Truth & Propaganda – A Tamil Eelam View
31 May 1998
Some 70 years ago, Jiddu Krishnamurthy declared that truth was a pathless land. But to Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, truth had a rather more directed content. He said in the 1930s:
"We serve truth by serving a German victory. Propaganda does not have anything to do with truth…"
Those who subscribe to the Goebbelsian view, say with a disarming 'realism' that that, after all, is the way it is. Get real, they say. In a war, we cannot afford the luxury of speaking the truth at all times. An armed conflict is no afternoon tea party, they say. We serve truth by serving the victory of 'our side'. We need to focus on our ‘goal’. But, perhaps, the fate eventually suffered by both Hitler and Goebbels may also point to a lesson that we may usefully absorb.
Where propaganda 'does not have anything to do with truth', that which you propagate may lose credibility and you may cease to influence. Where you seek blind support, you may end only with blind supporters. The so called pragmatic approach may lead to a sliding slippery slope of opportunism, without knowing when and how to stop.
You may then fail to mobilise the reasoned support that you need to achieve your goal – even though the goal that you seek may be patently just. The result may be an increasing cynicism and a lack of coherence and in the end a failure to secure the very 'victory' which was so eagerly sought. A thousand flowers may have bloomed but each may have strangled the growth of the other.
The truth is that we serve 'victory' by serving truth – and not the other way around. It is only when word and deed coincide, that principle emerges with power to bring about change. The cyanide capsule in the hands of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is evidence not of a simple minded willingness to die but of a fierce determination that cries out: ''I will not lose my freedom except with my life.'' It is this thiyagam, this willingness to suffer, this coincidence of word and deed, this truth that has found an answering response from millions of Tamils living in many lands.
At the same time, the words of Albert Camus in The Rebel remain a caution:
"…From the earliest days, they were incapable of justifying what they nevertheless found necessary, and conceived the idea of offering themselves as a justification and of replying by personal sacrifice to the question they asked themselves. For them as for all rebels before them, murder is identified with suicide… therefore they do not value any idea above human life, though they kill for the sake of ideas. To be precise, they live on the plane of their idea. They justify it, finally, by incarnating it to the point of death… They will then put an abstract idea above human life, even if they call it history, to which they themselves have submitted in advance, and to which they will decide, quite arbitrarily, to submit every one else… The greater the value the estimator places in this final realisation, the less the value of human life. At the ultimate limit, it is no longer worth anything at all…"
An armed resistance movement is not a carte blanche to kill and maim. Lines will have to be drawn, however difficult and seemingly impossible that task may sometimes appear to be.
".. we play at magnanimity and all that stuff. Such magnanimity and sensibility are like the magnanimity and sensibilities of a lady who faints when she sees a calf being killed; she is so kind-hearted that she can't look at blood, but enjoys eating the calf served up with sauce. They talk to us of the rules of war, of chivalry, of flags of truce, of mercy to the unfortunate and so on. It's all rubbish. I saw chivalry and flags of truce in 1805. They humbugged us and we humbugged them. They plunder other peoples' houses, issue false paper money, and worst of all they kill my children and my father, and then talk of rules of war and magnanimity to foes ! Take no prisoners but kill and be killed ! . . . If there was none of this magnanimity in war, we should go to war only when it was worth while going to certain death, as now…. war is not courtesy but the most horrible thing in life; and we ought to understand that, and not play at war…. The air of war is murder; the methods of war are spying, treachery, and their encouragement, the ruin of a country's inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to provision the army, and fraud and falsehood termed military craft…. " Fictional Prince Andrew Bolkhonsky in *Tolstoy's War & Peace (Book 10, Chapter 25, pp 486-7
Again, as Thileepan and Annai Poopathy (who fasted to death in support of the freedom struggle of the people of Tamil Eelam – Thileepan in 1987 and Annai Poopathy in 1988) have shown, non violence demands even greater courage and determination than a resort to violence. Said that, the words of Mahatma Gandhi in 1920 are not without relevance:
"I do believe that when there is only a choice between cowardice and violence…. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless victim to her own dishonour. But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment.
Forgiveness adorns a soldier. But abstinence is forgiveness only when there is power to punish; it is meaningless when it proceeds from a helpless creature. A mouse hardly forgives a cat when it allows itself to be torn to pieces by her… But I do not believe India to be helpless, I do not believe myself to be a helpless creature…
Let me not be misunderstood. Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will…"
When called a visionary, Gandhi responded that he regarded himself as a practical idealist.
It is the old question of means and ends. The means we adopt will always determine the ends that we, in fact, achieve – whatever may be the ends that we may desire to achieve. Means and ends are inseparable. The relationship between the two is intrinsic, not extrinsic – and dynamic, not static.
