AuthorGraham Charkham

“THE POST”: NOT THE FULL STORY…

‘The Post’: not the full story.

This is an entertaining film. It’s a compelling story, well acted and with a strong ‘feel good’ factor. It is interesting to speculate why it has been produced at this particular time and why it resonates in 2018. It is unfortunate that the film fails to record the depths that Nixon and his men went to in a quest for revenge.

“The Post” tells how, in 1971, President Nixon stopped The New York Times from publishing ‘The Pentagon Papers’ only for The Washington Post to take up the story. Eventually the US Supreme Court ruled by a majority of 6 to 3 that the constitution of the US gave both papers the right to publish.

Why all the fuss?

The “Pentagon Papers” were a top secret study by the Pentagon of government decision-making during the Vietnam War. The Papers were hugely damaging to President Nixon (among others).

We don’t have to guess why the Pentagon Papers troubled Nixon and his inner circle.  We have a transcript from the Nixon Tapes, recorded in the Oval Office on 14th June 1971[1]:

HALDEMAN: Well this thing too is clear, it seems to me it-it hurts us in that it puts the war back up into a high [unclear] tension level, but the facts in it

NIXON:Hurt the other side

HALDEMAN: Don’t hurt us politically so much-they hurt the others-but what they really hurt-and this is what the intellectuals-and why the motivation of the Times must be is that it hurts the government

What it says is…to the ordinary guy, all this looks like gobbledygood, comes a very clear thing: [unclear] you can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say’ and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the-the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong”

Why ‘The Post’ feels good in 2018.

Justice Hugo Black’s ruling contained some choice words about the importance of an independent press:-

[T]he injunction against “The New York Times” should have been vacated without oral argument when the cases were first presented … . [E]very moment’s continuance of the injunctions … amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment. …{ When the Constitution was adopted, many people strongly opposed it because the document contained no Bill of Rights … . In response to an overwhelming public clamour, James Madison offered a series of amendments to satisfy citizens that these great liberties would remain safe … . In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. }The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. … [W]e are asked to hold that … the Executive Branch, the Congress, and the Judiciary can make laws … abridging freedom of the press in the name of ‘national security.’ … To find that the President has ‘inherent power’ to halt the publication of news … would wipe out the First Amendment and destroy the fundamental liberty and security of the very people the Government hopes to make ‘secure.’ … The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security … . The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged.[2]

From the start of his Presidency, Trump and his White House have sought to discredit the press and waged war on any media which dare to challenge him. Trump’s instinct for media management is uncanny. He is a genius at this. He has no regard for truth whatsoever – to him it is an irrelevance.

“The Post” reminds us of a time when newspapers were influential and when Courts could restrain a President seeking to sell the Public a lie. The film brings hope that the same might happen again. However, the game has changed and the constraints on government power in 1971 are less effective today. In 1971 news was spread by the physical delivery of printed words. The Papers themselves were around 7,000 pages of documents which were photocopied by Daniel Ellsberg who gave copies to newspapers. Some of the best parts of the film show The Washington Post’s newspaper setting department and the presses rolling, newspapers being bound and boxed and loaded onto trucks for delivery around the US. Today quality newspaper circulation is ever diminishing. Digital media are creating a new world in which the reader can have access to mountains of raw material but most of us lack the expertise to evaluate that material or to put it in context. Worse still, we don’t know which sources we can trust.

“The Post” is a ‘feel good’ movie because it ends with a reference to Watergate. There is no need for the film to say more about Watergate: the audience will bring to mind ‘All the President’s men’ and leave the cinema feeling that even Presidential power can be held to account by the printed word, backed up by the rule of law.

The part that feels less good and was not in the film.

The film would probably have felt less good but been more true to history had it told what happened to Daniel Ellsberg, the defense analyst who leaked the papers to the press in the first place. Ellsberg was charged with offences that would have carried a sentence of 105 years in prison. His trial was halted by Judge Bryne on 11 May 1973 because of events which the Judge said ‘offend a sense of justice’ and ‘have incurably infected the prosecution of this case”.

