We Can’t Handle The Truth! Democratic Competency And Elite Opinion


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IT WAS JUNE, 2008, at the University of Otago’s Foreign Policy School, that I discovered exactly how much the New Zealand political class despises democracy. The man who spelled it out was Lance Beath, one of that peculiar breed of military academics who flit between university departments, policy institutes, and those shadowy consultancies whose definitive client lists remain conveniently undisclosed.

Having delivered what I hoped was a robust defence of the people’s right to determine the foreign policy of their own country, I was keen to hear Beath’s rebuttal. It came in the form of a cautionary tale drawn from Ancient Greek history.

The story he told was of that of the Athenian politician-general, Themistocles, who was determined to protect his city from the Persian Empire. Since Athens was too small to defeat the might of the Persians on land, Themistocles knew that his city’s only hope of remaining free was to defeat them at sea. Athens needed to build a mighty navy.

Except that Athens, being a democracy, was most unlikely to voluntarily assume the financial burden which the construction of an effective battle-fleet would necessarily entail.

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It was here that Beath really began to warm to his task.

How did Themistocles persuade his fellow citizens to vote the Athenian Republic the taxes necessary to build a navy big enough to defeat the Persians? The answer, Beath told his audience of MFAT bureaucrats, foreign diplomats, assorted academics and ambitious students, was simple – he tricked them!

Athens had for some time been embroiled in a struggle with Aegina (a rival Greek sea-power) and Themistocles argued that only by constructing a powerful battle-fleet of 200 triremes could Athens finally put the Aeginetans in their place.

Without Themistocle’s trickery, argued Beath, the Athenians would not have been able to defeat the naval armada of the Persian Emperor, Darius, at the Battle of Salamis. Athens (and the rest of Greece) was saved, Beath snidely concluded, not by its much vaunted democracy, but by the shrewd manipulations of its political leader.

The message could not have been clearer. The people are too selfish and too stupid to recognise the true interests of the nation. It is, therefore, the duty of those wise and experienced servants of the state (among whom it is important to include the commanders of the armed forces) who find themselves labouring under the manifold disadvantages of the democratic form of government, to master the art of leading the masses, by trickery and deception, to those crucial decisions which they lack the wit to arrive at unaided.

Beath thus established, at the very beginning of the Foreign Policy School’s inquiry into what role the people should play in the setting of foreign policy, that only one answer would do: they must play the role of dupes.

Wiser heads must tell the people who to hate and who they should befriend. And if this requires the telling of lies – then so be it. They would be necessary falsehoods. What the Greek philosopher, Plato, called “Noble Lies”. The sort of political trickery resorted to by wise and benevolent rulers, not in their own interests (heaven forbid!) but in the interests of a population too ignorant to be entrusted with a more accurate account of events.

Beath’s message was indistinguishable from the one elucidated so dramatically in the movie A Few Good Men.

Defence counsel, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) demands that the witness, Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicolson) answer his questions. “You want answers?” sneers Jessup. “I think I’m entitled to”, Kaffee responds. “You want answers?”, Jessup sneers a second time, his voice rising in rage. “I want the truth!”, bellows Kaffee. And in a voice laden with scorn and derision, Jessup barks back: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Back in 2008, it was clear that Beath and his ilk still regarded New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy as a disaster: a cautionary tale of what happens when the democratic masses over-rule the wiser counsels of their betters, and begin to meddle directly in the formation of foreign policy. The latest “Noble Lie” is that, for the people’s own safety, the Government must participate in the war against Islamic State. No doubt today’s ‘wise heads’ see Prime Minister Key as New Zealand’s very own Themistocles. A political leader manipulating and tricking us – for our own good.


  1. There must be another film to be made on the theme.

    Imagine Steven Joyce, Gerry Brownlee, John Key and Wayne Eagleson (with a little help from David Seymour) knowing what is best for us and ploughing ahead full furtive steam to achieve it. Maybe the Monty Python crew could get together again.

  2. A bit rich coming from a blog that makes such frequent reference to the hobbits of “muddle new zilind”

    The inhabitants of The Daily Blog must certainly be counted among the worst of the political class that so despise democracy

    • And yet you keep coming back, John?

      As for “despising democracy” – that must be John Key who ignored the recent referendum where 66% of those who cast their ballot, voted against asset sales.

