Speaking truth to power is hazardous. ‘Power’ equals capacity to control peoples’ behaviour. Governments – democratic or totalitarian – possess it. So do corporations exercising fictional but legal ‘personhood’ protected by the veil limited liability provides, or for that matter, organizations like the mafia.
Peril truth-tellers ultimately experience may be ‘mild’ as in ostracism, escalating to loss of income or job-loss, or extremely prejudicial, as the London ricin pellet umbrella stab to the leg or mob hit! Brown and Williamson biochemist, Jeffrey Wigand, paid severely for his testimony in the State of Mississippi vs Big Tobacco.
He spilled the beans on the company’s research underlying nicotine content manipulation; suppression of attempts to develop safer cigarettes and active denial of nicotine’s addictive properties – an effect of smoking of which they were thoroughly aware.
Court documents revealed an internal memo from Brown & Williamson’s General Counsel, Addison Yeaman, declaring: “Nicotine is addictive. We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug.” As truth teller, whistleblower Wigand suffered mafia-like incidents – home break-ins, death threats. Yet Wigand rejected the title ‘hero’, insisting he did what any decent human being would’ve done. Really? Russell Crowe’s portrayal in the 1999 film ‘The Insider’ excellently recreates his story.
On a different plane, think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson (Madiba) Mandela. Speaking truth to, or about power, does have consequences. Most recently, Edward Snowden thought he walked in Daniel Ellsberg’s footsteps. He figured his commitment was to a loyalty higher than that owed the USA’s National Security Agency – a loyalty to decency, morality and ultimately, protection of the US Constitution in his duty as citizen. Wrong, he faces execution for espionage unless the authorities relent in their definition of his crime.
Yes, speaking truth to, or about power bears consequences. What of its opposite: speaking untruth to the powerless? While some enjoy, others endure ‘crafted-for-TV’ United States Presidential election campaigning. They hear barefaced untruths from candidate Trump, defended by his staff and supporters. It is this phenomenon that makes the question important. One might ask also: what causes human beings to behave like this?
Thus far, Trump faces no negative consequences from core supporters that secured him the Republican (GOP) nomination. We must believe his boast to CNN: “. . . I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any votes” is actually true. Many among US pundits perceive Trump’s campaign as unique, unprecedented – debatable. Regardless, the ‘Trump phenomenon’ has been decades in the making, gaining an enormous oxygenated fuel injection with the election of Barack Obama to the US Presidency.
A range of causes exist from the propagandistic, oft untrue ‘reporting’ promulgated and perfected by the Roger Aisles led Fox News for two decades, to ascendancy of Tea Party Republicans, themselves responding in great measure to a black man in the White House who is not the stereotypical butler.
We can’t escape a regrettable truth. Hopeful contemplation of a ‘post-racial’ USA accompanying the election of a black President was naïve, predictably premature. Much, not all, of ‘white’ America has, for an array of reasons, never come to terms with that part of its original sin that is African enslavement.
Thus Barack Obama’s striving for a ‘more perfect union’ faced immense Republican opposition that, like Richard Nixon’s 1968 ‘Southern Strategy” ultimately, though mostly covertly, emphasized racial polarization – dog whistle politics. This, despite the GOP’s Ken Mehlman’s 2005 apologetic remark to the NAACP that in “. . . trying to benefit politically from racial polarization . . . I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
Indeed upon his inauguration, high GOP officials strategized at a Washington steakhouse on the meaning of Obama’s victory. Top strategist Frank Luntz told PBS the gathering represented “. . . a who’s who of ranking members . . . who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority.” Three hours of strategizing preceded the decision on what to do: fight Obama on everything!
Donald Trump’s ‘birther’ crusade, Joe Wilson’s “you lie” shout-out interruption of Obama’s State of the Union address, Governor Jan Brewer’s sticking her index finger almost up the President’s nose on an Arizona tarmac are all preamble to alarming, almost fascistic passion created by Trump’s campaign.
Blame immigrants, Mexican ‘criminals’ and ‘rapists’, Muslims and blacks for all ills that actually, result from credit card funded wars, Wall Street misconduct and its aftermath the Great Recession, partisan blockage of Obama economic stimuli and public policy precipitating inconceivable income inequality.
Hazards of telling untruth to the powerless? Could it actually be a Trump presidency? Who knows what that shall mean?