Talking of bishops, truth, & the flimsy altar of political expediency

I don’t suppose that there is a single one of us who hasn’t, at some stage, been ever so slightly elastic with the truth. We are all capable of concealing the truth and stretching the truth. We are all guilty of having an inconsistent and erratic relationship with the truth. In the face of anxiety, difficulty, danger and stress we can all, like Simon Peter, deny the truth. We are all capable of scripting an alternative reality. As Hugh Laurie maintained when playing House, ‘everybody lies.’

If this is true – which I hold it to be – should we be too concerned with truth telling? And, should we hold those who have an overly elastic relationship with truth to account? If we start holding others to scrutiny, or account, are we being overly judgemental for, after all, ‘everybody lies?’ One more question: if holding others, perhaps even significant others, to account is permissible, who should act permissively?

The answer to my last question in some ways feels rather obvious: it depends, and the dependency is context. If our children are telling outright lies, or just stretching things, then presumably it is the parental right to hold them to account? If a spouse cheats on their partner, breaking a sacred vow, then the partner presumably has the right to hold them to account? The situations I have described have a fairly obvious response mechanism for the context is a closed, or at least relatively closed, essentially private, system.

Where the elasticity of truth is stretched within an open system, or public system, things get a little bit more complicated, for the harm caused is less personal and direct. The harm caused is instead systemic, and the problem with systemic harm is that it goes viral, its effects spread uncontrollably.

As yet there is no vaccine capable of inoculating against systemic harm. Wishful thinking and carefully choreographed messaging, in the absence of a vaccine, are the only strategies available in seeking to reduce the symptoms of public harm.

The trouble with wishful thinking and choreographed rhetoric is that in the spin doctor’s mind they become the truth. Truth becomes so elastic that anything that approximates to reality becomes the truth, in the spinners mind. The spinner of truth stands in solidarity alongside that great elastician, Pontius Pilate, and asks ‘what is truth?’ A script is then written to support that truth. Truth becomes a matter of expediency and a mechanism for the retention of power. It is not a very pretty set of propositions.

So, despite accepting that ‘every body lies’ who should hold the spinners to account when truth is stretched within an open and essentially political system? Should, say the bishops, those men and women (in the C of E) who stand in Peter’s line? My answer to this is a resounding ‘yes.’ Because the bishops stand in Peter’s line they fully understand the reality that ‘everybody lies,’ and they know that lies, distorted truths, narratives retro fitted to render the implausible plausible, go viral and the result may well be death.

The bishops, you see, in criticising the masters of spin aren’t doing so from a place of moral superiority, still less perfection, but as men and women who stand in the shoes of the Peter who three times lied; as men and women who fully know the consequences of sacrificing truth, real truth, public truth, on the flimsy altar of political expediency; as men and women (even though ‘everybody lies’) who have been consecrated into the truth, to speak the truth (cf John 17, 19), and especially to those who exercise viral power.

One thought on “Talking of bishops, truth, & the flimsy altar of political expediency

  1. Thank you for this refreshing post.

    I do not have strong views about what Cummings did or didn’t do, although I believe I have followed government directions closely (I ought to and have to as I live alongside adults who would be susceptible to the virus because of their medical conditions) and have struggled to muster anything approaching the indignation that has been on display.

    However, this row is not so much about the journeys he made (a politician hypocritically telling the people to do as he says but not has he does is scarcely news), but about: (i) the government being led by an unelected eminence grise; and (ii) the status of the country viz. Brexit.

    Many of the people who are tweeting indignantly are not only protesting the double standard, they are wanting the government to be led by its ministers (knowing that they are inept) and they want to reverse the 2016 poll in some way or other. Of course it is not expedient for them to be too candid about this. Essentially, they want Cummings removed because even if he is flaky he is capable, after a fashion, and wants to promote some sort of red toryism, which Thatcherite free marketeers and soft-left globalists (i.e., what Piketty calls the mercantile and Brahmin elites) alike find alarming. They also see him as been the only person stiffening Johnson for a WTO Brexit.

    Whilst I am ambivalent about Brexit, one thing is certain: the EU wants the UK paying tribute in perpetuity but without a voice in its decisions and, critically, without the ability to reconfigure the economy on more balanced lines because of EU rules on state aid (currently being broken by member states on an epic scale). Those who are protesting a WTO Brexit do not want to admit that this is really the only plausible alternative. What they really want is for the UK to be put into this intolerable situation (i.e., paying but powerless) so that it is compelled to rejoin. However, rejoining means no opt-outs and having the single currency in short order. Even many rejoiners/remainers would balk at that. In addition, why would the existing member states (especially France) want the UK back in, disrupting everything and challenging their primacy? Pompidou only allowed the UK in on the basis that it would play second fiddle and would act as a counterweight to an increasingly assertive FRG. No, most member states want a helot in, at best an associate membership, but paying for access to the single market in order to relieve any budgetary squabbles.

    So the ill-advised car journeys are being used as a lever to force a radical change in government policy. As such many of them are being, at best, disingenuous. I would prefer it if they were more candid.

    My take on the bishops is that some of them are genuinely waxing indignant, but a substantial proportion do want such a radical change in policy. Some of them have expressed themselves moderately and convincingly, but others have used visceral language which puts them in the partisan playground with everyone else, creating the perception that they are just another lot of politicians in fancy dress.

    In the meantime the bishops have made scarcely any credible and substantive policy suggestions. Which it would be very easy for them to make. Their pronouncements, unfortunately, coincide with record returns for the Commissioners in 2019, many of which have been generated with the aid of entities like Black Rock (the ‘vampire squid’ de nos jours of the global economy), but in reality are also assisted by the regressive operation of the parish share system and by quantitative easing goosing asset valuations (to the detriment of the poor).

    Finally, is it really wise to be insulting key policymakers in such violent terms when the Church is in the process of pleading with the Treasury for the restoration of VAT relief on church repairs and is hoping for another substantial Treasury subvention for churches and cathedrals?

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