Reviewing Truth and the Treachery of Truthiness

Is it a coincidence that the Spring 2019 issue of The New Zealand Review of Books reviewed five books concerned about truth in its many guises?

It has been said that truth is the first casualty of war. Censorship is an amputation. Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920, by Jared Davidson (reviewed in NZ Books by Ian Grant) describes the system so quickly set up here. Apparently the censorship unit read over 20,000 letters a month when the population was a fifth of today’s. Not unexpectedly, the censorship of domestic mail did not stop until two years after the war. Funny how institutions live on after their use-by dates. (The listed subversives included ‘pacifists, socialists, unionists, military defaulters, aliens (those not of British nationality), Irish Catholics, Maori and anyone else hostile to the British Empire’; apparently feminists, gays, Jews and anyone who spoke a foreign language were below the radar.)

Ian Grant’s own Lasting Impressions: The Story of New Zealand Newspapers 1840-1920 was reviewed in the previous edition. We look forward to the second volume planned to end in 2020, especially as it will describe the struggle of one of the bastions of truth to survive in a deteriorating commercial environment.

Sure, newspapers and their journalists, sometimes stray from the total truth. Truthteller by Stephen Davis, former editor of the New Zealand Herald (reviewed by Charles Beckford) describes an investigative reporter’s journey through the world of truth prevention, fake news and conspiracy theories covering ten or so investigations in the last twenty years.

I am not sure each was so important, but that they existed assures the reader of newspapers’ commitment to ferreting out the uncomfortable. Such investigations are expensive; We may have to wait for Grant’s Volume II for a comprehensive assessment of whether investigative reporting can be maintained given the newspapers declining revenue base.

Another sort of truth problem arises from Dan Davin’s A Memoir of Paddy Costello (reviewed by Ken Ross). Costello was described by Secretary for External Affairs Alister McIntosh as ‘our most brilliant linguist and diplomatic officer’. But was he a spy? The record is circumstantial. He joined the Communist Party when studying at Cambridge in the 1930s. There is no actual evidence of his assisting the Soviets either when he was in New Zealand’s Moscow legation or in its Paris embassy. His fluency in Russian meant he empathised with Russia – apparently such empathies and the related learning of language for cultural, rather than commercial, purposes are not a national priority – but his relationship with the Soviets is more complicated. He befriended Russian writers, especially dissident Boris Pasternak; it seems likely Costello smuggled one of his novels to the west in a diplomatic bag. (Does this amount to counterespionage?)

His reports back to Wellington were considered so insightful that he was thought to have had a special connection with the Soviet authorities. In Paris he was known to dine with Russian diplomats; but you would, would you not, in order to maintain your Russian fluency? He was booted out of our diplomatic service at the behest of the British authorities and took up the chair in Russian studies at the University of Manchester.

There is an extensive literature on Costello which I will leave you to pursue and make up your mind on the espionage charges. Whatever you conclude, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that his brilliance and eccentricities were such that he could not be accommodated in narrow-minded New Zealand. Celebrating those who speak truth to power is not one of our national strengths.

Another recruited to Communism in the 1930s was Shirley Smith. Conditions were very different from today, for then Communists were the most outspoken resisters of fascism. Bill Hastings reviews Sarah Gaitanos’ Shirley Smith: An Examined Life. When I reviewed the biography, I remarked you could look at it in a number of ways. Hastings focuses on her searching for the whole truth.

Truth was really important to Shirley; lying was a sin. Yet even so, there were occasions when she was economical. She carried the guilt all her life about when she went to the security services in 1957 to describe her Communist past – she thought it was the reason that the promotion of her husband, Bill Sutch, was being held back – for she did not report ‘the whole truth’. It is so hard to be totally honest throughout a whole life.

The fifth ‘truth’ review in New Zealand Review of Books was my review of Alan Duff’s A Conversation with My Country. Duff presents a conservative yet perceptive account of the role of Maori in contemporary New Zealand. He is particularly concerned with how terms like ‘colonisation' and ‘racism' for the problems of Maori are a major roadblock to further progress, such political correctness prevents proper discussion. It’s the Costello problem; better to kick the thinker out and address the issue with meaningless platitudes.

The book led me to meditate on the treachery of ‘truthiness', that if something conforms to one's views it must be true. We bemoan the phenomenon overseas, especially as it gives Donald Trump, and others, their popular base. The difference here is only one of degree.

Yet, we are hardly resisting the phenomenon. Too often our public discussions are based on beliefs which are convenient rather than evaluated against the evidence. Were they grounded in all the facts, a lot of public discussion would be very different (and not as hysterical). The problem of truthiness arises from the foundations of thinking, for our education system has been failing to teach students the relevant thinking skills.

So the five reviews lead to a meditation on truth, with some gloomy forebodings. But there is also the subtext; they are precipitated by books and book reviews.

Despite the impact of digitisation and the web, books remain a key element of our public intellectual life. They require more effort than a blog (or that given by a truthy talkback host). They are depositories of truth. Not every bleeding line and some books are consumed by truthiness, but in total, they and the libraries which store them, are. Systematic reviewing contributes to the public dialogue including pointing out when it descends to truthiness..

Alas, reviewing is being cut back. Recall the days when the whole page opposite the editorial page of your Saturday newspaper was devoted to books. Today one is lucky to get a few weekend squibs plus public relations handouts. The New Zealand Review of Books was established when The Listener said it was reducing its reviewing. (Alan Duff’s grandfather, the founding editor of the magazine, would have been appalled.)

There are still learned journals and the odd blog which provide a serious review, but New Zealand Books remains a comforting island in the perilous sea of truthiness.

The answer to the opening question as to whether it was a coincidence that five reviews in its latest edition were concerned with truth is, probably ‘yes, it may have been unusually high’. But, across the whole of the magazine’s history, truth has been a major focus.