Essays: The terrifying truth |
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The terrifying truth

THE Beeb’s God-slot being in an ongoing disintegration situation, bits of it are constantly flying off and taking up independent orbits in other parts of Sunday. To watch Everyman (BBC1) last weekend, you had to stay up late. It was well worth it.

Fronted by Vanya Kewley, the programme dealt with what has been happening to the Church in the Philippines, where the population is 85 per cent Catholic. Since the government, headed by a charmer called Marcos, is 100 per cent repressive, the Church is placed in a morally taxing position. Commendably, it has chosen to fight back, using the weapon which State terrorism, whether of the left or the right, dreads most — the truth.

As the camera eloquently demonstrated, there are people in Manila who live in garbage heaps. But what the camera could not reach was illuminated even more vividly by the quiet words of the priests and nuns. Eschewing all hysteria or even, apparently, ordinary emotion, they recounted what they had heard from their flock about the kind of treatment the security forces have been handing out. When it’s a nun that tells you about women prisoners having electrified spoons pushed into their vaginas, the information somehow acquires an extra edge — especially when you consider the likelihood that the same thing might very shortly be happening to her.

Doing Christ’s work in the Philippines obviously takes nerves of tungsten. One’s conviction that these brave people were telling nothing but the truth was reinforced by an interview with the Secretary for National Defence, a glib smoothie prolific with the kind of denials which add up to a full admission. Repression? Torture? Madam, you must be dreaming. Why, in the last month 60,000 people (his figures) were brought ‘under our control’ (his words), and do you know what? ‘You could count on the fingers of one hand those who complained.’

For any student of ideological double-talk, the Secretary’s self-refuting apologetics conformed to a standard pattern. In fact the whole murderous scene in the Philippines conforms to a standard pattern. People grow bored with hearing about these abominations not because they are insensitive people, but because the abominations are so repetitive. When an apologist for the current Soviet regime tells you that the dissidents are asking for what they get, he is aided in making his point by the fact that you have heard it all before from the Stalinists. It is all so banal that you feel foolish talking back. Similarly, the Secretary for National Defence in the Philippines sounds like the Shah of Iran without the medals. He makes less noise when he walks, but he talks exactly the same line of guff.

For all but the most alert, the aesthetic sense blunts the ethical sense. You just get weary at hearing these characters read from the same well-worn script. If the left tortures the right and the right tortures the left, doesn’t that make torture a law of life? You might as well get angry at the sky being blue. When everybody talks such plausible moonshine, there is no language left over with which to state the obvious.

Listen to Lord Chalfont, for example, being reasonable in The Times about his latest trip to Iran. He is undoubtedly a decent man. He is quite possibly correct in believing that we need the Shah’s friendship if we are to stave off Red domination. But how can he think he is proving anything by announcing triumphantly that the Shah has invited the Red Cross to inspect Iranian prisons?

For such an intelligent man to advance arguments which he must know to be inconclusive takes a special chain of reasoning, one which goes: to hold off the Soviet Union we need Iran, and to keep Iran we need the Shah, and to keep the Shah we must condone absolutism, and in condoning absolutism we must concede that torture is in some circumstances unavoidable. It is the Big Picture, the Global View.

In the days when the Church still dealt directly in temporal power, it thought the same way. In some part of the world it still does. But in an encouraging number of instances the Church is now ready to insist that torture can never be a side issue. Where it exists, it is the central issue. Whatever global strategy might seem to demand, certain things are simply impermissible. Ends do not justify means.

As it happens, there are good reasons for thinking that this view is politically sound, since it can be persuasively argued that in politics there are no such things as ends, there are only means. But even if it were politically unsound, it would still make so much spiritual sense that any other kind of argument would sound opportunistic in comparison. And in fact what makes Vanya Kewley’s programmes so inspiring (she did one about Paraguay) — all the same tortures, all the same casuistry from the regime) is the reminder they provide that there is such a thing as moral conviction — distinguishable from dogmatism in that moral conviction exacts sacrifices from those who profess it, while dogmatism always exacts the sacrifices from someone else.

In comparison with the career expectancies of a Philippines nun, the agonies poured forth in Marriage Guidance (Thames) should have been pretty funny. Unfortunately misery is not relative. It was impossible not to sob with embarrassed pity for the poor clods who had chosen to confide their intimate problems to a marriage guidance counsellor in front of a camera which would eventually pass their secrets on to several million strangers.

My favourites were Nigel and Diane, sullenly outraged that their National Insurance stamp had not bought them happiness. As for Pete and Charmaine, it was marvellous how the counsellor cast Pete as the villain, when it should have been obvious that he had no choice but to get out, before Charmaine’s limitless supply of tears ate him up like a bath of acid.

Is Murder Most English (BBC2) the dullest series of all time? Nobody can stay awake long enough to tell. During the last episode a fly passed between me and the television set, went into a shallow glide and crashed. Heartbreak House (BBC1) was no great thrill either. Gielgud was a treat to hear and Lesley-Anne Down was a sight for sore eyes, but I’ve seen student productions that had more snap.

Rich Man, Poor Man (LWT) wheezed and heaved to an end, with Rudy and Falconetti shooting each other full of holes. Does that mean they’re dead? Is the rain dry? Is the Sahara wet?

The Observer, 22nd May 1977