Category Archives: truth

No wonder Dr Johnson is not in fashion

Engraving from James Barry’s portrait (1778-80)

An incomparably greater psychologist than Freud, having no axe to grind and no sect to found

Samuel Johnson, writes Dalrymple,

  • contrived to be a moralist without moralising
  • was humane and charitable without sentimentality

This is a contrast to today, Dalrymple points out, for

we prefer mental contortions, self-justifications, evasions, rationalisations, and all the other methods of avoiding the truth about ourselves, to Dr Johnson’s discomfiting clarity of mind.

Johnson had a gift, Dalrymple notes, for saying things that were

both startling and obvious. As he himself put it, we have more often to be reminded than informed.

Johnson’s prose style

would no doubt strike many people (if they read it) as formal—we prefer expletives and the demotic now.

The European Court of Justice makes an ass of itself

Judicial populism

Dalrymple points out that

evidence based on post hoc ergo propter hoc, the fallacy employed by a thousand bar-room experts on every subject under the sun,

is now admissible in European courts. We are, he notes,

not far from the Azande belief that no death is natural, each death is caused by witchcraft.

Powerful idiocy

Dalrymple says that

an instinct of sympathy for the underdog is an admirable personal quality, no doubt,

but

it must be tempered by a regard for truth and justice, above all in courts of law.

The European Court of Justice

is certainly not the first to make an ass of itself, and it will not be the last. But idiocy is sinister when it is powerful idiocy.

The object of political correctness

screen-shot-2017-01-06-at-22-33-24It is not, of course, to spread truth, Dalrymple points out. It is

to exercise power.

The more political correctness

violates common feeling or opinion while at the same time exercising a moral terror against dissenters, the more effective it is.

It is hardly surprising that political correctness should

grow ever more extreme, and attach itself to ever more arcane subject matter.

How to be an expert witness

A brilliant cross-examination is a thing of beauty

A brilliant cross-examination is a thing of beauty

Dalrymple has seen

some pretty bad expert evidence given in court, often by the most eminent men in their field.

It can be embarrassing to see their destruction in the witness box,

though a brilliant cross-examination is a thing of beauty (provided that one isn’t at the receiving end of it).

Luckily,

one recovers one’s self-esteem quickly after a mauling in which one’s evidence has been torn to shreds. When it comes to amour propre, the immune system works wonders. The counsel for the other side is a paid hack who will use any sophistry to gain his point and throw dust in the eyes of judge and jury. He has the advantage of any interrogator over any person interrogated: he has no interest at all in The Truth — unlike oneself, of course.

If Dalrymple were seeking experts, he would not choose the most eminent men in their field, for two reasons:

  1. Being so eminent, they have often grown unused to having their opinion challenged. They suffer from what a student friend of mine, now an eminent professor himself, called a hardening of the concepts. In the witness box, they can become inflexible. I have found that the best tactic when opposing counsel makes a good point is to admit it at once. This, more often than not, deflates him, as he was hoping for a foolish obduracy on the part of the witness. He will then be denied the opportunity of a thespian display of quivering indignation.
  2. They are often very busy. They have a paper to deliver in Prague next week, followed by a departmental meeting, while the deadline for a chapter of a book approaches. They are on duty for the hospital the day after tomorrow. They have only limited time to devote to the 2,000 pages of documents in the case. They read them as an eagle glides over a mountain range; but the devil is in the detail. Mastery of the papers is what makes a good, or at any rate a convincing, witness — assuming, of course, a basic competence in the matter at issue.

What is needed, says Dalrymple, is

a jobbing but competent plodder who does not consider himself too important to read 2,000 largely irrelevant pages, if only because he fears being decimated in the box. Caution, fear and a certain degree of fight (but not too much) are what make a good witness in the game of law.

Dalrymple was once having

a torrid time in the box (over a point of no importance, but counsel knew that the jury wouldn’t realise that; he was merely trying to discredit me in advance, and doing quite a good job of it).

But Dalrymple changed the atmosphere

by a mild witticism that made even the judge laugh. I think it was a turning point in the trial: counsel never fully recovered the initiative.

All the same,

one must never try to be Oscar Wilde in the box: humour is to be employed in small doses and at precisely the right time.

My hand shakes; I want to interrupt, to shout

Zeven Hoofdzonden (detail), attr. Jheronimus Bosch, c. 1485 or after. Museo del Prado

Zeven Hoofdzonden (detail), attr. Jheronimus Bosch, c. 1485 or after. Museo del Prado

Dogmatism, writes Dalrymple,

is the reaction of those who want to know best but suspect that the metaphysical foundations of their supposed knowledge are shaky. Ambiguity disturbs them: how can there be rational criticism founded on argument and evidence, when at the same time there is no disputing taste? The solution to the tension is to stand behind a stockade of indubitable truth.

