David Byers

History recalls the liars first

Few will remember the reasonable men and women of our society, but that's how history works

August 17, 2017 15:47

Emanuele Begliomini has the weirdest job title in Italy — but probably the most appropriate for the modern era. In his role as “Magnificent Rector of the Academy of Lies”, in the Tuscan hamlet of Le Piastre, Begliomini has just made headlines for opening the world’s first Museum of Lies. His tiny community has a fine pedigree in this regard, having hosted for 50 years the grandly named Italian Championship of Liars.

We in the national press love a quirky story about an eccentric sage. Plus, we’re prepared to listen to anyone who thinks he can understand the psychology behind Boris Johnson.

According to the results of research about public attitudes to truthfulness, published this month by the University of Illinois, Begliomini will soon need a bigger museum. The researchers found that ordinary voters with strong political beliefs actively supported politicians lying if it helped to achieve a “higher moral end”.

Two of the biggest lies this month, on the right and the left, seem to confirm this growing public tolerance for tall tales in a time of populism: there was Donald Trump’s claim that he had already made America’s nuclear arsenal “stronger and more powerful” since he replaced Barack Obama — an impossibility, unless his scientists have consumed an awful lot of Red Bull.

On the left, the willingness by some to defend the righteousness of Venezuela as a virtuous Socialist underdog, instead of a crime-riddled police state, continues to beggar belief.

So, how can society break this damaging cycle of bombastic populism mixed with that dreadful phrase, “alternative facts”?

The answer is not necessarily what you might think.

In the American writer J.T. Rogers’s award-winning play Oslo, which arrives at the National Theatre next month, audiences will be told about two little-known Norwegians, Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen, who worked in secret to carve out the back channels that led to the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian deal — bringing two previously intractable sides together almost for the first time.

Their remarkable story conforms to a pattern seen throughout history — the quiet role of the unseen hero in helping moderation win over partisanship.

In South Africa, the Jewish MP Helen Suzman did the same, standing completely alone for many years in the country’s parliament in opposition to apartheid. She was harassed by the security services, and subjected to sexist and antisemitic attacks. However, she paid eight visits to Nelson Mandela in prison, bringing legitimacy and attention to his cause and speeding his release.

Likewise, just before the collapse of Communism, people remember Gorbachev and Reagan — but not the initial act of defiance by Miklós Németh, the Hungarian prime minister, in November 1988 which set the stage for what followed. Németh’s refusal to spend a penny of the country’s budget on reinforcing its barbed-wire barrier with Austria was a direct and decisive challenge to the system.

Perhaps the route to spreading moderation is not by calling out today’s liars and polemicists on Twitter or making speeches on podiums. It’s by grafting behind the scenes, keeping the lines of communication open to our opponents and quietly building bridges — like the Norwegian diplomats in Oslo or Helen Suzman in apartheid South Africa.

One day, visitors to Le Piastre’s Museum of Lies will chuckle and shake their heads at Donald Trump’s preposterous fibs. Few will remember the reasonable men and women of our society who schemed to bring people together while angry folk shouted from the rooftops and stole the headlines. But that’s how history has always worked.

August 17, 2017 15:47

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