 

 

Among ‘the events’ that the Judge was referring to was a government authorised burglary. In August 1971, two months’ after the conversation between Nixon and Haldeman quoted above, Nixon’s deputy assistant, Egil Krogh, two former FBI agents and a member of National Security Council staff met secretly. Together they planned to break into the office of Mr Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr Lewis Fielding in the hope of finding documents which would enable them to discredit Mr Ellsberg. According to Mr Krogh, John Ehrlichman, assistant to the President, authorised the break in ‘if done under your assurance that it is not traceable’[3]. The two ex FBI[4] agents broke into the psychiatrist’s office, forced open filing cabinets but, according to Mr Krogh, they found no documents relating to Ellsberg. However, according to Ellsberg his file was found[5].

Many years after having served his time in prison for his part in this, Mr Krogh reflected:-

“The premise of our action was the strongly held view within certain precincts of the White House that the president and those functioning on his behalf could carry out illegal acts with impunity if they were convinced that the nation’s security demanded it. As President Nixon himself said to David Frost during an interview six years later, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” To this day the implications of this statement are staggering.  …

[After conviction and serving time in prison] I finally realized that what had gone wrong in the Nixon White House was a meltdown in personal integrity. Without it, we failed to understand the constitutional limits on presidential power and comply with statutory law.”[6]

It says a lot for the integrity of the US Government prosecutors that it was they who revealed the existence of the break in to Mr Fielding’s office to the Judge. One can imagine the pressure on them to conceal such devastating information.  How easy it would have been to ‘accidentally lose’ or ‘overlook’ the offending documents.   (Since drafting this blog the BBC has reported that in 2014-2015 in England 916 people had charges dropped over a failure to disclose evidence.  This begs the question of how many cases went ahead notwithstanding a failure to disclose evidence)

The man who inspired Daniel Ellsberg.

Randy K

Ellsberg drew inspiration from a little known American pacifist activist: Randy Kehler who refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Kehler knew that his conduct would lead to a prison sentence and in August 1969 he gave a speech at a conference at Haverford College. Ellsberg was in the audience and described his reaction:-

“And he said this very calmly. I hadn’t known that he was about to be sentenced for draft resistance. It hit me as a total surprise and shock, because I heard his words in the midst of actually feeling proud of my country listening to him. And then I heard he was going to prison. It wasn’t what he said exactly that changed my worldview. It was the example he was setting with his life. How his words in general showed that he was a stellar American, and that he was going to jail as a very deliberate choice—because he thought it was the right thing to do. There was no question in my mind that my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger. Thousands of young men were dying each year. I left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room. I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing. The only time in my life I’ve reacted to something like that. …

Randy Kehler never thought his going to prison would end the war. If I hadn’t met Randy Kehler it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy [the Pentagon Papers]. His actions spoke to me as no mere words would have done. He put the right question in my mind at the right time.[7]

An ordinary person who few have ever heard of, Randy Kehler, gives a talk to a small group of people in an obscure university .  The way he lived his life lit the fuse that inspired Daniel Ellsberg.  Years later Ellsberg’s actions inadvertently set in train a course of events that, through many twists and turns, eventually led to Watergate and the President’s resignation.   “The Post” is a timely and inspirational film but captures only a small part of the story.  Ellsberg’s story is as newsworthy as the story of “The Washington Post”.  We need to be reminded that seemingly insignificant people who live lives of integrity, standing for truth, make a difference.  


  1. https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB48/oval.pdf
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Times_Co._v._United_States citing New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. at 714-20.
  3. See Krogh’s article sated 30 June 2007 in The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/30/opinion/30krogh.html
  4. Nine months later the same two, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt broke into the Watergate Building on Nixon’s behalf and were caught red handed.
  5. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-worlds-most-famous-filing-cabinet-36568830/
  6. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/30/opinion/30krogh.html
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Ellsberg

Education and Society: Welby rattles National Secularist Society.

