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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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