And this is true not only of war but also of politics. It was Lenin who inverted Clausewitz's famous aphorism and declared that politics is a continuation of war by other means. The means that a politician adopts to secure power, determine the nature of his support base and in the end, his power to deliver on his promises. His past influences his present and shapes his future. As the political demise of Gorbachev demonstrated, however well intentioned his goals, a leader cannot kick the ladder on which he climbed to power – and survive.
There are ofcourse, those who continue to insist that truth and politics are strange bed fellows and add consolingly that 'politicians are like that'. Truth is not simply the first casualty of war – it is all too often, the first casualty of politics. Lies assume a more acceptable public face as 'spin'. But, politicians do not drop down on earth from the stratosphere. It is we who create our political leaders and if politicians 'are like that', it may be that we too 'are like that'. Politicians may be more representative of us than we may sometimes care to acknowledge.
A story is told of the Little Man who went to heaven. He met several of his friends there and he was happy to talk with them. Then he met a noisy, loud mouthed man whom he did not recognise. The noisy man was full of himself and regarded himself as the equal only of himself. The Little Man could not stand being in the company of this intruder and he asked: 'Who is that man?' He was told: 'Oh, that man was you when you were on earth'. The point of the story may be that we need to taker a closer look at ourselves – whilst we are still on earth. Tolstoy was right to point out:
“One man does not assert the truth which he knows, because he feels himself bound to the people with whom he is engaged; another, because the truth might deprive him of the profitable position by which he maintains his family; a third, because he desires to attain reputation and authority, and then use them in the service of mankind; a fourth, because he does not wish to destroy old sacred traditions; a fifth, because he has no desire to offend people; a sixth, because the expression of the truth would arouse persecution, and disturb the excellent social activity to which he has devoted himself.”
Wilhem Reich put it somewhat more abrasively in 1945 in his angry but very human book 'Listen, Little Man':
"They call you 'Little Man', 'Common Man'; they say a new era has begun, the 'Era of the Common Man'. It isn't you who says so, Little Man. It is they, the Vice Presidents of great nations, promoted labour leaders, repentant sons of bourgeois families, statesman and philosophers. They give you your future but don't ask about your past….I have never heard you complain: "You promote me to be the future master of myself and the world, but you don't tell me how one is to be the master of oneself, and you don't tell me the mistakes in my thinking and my actions."
"Your liberators tell you that that your suppressors are Wilhelm, Nikolaus, Pope Gregory the Twenty Eighth, Morgan, Krupp or Ford. And your 'liberators' are called Mussolini, Napolean, Hitler and Stalin. I tell you: Only you yourself can be your liberator!"
"This sentence makes me hesitate. I contend to be a fighter for pureness and truth. I hesitate, because I am afraid of you and your attitude towards truth… My intellect tells me: 'Tell the truth at any cost.' The Little Man in me says: 'It is stupid to expose oneself to the little man, to put oneself at his mercy. The Little Man does not want to hear the truth about himself. He does not want the great responsibility which is his. He wants to remain a Little Man…."
Again, as Schumacher remarks:
"In modern times there is no lack of understanding of the fact man is a social being and that 'No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe' (John Dunne, 1571-1631). Hence there is no lack of exhortation that he should love his neighbour – or at least not to be nasty to him – and should treat him with tolerance, compassion and understanding. At the same time, however, the cultivation of self knowledge has fallen into virtually total neglect, except, that is, where it is the object of active suppression.
That you cannot love your neighbour, unless you love yourself; that you cannot understand your neighbour unless you understand yourself; that there can be no knowledge of the 'invisible person' who is your neighbour except on the basis of self knowledge – these fundamental truths have been forgotten even by many of the professionals in the established religions.
Exhortations, consequently, cannot possibly have any effect; genuine understanding of one's neighbour is replaced by sentimentality, which ofcourse crumbles into nothingness as soon as self interest is aroused…
Anyone who goes openly on a journey into the interior, who withdraws from the ceaseless agitation of everyday life and pursues the kind of training – satipatthana, yoga, Jesus Prayer, or something similar – without which genuine self knowledge cannot be obtained, is accused of selfishness and of turning his back on social duties.
Meanwhile, world crisis multiply and everybody deplores the shortage, or even total lack, of 'wise' men or women, unselfish leaders, trustworthy counselors etc. It is hardly rational to expect such high qualities from people who have never done any inner work and would not even understand what was meant by the words…" – E.F.Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, 1977
Thiruvalluvar's words of wisdom in Tamil, some two thousand years ago, may, perhaps go some way towards integrating our understanding:
"You ask, in lips of men what 'truth' may be;
'Tis speech from every taint of evil free"…
"Falsehood may take the place of truthful word,
If blessing, free from fault, it can afford."
– from the translation by G.U.Pope