On 9th December 2017 the National Secularist Society (“NSS”) tweeted  “In attacking secular schools over their ‘lack of values’ yesterday, it appears the Archbishop of Canterbury was channelling Hitler!”.

This suggests: (a) that the NSS has no regard for historic accuracy and (b) that the Archbishop’s speech to the House of Lords has touched a raw nerve. Here is the heart of it:-

“A major obstacle, though, to our education system is a lack of clear internal and commonly held values. We live in a country where an overarching story which is the framework for explaining life has more or less disappeared. We have a world of unguided and competing narratives, where the only common factor is the inviolability of personal choice. This means that, for schools that are not of a religious character, confidence in any personal sense of ultimate values has diminished. Utilitarianism rules, and skills move from being talents held for the common good, which we are entrusted with as benefits for all, to being personal possessions for our own advantage. …”

This succinctly captures what has happened, not just in education, but to our society as a whole. The Christian religion is being shepherded into a more hidden space, behind closed doors and restricted to being a matter of private belief. The public sphere is being left to be occupied by unconstrained utilitarianism where ‘the inviolability of personal choice’ has become a ‘trump card’. The results are ugly and are all around us. It is a brave person who calls it as it is—Welby is brave.

Welby gives a brief summary of history to demonstrate that a universal system of education, free for all, was pioneered by Christians through the “National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Establish Church in England and Wales”. Welby then offers an alternative to the rule of utilitarianism:-

 

“At its most basic, for the past two centuries the Church of England has looked to promote an education that allows children, young people and adults to live out Jesus’s promise of life in all its fullness. That means enabling every person not only to grow in wisdom and to learn skills but to develop character and the spiritual, intellectual and emotional resources needed to live a good life, as an individual but also in a community….

The aim of the founders of the National Society was to be universalist, unapologetically Christian in the nature of their vocation and service and committed to the relief of disadvantage and deprivation wherever it was found. Ours must be the same. Two hundred years on, the role of the Church of England in education can be to encourage and support excellence and to provide a values-based education for all, with a laser-like focus on the poorest and most deprived. That means a renewed vision that focuses as much on deprivation of spirit and poverty of aspiration as did our forebears on material poverty and inequality.

What follows from that is a clear move towards schools that not only deliver academic excellence but have the boldness and vision to do so outside the boundaries of a selective system. The Church of England’s educational offer to our nation is church schools that are, in its own words, “deeply Christian”, nurturing the whole child—spiritually, emotionally, mentally as well as academically—yet welcoming the whole community. I pay tribute to the immense hard work of heads, teachers, leadership teams, governors and parents associations who make so many church and other schools the successes that they are. With the strong Christian commitment of heads and leadership teams, the ethos and values of Church of England schools, which make them so appealing to families of all faiths and none, will be guarded and will continue.”

That the Archbishop of Canterbury should prefer Christian values to utilitarianism is hardly surprising: so why was this speech sufficient to make the NSS howl? Could it be that secularists have become so used to the unchallenged dominance of their own voice that it has come as a shock to hear a voice advocating ‘unapologetically Christian’ values as a public good?

It is a long time since any mainstream politician or parliamentarian publicly successfully challenged the supremacy of utilitarianism by pointing to Jesus Christ. No wonder that the NSS do not like it. It is not often that we are reminded of the Christian heritage that formed the foundation of so many public services. I doubt the NSS enjoyed that much either.   Nor will they have relished the insights brought by the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks’ speech:- 

“. … At the dawn of our people’s history, Moses assembled the Israelites on the brink of the Exodus. He did not talk about the long walk to freedom; he did not speak about the land flowing with milk and honey; instead, repeatedly, he turned to the far horizon of the future and spoke about the duty of parents to educate their children. He did it again at the end of his life, in those famous words: “You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up”. Why is there this obsession with education that has stayed with us from that day to this? It is because, to defend a country, you need an army, but to defend a civilisation, you need schools. You need education as the conversation between the generations.

