Alternate facts and false news seem to be dominating social media feeds these days, but despite the deluge that comes with life in the digital age, there is nothing new about fibs making it into the official record, let alone the gossip to be found in coffee bars and over back yard fences.
History is written by the winners, it is said, but from Napoleon’s victory in Egypt (he lost his navy to the British and later abandoned his army to its fate, but fleeing back to France managed to convince the nation with a barefaced lie that he had won a great victory and so began his ascent to the emperorial purple) all the way back to Caligula’s British campaign (evidence suggests he never actually crossed the channel) winning, it seems, isn’t always everything in the world of politics—especially if you have no strong attachment to telling the truth.
Nicolo Machiavelli laid down the blueprint to political success in his legendary job application to the ascendant Medici overlord of Florence, best known by its posthumous title “The Prince.” In that work he famously put forward the premise that a successful ruler must be prepared to break his word if he is to hold onto power. His reasoning was simply “because everybody else does it.” But putting this premise onto the written page was a tremendous shock to the late medieval world.
Of course everyone back in Machiavelli’s time pretty much knew that politicians lied, it was hard to miss in the hard scrabble realpolitik that was Renaissance Italy, with its duplicitous warring city states and ubiquitous double dealing. But the prevailing sentiment was that a ruler should always strive to keep his word. To be good. Machiavelli said that to be seen as good was great, but perception should not get in the way of reality—the practical art of ruling and keeping power.
Sunny ways played well in the days of the Medici too it seems—but Machiavelli noted that promises are usually made to be broken. Let us fervently hope the current Liberal government is not taking all of its plays from the pages of The Prince.
In these days, saying a politician has lied provides very little traction, for like the town crier’s proclamations from the halls of the Medicis, everyone just assumes that all politicians are lying, pretty much all of the time.
Finding hard evidence to the contrary is a challenge worthy of the hardiest acolyte of Sherlock Holmes.
Sadly, news from the Canadian political front, albeit somewhat overshadowed by the tragic farce unfolding in the world’s greatest democracy to the south, is not providing any solid evidence of real change.
Abandoning the promise of electoral reform may have been the only way forward in the face of intransigent demands for a referendum from the opposition parties—a course which recent history demonstrates is almost certainly doomed to failure. But the Liberal Party is possessed of a strong majority, a majority they won, in part, on the strength of a promise. That mandate would have sufficed to push through a system based on a preferential ballot, if not the revolutionary shakeup that full proportional representation would have entailed. Simply put, the excuses given for abandoning that promise seem lame.
Failure to keep the promises to rectify the human rights debacle that is federal funding for children’s services is by far more sinister. For all of the current Minister of Indigenous Affairs assurances that the government is moving forward, the word on the ground contradicts those claims.
Should inaction and broken promises to the First Nations rekindle the Idle No More movement and inspire disruptive economic blockades, the impact on our fragile economic recovery could be dire. With the storm clouds gathering on our southern border, this is the time for unity and justice, not the stratagems of The Prince.