It's Complicated: Politicians And The Truth

Speaking the truth includes an honest expression of doubts and shortcomings. How many politicians and public figures do that.

The floor is yours...
The floor is yours...
Vicente Palermo*


BUENOS AIRES — Some people say politicians have a democratic duty to tell the truth. They readily talk of truth and reality, like they were two things just dangling before everybody's eyes. And telling the truth, they add, is not enough but just a prerequisite.

I disagree with this perspective. I have recently read The Courage of Truth by French philosopher Michel Foucault. I must confess that before reading it, I had reservations about its title. The courage of truth? Who has the right to say that they are telling the truth? Only Foucault was not referring to the idea of "objective truth," which justifies the title in my eyes.

Let me start from the middle: You need courage to speak the truth before people, because they do not want to hear it. Foucault considers those who establish truth-telling or "veridiction" contracts, and how they do it. Those moments in which people think: I would certainly prefer not to have to listen to this, but I will put up with it. Hearing this is like taking the bitterest medicine, but something is keeping my ears open. I could strangle the damned talker, but shall probably take note of what I have just heard.

A range of commentators like to repeat the platitude that people want to know the truth. That is not true. It is not true in the mainstream media nor on networking sites, nor is truth uttered by politicians, priests or anyone else. Their messianic pretensions, which represent a very toxic narrative, leave an entirely negative social legacy.

There is no politics without a promise, which is every charlatan's opportunity.

Then there are those who, in line with Foucault's premise, have the courage to aspire to the credential of telling people what they do not want to hear — be it for cowardice, a love of facile arguments, naivety or tradition. Those things kept out of sight that are nevertheless banging on their door as hard and loudly as fate.

Your average politician lacks the courage, let's face it. But no other social category has it either. A conductor, a novelist or a composer, like Argentina's own Astor Piazzolla, can speak their truth, but there is little courage involved there unless they translate it into political action and take risks (Gandhi did it. Astor never threatened to burn his bandoneon unless the military junta called free elections).

I recall the words of a campaign poster that was up in Bogotá, I think: "Enough With Realities, We Want Promises." There is no politics without a promise, which is every charlatan's opportunity. If that is what people want, there will always be someone at hand to promise them the moon.

Likewise there are enough people reluctant to present others with "realities' (supposing for a moment that it is possible to identify realities). It is very costly, and you must be daring to do it. It may prove even more costly and uncertain if the "veridiction contract" was dodgy to begin with. For a politician, avoiding speaking harsh words to the public may sound like a wise and justified counsel.

It is no accident that Foucault's proposed contracts on veridiction do not include a political one. He does cite the Parrhesia of the ancient Greeks, where the speaker takes a risk in "speaking truthfully" and telling people what they would not want to hear. In that case, it is truth as the speaker sees it, explosing listeners to pain and himself even to death.

If they really believe in something and seek the good of the city-state (in classical terms), politicians and public thinkers today should start by shaking the dust off the institution of deceit. Let us discard platitudes and assume people do not wish to hear the truth, that telling it to them may entail a cost, but that you have to run the risk before it is too late. It is a matter of responsibility, and doing one's duty means taking many risks.

But how can a politician construct his or her veridiction contract? Well, people (rightly or wrongly) trust a politician for his or her credentials, not a pretty face. If a politician must make an effort with publicity to project a "creditable" face, then it is already too late for them. Networking sites are said to provide the framework of a new type of politics that will discard the habitual actors of representative democracies. That may be so, but do we know how trust circulates and how people rush to trust someone or other on these sites?

In a society where opinion is volatile if not fickle, honest speech does require courage and this, I believe, should not be confused with the simplistic, short-termed formulae peddled by populists of the Right, Left and Center. That is dismissing dilemmas, complexities and uncertainties inherent in any good enterprise or activity, including of course in truthful speech, in favor of their argument in favor of "telling it like it is."

The ability to bravely state the truth is not quite the "Parrhesia" of stating personal convictions. Certainties are of little use in themselves, and the politician brave enough to speak truthfully cannot be vain or conceited. He or she must be inspired more by doubts than certainties, and still speak out.

Argentina does not just suffer from capital flight (a somewhat foolish way of saying none of us trust the local currency), but also from a tendency to flee itself — usually toward populist oblivion. We may be seeing a novelty though, in people who feel they have heard enough nonsense and are willing to let a government stay and learn on the job. To recognize that may indeed be a brave exercise in speaking the truth.

*Palermo is a political analyst and researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET).

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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