Whatever the society, the culture or the faith, we need to teach our children, and they theirs, what we aspire to and the ideals we were bequeathed by those who came before us. We need to teach them the story of which we and they are a part, and we need to trust them to go further than we did when they come to write their own chapter.

Weighed and found wanting

We make a grave mistake if we think of education only in terms of knowledge and skills—what the American writer David Brooks calls the “résumé virtues” as opposed to the “eulogy virtues”. This is not woolly idealism; it is hard-headed pragmatism. Never has the world changed so fast, and it is getting faster every year. We have no idea what patterns of employment will look like in two, let alone 20, years from now, what skills will be valued, and what will be done instead by artificially intelligent, preternaturally polite robots.

We need to give our children an internalised moral satellite navigation system so that they can find their way across the undiscovered country called the future. We need to give them the strongest possible sense of collective responsibility for the common good, because we do not know who will be the winners and losers in the lottery of the global economy, and we need to ensure that its blessings are shared. There is too much “I” and too little “we” in our culture, and we need to teach our children to care for others, especially for those who are not like us.

… The world that our children will inherit tomorrow is born in the schools we build today.”

Welby is right when he points out that we live in a country of competing narratives. I am glad our country allow narratives to compete. I am also glad that people of no religion and people of all religions are equally welcome and equally free to express their views.  Little by little and bit by bit it, however, the voice of the secularist has been drowning out the voice of the person of faith. The voice of the Christian has been driven from the public space – an unintended consequence of a well-meant quest for tolerance and equality. The law is busy getting itself into a muddle as it seeks to use the concepts of equality and non-discrimination to mould a tolerant society. It won’t work because these concepts are an insufficient basis for building community. Anti-discrimination legislation may restrain behaviour that would otherwise destroy society but it will not inspire behaviour that builds up society and bridges gaps between communities.

It is especially good to hear a clear Christian voice from Parliament because we are becoming a society which allows people to hold private religious views but denies people the freedom to express their religious beliefs in the way they live. (Consider for example the Ashers Baking Company case and the closing of Catholic adoption agencies for the sole reason that they refused to place children with same sex couples). There is little point in having bishops in the House of Lords unless they are willing to tell us what difference following Christ makes to the matter under debate.

Unconstrained utilitarianism (promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number[1]) is a seductive philosophy. It sounds so reasonable. It commends itself to our times because it appears to provide a way of living that is not divisive: it can be applied without reference to any particular religion. Yet experience shows that unconstrained utilitarianism provides only a very shaky foundation for society. Consider these examples:-

1. Utilitarianism turns it back upon the vulnerable other. When faced with helpless refugees the utilitarian test has been re-defined so as to permit their exclusion. It now promotes ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number of us’. ‘Us’ typically being defined by reference to the citizens of a National State. By contrast the biblical faiths commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves (irrespective of colour, country of origin etc).

2. Utilitarianism won’t answer theIf I don’t do it someone else will” dilemma. When tempted to act dishonestly or otherwise against one’s better judgement, utilitarianism provides no restraint. The argument that ‘it won’t make any difference because someone else will do it anyway’ has no effective utilitarian counter. By contrast the bible teaches that God is all-knowing and that we will be answerable for our actions upon a day of judgment.  We live to serve Him and our entire lives are played out to an audience of One.  The story of Job demonstrates this and Jesus teaches this by His example as well as by His words

3. Utilitarianism can disguise self-interest as if it were a public good. Is it coincidence that we have an ever widening inequality and ever more grotesque excessive pay? This week it was reported that the top three executives at Persimmon are to receive more than £200m between them and up to £800m is to be received by the companies’ top 150 managers. Excessive pay of this order is not in the interests of society as a whole. The huge disparity between the national average remuneration and the pay of the top 1% is divisive and a de-motivator. Unrestrained utilitarianism does not seem capable of restraining shameless greed.

