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A political primer (part 4): Lies and Their Impact

The entry in Hammarskjöld’s private journal, Markings, for the weekend of November 19–20, 1955, is one of his most provocative reflections, a political primer of great depth. This is the fourth and last consecutive entry to explore and interpret it. For the complete text and more detail about time and place, look at the initial discussion. Two points here concerning the impact of lies on political process are more enigmatic than much else in the primer. That’s where we’ll bear down.

Hammarskjöld wrote:

A successful lie is doubly a lie, an error set right is weightier than truth:  only a compromise-free "honorableness" can reach the bedrock of decency which you should always expect to find, even under deep layers of evil.

Flexibility must not mean fear of going on the offensive: the semblance of influence is sought at the cost of its reality.

(Markings, 114, translation slightly revised)

The first thought here is vertiginous. Truth and lie swirl in an unfamiliar pattern: lies and double lies, errors and errors corrected, calculation of the weight of truth as if it were an element in the periodic table. How to orient ourselves? Best to tread with care.

Here is a reasoning, perhaps apt: A successful lie is not only launched by its originator, it enters the fabric of reality and distorts it. Is it for this reason doubly a lie—a lie in the liar, a lie for those taken in by it? That may be the meaning. Be that as it may, there is already a sense of weight: the weight of a successful lie has twice the weight of a lie detected and dismissed.

An error set right or corrected is "weightier than truth". The translation is accurate—"weightier" is just what he wrote. The excellent German translation of Markings seems to acknowledge the enigmatic quality of this passage and translates simply "better than truth," leaving no doubt in the reader’s mind about meaning.

But where are we now? It may be that Hammarskjöld is measuring impacts: an error set right has more impact on developments than a truth long since recognized. Just as a lie that successfully makes its way is a double burden.

Whatever precisely he means, his message is the value of exploring the flow and impact of lies in the political process. To explore with something like scientific interest, though with pragmatic purpose.

In later years Hammarskjöld returned to the topic of lies and their impact in powerful statements. For example, during the Suez Crisis of 1956–57—a brief invasion of Egypt by Israel, France, and Great Britain with a hugely difficult, long aftermath—Hammarskjöld wrote confidentially to one of his closest friends, the painter Bo Beskow: "One of the lasting experiences from the last months and weeks is that, with our so-called rising civilization, we do in no way see a decline in the art of lying. The modern media of communication, the modern entanglement of interests all over the world, have opened the door to a paradise for those who fight with words representing mala fide assumptions, false presentations, invidious comments, outright slander—and so on…. But why be bitter. At the same time you have the insistence on straight lines and simple facts, and simple rights, and I kind of feel that, like grass, this attitude, and its results, is more long-lived and more certain to endure than the sterile fancy flowers of the moment."

This concludes our exploration of the 1955 "political primer". It’s a haunting statement, a challenging one. And permanent: will the need for these attitudes and approaches go away?