The search for certainty

is much more important than the search for truth. I know a man, an eminent writer, who has changed his opinion many times in his long life, often by 180°, but never admits to having done so. He has held every successive opinion with angry intransigence. Challenges by people of another opinion make him turn red with rage: they do not merely differ from him in opinion, they are attacking him personally. It is not true that bigotry is the exclusive province of the ignorant and stupid; there is the clever and well-informed variety, the more dangerous because the less easily recognised.

Dalrymple does not exclude himself.

When someone expresses an opinion that is very different from my own, I often feel a mounting tension, though the subject may be one that, if I am honest with myself, is of little importance or consequence to me. Certainly it cannot harm me that someone thinks differently from me about it; yet my heart begins to beat wildly, and I am sure that my blood pressure has risen. I feel an excitation, I tell myself to keep calm but I don’t succeed; my hand shakes; I want to interrupt, to shout. I am not defending truth, but my opinion. Generally I succeed in controlling myself, but occasionally I do not, especially when my interlocutor is young. I immediately feel ashamed of myself afterwards; I even feel ashamed that, at my age, I am still so little capable of detachment.

The Guardian is the sole remaining daily newspaper in Britain whose content is mostly devoted to serious matters

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 22.00.53The country, writes Dalrymple, has ‘only one important newspaper‘, and that is the Guardian.

He cites its reporting of the killing of Muath al-Kasasbeh, a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The London (formerly Manchester) paper ‘is to be commended‘, he says, for calling this act (al-Kasasbeh was put in a cage and burnt)

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 07.23.52murder, which is what it was; by contrast, it called the killing of terrorists in Jordan, executions, correctly, for the terrorists had been sentenced according to law, with at least an opportunity to defend themselves. Whether or not you are in favour of the death penalty, there was an important difference between the two modes of proceeding, a difference important to preserve by means of the words used to describe them. All too often the distinction is not made in our prints.

‘If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.’ (Analects, book XIII, ch. 3, Legge tr.)

 

How the New York Times combines frivolity with the utmost dullness and earnestness

But do not expect the truth

Expect the world: in other words, expect telescopic philanthropy but do not expect good writing or reliable, truthful reporting

Do not expect elegance from the New York Times, writes Dalrymple. Moreover, its front page

resembles a particularly verbose Victorian tombstone.

Dalrymple cites some ‘sloppy and inelegant’ drivel emitted by one of the Times‘s representatively mediocre writers. Dalrymple makes us look at it in order to highlight the absence of genuine style and wit — and the looseness of language and thought — in that hubristic journal.

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 08.11.07But I say to Dalrymple that at least the drivel was all apparently the writer’s own, and in this respect the Times has advanced. For this is far from always being so, as the case of one of its celebrated reporters most embarrassingly demonstrated. We can never be sure that the reports, quotes, ‘news’ relayed by the Times are not fabrications.

The uselessness of foreign correspondents

Ordure: the scribblings of foreign correspondents Reports excreted by journalists sent to places they know nothing about are best left well alone

One native plumber, writes Dalrymple,

is worth a thousand foreign correspondents when it comes to understanding a country.

The days of Waugh’s Scoop, he says,

are by no means over. The bar at the one luxury hotel in town is often where the report of the history of an undeveloped country’s crisis is made. Correspondents are more interested in what other correspondents are going to write than in what is happening on their temporary doorstep. Lies repeated become truths, and truths ignored cease ever to have existed.

He explains the ease with which

an entire Press corps can accept the most obvious untruth, usually convenient to some interested party, without any external compulsion.

The condescension of a later age towards an earlier

Wisdom Conquers Ignorance, Bartholomeus Spranger and Aegidius Sadeler, unknown date. Elisha Whittelsey Collection

Wisdom Conquers Ignorance, Bartholomeus Spranger and Aegidius Sadeler, unknown date. Elisha Whittelsey Collection

This we must avoid, writes Dalrymple. We should also resist

the mockery that comes so easily to the lips or pens of those who take their current state of enlightenment, attributed by them to their own personal cleverness, as the acme of wisdom.

Even the most learned of us

yet knows nothing by comparison with all that might be known and by comparison with the great ocean of truth that forever lies all undiscovered before us.

Guts spilling out of a sheep’s open belly

It was dead, wasn’t it, Theodore?