‘A democratic vote swayed by lies is not democracy’—Mary Beard on what antiquity can teach us about political spin

Boris Johnson (left) and Emperor Nero (right)

The world may be gaping in astonishment at the mess the UK is making with Brexit, but in the arts it can still hack it. Nearly half of this weeks Emmy awards went to British TV programmes, and Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge university who is one of the UKs most distinguished academics and a household name because of her TV programmes, has won the J. Paul Getty Trusts highest accolade, the J. Paul Getty Medal, together with the US artists Ed Ruscha and Lorna Simpson.

Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum and himself a broadcasting star, was invited to make the presentation on 16 September and he told The Art Newspaper, “Mary has found ways of engaging a new generation and world-wide public with the ideas and ideals that have shaped both ancient Rome and modern Europe. She believes that we cant understand ourselves unless we understand them. When she leads us into Roman politics, we realise what it means to watch fundamental political conventions dissolve”.

Mary Beard has challenged the assumptions of art historian Kenneth Clark in her 2018 remake of Civilisation on the BBC and in an imminent TV series about nakedness in art, but because she is also an energetic, if courteous, political commentator and the question of what is truth is so hot today, The Art Newspaper decided to interview her instead on what antiquity had to say about lying politicians and democracy.

Mary Beard in Civilisations (2018) Nutopia

Are we alert enough to whether politicians are lying to us?

Mary Beard: Its one of the reasons why we have to pay attention to the long history of debate dating back to the ancient world. Really important thoughts come out of Graeco-Roman antiquity about how you debate politics, what counts as truth, how you judge somebody from the way they speak and what the very nature of persuasion is.

The comedies of Aristophanes, for example, in the middle to late fifth century BC raise the issue of what happens when someone makes a bad argument sound like a good one; what is the responsibility of the public speaker, and is rhetoric—how you frame your argument to be persuasive—a dangerous thing. Weve never needed some of these debates of the ancient Greeks and Romans more than now.

Cicero was deeply worried by the way the public speaker gets up to perform: whats the difference between the public rhetorician and, in his terms, a common or garden actor; where does authority lie?

The historian Tacitus was wryly cynical when Nero gave his first speech because it was the first ever by a Roman emperor to have been written by someone else—“borrowed words,” said Tacitus. There was a whole set of connections between you, your sincerity, your authenticity, what you said, how you were judged and about its truth.

Did they worry about how the people could be misled and the moral responsibility of speakers not to mislead them?

Yes. Opponents of Athenian democracy in the fifth century BC—and most of the literature we have about Athenian democracy deplored it —worried about precisely this: if you cant trust the rhetorician because he will sway the mob—their word—to take a decision on any number of false premises, how far does this undermine democracy?

The great example of this is during Athens great war against Sparta in the second half of the fifth century, when the people were persuaded to send an expedition to Sicily, which was one of the bread-baskets of the Mediterranean. This was supposed to bring Athens the resources it needed to defeat Sparta, but it was a total disaster and brought about Athens defeat.

That incident was often remembered as an example of how glib, rhetorically specious speeches by political figures persuaded an ignorant populace to take a decision that was very stupid. And there are obvious parallels, I have to say, with today.

Is this why you comment a lot on Twitter and in your blog on contemporary politics?

I think we are going in a difficult direction. What bothers me, and this goes back to debates that have been going on for thousands of years, is how we define democracy. We all worship democracy; every time you want to criticise someones point of view, you say, “That is very undemocratic”, but we say it in a sloganising way that hasnt remotely begun to face up to the complexities of what a modern democratic process is.

Its one thing to say that, for better or worse—and I think for the better—democracy is the form of government we want, but it doesnt mean we know what democracy is. It doesnt start to debate what counts as a democratic decision, who is included in making the decision.

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