"You can't handle the truth!" Colonel Jessep defends the darkness behind the wire in Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men. When it comes to the SAS in Afghanistan it would seem that the few good men are all in the field and that our military and political leaders share Colonel Jessep's view of the public's ability to deal with the realities of New Zealand's involvement in a brutal, dirty and illegal war.
TO MAKE a political lie work, writes American historian, Rick Perlstein, you need only two things: “A powerful person or institution willing to utter it, and another set of powerful institutions to amplify it.”
No institution is more powerful than the State, so when statesmen decide to lie they’ve always got a head-start on the truth.
And the sheer size of the State means they can lie on a grand scale.
It was Adolf Hitler who penned the infamous sentence: “When you lie, tell big lies.”
Most of us only dare to “tell small lies in little matters”. Judging people by our own timorous moral standards, we have real difficulty believing others can “fabricate colossal untruths”.
Hence Hitler’s confidence that: “The grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down.”
The State also enjoys another – and arguably even greater – advantage over its citizens: its legitimacy.
For a society to function, ordinary people must retain at least a modicum of trust and confidence in its core institutions. Each one of those institutions, therefore, has a strong interest in reinforcing and protecting the others.
This places the second most powerful institution in our society – the news media – in a thoroughly invidious position.
To retain the trust and confidence of its audiences the news media must tell them the truth without fear or favour. But, if it tells “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” about government, big business, the military, the police, the judiciary and all the other “powerful institutions” out of which our social fabric is woven, it risks unravelling it altogether.
According to Rick Perlstein, this is what began to happen in the 1970s when: “The investigative reporter became a sexy new kind of hero. A shaggy-haired loner, too inquisitive for his own good, played by Warren Beatty, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.”
It was the decade of Watergate and the Church Committee’s inquiry into the CIA and the FBI. An era of whistle-blowers like Daniel Ellsberg – who leaked ‘The Pentagon Papers’ to The New York Times. The period when consumer advocate, Ralph Nader, warned Americans that corporate capitalism might be “unsafe at any speed”.
“The truth hurt”, says Rick Perlstein, “but the incredible thing was the citizenry seemed willing to bear the pain.”
Perhaps. But the “powerful institutions” of American society – what the baby-boom generation called “The Establishment” – wasn’t.
Rick Perlstein argues that the counter-attack began when Ronald Reagan was elected US President in 1980. This, he says, was the moment when telling the truth ceased to be an act of patriotism and, almost overnight, became an act of treachery against God, Justice and the American Way. The shaggy-haired investigative journalist, with his subversive curiosity, ceased to be sexy and became, instead, a professional bore.
If the State lies, intone the ladies and gentlemen of today’s press, it no doubt has very good reasons for doing so – reasons that are in no way the business of the news media to challenge. A journalist’s job isn’t to hold the powers-that-be to account. On the contrary, the journalist’s first responsibility is to preserve societal cohesion by reinforcing and protecting its core institutions.
If you doubt this grim assessment, go out and buy the latest issue of Metro magazine and read Jon Stephenson’s article “Eyes Wide Shut”. Jon’s not exactly what you’d call “shaggy-haired”, but he’s cut from exactly the same cloth as those investigative journalists of the 1970s.
Jon’s story is about the conduct of New Zealand troops in Afghanistan – what they’ve done, and what they’re still doing.
I defy any fair-minded person to read this story and arrive at any other conclusion than that our military and political leaders have lied to us.
“I want the truth!” yells Lieutenant Kaffee in A Few Good Men, to which Colonel Jessep scornfully replies: “You can’t handle the truth!”
That’s what all political liars believe to be true.
It’s time we opened their eyes.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 April 2011.