So a big THANK YOU to Justin Welby for reminding us of the unique contribution made by Christians to the education system and for pointing us to the life-giving quality of the teaching of Jesus. A small ‘thank you’ goes to the NSS for their gratuitously offensive tweet, without which Welby’s message would not have reached as many people as it has.

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  1. I acknowledge that this is an inadequate and crude summary of utilitarianism.

Just Words: communicating in a digital age

economist cover (1 of 1).jpg Something significant is changing in the way we use words. The Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016 was ‘Post Truth’. ‘Fake News’ and ‘Alternative Facts’ have been around for a long time but only recently has it proved necessary to coin these phrases to describe what is happening. The way words are used in public life is changing fast and since public life influences all areas of life, something significant is changing in the way words are used generally. So striking is the change that there has been a rush of new books on the subject. Some of the best are “Enough Said: What’s gone wrong with the language of politics”” by Mark Thompson, former Director General of BBC, “Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back” by Matthew D’Ancona and “Post-Truth: Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it” by Evan Davis. These books examine what is happening from the point of view of contemporary journalists.

fake news.jpg This blog will examine what what the Bible has to say about the way we use words.  (When this blog was near completion I chanced upon an excellent radio analysis of Post Truth politics originally broadcast by BBC as ‘A brief history of Truth’

 THE WAY WE USE WORDS MATTERS.

Throughout the Bible this message is clear: the way we use words matters. The book of Proverbs in the Old Testament has a lot to say about this.

hummy.jpg Prov 16:24 Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.

We know this from experience. We can readily bring to mind words which have been said to us which have been life-giving.

Sadly, most of us also know the experience of hearing words that have the opposite effect. The author of Proverbs, probably writing at least 600 years before Christ, shared this experience…

Proverbs 18:21. Words Kill, Words give life: they’re either poison or fruit—you choose. (The Message)[1]

Prov 12:18 Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Anyone who doubts that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” should check out the statistics regarding cyber-bulling compiled by the Megan Meier Foundation.

We can affirm the truth of these sayings on an individual level but these proverbs also have a wider application. The tongue of the wise can bring healing not only to individuals but also to communities and even to society at large. The Bible gives a number of examples of this. Here is one example that I find intriguing.

Ecclesiastes 9:13–18 “…There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard. The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.”

A further example is 1 Samuel 25 where a man called ‘Nabal’ speaks churlishly to servants of King David and in so doing provokes David who prepares for war with Nabal. The annihilation of Nabal’s family was averted only because of the gracious words of Nabal’s wife, Abigail. Words which she spoke to David having rushed to meet him without Nabal’s knowledge.

Look at Twitter and many online conversations on blogs and facebook and you will find that words of anger, hatred, scorn and derision far outnumber words of restraint and peace. We need develop the skills of Abigail and of the anonymous forgotten wise man from the story and learn how to add more life-giving words into the mix.

CHARACTERISTICS OF LIFE-GIVING WORDS.

They are honest. They contain nothing false and no element of deceit. They are straightforward.

Lev 19:1 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. [See also Eph 4:15, 25 and Col 3:9].

“There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up dissension in the community.” (Proverbs 6:16–19, TNIV)

shark goldish.jpg Words which are false destroy trust. This is true both on a personal level and on a collective level. Consider the effect of the failed Blood Sunday Inquiry and the failed Hillsborough Public Inquiry. Both were only put right after years and years of obstruction and false-dealing with the result that there is a legacy of distrust that has contributed to the difficulties that more recent public inquiries have faced and are facing[2].

