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By Jason Michael
“NOW I HAVE COME to the crossroads in my life,” exclaims Al Pacino’s character, Frank Slade, in what surely must be one of the most rousing speeches in cinema history (Scent of a Woman, 1992). “I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it.” Before touching on the theme of today’s sermon – Politics in a Degraded Age – it is important we remind ourselves of the obvious hypocrisy of our words. Like the retired lieutenant colonel, we too have never failed to know right from wrong, and we too have often failed to take the right path – to do the right thing. Calling out the faults of others, then, is made somewhat more difficult because the thing we are calling out is often the thing we want least to be called out in ourselves. Modern politics and our present political leadership have exasperated us. We are frustrated and exhausted with the endless and shameless lies they are telling, yet we are also liars. I know that I am. I’ve told some whoppers in my time. I have deceived and misled people, I have proffered mendacious excuses, I have let others take the blame for my misdeeds. This is forever the difficulty in such a moral interventions; we are pointing out in others offences of which we ourselves are guilty.
Moral frailty, while succumbing to it is always wrong, is an inescapable component of the human condition. Like Frank Slade, we have always known the right thing to do and so often failed to do it. As hypocrites, then, we must sit as jurors in the trial of people in politics and in positions of power and leadership who have, it seems, made a virtue of lying. Of course, it will always be problematic to force a distinction on degrees of an offence – to say that one lie is better or worse than another – when all lies are in breach of the same Commandment, but in the real world there is a massive difference between telling a police officer we never saw a stop sign and telling a whole pack of lies to tens of millions of voters so as to achieve a political goal and some measure of personal benefit. Only the most puritanical of jurists would refuse to concede here that the latter is by magnitudes far greater an offence than the former.
Yet, this is where we find ourselves in the United Kingdom. Boris Johnson, our new Prime Minister, is a man who shamelessly stood in front of a bus during the Brexit referendum campaign and told voters that leaving the European Union would return £350 million every week to essential public services like the NHS; all the while knowing this was untrue. Since moving into Number 10 he has repeated over and again that his government is engaged in ongoing negotiations with its European partners, when the European parliament and commission have unequivocally stated this is not the case. More recently, it was determined in the Edinburgh Court of Session that he knowingly and wilfully misled Buckingham Palace to secure the royal consent he required to suspend parliament and thus stymy any public and democratic scrutiny of the government’s actions and designs at a crucial moment in the greatest political crisis the British state has faced since the Nazi invasion of France. Mr Johnson is a man who routinely stands before the voting public and tells – not to put too fine a point on it – bare-faced lies, and, without the facts and denied transparency, we find ourselves in a blind democracy.
But all of this, I am persuaded, is an indication of a deeper, more fundamental problem across the whole of our society, and it does not seem to me that we can hope to restore any level of integrity to the political system and to government before we address this deeper problem. Let’s face it, not twenty years ago a character of the degraded nature of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson would not have had a chance in hell of becoming the elected leader of a western democracy – it would have been unthinkable. Sure, politicians have always been economical with the truth and lies or some sort of deception have always been part of the political game. Still, we can all agree we have come a long way from Bill Clinton’s adamant denial; ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman!’ to the continual bampot-level compulsive lying of our very post-modern political class.
Clearly something has changed. The level of political intercourse and leadership has been broken by a new type of expedient morality – the morality of the tycoon’s Apprentice as opposed to that of the statesman; something closer to an Idiocracy than a civilised and mature democracy. And here is an interesting point: This is a morality. Perhaps not the morality we would like, but it is a morality. Over the past number of decades, certainly in my own lifetime, we have witnessed a steady transition from the morality of duty in politics – the politics of Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev, and François Mitterrand – downward in gradations to the morality of petty managerialism – George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Silvio Berlusconi. At length, it seems we have arrived today at their spoiled offspring and their new morality; that of the self-important underachiever, the entitled trust-fund entrepreneur, the morality of the moron – the world of Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, Theresa May, and now Boris Johnson, with their fetishistic fascination for brands and easily-digestible tripe.
