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“Twelve Truthy Men”? OR “Work to Do”.

September 14, 2015


I’ve noticed a phrase creepy into punditry these days.  It is “work to do” and it’s a sad bad thing.  Politicians should not have “work to do” ideally.  They should sit back and “reflect” instead.

You hear it when the pundit looks stern and say that such and such has “work to do” if they are to persuade the public to vote for certain things.  And I think – “yeah – the ‘work’ of actually being a politician – the ‘work’ of exercising the persuasive arts”.  Would you talk the same way about other professions?

That carpenter may have lots of pieces of wood and a tool kit, but s/he’ll have “work to do” turning them into a table.

That plumber will have “work to do” if they want to replace that leaky section of pipe.

But when it comes to actually trying to persuade people, “work to do” is seen as an ergonomic nightmare and a professional death sentence.  Instead politicians are told that the scope of their efforts should be confined to passively accepting what is assumed to be the political consensus.  To “reflect”.

Another phrase used by cowards politicians nowadays is “mindful”.

“We need to be mindful of people’s very real concerns”

which generally translates as

“We need to prostrate ourselves, abjectly, face down in front of whatever prevalent idiocy is parading all over the tabloid headlines this week.”

When the accusation made against a politician is that they do not “reflect public opinion”, it occurs that this might be an admirable opportunity for such a politician to actually start working for a living, to start doing their job.

Stephen Colbert was, of course, the originator of the priceless explanatory concept of “truthiness” – the broad “feeling” that something must be “right” in defiance of exposure to actual evidence of any kind.  “Truthiness” is the ideal aspired to by politicians who are content only to “reflect”.

The idea that the sun must revolve around the earth is remarkably “truthy”.  It stands to reason.  It’s “common sense”.  (Try and imagine, for a moment, any worthwhile scientific discovery that did not contradict “common sense”.)  Copernicus and Galileo were not being very truthy.  They were being less than “mindful” of public concerns (especially Galileo).  And as for Darwin…

The truthy notion prevalent in the UK right now is that immigration is overwhelming the National Health Service and other public services.  This notion is untrue.  Actually, it’s a malicious and a destructive lie.  This lie can be refuted, in clear, logical, and evidential terms.  But for the most part, even supposedly progressive politicians have been content to meet the lie half-way, to be “mindful” of its truthiness and refuse the effort of the “work” of persuading people of the nature of the lie.

In a couple of week’s I’ll start teaching a course of political eloquence, on the skills whereby people used to try to persuade others of a particular point of view.  For centuries, some of the most admired orators have been those who can actually persuade a majority to interrogate their own assumptions and embrace what is was initially a minority viewpoint.  Nowadays there is a strong majority opinion in favour of the idea that slavery is bad.  Abolishing slavery was considered an untruthy minority opinion which did not “reflect public opinion” (public opinion did not include non-voting slaves themselves who were 100% behind the whole abolishing slavery thing).  Votes for women again was a cause that was unmindful of public opinion (assuming, as most men did, that women weren’t part of the “public”).

I wonder what would have happened to Reginald Rose’s play, 12 Angry Men had it been performed in the context of speciously consensual “truthiness”.  The play/film  wouldn’t have lasted very long, since the truthiness of the kid’s guilt was pretty evident.

I couldn’t have been a very long film and I doubt very much whether Sidney Lumet could have persuaded Henry Fonda to star in it.


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