This is one of the reasons why the lies, distortions, exaggerations, half-truths and deceptions practiced by all sides in the EU referendum and in the general election are so damaging. They undermine trust and undermine our respect for both individual politicians and the entire political process. Its not just in the UK. Jonathan Friedland has recently noted:-

“The civic realm is being degraded by Trump’s lies, vanities and insults. The national conversation is being coarsened. The basic democratic assumption, that disagreements can be resolved through discussion rather than coercion and violence, is being eroded from the very top”[3]

They are dependable and faithful. If I say that I will do something but carelessly don’t keep my word, my word will not be life-giving. It will be worse than worthless. The same applies if I backtrack because doing what I said I would do turns out to be more costly than I expected. Our words will only be life-giving if they are dependable: if we are faithful to what we have said. Psalm 15 nails this:

“God, who gets invited to dinner at your place? Walk straight, act right, tell the truth. …Keep your word even when it costs you, make an honest living, never take a bribe. You’ll never get blacklisted if you live like this.”” (Psalm 15:1–5, The Message)

They are apt.

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” (Proverbs 25:11–12, ESV)

If our words are to be life giving, they must be apt. Even words of criticism may be valued if they are apt: this verse suggests they will be as valuable as custom-made jewellery. To make custom-specific jewellery to the receiver’s taste the jeweller must first listen to the customer’s requests and assess their taste. Sensitivity is required. It is only too easy to be insensitive:

Whoever blesses a neighbour with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing. (Prov 17:14)

Twitter foretold.

Proverbs 26:18. People who shrug off deliberate deceptions, saying “I didn’t mean it, I was only joking” are worse than careless campers who walk away from smoldering campfires.

Proverbs 26:20 For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.

Proverbs 26:17 Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.

These warnings anticipate the arrival of Twitter by a couple of millennia. Read the comments beneath any remotely controversial Twitter or FB post and ask yourself if they fall within the categories of ‘life giving’ words described above or whether they are close to the fire-spreading/dog-biting words just described. Perhaps we should think of social media as a potential flame-thrower whose speed and reach enables us to spread fire more efficiently than was previously possible.

Next blog, I shall ask whether the New Testament offers any hints about how Christians might combat the post truth world.

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  1. Or:“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (RSV)
  2. These above instances of dishonesty leading to breakdown of trust arose from specific instances of injustice. By contrast the scale and depth of child abuse among religious institutions is almost impossible to comprehend. See the Speech of Justice McClellan of the Australian Child Abuse Royal Commission. (I quote this the Australian commission publishes statistics which makes the extent of the abuse clear. I am not aware of equivalent statistics for the UK). The long term destructive consequences of the abusers’ dishonesty may be with the victims for life. It is tragic that for years many religious institutions have sought to protect their brand by failing to acknowledge and thus implicitly or expressly denying the wrongs done. This too is an abuse of words.
  3. https://perma.cc/6X8X-2W8C

Alternative Facts.

 

Words, Words, Words….

What was in the red box under the Bible upon which Mr Trump took the oath of office?  It contained the bible, shown below, upon which Abraham Lincoln took the oath in 1861.  Both Bibles contained the following timely advice for the President to be (albeit in more archaic language):-

“Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom—it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.” James 3:13-16 (“The Message” version)

Trump has repeatedly boasted that he can be ‘very Presidential’ / ‘more Presidential’ than anyone except Abraham Lincoln.”   As James says, ‘it’s the way you live, not the way you talk that counts’.  

It would, however, be a big mistake to take the above verses out of context as one might then conclude that the way we talk does not matter.  James is at pains to point out that the words we use matter greatly.   Consider the following:  

“3–5  A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!

5–6  It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke …”  James 3:3–6 (The Message)

Alternative Facts… Where are we heading?

These words are apt for our times.  Consider the Brexit campaign, the US Presidential campaign and the recent NBC interview with Kellyanne Conway  in light of them.  

Congratulations to the NBC reporter who nailed the President’s spokesperson with 2017’s most concise put-down so far “Alternative facts are not facts, they are falsehoods”.  Touché!  