      You were saying?

    • @ John . I’m an inhabitant of The Daily Blog and I think I have a great deal of respect for our democracy and don’t at all despise it.
      Quite the opposite in fact .
      And one day , if Karma is something worthy of contemplation, we two can debate our differences of opinion with vigour in a gentlemanly manner face to face . That’s not going to be something you’ll be too familiar with, that of being gentlemanly, but we can give it a go right ?
      In the meantime , all I have is this format . So one must make do when a Troll like you comes out from under the bridge and takes a cheap shot at good people with better things to do than defend themselves against little shits like you, in order to defend our democracy .
      That’s called irony .
      I think you’re either actually john key, or some sycophantic quisling to him to peddle logical fallacies to diffuse and distract us .
      The comforting thing to me is that when the likes of yourself comes up from the mud there must be something afoot .

    • Speak for yourself John , you spout National rhetoric as though it was the only truth.
      The subject I believe deals with sending troops to fight
      Americas war in middle east,maybe you don’t have family in the military so you don’t mind sending soldiers.

    • Despise democracy? You mean like Key deciding the best way to manage a major disaster zone is to turn it into a micro dictatorship, with it’s very own despot to rule over the inhabitants rights to genuinely participate in the decisions, along with violating a multitude of property laws.
      The current dictatorial governing model in Canterbury is really Key’s wet dream on how really wants to run the entire country.

  3. Shades of Neo-Conservatism.

    Certainly, Leo Strauss, considered by some (albeit somewhat controversially) to be the doyen of American Neo-Conservative thinking, was criticised for encouraging an elitist strain in US politics closely linked to American foreign policy – the idea that “perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power” is a critical necessity because the broad public don’t understand their true interests, whether domestically or internationally.

    In other words, Strauss endorsed “Noble Lies” – myths employed by political leaders supposedly to maintain a cohesive society.

    Can we take it that Beath is a Straussian ?

    (But, then again, who isn’t among political elites and their enthusiastic little helpers ?)

  4. Without Themistocle’s trickery, argued Beath, the Athenians would not have been able to defeat the naval armada of the Persian Emperor, Darius, at the Battle of Salamis. Athens (and the rest of Greece) was saved, Beath snidely concluded, not by its much vaunted democracy, but by the shrewd manipulations of its political leader.

    Funny… the defeat of the former USSR by the United States, and it’s allies, has always been put down to an open democracy trumping a closed society.

    According to Mr Beath and his rather unpleasant beliefs scorning an open society, it should have been the other way round?

    • The defeat of the former USSR by the United States and it’s allies? I think I missed that historic episode. Care to elaborate?

  5. Looking at John F Kennedy’s presidency lately it is apparent that in his brief tenure of less than 3 years he pulled the US back from the brink of at least 5 wars, Bay of Pigs, Laos, Berlin, Cuba (again in 1962) and Vietnam. He really bucked the trend for US presidents in the Cold War.

    All of the above had his military advisors soundly behind a decision to put US personnel into war but Kennedy resisted.

    But it’s that last one that outraged the military the most and probably signed his death warrant, with his intention to withdraw US military personnel from Vietnam by 1965. He had already given the go ahead for a withdrawal of 1000 US personnel from RVN by December 1963.

    Of course the rest is history and the US military got its way once Kennedy was conveniently dead, they got the war they were so spoiling for and saw somewhere in the vicinity of 1.3 million plus, dead as a direct result of the 1965 – 1974 war and I don’t know how many maimed or injured and practically destroyed that country along with parts Laos and Cambodia.

    When you have people who live and breathe war for a living this is what happens. They think they’re right, and they get their way and people die for no good reason.

  6. Never mind Godwin’s law …….

    I seem to remember that in the 1930’s a certain Mr. Churchill repeatedly warned the British people and their government that they needed to increase defence spending to deter a certain European dictator, but they “they couldn’t handle the truth” and he was described as a paranoid alarmist and consigned to the wilderness.

    Sadly, perhaps Mr. Beath and Col. Jessup may be right!

    • Meh – Churchill was a warmonger – just happened to be around at the right time to face down the totalitarians. Without Hitler, Churchill would not be fondly remembered. Notice the Poms got rid of him smartly after the war.

