The elusive quest for truth

I have never been invited to be a spy. It is a detail of my career which, I must confess, has long irked me. Not that I would want to be a spy, but it would have been nice to have been asked.

The nearest I ever came to it — being taken for a spy, I mean — was during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission here in South Africa. Apartheid’s ”super-spy”, Craig Williamson, described how I had once been placed under surveillance by military intelligence on the suspicion of being a British secret service agent. The commissioners themselves were not excited by the information and I had to hurriedly scribble a message to the chairman, asking them to put the obvious question. No, replied Williamson, they had found no evidence that I was a secret agent. I, of course, put on the injured expression of a man who has been foully slandered, but I must admit that behind it was a degree of resentment towards the world’s spy chiefs that they had overlooked me.

Part of the reason for my angst on the point is, of course, that both spies and journalists worship in the same temple, so to say — that of the ”truth”. In fact I am told that visitors to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, are greeted by the line from John’s Gospel, assuring them that that ”the truth will make you free.” Personally I would not go quite that far, but one can see what they are getting at. The CIA’s commitment to ”the truth” is particularly reassuring at a time when that agency has adopted the powers of the Almighty. By which I mean that it has not only assumed the offices of judge, jury and executioner, but taken to raining thunderbolts down on its perceived enemies — in the form of ”Hellfire” missiles fired by pilotless drones flying over the Middle East. The fact that they have been able to play God in this manner, seemingly without protest from the Almighty’s battalions of terrestrial representatives — clerics, rabbis and so on — points to the value the world attaches to the truth and its seekers at the moment.

The pursuit of truth has rarely been as determined as it is now, with the world hesitating (some, of course, hesitating more than others) over whether or not Saddam Hussein is concealing weapons of mass destruction and whether the world will go to war over the issue.

As those other seekers after truth, the UN inspectors, stumble around Iraq in search of the truth, the cry goes up for the USA and the UK to ”share intelligence” with them. By ”intelligence” is meant, of course, ”the truth”. In their pursuit of the truth everybody seems to be asking ”what is the truth”, but in the excitement nobody is getting around to the prior question as to ”what is truth.”

The nature of truth is an issue which was dealt with here in South Africa by the Truth Commission. At the beginning of their four-volume report the truth commissioners, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, declared that there are in fact four types of truth: Factual truth, social truth, narrative truth and restorative, or healing truth.

Factual truth, they explained, was of a scientific, forensic kind; narrative truth was ”personal”’ and part of the ”oral tradition” which ”gave meaning to the multi-layered experiences of the South African story”. Social truth, said the commission, was the truth of experience that is established through interaction, discussion and debate. ”Healing” truth was the kind of truth ”that places facts and what they mean within the context of human relationships — both amongst citizens and between the state and its citizens.”

With due respect to the commissioners, it seems to me that all this represents a certain profligacy with the truth. It surely suffices to give recognition to two forms of the precious commodity which might be dubbed personal truth and social truth. Personal truth is the higher form, being the personal reality which conscience holds dear. It was heard in the little boy who famously cried out that the emperor had no clothes on.

On the other hand the laughter with which the youngster’s remark was no doubt received by the crowd as they waved at the emperor – ” …the silly boy! …isn’t he cute? You won’t believe what my four-year-old Fred came up with the other day…!” – reflects the social reality, or truth. This is the truth considered necessary to the good ordering of society – one cannot have one’s emperor being seen to be wandering around naked.

It is perhaps in the co-existence of such contrary truths that some understanding can be found of George W Bush and Saddam Hussein. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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