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How politics is poisoning the truth

Nathan Phillips, left, and Nick Sandman. Credit: YouTube.

Nathan Phillips, left, and Nick Sandman. Credit: YouTube.

January 22, 2019   4 mins

Everyone remembers the Queen of Hearts, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, shouting “Off with his head!” (or “Off with her head!”, at least twice, to poor Alice). The Queen’s system of jurisprudence involved “sentence before verdict”: no need for sifting of the evidence or, indeed, any form of due process. The Queen’s motivation was only to punish those whose view of the world differed from her own (warped) sense.

Remind you of anything? I mean, take your pick, but this weekend a clash of demonstrations in America convulsed an already polarised nation. The face of Nick Sandman has been everywhere, as has that of Nathan Phillips. Mr Phillips approached Mr Sandman, and sang a song and banged a drum. Mr Sandman smiled at Mr Phillips. An astonishing proportion of political discourse now pivots on the interpretation of that smile.

Off with his head! One American journalist was quick to explain Mr Sandman’s psychology to her seventy-odd thousand readers. In what feels to me like the opening scene of a novel, she looks at the video of Mr Sandmann and Mr Phillips, then generalises outwards about millions of people she’ll never meet and never know:

“There was always one of them in every class. The guy who whispered to his friends when I lectured. […] Of course, that guy was also the guy with the gumption to ask for extensions. To miss class and email asking “what’d I miss?” To plagiarize. To get a C and come to office hours and try to flirt his way to a better grade. The gall of his mediocrity never ceased to surprise me. […] His accent and major might change but the fundamentals of his identity did not: he was white, he was male, and — at least as far as he performed it — he was straight…”

If this passage really were from a novel, I’d read on; but the “he”, I think, is intended to be universal: “he” is the straight white boy in “every” class, who flaunts his power in the face of the weak. Sentence – lots of sentences, all castigating straight white boys for their supposed privilege – before verdict, indeed. That’s a lot of meaning to build on one short video.

To say that the initial narrative turned out not to be entirely the whole story would be an understatement. Here is how it looked to me. I saw Mr Phillips, singing and playing a drum, harmlessly approaching the boys. At first the boys lark around in bemused response, before joining in, in an unthreatening fashion – I’m not saying they look charming, but neither do they strike me as frightening.

In the background, by the way, another group of activists is apparently hurling homophobic abuse at the boys, and had been doing so for some time; “heteronormativity”, I guess, is in the eye of the beholder these days. I can’t hear anyone chanting “Build a wall”.

The reaction of Mr Sandman is eventually to stand still, and smile. He claims he was trying to defuse a situation which he didn’t understand, which seems feasible, at least. Maybe he’s smirking? But maybe he isn’t, and it is surely possible that his facial expression has nothing to do with the psychology that identity politicians would like to force into his soul. The width of that possibility – no matter how narrow – should be taken into account.

Maybe that which was so quickly determined (sentence before verdict! Off with his head!) to be a smirk might merely have been nervous politeness, like the smile I wear when someone is boring me to tears at a party. “How do I get away from this,” I think, “without causing offence?”

And so I stand, and nod, and smile. God knows what I’d look like on film: heteronormative? Privileged? Smirking? If the other person started to dance, I’d probably join in, and I have on many, many (Brighton) occasions pretended to find drum-banging something other than dreary (“Gosh, how, um, expressive.”). Copying other people is a way of signaling one’s harmless intent, after all.

That’s my take on the video, but it’s just that: a take. I’m projecting into the boy’s mind; I could be completely wrong. But at least I retain awareness of the potential for error, and of the gap between my explanation for a parcel of reality, and that which might be its truth.

Many journalists and actors and politicians, however, with social media readership in the millions, were happy to plump for a single potential narrative as the only possible truth – that the boy was a smirking racist, an emblem of everything wrong with Trump’s regime.

The unfortunate case of Sandman and Phillips is hardly unique. From HSBC’s insistence that islands stop being islands when banks say so, to activists who attempt to erase from public life anyone who claims that women are adult females, to Labour politicians unhappy that Diane Abbott isn’t met only with wide-eyed awe and admiration and who insist that criticism of her is always motivated by racism: we are everywhere confronted with an insistence that reality is whatever the activist-Left wishes it to be.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” runs the overly-quoted John Maynard Keynes. JM meant you should revise your opinion in the light of accruing data.

How dead, white and male (if only occasionally heteronormative) can you get? So the modern Left subverts Keynes: When the facts emerge, my opinion doesn’t change – my “truth” is the only one that matters. It’s an anti-Bayes theorem: the modulation of reality to suit the politics of the day.

And so the age of the pathologically subjective dawns; the time of the adult-infants, who can neither discern the difference between their political desire and the truth, nor permit such a gap to exist. “Look, you can criticise Diane Abbott without being a racist,” you’ll say, in your mild-mannered fashion. “Off with your head!” they cry. Ask Fiona Bruce.

Even O’Brien, in 1984, held out the hope of (temporary) rehabilitation to Winston, should he admit that 2 and 2 added up to whatever the Party desired. But O’Brien isn’t the avatar of the age; that role does indeed belong to the Queen of Hearts, happy to destroy people without due process, for the “crime” of not seeing the world as she insists it must be seen, even when her claims are laughable.

We used to call work such as Carroll’s “nonsense literature for children”; literally, and horribly, it has become the model for the nonsense politics of those who claim to be adult. Smiling is, indeed, an inappropriate response.

Graeme Archer is a statistician and writer.


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