Demagogic chauvinism is thriving across the globe. Tolerance has undergone core meltdown. Nationalism is alive and apparently well. And just when we thought the Cold War was long over, certain political leaders now seem intent on wanting to blow up their peoples if not each other. What our demagogues have in common today is the uncanny knack of persuading masses of people that they have nothing in common. Like the 1930s, whiffs of fascism are in the air, a fear and loathing of “others.” Borders are getting staked out, walls set to go up, closing in on us, keeping people in as well as out.
In recent years, intelligent people have tried to explain this disturbing trend. They’ve suggested we’re living in “post-truth” times, which provide a fertile context for demagogic hate-mongering. Mass media, especially social media, now saturate us with information and misinformation, morning, noon and night and much of the time in between, making it hard to pass critical judgment, to discern which truths aren’t falsities.
Still, haven’t politicians always been rather creative with the truth, engaging in what Jonathan Swift, three-hundred years ago, called “the art of political lying”? Telling the truth doesn’t require great art, Swift reminded us, not like “salutary falsehoods,” which, he said, need to be carefully made up. The problem, the author of Gulliver’s Travels noted, is that a lie only has to be believed for an hour for its work to be done. Twitter helps. “Falsehood flies,” Swift said, whereas “truth comes limping after it.”
Fast forward to the early 1970s, when political theorist Hannah Arendt, commenting on the “Pentagon Papers,” concurred with the old curmudgeon Swift. Trying to get behind U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Arendt said “the basic issue raised by the Papers is deception,” and the “extravagant lengths to which commitment to non-truthfulness in politics went to the highest levels of government.” “Truthfulness,” Arendt concluded, “has never been counted among political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.” In other words, post-truth is hardly anything new. It has been the bread and butter of politicians in representative democracy, always has been, maybe always will be.
But few of us in the past really bought those lies. Nowadays, though, what seems to be distinctly new isn’t so much the centuries of peddling political falsehoods; more our popular willingness to believe them. Even when we knew that Brexit would never save Britain’s National Health Service £350 million a year, or that Donald Trump was ever going to make America great again, the lie became the necessary mood-music for millions of people. They wanted to hear it, yearned to believe.
Why? Someone who can perhaps shed light on this murky matter is the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky created twisted and tormented characters like Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov and The Idiot’s Prince Myshkin, fictional beings we know might not be so fictional after all. But it’s his 1881 masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, that has the most remarkable contemporary ring. One of its key scenes is when modernist intellectual Ivan Karamazov recounts to his devout brother Alyosha “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.”
Ivan takes us back to sixteenth-century Spain, to Seville, during the Inquisition, and reimagines the return of a humanistic Jesus. In these pious times, Jesus, whose chief concern is with freedom of conscience, is seen as a subversive, as a radical threat to the church’s power. He’s quickly thrown in prison, condemned to be burnt at the stake the next day. At midnight, the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor pays Him a visit. “Now, today,” the Inquisitor says, “people are persuaded that they are freer than ever before, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet.” We don’t need somebody like You here, he says, promising them real freedom. It doesn’t take much to control people’s consciences, the Inquisitor says. Promise them bread and they’ll gladly give up their freedom. They’ll throw themselves to the mercy of “three powers that are able to hold them captive,” a reactionary trinity of “miracle, mystery and authority.”
Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is an apt prophet of facist regimes and totalitarian movements. The parable still has religious resonance, but its real power, the primary source of “miracle, mystery and authority” these days, isn’t the church but the state, in its incumbent and wannabe leaders, whose lust for power is secular. They promise miracles that seduce the masses, that conjure up the spectre of nationalism, a particularist and peculiar identity flourishing not from blood or soil or DNA but from some arbitrary desire of the human imagination, from people’s minds, a manufactured bigotry. Our Grand Inquisitors also shroud themselves in mysteries (what conniving really lay behind that 2016 Presidential election result?) and assume an authority that brooks not only no dissent but can seemingly do no wrong, nor tell any lie.
Was the Grand Inquisitor Dostoevsky’s own vision of humanity? It’s hard to tell but I’m hoping not. The Grand Inquisitor, after all, is a mortal enemy of Jesus, who believed the meek would one day inherit the earth. At the end of the parable, Dostoevsky’s Alyosha, who’d listened intently throughout, wonders if the tale isn’t just a sick joke. We know Ivan is playing devil’s advocate; it might be a joke, but we know now, with Nigel Farage lurking, that it’s no laughing matter. Perhaps we can never prevent our politicians from practicing the art of political lying. But maybe some day we can hope to create the social conditions whereby people’s needs for miracle, mystery and authority dissipate, somehow whither away, in a society that can absorb human sorrows and fulfil our deepest desires. To call on people to give up illusions about our condition is, above all else, to make a call to give up a condition that requires illusions.