Gone is the division of person and office in high politics. Today we have a ‘President of the United States of America’ – the great ‘POTUS’ – who flabs over his bed sending brain fart quality diplomatic communiqués to other heads of state while chowing down on fast food cheese burgers. In London we have a ‘Britain Trump’ from whose mouth pours and endless stream of unsophisticated fibs that would make a schoolboy blush. But I cannot escape the feeling that we all share some responsibility for this advanced state of decomposition in the body politic.
Some time ago, in university, a friend commented that I was ‘an anachronism’ – words which have stuck with me. His observation has helped me to think about our current crisis. He and I were talking – gossiping, no doubt – about a mutual acquaintance’s licentious antics. It had become known to us that this guy had entangled himself in a number of then infamous drug-fuelled threesomes, perhaps even a full-blown orgy or two. A theological student and an altar boy to the last (a right wee ‘Bible thumper’), I lifted my whiskey and pronounced it ‘wrong, just wrong.’ More in jest than anything else my interlocutor laughed and called me an anachronism, whereupon others in our company lectured me at some length on how it was ‘wrong’ to impose my morality on others. Student life taught me that I was indeed a man out of time, that the morality I held as a sacred – yet unachievable – gift was in this degraded age little more than the moralistic ranting of ‘yer da’ in a world of competing moralities – some, like mine, backward and oppressive, and others more or less ‘progressive.’
What I was looking at, as I have since learned, is moral relativism – a garden of fruity virtues in which we are each free to pick and leave as we please. We may choose not to eat eggs so as to respect the hen and at the very next tree pluck a woman’s right to choose. Relativism says that all choices are equally correct and justifiable, that the ontological contradictions between the cherries we pick don’t matter, and that the cost of entry is the promise not to comment on the choices of others. One can choose, for example, euthanasia – ‘dignity in dying,’ and grab a handful of a society that refuses to assist and support the disabled, the sick, and the elderly, and in those selections see no contradiction, no ‘evil’ – another anachronism. With moral relativism anything – everything – goes. As Dostoyevsky puts it:
Без бога – то и без будущей жизни – Ведь это, стало быть, теперь всё позволено, всё можно делать.
Without God, without an afterlife, in the end, it will be that everything is allowed, anything can be done.
As you might imagine, I have met this idea with wide, staring eyes – with disbelief. Out of the cloister, out in the world, in politics, in government, moral relativism leaves us with our hands tied. We are no longer free – it is not modern, not progressive – to tell someone else, so long as they are acting in accordance with their own morality, that their words and deeds are wrong. There is no wrong, just difference. And difference is good, right? We can listen to people in government lie, but their lies are only wrong to those of us whose morality holds truth as something of greater value than ambition and power. But to the ambitious and powerful the end justifies the means – and this, to them, is morally good. We have allowed ourselves to be pulled from a world of overarching morals and values – which of course presents its own problems – into a garden inhabited by billions, each with his or her own cherry-picker. But here Nietzsche was truly prescient; in a world where each is his own god, the morality of old – the morality of goodness, truth, compassion, and mercy – is the morality of the slave, there to be crushed by the new morality of the Superman.
“Behold, I teach you the Superman. The Superman is the meaning of the earth.” Behold, we have our Superman – our Übermensch. He may not be a young Christopher Reeve, but Boris Johnson is our Superman. He is the victor in a game in which the strongest, the boldest, and the most advantaged take all. No one can truly hold him and those like him to account because we have made accountability impossible. We have forfeited the right to call him immoral because we have chosen the morality of the herd, the slave’s mentality. Nothing of this will change, I suspect, until we all get back on the same page – an understanding and respect for moral objectivity. Nothing they do will ever be wrong until we accept that there is a difference between right and wrong.
Here endeth the lesson.
Stirring Speech from Scent of a Woman
10 thoughts on “Politics in a Degraded Age”
Excerpted from: The Big Lie | Psychology Today Canada https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-second-noble-truth/201403/the-big-lie.
Nietzsche expressed the idea that people need their illusions, and that when all is considered, they live in a lie. Nietzsche said: often people prefer illusion to the truth. The truth hurts, and as a species that avoids pain and seeks pleasure, the preference is a lie. Even when people hear the truth, their defenses kick in and protect the ego against it. This keeps the illusion, which is viewed as more pleasant, alive.
