John Martyn was a British singer-songwriter and guitarist, who performed for more than forty years and released 23 studio albums, often to critical acclaim. The Times described him as “an electrifying guitarist and singer whose music blurred the boundaries between folk, jazz, rock and blues.”
Recent events in the UK brought to mind his Glorious Fool song, the title track on his 1981 studio album. The song was covered very well by Sam Butler and Clarence Fountain of the Blind Boys of Alabama on a 2011 tribute album to John Martyn.
Glorious Fool is directed towards the American president of the time, Ronald Reagan, for whom Martyn, it seems, had little time. Leaving aside Martyn’s feelings about Reagan, the song has even more relevance to public life currently;
He lied to his mother
And lied to the rest
He lied to his brother
Who loved him the best
He lied to himself.
Another song that captures the death of truth that we’ve seen in the public sphere is Tell the Truth, written by Bobby Whitlock and Eric Clapton and recorded by Derek and the Dominos in August 1970 for Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Whitlock has described it as a kind of coming-of-age song, a reminiscence about getting older, but as you listen to the lyrics today, it sounds like a social commentary on the descent of today’s world into double-speak and deceit:
Tell the truth.
Tell me who’s been fooling you?
Tell the truth.
Who’s been fooling who?
It doesn’t matter just who you are,
Or where you’re going or been…
The whole world is shaking now. Can’t you feel it?
Back in 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 was published under the shadow of Hitler and Stalin, and portrays a nightmare vision of a future in which truth has been eclipsed. Orwell said he was worried that the “very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” He might have been surprised at where we have now reached, where the bare-faced lie has become perfectly acceptable and truth in the public sphere scarcely seems to matter.
We’re rightly appalled at the lies promulgated in Russia by Putin’s government about his bloody war in Ukraine, where women are being raped, civilians murdered and people tortured. But it’s merely a military operation, Putin says, to neutralize Nazism, and his soldiers are helping oppressed people.
The effectiveness of these lies within Russia was brought home to me a few weeks ago when I had a short engagement with a Russian photographer in a photography site I’m a member of. I objected to his posting a photograph of “Victory Park” in Moscow and he told me firmly that I was being duped by my government and the press and that eventually that would be revealed. This from a clearly well-educated person.
But it’s not just in Russia that truth has died. In the UK, political leaders seem to have taken a leaf out of Donald Trump’s book, with the Prime Minister facing a parliamentary investigation into claims he misled the House of Commons about the partygate scandal.
If you haven’t been following the story, during the lockdown and public health restrictions of 2020 and 2021 there were parties and gatherings in 10 Downing Street (the Prime Minister’s residence), its garden and other government buildings. The police have now fined Boris Johnson, other politicians and government officials for breaches of the regulations – which of course they themselves had set and urged everyone to follow.
As an example, The Daily Mirror reported that around “40 or 50” people were said to have been crammed “cheek by jowl” into a medium-sized room in Number 10 for each of two parties during December 2020. “It was a Covid nightmare,” one source claimed.
But worse than the flagrant breaking of the rules during a period when families could not attend funerals of their loved ones, was the denial of any wrong-doing by Johnson, including a statement to Parliament, for which he is now being investigated.
This does not surprise anyone in the UK – The Independent newspaper has said that Johnson his ministers have made at least 27 false statements to parliament since the 2019 general election – and have failed to correct them.
The idea that you can just lie and get away with it has a long history, of course, with politicians. In American life, Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, and Obama have all been caught in untruths. But it has all come to a nasty looking, pus-filled head of late – during his term as President of the United States, Donald Trump is reported to have made tens of thousands of false or misleading claims – what some have characterized as a “firehose of falsehood” propaganda. Fact-checkers have described it as “unprecedented” in American politics.
What philosopher Hannah Arendt once called “the conflict between truth and politics” has been taken to an entirely new level. Robert Musil, the author of the classic The Man Without Qualities in the mid-1930s, wrote, “No culture can rest on a crooked relationship to truth.” And yet here we are.
Truth has become devalued and our societies imperilled because of it. As the ancient prophets of Israel said, “Truth has stumbled in the street” (Isaiah 59.14) and “lies and not truth prevail in the land” (Jeremiah 9.3).
Someone famously said, “Let us begin by committing ourselves to the truth – to see it as it is, and tell it like it is – to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live the truth.” Words to live by – despite the salutary fact that this came from Richard Nixon on the occasion of his acceptance of the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1968. The danger of ignoring the advice writ large.
The lack of honesty and integrity is corrosive. A previous UK Prime Minister, John Major says all this “is a dangerous trend. If lies become commonplace, truth ceases to exist. What and whom, then, can we believe? The risk is … nothing and no one. And where are we then?”
It’s up to all of us to demand the truth of our politicians, no matter if they represent our political viewpoint or not.
And to demand the truth of ourselves as well. Because dishonesty is a temptation for us all. Fyodor Dostoevsky warns us in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that not to tell the truth risks us losing our sense of reality. To lose the truth is to lose your soul. “Above all,” says Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima, “don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”
Two thousand years ago, someone said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” This truth is a deep one – as a provincial governor found out a long time ago when he faced his prisoner and asked, “What is truth?” There was no answer because the living embodiment of that was standing in front of him.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (Gospel of St. John)