Defend Truth


London Eye: Democratic institutions must be defended in an era of machismo and aggression


Margie Orford is the author of the Clare Hart crime series. The most recent title is Gallows Hill, published by Jonathan Ball. She is a member of the executive board of PEN International and of PEN South Africa. She is – to her surprise – currently living in London.

It is important that we use the democratic institutions that we have built up with difficulty and care in the past decades. We made them. We must defend them. And we must dial back the End-Of-Days rhetoric and keep on keeping on.

We are in a moment of peril,” Hillary Rodham Clinton tells a select group of the great, the good and the politically shell-shocked gathered at the Bonavera Centre for Human Rights at Oxford University. It makes me want to weep that Clinton has nothing better to do on a Tuesday in October than go to a human rights conference in Oxford in England to unveil a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The sun is shining, I think Eleanor is great, I have no real objection to public art and I’ve been a lifelong fan of human rights, but it’s all I can do not to yell:

Hillary! you should be in the White House. I know you’re not perfect and you had Bill as a husband, but you won the popular vote and you are sane, personable, experienced. You are not hell-bent on turning America into The Handmaid’s Tale and you’re equipped to do that really big job of being the boss of the world. Why are you here?”

As I listen to former Secretary Clinton describing this historical moment — that is now – with eloquence and erudition, I pay attention to her speech. How she speaks. What she says. She is quite at ease about empathy and building political bridges and she does this using full sentences, proper words, soundly reasoned arguments, statistics, facts, quotes from historians, writers and other politicians.

Benjamin Franklin, for instance, saying to his fellow signatories of the Declaration of Independence, that “we must hang together, or most assuredly, we shall hang separately”.

Clinton uses a form of public speech that was once so familiar that one hardly paid it any mind. It is a form of speech that has, in two short years, become a foreign tongue in public discourse. The current incumbent in the White House, the man who Secretary Clinton refers to in her speech simply as “my opponent”, is successfully waging a form of total war against truth, language and, it seems, reason itself.

Not only is Trump conducting a sustained attack on language and thought, he is doing the same to America’s democratic institutions. Listening to Clinton gives me that Titanic feeling. The iceberg might be orange this time, but what she says convinces me that — unless there’s a miracle, one that ordinary people opposed to tyranny will have to perform — we’re all going down.

Trump has both emulated and emboldened tyrants across the globe. In Russia there is his Big-Brother-in-hacking Vladimir Putin using the internet to stir up hornets’ nests of xenophobia and nativism in the US, the UK and across Europe.

Then there are the common of garden thugs. Duterte in the Philippines has suspended any notion of due process and is waging a bloodthirsty war on his own citizens in the name of a “war on drugs”. In Brazil, far right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a man who talks openly of violent rape and who, like Trump, says he will withdraw his country from the Paris climate treaty, if elected.

In Syria President Bashar al-Assad runs amok killing his own citizens and, across the border, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tightens an iron fist around the democratic throat of his country.

In China there is credible evidence that in Xinjiang province between 250,000 and a million Uyghurs — an ethnic minority Muslim group — have been herded into a vast internment camp. The great firewall of China that has gone up under President Xi Jinping comes with the all-pervasive use of facial recognition surveillance technology that sets the scene for a form of totalitarian control that surpasses anything George Orwell imagined in Nineteen Eighty-four.

In Europe the far right is in power in Hungary and Poland. In the rest of Europe the right is on the move on the streets and in opposition parties that, increasingly, set the political agenda and whip up hostility to refugees in the camps on the other side of the European border and in the clandestine ports in Libya, where people risk death in order to escape the poverty and war that have made their homes uninhabitable.

Moving through this alt-right landscape, a transatlantic alliance of the far right, a kind of shadow Nato, is Steve Bannon. Trump’s own Goebbels and a man who advises his clients to wear the terms of fascist, misogynist, racist, homophobe as a badge of honour. And they do.

Clinton is a foreign policy hawk and she makes no bones about it, but given the current aggression from Putin’s Russia and the blunt, blind nationalism of the present US administration, the familiar stability of Nato, the United Nations, international treaties and an absence of trade wars seems like a wonderful but lost dream.

It’s going to get worse,” warns Secretary Clinton, “before it gets better.”

Don’t we know it. Watching one’s Twitter feed is like watching a political horror movie on fast-forward. Politicians of carnivalesque machismo and aggression swagger across the world stage. The US, says a bemused-looking Clinton, is better off than ever in history and yet there is so much resentment against “the others”.

This rhetoric of fear of the so-called “stranger”, the designated “outsider” who will turn the future into a dystopia, is nothing new, but what Trump has done at his rallies is to turn this manufactured fear into a form of “justified anger”.

