The people of Thebes are dying. They beseech King Oedipus to save them, as he had once freed them from the clutches of the Sphinx. The oracle promises the plague will pass if Thebes finds the murderer of old king Laius. So Oedipus Rex vows:
I will begin again; I will find the truth.
Last week, I saw this play by Sophocles as performed by Toneelgroep Amsterdam. It was an adaptation by Robert Icke. He transforms Oedipus into a modern-day politician obsessed with the truth. To parry rumors about his parentage, Oedipus releases his birth certificate. To dispel any hint of a cover-up, he vows to reopen an investigation into the death of his predecessor, Laius.
No one can dissuade Oedipus from his reckless pursuit of the truth. Not even the blind sage Teresias who warns Oedipus of the consequences.
This day will show your birth and your destruction.
speak truth to power
Teresias struggled to speak truth to power. Advisers to kings often come to bloody ends. No one knows that better than Henry Kissinger when he was national security advisor to US President Richard Nixon. Kissinger saw his friend and mentor Hans Morgenthau sidelined as a result of his open opposition to the Vietnam War. It was an act of political self-maiming. Morgenthau ended up in exile, left only with the option of prophetic confrontation.
“For those who have made it their business in life to speak truth to power, there is nothing left but to continue so to speak,” he wrote with bitterness in 1970, but “certainly with less confidence that it will in the short run make much of a difference in the affairs of man.”
Unlike Morgenthau, Zhou Enlai survived his time as advisor to the king. That was no small feat since Mao Zedong never was a fan of the truth. Instead, he wielded truth like a battle axe.
For example, an integral part of the 1950s land reform was Speak Bitterness meetings. Party cadres encouraged peasants to come forward to speak of their past sufferings. Then they punished the landlords though justice didn’t seem to be the point. According to Rebecca Cairns, Mao championed Speaking Bitterness
as a device for healing the wounds of the past and purging the soul — but it also had a political function. [It] helped tear down old social hierarchies, stripping away the power and reverence of landlords by publicly humiliating them.
Jonathan Spence estimates that 1 in 6 landlord families lost a member during land reform, which makes for roughly 1,000,000 dead.
let a hundred flowers bloom
During the Hundred Flowers movement, Mao invited intellectuals to speak the truth about Party abuses. From May 1 to June 7, 1957, articles of astonishing frankness appeared in local papers about
control over individuals, the harshness of previous mass campaigns such as that against counterrevolutionaries, the slavish following of Soviet models, the low standards of living in China, the proscription of foreign literature, economic corruption among party cadres, and the fact that “Party members enjoy many privileges which make then a race apart.”
The scope and severity of the criticisms shocked Mao. He changed tack. He would permit intellectual freedom if it strengthened the socialist state. After that, any blind sages still willing to speak the truth were purged.
Today, few Chinese will run the gauntlet of the censor. One exception is Yang Jisheng, a former journalist turned historian. His book Tombstone is about the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward. His motivation was simple.
I wrote this book to expose lies and restore the truth.
The West hailed Tombstone as a political sensation. At the time, the Party attitude toward historical accounting was ambivalent in the words of Rana Mitter. By 2017, that was no longer the case.
Since Mr. Xi took power in 2012, the Communist Party authorities have denounced historians who question the party’s lionization of its past and exhume grim events like the Cultural Revolution.
While China weeds out the truth one historian at a time, the West blithely relinquishes our desire for the truth. We regard Facebook and Twitter feeds as news. We stay inside our bubbles, obtaining information from sources whose world view comports with our own. Or, we don’t read at all. Welcome to the age of agnotology, the study of ignorance.
One of its more important aspects is revealing how people, usually powerful ones, use ignorance as a strategic tool to hide or divert attention from societal problems in which they have a vested interest.
Financial Times economic columnist Tim Harford explains why the truth has become so elusive in his article “The Problem with Facts”. First, it’s easier to remember a bold lie than a complicated set of facts. Indeed, the more outrageous the lie, the more likely we are to remember it.
Several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick.
Second, facts are boring. We’ll take any scandal involving a porn star over tax reform, immigration reform or any other kind of reform. The Chinese Communist Party actively manipulates social media. Not to engage in substantive debate but rather,
to distract and redirect public attention.
Or, as the blind sage Teresias once said:
Ah! what a burden knowledge is, when knowledge can be of no avail! I knew this well, and yet forgot, or I should not have come.
Selective hearing allows us to filter out information inconsistent with our world view. Selective reasoning is the third and most frightening weapon in the war on truth.
When people are seeking the truth, facts help. But when people are selectively reasoning about their political identity, the facts can backfire.
Is our fate to roam like Oedipus, blind to the truth? Maybe not. Curiosity, it seems, negates politically motivated reasoning. Curious people read books. Curious people ask questions. Not because they’re wannabe know-it-alls (though there is that) but because they seek
the pleasure of contemplating surprising insights into how the world works.
It’s unlikely that any person could have found pleasure in the truth Oedipus learned. But he was also not a curious person. His truth-seeking was functional: to distinguish good from evil.
We live in an age of easy truths and easy lies. We are increasingly willing to label the Other as evil. Curiosity may indeed be our only way out of this Greek tragedy.