Freitag, Februar 20, 2009

Speaking Truth To Power ...

The Left, particularly in the US, is enamored of its role in "speaking truth to power", which it views as a dangerous and heroic role. It's the role of the lone truth-seeker standing up to the tyrant and speaking truth to the power of the tyrant, regardless of the consequences (as if there were any in our day and age: that is what makes the claim so patently absurd).

The modern sense of the phrase came from that humorless lot, the Quakers, as can be seen here. Nice folks, the Quakers, but naive in the extreme (to put it mildly: the result of Quakers talking to tyrants never went well for the Quakers).

I ran across another history of that phrase here. You gotta go to page 9 to find the following (all credit to Michael Hendry):

In Sicily Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, . . . was enjoying peace and
leisure. He began writing poetry with great enthusiasm, sending for the
famous poets, spending his time with them and showering honours on them,
and using them as supervisors and reviewers of his poetry. His generosity
led to flattery on the part of these grateful critics, and removed from reality
by it he bragged more of his poetry than of his military successes. One of
the poets at his court was Philoxenus, the composer of dithyrambs, who had
a high reputation for his own style of composition, and at the drinking-party
when the tyrant's wretched poems were read he was asked his opinion of
them; he gave a rather frank reply, and the tyrant took offence, faulted him
for slandering him out of envy, and told his attendants to take him off at
once to the quarries. Next day his friends begged him to pardon Philoxenus,
so he made it up to him and invited the same company to the drinking
party. As the drinking progressed, Dionysius again began to brag of his
poetry and cited some lines which he regarded as particularly successful;
but when he asked Philoxenus what he thought of them, his only response
was to summon the attendants and tell them to take him off to the quarries.
At the time Dionysius smiled at the wittiness of the reply and put up with
his frankness: laughter took the edge off fault-finding; but soon after when
the friends of each party asked Dionysius to excuse his untimely frankness,
Philoxenus made the strange offer that his answer would preserve both the
truth and Dionysius' reputation; and he kept his promise, because when the
tyrant cited some lines which described lamentable events and asked what
he thought of him, Philoxenus said, 'Tragic', using the ambiguity to
preserve truth together with the tyrant's reputation: Dionysius took
'tragic' to mean 'lamentable and full of pathos', and knowing that good
poets excelled in such writing accepted it as praise from Philoxenus; but the
rest of the company picked up the true meaning and saw that the term
'tragic' had been used only to brand a failure.

In other words, "speaking truth to power" is a joke, based on the ambiguity of the word "tragic" when dealing with tragedy. To quote Michael Hendry, who comments on this ancient joke:

'Tragic' is perhaps not the best translation of Philoxenus' ambiguous adjective,
though Dionysius was apparently writing tragedies. The Greek
word (οἰκτρά) is more general: 'pitiful' or 'pathetic'. The pun would work
just as well today: "Your tragedy / elegy is absolutely pitiful, totally
pathetic, I couldn't stop crying!" (What should you say if someone you do
not wish to offend writes a lame attempt at comedy or satire and asks you to
judge it? "Truly ludicrous! I couldn't stop laughing!")

In other words, the left has gotten it wrong again (quelle horreur!): speaking truth to power only works when the "truth" is so carefully hidden that it cannot appear to anyone less erudite than the speaker.

The use of the phrase is, for me, bankrupt: anyone in the modern West claiming to "speak truth to power" is merely trying to cover their partisan, usually vicious attacks with a panacea of bravery, when in fact many, if not most, using that phrase don't have the least to fear of speaking their "truth": if anything, it is rewarded with self-serving accolades from the peer group...

Speaking truth to power? That'll be the day from the left. They have become so reactionary that they can be considered, at best, regressives, not progressives.

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