Truth, Lies and Pragmatism

by Chris Horner

I won that election —Donald J Trump

The truth is out there —X files

There is a story that Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France, was in conversation with some German representatives during the Paris peace negations in 1919 that led to the Treaty of Versailles. One of the Germans said something to the effect that in a hundred years time historians would wonder what had really been the cause of the Great War and who had been really responsible. Clemenceau, so the story goes, retorted that one thing was certain: ‘the historians will not say that Belgium invaded Germany’.

The anecdote repays some reflection. On the one hand, its main point seems clear: the brute fact that it was Germany that invaded Belgium and not the other way around cannot be wished away by later historians, whatever else they may say. Clemenceau, of course, is pointing to this as the evidence for the German responsibility for starting the war. On the other hand, the German representative also seems to be right: historians have been discussing the causes and the responsibility for World War One ever since 1914, and show no signs of concluding. The assessment of an event like that depends on interpretation and the sifting of evidence. It isn’t just a matter of pointing what happened on an August day in 1914. Yet some things remain stubbornly the case, we think: German troops violated Belgian neutrality in 1914.

In a hundred years time will historians wonder who won the US Presidential Election of 2020? Perhaps not, but the world we live in seems to be one in which the most ‘stubborn’ facts are in question. Much of the confusion can be wrought by bad faith actors, people who know they are lying when they claim certain things to be true. These bad faith actors aren’t just figures from the margins of the political spectrum, or among the deluded ‘QAnon’ conspiracy enthusiasts. In our time we have seen the US and UK governments, supported by the bulk of the established media outlets repeat falsehoods about the possession of WMDs in Iraq, to give just one example. No wonder there is a lot of ‘fake news’ when so much of it is generated by government itself.  Read more »