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David Hines [userpic]

"As for me, God knows I tried."

January 12th, 2009 (09:52 pm)
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I think that I am like most people in that there are some phrases that are guaranteed to at best annoy me, and at worst to make me think the speaker is an asshole. It is hard to say just what tops the list, but a major contender is "speaking truth to power."

(Footnote! The phrase is of Quaker origin, and dates back to the 1950s, and a Quaker pamphlet series dealing with the Cold War and an articulation of pacifism; the truth was, in short, "that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden." A noble ideal that ultimately bangs its head against the wall of reality, whose reply is typically along the lines of, "Fuck you, I'm taking your wallet.")

Journalists and activists, particularly those on the left, are especially fond of "speaking truth to power." The problem is that they define both truth and power down, so that "speaking truth to power" typically consists of delivering political views (of the approved slant) in an inappropriate manner and forcing a captive audience to bear it. For example, Jon Stewart described Stephen Colbert's performance at the National Press Club a few years ago, where he pretty much dissed President Bush to his face, as being "speaking truth to power." President Bush sat through it, smiled on occasion, and shook hands with Colbert when the roast was done, and the only consequence Colbert faced was that the folks who hated President Bush liked Colbert even more afterwards.

By contrast, consider Lasantha Wickrematunge.

He's dead now. He was a newspaper editor for the Sunday Leader, a Sri Lankan newspaper. He criticized, heavily, how Sri Lanka was conducting its war with the Tamil Tigers -- he did, essentially, what most of the journalists in my country do to their country at war. Wickrematunge had a view of what his country should be, and he advocated for it, and criticized it, hard, when the reality didn't measure up. The difference is that it didn't just get him lionized, or criticized. As the TELEGRAPH's Peter Foster tells us, It got him killed. You might think Wickrematunge was right on. You might think he was, like the Quakers of the fifties, beautifully noble and naive. But the man said things that he knew could get him killed -- not inconvenienced, not fired, not insulted, KILLED -- and he said them anyway, because he thought it was important for his country that he do so. He spoke his truth to power, and power killed him. Because it ain't power unless it bites back.

We like to think of ourselves as being brave, as being uncompromising, as speaking truth to power. Well, here's truth: not a single one of us, and not a single journalist in this country, has half the bravery of Lasantha Wickrematunge. I know I don't, and I'm honest enough to admit it. He did it.

We just play at it.