So the problem is two-fold: first, as a culture we’ve come to expect to be spared our feelings at the cost of the truth, to be lied to. Second, defense mechanisms and other aspects of perception work to keep the individual in an illusion which is intended to be better than reality.
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Absolutely! The fantasy or fiction of who we would rather be is always more important to us than the truth of the world and the facts of who we really are. This delusion affects individuals and whole societies. What I suspect we are seeing with Trump and the likes of Boris Johnson is a collective desire to see our delusions of our personal and collective selves be made real – reified – in a messiah of this delusion. This is the very essence of demagoguery and it leads nowhere good.
Just excellent. jp
We are legion. There is who we know we are. There is who we’d like the world to believe we are. And there is who the world believes us to be. We project a different view of who we want to be to different people and every person we meet will form a different view of who they think we are. Amid this swirling fog of multiple, illusory identities there is the kernel that is the true you, perhaps lost even unto ourselves, curled up in a corner lest it be discovered and exposed.
I need a drink.
Reblogged this on Ramblings of a 50+ Female.
Just because 2 things look similar does not mean they are the same.
I remember a lecture in the early days of the internet warning that facts are under threat from internet publishing. Most people thought it interesting but not a real threat…the audience where blinded by the inertial of that time’s recent past where official print publishers held the seat of “facts”. The lecture had seen the major pitfall in that as we switch to an unregulated stream of internet information, we will lose the rigour of vetted publishing where people were held accountable for their factualness.
It saw the danger but not the consequences.
Where we are now is the constant tidal-wave of information, politicians have learnt that as long as they don’t stop lying they will never have to account for their falsehoods. They just have to keep surfing the edge of the wave of news. This ever breaking barrage of information keeps the press and public only focusing on the most current “dead cat” – never having time to skewer them with the falsehoods of yesterday let alone a week ago. As long as they never stop lying they will never be held to account….never give the media time to focus.
This is the difference between those with public positions with media presence and the individual. Sure, we are all with sin, that is not the issue and never has been. In post-enlightenment, social democratic cultures, there was an understanding that corruption in public life is on a different measure to individual crime. Its systemic effects cause it to be universally problematic where as universal sins are typically localised impact.
The issue for all of us now is we have a new breed of public figure who has learnt to manipulate the new information culture and the inertial of our previous media skills are not geared to deal with their tactics. The question is very serious….will they entrench themselves in power before we learn how to hold them to account.
I guess the future of social democracies will depend on who gets there first – and they look to have a big lead.
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Tol – a wonderfully insightful comment. Thank you. Let me absorb that.
Thanks for that comment. Sorry I couldn’t get it into a shorter post.
I hope you again move to that position where you are writing about Scotland almost as if you are looking from a future Independent Scotland – critiquing the current. To me you are the Indy writer that always pulls the wool from my eyes. The way you unpack the language of the Union to reveal its underlying meaning – the shock to my system is always like making a fish aware of the water it swims in.
This is where your tour flipped the tables. Not only did you speak to Scotland now – your writing seemed to speak of a future Scotland. Phantom Power/Lesley Riddoch’s series was important for changing the discussion about Scotland’s neighbours. To me, your writing from that tour was equally important…it started to make a story for and about the alternate Scotland.
Scotland has to start telling itself the potential of indy as if it must come into being. Leaving the Union is not a loss–its actually a gain. It re-makes Scotland almost flipping it. Its infrastructure flips from a London centric to a Scottish ports centric. Its Indy road infrastructure by necessity reverses the idea of “remote”. and its energy interconnectivity means the Islands are central – not periphery. England sees itself and the UK as an Island but in a way that is inward and all about the land…I suspect Scotland will free itself to recognise its reality and see itself as land of the sea.
I know you always write what moves you and I will always be a grateful reader. However, to me you are so powerful when you are putting the scalpel to Union language but from that point somewhere in the future.
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Jason, I would be grateful if you would let me know your reasons for deleting my comments on this post. You may wish to use my email address or FB Messenger.
Hi Habib! I don’t delete comments from the blog. I don’t know what has happened, but I have a policy of not deleting.
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