Lies, Damned Lies & Alternative Facts
with apologies to whichever nineteenth century luminary coined the original¹, but with no apology to the mendacious liars currently occupying positions of power.
We have for a long time, maybe always, had people in power telling lies to us. Some have done it with equanimity, some have surfed over any backlash, some have occasionally apologised. Once or twice a new phrase has been coined to make us believe there are shades of truth.
After his successful 1996 election campaign, Australian Prime Minister John Howard started backtracking on promises he had made during the campaign. He explained that in the campaign he had made “core promises” and “non-core promises” and that the latter were not binding.²
Then, late in the next election in October 2011, John Howard claimed that asylum seekers arriving from the north in a leaky boat — ironically designated ‘SIEV 4’ (Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle) — had thrown their children into the sea to force the navy to rescue them and take all of them to safety in Australia. There was video taken from the navy vessel and later, when the SIEV 4 began to sink, photos of people in the water (all were rescued). At the time, Australia had tightened its policy of not being kind to ‘boat people’, including not allowing them access to mainland Australia. This ‘incident’ became an important element in the election: even though defence personnel threw doubts on the accuracy of the story that had become public through the media, John Howard and his ministers used the story (and photos) as part of their successful election campaign.³
Talking of boat people, the promulgation of alternative facts goes back to the arrival in 1788, in what is now Sydney, of eleven sailing ships from England and the many Aborigines and their way of life subsequently written about. The instructions⁴ that Governor Phillip had from England to treat any ‘natives’ with civility and to punish any settlers who committed offences against them, were eventually and to an increasing degree ignored.
The ‘truth’ about the Aborigines’ way of life and the degree to which they had developed large, permanent settlements and the sophisticated agriculture and aquaculture they were engaged in was well documented by many explorers and some settlers, complete with illustrations. However, this did not suit those settlers who were greedy for land for themselves and their growing herds of sheep and cattle.
In western Victoria and many other places, whole Aboriginal villages of stone houses were deliberately destroyed, as well as extensive tracts of grain and yam daisy cultivation, all of them essential to the survival of the Aborigines.⁵ Reports were sent back to England that the ‘natives’ were primitive, lived in simple ‘humpies’ (lean-tos of bark held up at an angle with sticks) and lived from nomadic hunting and gathering, with no connection to the land. These alternative facts were broadcast, despite the existence of the indisputable evidence in explorers’ journals and letters written ‘home’ to England by the wives of the men who had destroyed the evidence.
Many libraries in Australia hold photographic records of the level of sophistication of Aboriginal culture, architecture and food production and storage. Yet, as late as the 1960s I was being taught only the alternative facts about the Australian Aborigines at school. Even now, many schools have history books in their libraries which only tell those alternative facts.⁶
In the same way that alternative facts allowed the British government to declare the Australian continent Terra Nullius, throughout history tyrants and other despicable individuals have used them as an excuse to destroy entire peoples and their cultures and to torment and demean certain groups within their own borders.
It seems that little has changed. We need to ask ourselves what we can do about this and then be willing to act. We cannot afford to simply observe and see how this might play out. By the time the curtain falls on the current scene, it could be too late.
1. Mark Twain attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli the expression, “Lies, damned lies and statistics”, but further research has thrown doubt on this origin.
2. described, among other places, in the Urban Dictionary
3. see, for instance, a report from the Australian parliament
4. see transcript of the handwritten instructions he carried (near the bottom of the 6th page of the transcript)
6. for a good expose by Bruce Pascoe himself, see this YouTube video.