By Timothy Spyrou
John Fitzgerald Kennedy used the words of Dante to warn that the greatest guilt for evil falls not upon those who actually commit dark deeds, but upon those who fail to use their sense of what is right and wrong to fight the darkness. The poet William Butler Yeats alluded to the same theme in “The Second Coming”, his greatest poem.
All over the world, fundamentally decent people are becoming indifferent, and even downright hostile, to the truth. They are choosing to tune out what is going on right in front of them. Others are embracing alternative realities which offer comfort to their anger, disillusionment, and disappointments. It is not an accident that this trend is being actively encouraged by demagogues and aspiring tyrants, for this is a tried and true technique in the consolidation of both physical power and power over hearts and minds. It is also not an accident that certain interests are using their clout within some sections of the media to promote falsehoods whose purpose is to foster polarisation, distrust, cynicism, and bigotry. These “malefactors of great wealth” are content with the idea of risking freedom, pluralism, the rule of law, and democracy if it suits their own ends. They are not bothered by the thought that by perpetrating falsehoods, they are risking the futures of their countries.
We are even witnessing people in authority, who we entrust with the wellbeing of our nations, accepting this state of affairs as the new normal because they do not want to endanger their positions. True, all political leaders shade the truth and sometimes try to avoid fights which they know are ultimately necessary. Politicians are like any other normal human being, in that they face the same strong temptation to take moral shortcuts and ignore gross unfairness so as to minimize the difficulties they encounter. In some especially egregious circumstances, like any other individual who carries the inheritance of sin, they may not even just be acting in order to minimize encountered difficulties but to maximise the promise of ease. However, there is a danger that if a person of power becomes too accustomed to the idea that they are just like an ordinary individual in an ordinary professional or personal situation, they will abandon their duty to uphold the integrity of the institutions, laws and norms they swore to preserve, and to defend the freedoms and security of their citizens against all foes.
Every once in a while, we come across a horrifying instance where we see the consequences of mendacious power acting in concert with the masters of dangerous and manipulative rhetoric manifest themselves in a horrifying manner. In other words, we see it in the manifestation of blood which has been spilled. We tell ourselves that this is a turning point and we will learn our lesson and try to build a gentler society. And yet, even after the vicious assassination of Joanne Cox, the Honorable Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen who was known for her compassion and her courage, by a deranged white nationalist prior to the Brexit Referendum, the British tabloids continue to spread venom, even going so far as to label those who disagree with the Government’s Brexit strategy as “enemies of the people.” And yet, even after a neo-Nazi brutally drove his car at high speed into a group of anti-racism protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, and murdered a young woman by the name of Heather Heyer, an ordinary young woman who was only trying to follow the example of Martin Luther King Jr by standing up for love and non-violence, Fox News and other assorted media organizations of the right continue to deny that President Donald J Trump is currently racism’s most prominent champion in public life.
There are other horrifying examples which convey the consequences of not standing up to people of power who abuse their positions to spread poison throughout society. Just today, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, gave a speech on the floor of the US Senate to condemn the President for his repeated assaults on the media with his favourite slur: “fake news”. He pointed to how the corrupt, inept and tyrannical government of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro is able to dismiss all the news reports of the grave humanitarian crisis besetting his citizens as lies because he felt that if the US President could get away with attacking the sanctity of a free and factual press, so could he. He highlighted how Rodrigo Duterte is able to get away with the state-sponsored murder campaign he calls a drug war by calling reporters “spies”, while the US President is chuckling beside him. Flake also quoted Bashar al Assad’s denial of his regime’s torturing to death of 13,000 prisoners, in which the Syrian dictator said: “we are living in a fake news era.” Most recently, we have the Libyan authorities attempting to retract their commitment to end the slave trading of migrants and refugees, on the basis that the brave CNN correspondent who risked her life to report the story which shocked the world works for, as Donald Trump sees it, as the leading merchant of fake news.
We have seen the truth attacked and undermined by those with the basest motives again and again and again. It cannot be denied that the truth has always had to face cunning and capricious foes, and the post-truth era did not begin under this President, nor during his campaign for office. It also cannot be denied that even during times of good leadership, those we depend on have also strayed from the ideals they seek to defend. However, the stakes are higher than they have ever been in a long time, for we are not just battling the problems of the twenty-first century like accelerating technological change in a globalizing world, organized crime, Islamist terrorism, climate change, failing states, nuclear proliferation and rising inequality. We are also confronting the re-emergence of the twentieth century’s monsters, albeit in a seemingly less menacing form, with the forces of authoritarian and race-based nationalism once again on the cusp of power. Right now, we need faith in the truth more than ever. Our lives, and the lives of all those who may come after us, depend on it.
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about climate change, racial injustice and resentment, the revival of the far right, the negative effects of Brexit that are already starting to take effect before Britain formally leaves the EU, the sexual assault epidemic, the origins of ISIL, or how serious a threat Vladimir Putin’s hybrid regime of gangsters, ex-KGB spooks and ethnocultural-nationalists. The truth of all of these matters can be dismissed with just a cynical laugh and a roll of the eyes, or it can be blown away by shouting. Even basic facts like Putin having an ultra-traditionalist and anti-Semitic cleric as a spiritual confessor and a quasi-neo-fascist philosopher as an intellectual guru are subject to dispute in this age. If people are still claiming that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and that Trump had the largest inauguration crowds in history, then everything and anything can be distorted for our pleasure. People are even going around online claiming that Trump’s most prominent critic within the Republican Party, Senator John McCain, is not a war hero who was imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese for six years, but in reality, a deserter.
I write this under the awareness that, despite being a small island, Cyprus is not immune from the currents which are moving the world. Honestly, I was spurred on to write this by the Cyprus Mail’s front-page story about how Cyprus, an EU member state, has issued an arrest warrant against the main source of assassinated Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, Maria Efimova, a Russian national whose family has faced harassment in Russia. The charges she is wanted on relates to an allegation she defrauded her former employers in Cyprus. While I am not able to comment on legal cases, I cannot help but notice that this comes after the concerned Russian national has applied for whistle-blower protection status within the EU in the wake of threats to her life. I also cannot help but notice that this comes after other damning revelations about how the Cypriot authorities and society as a whole are willing to overlook Putin’s brutal disregard for the rule of law and due process, including the allegations of how a senior state legal service official has actively colluded with Russian officials to extradite Russian nationals who are primarily wanted for political purposes, and how Cypriot authorities are angering much of the EU by supposedly siding with Putin’s regime regarding the Magnitsky Affair, which has also been extensively covered in this newspaper. And the truth has already come under assault here, with the decision of the Cypriot government to pin a medal on Vladimir Putin’s chest being exhibit A.
People, including those who know me, will accuse me of being a wild and trigger-happy maverick who is prone to dark thoughts and pessimism. I am not trigger-happy and I am too mild-mannered and nervous to be a wild maverick. I freely admit I often have a gloomy view of the world. I worry that future generations of every country will look at our generation and the generation of our parents and grandparents and reach the same haunting conclusion which three young British journalists reached when they wrote a book about how their elders had failed to defend what was right before 1939. While I do not necessarily believe we haven’t descended so far into cravenness as to embrace the appeasement of a monster like Hitler, I do believe that, for failing to defend the truth with every fibre of our being, we will come to be the 21st century’s “Guilty Men [And Women]”.