A righteous anger that can justify the ripping of babies from the arms of their parents at the border.

Ask yourselves why this is happening now,” says Clinton, “because there is no evidence that it acts as a deterrent to people fleeing the violence of their own countries to the south.”

There is a rustling of papers in the conference room. No one can stomach reflecting on what is to come, if we seem to have already accepted and moved on from the fact there are now concentration camps for babies, special courts — as reported by the New York Times — in which children as young as two appear alone before a judge. We all know — those of us sitting in this comfortable Oxford room, and those outside it — that this has happened on our watch.

We are responsible, but no one knows what to do. That much is apparent even as Clinton speaks of the malignant and predatory capitalism that Trump and his backers have unleashed. It is one that brings together vast numbers of the economically marginalised and the very rich who profit unimaginably from the deregulation — the most obvious being the withdrawal from the climate change treaties — that Trump has unleashed in the US and that Brexit will in the UK.

It is indeed a dangerous moment. And the people listening to Hillary Clinton — and to each other speak — are gathered to try to understand why, across the world, the press and civil society organisations are under attack, as are the gains made by the civil rights movement, the struggle for women’s rights and for gay rights. To address the fact that the killings of journalists and human rights defenders are on the rise and what to do about the increasing impunity of governments and the shadowy criminal syndicates that benefit from the silence of citizens.

For all of these emboldened strongmen, human rights and environmental protections are seen as an obstacle and a burden. Something to be shucked off.

In the garden of the newly opened Centre for Human Rights — whose founding director is the former South African Constitutional Court justice, Kate O’Regan — the wonderful statue of Eleanor Roosevelt is illuminated by a single spotlight. This great champion of human rights leaning against a plinth, her long legs stretched out in front of her and a hand on her chin. She returns the collective gaze of the gathered audience with a look that is both gentle and piercing.

She has been here before.

It is 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948. It took two years to draft that document, a process that, driven by Roosevelt, began in 1946 in the wake of a devastating war and the promise of “never again”.

Representatives from across the world battered by six years of war came together to seek a way to avert a repeat of the tyranny and hideous slaughter of World War II. The document has shaped the post-war consensus and it took two years of painstaking and arduous international effort to draft, a slow and careful back and forth to ensure that all the nations participating in these discussions could agree.

It was based on consensus, compromise and respect. On empathy and trust. When that document finally went to the vote not a single country voted against it, although the Soviet Union abstained. In the end — across many differences — an agreement was reached on a set of fundamental principles about what it means to be human and what it means to be free.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not make the world perfect but — and for millions of citizens across the globe — it brought more freedom, not less, and for many it brought the possibility of living a decent life closer.

Roosevelt was, however, insistent as Clinton pointed out in her speech, that it is essential “to continue translating the words of human rights into facts on the ground, into the reality of people’s everyday lives… into those small places, close to home”.

So close,” as Roosevelt said, “and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world… That’s where rights become real and where they must be defended. Not just by governments, but by all of us.”

Those words and Roosevelt’s wise and enduring regard made me reassess the heightened rhetoric that is so often used, that I find myself using, to paint an apocalyptic political landscape. When one looks at it one realises that we reproduce that awful vision of “American carnage” of Trump’s inauguration speech, which was both a dog-whistle and a bone thrown to the far right.

We must take care of the images we use, as we should be careful of our language. It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said that one should “never belittle the value of words, for they have a way of getting translated into facts”. And facts, in this war of attrition against the truth, are important.

Although it is true that there is a great deal of repression and it is getting worse globally, it is also true that a small percentage of people voted Trump into power and that a xenophobic Brexit was achieved by a margin of two percent. This is important.

It is also important that we use the democratic institutions that we have built up with difficulty and care in the last decades. We made them. We must defend them. And we must dial back the End-Of-Days rhetoric and keep on keeping on.

So, as Clinton said in defence of a democratic culture of human rights:

As we face the enormously complex challenges of mass migration, artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, what we need most is actually quite simple — we have to rediscover our common humanity. Not an abstract warm feeling for the entire species. But the ability to see ourselves in others, not just when it is easy, but when it’s hard.’ DM

Margie Orford is an internationally acclaimed writer. Her Clare Hart novels – a literary crime fiction series that explores violence and its effects in South Africa – are published in the USA and the UK and have been translated into more than ten languages. She is an award-winning journalist who writes about crime, gender violence, politics and freedom of expression, and literature. She is a member of the executive board of PEN International and of PEN South Africa. She is – to her surprise – currently living in London. Follow her on Twitter at @MargieOrford


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