During the twenties, so a story goes, Clemenceau, shortly before his death, found himself engaged in a friendly talk with a representative of the Weimar Republic on the question of guilt for the outbreak of the First World War. “What, in your opinion,” Clemenceau was asked, “will future historians think of this troublesome and controversial issue?” He replied “This I don’t know. But I know for certain that they will not say Belgium invaded Germany.”
Hannah Arendt recounts this story in her 1967 essay, “Truth and Politics” a philosophical analysis of the relations between truth, lies, fact, opinion, and power, one that gains new relevance in the era of Trump. Nearly every day, there is an event or tweet that might recall Arendt’s essay and its detailed demonstration that the problem of “fake news” is as old as the problem of power itself.
So to last week’s shocking example: the harassment of Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder, by a large group of high school boys from Covington Catholic High School (Kentucky) taking part in this year’s March for Life, or what I prefer to call – in my own take on truth and politics – the annual march against women’s reproductive rights. Yes, I willfully own that I was critical of the MAGA-capped boys from the start.
The first videos to emerge gave me my Clemenceau truth: I know for certain, I said to myself, that this was an incident of racist bullying and harassment. I saw an older man with a drum, surrounded by laughing white boys, some of them mocking Native American chants, some making tomahawk-chop gestures. I saw the boy who blocked the older man’s path. I saw locked eyes and the chilling smile of he who believes the space is his to control. As a woman, I know that look.
Now, I have seen the longer footage, showing events before and after the incident. I have heard the conflicting accounts. So you may ask, do you still have your Clemenceau truth? And my answer? I do. My truth is that this was, indisputably, a racist aggression by white Trump supporters against a Native American elder.
This is not to say that I discount the other videos and accounts, the highly charged situation in which the event occurred, the presence of another group, the reported thoughts and actions of many who were there, including the key actors. What is more, I understand that what we call testimony, the act of witnessing, the capacity to say something happened because “I saw it with my own eyes” – all of these are fragile and fraught with problems. Those of us who were not there are second-hand witnesses. We can only approach the event as something mediated by smartphone videos and the accounts of first-hand witnesses.
Throughout the week that followed, new accounts emerged, not least that of the student who stood face to face with Nathan Phillips. Having hired a PR firm, the boy released what was clearly intended to be an authoritative account, the account of a white male voice, however young, taking control of the narrative. For a moment, I thought of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, as teenagers and then as adults. I wondered who the boy from Covington would be in ten or twenty years. Then came the network television interview, something that would not have been granted a black or brown boy in similar circumstances. Yet there was the boy from Covington again, asserting his knowledge over other knowledges, enjoying this key privilege of whiteness in order to deny what we had seen. He wore his privilege with ease, even if he lacked the tools to understand it.
With each passing day, new video emerged, swinging the pendulum of public opinion back and forth. Soon our armies of media commentators, hardly a Native American among them, retreated to that middle ground, the ground seemingly occupied by the centrist voice that begins by stating that we must see all sides, but ends by taking no side at all. This lack of courage mattered, because soon Trump weighed in, tweeting predictably that the boys had been “smeared” by the “evil” fake news.
So here’s my truth: I still see a young man with a smug smile of white entitlement blocking the path of an older man. I see the difference in skin colour. I see the difference in age. I see the MAGA hats, emblematic of misogyny and racism. I see that Nathan Phillips is terrifyingly outnumbered and that his drum can do little against raucous teenage jeers. I think of the hate speech and crimes that have escalated since the 2016 election. I recall the long history of my home country and its treatment of Native Americans. Then the recent history of Trump’s joking references to Pocahontas and Wounded Knee. I see, in sum, an appalling moment of racist harassment that will go down in history, along with the Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, as a signal example of Trump-era race hatred.
I raise the spectre of Charlottesville deliberately, because within days of the Covington story, we are nearing the moment when someone, a pundit or a racist president will announce that there were “fine people on both sides.” Readers will recall this notorious description Trump gave of the march which ended in the murder of Heather Heyer, a young woman protesting the actions of Neo-Nazis in her town.
To return to Arendt and her Clemenceau problem, one she analysed in far greater detail than can be offered here. But the key point, for our purposes, is her insight about truth and power:
It is true, considerably more than the whims of historians would be needed to eliminate from the record the fact that on the night of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the frontier of Belgium; it would require no less than a power monopoly over the entire civilized world. But such a power monopoly is far from being inconceivable, and it is not difficult to imagine what the fate of factual truth would be if power interests, national or social, had the last say in these matters.
What did I see? What did you see? What did we see? Yes, these questions require us to examine our own identities and positions in history, and in the present constellation of power. But more importantly, and as Arendt’s essay seems to anticipate, the distinction between truth and falsehood now demands deliberation on a daily basis. Its protection is a responsibility shared by all of us.
I assert the following: Belgium did not invade Germany in 1914. There were not fine people on both sides in Charlottesville. The smiling, chanting, tomahawk-chopping boys in MAGA caps were not innocent of a racist aggression against Native Americans.