There is often a very thin line between the real and the imagined, like an invisible border on the ground between two countries, two regions, two villages. No checkpoints, no barbed wire, no customs inspection. Just the feeling that something has subtly changed. They speak a different language here. They see things differently on this side of the mountain. Or do they? Maybe it’s all a question of translation, of carrying ideas and meaning across from one mind-set to another. But doing so with integrity and truthfulness.
Speaking at the Athens Democracy Forum last week, Michael D. Higgins, president of Ireland, spoke of the need to “translate thought that is not confined by borders.” This is lateral thinking in its most constructive, most honest performance, something which Higgins realizes is lacking in a discourse which is at present exclusive rather than inclusive, and, in effect, uncaring.
As the child of a militant anti-British family, President Higgins has come a long way; he proudly displays in his official residence a personal letter from the queen of England, signed “Your friend, Elizabeth R.” Higgins is deeply aware in his personal, as well as his academic and political, life of the crossing of borders, of the journey from despair to hope, from blindness to vision, from the mute to the articulate. He represents what he calls “dissident and radical thought” and his journey through the political labyrinth has demonstrated the power of telling the truth – however unsavory it may be – rather than the distortions, evasions and denials that are the regular language of politics.
As the Irish psychologist Ciaran Benson has observed, in the creation of symbolic worlds “the literal coexists with the metaphorical, the true with the false, the transient with the durable, the actual with the possible, the desirable with the forbidden.”
Each of us was born into a “symbolic world”; even if we accept that world, we also try to create our own, out of all the possibilities. Making it livable means finding the acceptable balance between hope and reality, between the true and the false, the desirable and the forbidden.
In the age of “reality TV” our capacity to distinguish between the real and the imagined is diminished. It is sometimes difficult to know which are the factual programs and which are the entertainments. Television fiction often brings us very close to current events. From the vicarious armchair we can engage with narratives which are acceptable as fact because we know they are fiction. When we see similar events on the world stage, we can be forgiven for making connections between fact and fiction.
In an episode of Netflix’s “The Crown,” a very young Queen Elizabeth (in 1954) discovers that her prime minister has been “economical with the truth,” and she berates him and his colleagues: “It is not my job to govern, but it is my job to ensure proper governance. But how can I do that if my ministers lie and plot and hide the truth from me? Your breaking of that trust was irresponsible and it might have had serious ramifications for the security of this country.”
Sixty-five years later, the UK Supreme Court decided that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had done precisely that – lying, plotting and hiding the truth – in an attempt to mislead that very same Queen Elizabeth, and imperiling the security of the UK. The writers of “The Crown” (released in 2016) cannot have foreseen Boris Johnson’s attempted coup three years later. But they understood the nature of politics as a game that measures the value of truth against that of untruth.
Another series which seems to predict events is America’s “Madam Secretary.” US foreign policy is brought to life in an immediate up-front way. In the latest series, the fictional secretary of state is joined on screen by three of her “real” predecessors: Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell.
How “real” is that? It calls into question the entire fabric of “make-believe”: Do you believe it or not?
At the Athens Democracy Forum, President Higgins alluded to this when he referred to the “crisis of legitimacy” of the European Union. He spoke of the need for “moral renewal,” and the “achievement of authenticity,” arguing for “the contribution of the heart in the achievement of truth.” There is little room in politics for such a compassionate voice, but his own career, culminating in a landslide re-election last year, validates that “contribution of the heart.” It is unequivocal and unambiguous because the heart does not lie.
Higgins sees borders where there should be none: In a world of globalized markets and the invisibility of capital movement he sees policy-makers “imprisoned intellectually” and “diplomacy surrendered to fear.” For Higgins, the exclusion of the state from the market economy also excludes the man in “the European Street, the Agora,” not only from food, shelter and healthcare but from “a political voice.” Where there is exclusion today, there should be an “ethical, inclusive dimension to life.”
This is demonstrably lacking in some political arenas. If a US president who continually complains of “fake news” states as a fact that his father was born in Germany, when his father was actually born in the Bronx, we are listening to a “fake president.” When a British prime minister deliberately, and illegally, misleads the queen, she is sitting with a “fake prime minister.” But it makes good television.
Richard Pine was voted “Critic of the Year” in the 2018 Irish Journalism Awards. He lives and works in Corfu, and is the author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”