to say No.

What then, are we ordinary people to believe? We must believe somebody or something, and yet we are finding it more and more difficult to believe anybody or anything. We have grown particularly suspicious of “the truth about” this, that, and the other. “The truth about” is usually propaganda. Unlike jesting Pilate, when we ask “What is truth?” today, we do stay for an answer. And the loudest answer comes from the throats of 10,000 propagandists. And we do not – we cannot – believe it. “Truth is mighty and will prevail.” It will prevail in Europe only when we are all as eager to know and to tell the truth about our own side as the truth about the other.

[See also: From the NS archive: GBS and the New Statesman]

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