      You’ve a hard sell equating a sleazy piece of shite like John Key with Churchill – man has more in common with Walder Frey – bought off by the biggest chequebook.

    • I don’t seem to recall the people of Great Britain losing that war, but correct me if I’m wrong, Sceptic.

      • @Stuart Munro @Murray Simmonds
        So you believe, even with hindsight, that the appeasement policy was correct? You’re both in a very small club.

        Not that I’m a great supporter of either Churchill or Key, but it seems to me that Chris Trotter’s view that a well informed public will always make the right decision is contradicted by history.

        Its interesting that after every election the losing side will always blame the defeat on media bias or (more rarely) that they need to improve the selling of their message, never that people understood what they were offering and rationally decided against it. Was Chris Trotter’s (and other left wing commentators) confidence in the collective reasoning powers of the electorate so strong after the election last year? I think not.

        • Sorry Sceptic you are missing the point. We are governed only by consent, not as a generous gesture from our superiors, deigning to govern us in a philanthropic burst of altruism.
          Sometimes the choices will be good and sometimes bad. Probably with equal efficacy to the choices made by a despot, no matter how well meant.
          Having said that, I have always argued against the use of pejorative terms like “muddle New Zilanders.” It does otherwise valid arguments no credit, in my view, no matter how frustrated the user of the term. I note that Chris Trotter is not among those. I also note that there is a consistency among the contributions of John (surely a pseudonym) which suggests he lies in wait for opportunity to attack and belittle. He might do well to open his mind to contrary views, if he can, rather than focus on micro point of dispute.

    • Ever heard of transparency! Convince the people you are right by sound and logical reasoning – instead of occlusion, guile and deceit!

      No….didn’t think so!

  7. Excellent post Chris, Most bloggers were correct here except for those who cant see the trees for the forest.
    “No doubt today’s ‘wise heads’ see Prime Minister Key as New Zealand’s very own Themistocles. A political leader manipulating and tricking us – for our own good.”

    To those who think current Government are a bunch of wise folks consider this;

    It is very easy to justify ones point of view here, but John and Sceptic are the epitome of diversion tactics Chris so eloquently pointed out during that important history lesion.

    Thank you for the lesson Chris.

    As even Winston Churchill did closely follow past history, we need to reflect on our history and where we went wrong last time.

    John Key is simply the stool pigeon of the rich elite who set this greedy uncaring character up to roll our country as Greece was buy the Bilderbergers as yet another example of first making an example of unbridled austerity over a formerly safe socialistic state as ours was tending to become again under Labour when they began buying back formerly sold assets, of energy and transportation assets Kiwirail being the leading example.

    The Global elitists were so incensed by the NZ example of resurgence of socialistic tendencies that they set up puppet John Key (known for his trickery in sacking hundreds of global Merrill Lynch employees) to indebt NZ with a propping up of the paper economy we have here today by massive borrowing of 300Million every week and embarking on a fire sale of our remaining assets to the Global elite.

    Most of the NZ people are still unaware of this occurrence or cant face the truth that due to the Hitler style takeover of our media by Joyce and Key’s cohorts as their master plan to place diversion over us all as they carry out their evil sell-out of our Country.

    Our NZ’s egalitarian brand was to dangerous in 2008 for elitists to handle or the truth also that is was a good future we were building then.

  8. This is an interesting post, and only further proves what I have known for decades.

    Elections in NZ have been a farce most of the times, if not all of the times. The public get offered a bit of lollies scramble, slogans and promises, and once any government is formed, the forces behind the scenes take over and take control.

    These are the “experts” and “advisors”, who sit in senior government department roles, in consultancies and of course also the secret service, the military and police.

    No matter what “ideals” a new “leader” may have, same as her/his government, they will be compromised. We have it worse, we have a leader who is like a fish in its own waters, when it comes to all this. John Key and many of his colleagues are firm part of the establishment, blend in willingly and well with the forces that make the real decisions, they are their loyal servants, being publicly presented as the “masters”.

    As for democracy though, all talk about it may seem frivolous or silly, unless the participants, the citizens and voters that is, are also informed democrats, that requires information of substance and correctness. Now with the “Forth Estate” being more or less redundant here, we can forget that.

    All in all, we have NO real democracy in New Zealand, not a shit show of it, to be blunt and totally honest!

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