We expect Politicians to use spin doctors and focus groups to help them present their policies in ways that will get the most positive response from the most voters.  We also expect them to spin their opponents’ policies in a way that will put people off. My impression from Tim Shipman’s account of the Brexit campaign (entitled “All Out War“) is that spin doctors no longer simply package policies to make them appear attractive.  They experiment with versions of the facts and versions of policies and, once they find a claim which achieves the desired response in focus groups it will be presented to the public –whether or not it is true.  If a claim will deliver the desired results (i.e. more votes for me or less votes for my opponent) then that claim will be made—if it’s not true, an “alternative fact will do”.   Osborne’s claim that house prices would be 18% lower in the event of Brexit, and Leave’s battle bus statement with its implied promise that leaving would result in £350M a week for the NHS at no additional cost to the taxpayer are but two examples.  

“All Out Politics”

What distinguishes “All Out War” from other war is that in ‘All Out’ war all restraints and self-imposed boundaries are disregarded.  Winning becomes everything.  Genocide, torture, and other crimes: these are some of the features of ‘All Out War’.  Personal abuse of one’s opponents, preying on the fears of one’s audience, promoting falsehood under the guise of ‘alternative facts’: these are some of the features of ‘All Out Politics’.  

In 2016 the USA and the UK have experienced “All Out Politics”.  Self-imposed restraint has lapsed.  Fear-mongering, abusing one’s opponent, relying upon falsehoods presented as facts: these methods have been adopted by all sides and are in danger of becoming ‘normal’.  This causes disillusionment with politicians and with the political process itself.   It also destroys trust: why would anyone choose to trust someone who is willing to put forward ‘alternative facts’ as if they were true?  These results are worrying but even more worrying is the prospect that campaigns of this sort can destroy democracy itself.  

It is the official policy of H.M. Government that:-

“6 Every effort should be made to ensure the organisation’s ethos promotes the fundamental British values of democracy… mutual respect and tolerance for those with different … beliefs…”  1

‘All Out Politics’ does not promote the democracy, mutual respect or tolerance.  It destroys all three.  Democracy relies upon people being able to make informed and that cannot happen if people are presented with ‘alternative facts’.  Mutual respect was noticeable for its absence in both the Brexit campaign and the US Presidential campaign. 

We have to find a way to persuade politicians to draw back from ‘All Out Politics’.  In this respect Mr Trump may have done us a service.  By giving us such a stark example of where ‘All Out Politics’ leads, he has held up a mirror in which we may see ourselves and do something to change our direction of travel.  This is badly needed. The usual rule in a British parliamentary election is that if the party one did not want to win wins, one can console oneself with the idea that the position may be reversed at the next election.  The subtlety of ‘All Out Politics’ is that it corrupts the political process itself, and does so in such a way that the position cannot be reversed.  A loose analogy may help to illustrate the danger.  Consider the actions of the horsehair worms.   The larvae of these parasites  live in water and are eaten by mosquitoes which are eaten by crickets.  The larvae hatch out whilst in the crickets’ gut and cause the cricket to act in a suicidal way  by seeking out water.  The crickets die in the water and the worms survive: producing more larvae so that the process is repeated. 2

Make not mistake: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).  Words can have great potential for good as well as for harm.   We could encourage a retreat from ‘All Out Politics’ by being scrupulously careful about the way we ourselves use words.  We could then encourage our politicians and press to stick to the standards we set for ourselves, rather than allowing our standards to be set by what we see and hear on TV and in social media.  

How do we match up against the yardstick held out by James 3 ?  Do the words we use bring life or do they risk ‘turning harmony to chaos’?  What is the tone of the posts we make on Facebook?  What are the boundaries we set for ourselves when we disagree strongly with what someone has said or done?  James is not the only writer in the bible who addresses the question of how we use words.  In my next blog I shall explore what the others say.  There is a better way : Proverbs 16:24 “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”  


How do you think we might encourage a retreat from the more damaging aspects of ‘All Out Politics’?  Please send me your suggestions.

 

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