In the most (and maybe only) memorable line of the movie A Few Good Man, the character Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) lashes out at Lieutenant Kaffee (Tom Cruise) from the witness stand: “You can’t handle the truth!“
In the context of the movie, he’s saying that comfortable civilians are incapable of handling the reality that their comfort depends on rough men standing ready to do violence on their behalf.
Jack Nicholson’s iconic delivery of the line got him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. (He lost to Gene Hackman, who won for Unforgiven.)
The line became a meme before memes were a thing—even before it was a thing to say something was a thing.
Here’s the full context, courtesy of AmericanRhetoric.com:
Col Jessup: I’ll answer the question. You want answers?
LTJG Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to them.
Col Jessup: You want answers?!
LTJG Kaffee: I want the truth!
Col Jessup: You can’t handle the truth!
Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know—that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives; and my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.
You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall—you need me on that wall.
We use words like “honor,” “code,” “loyalty.” We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punch line.
I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it.
I would rather that you just said “thank you” and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand the post. Either way, I don’t give a DAMN what you think you’re entitled to!
I open with that cinematic reminiscence because an article in Friday’s Berlingske examines the question of whether or not we can handle the truth.
The article itself is actually describing an exchange on a Berlingske podcast in which the editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Weekendavisen (literal translation: “the weekend newspaper”) Martin Krasnik debated Margrethe Vestager, an Executive Vice President of the European Commission and former Danish government minister as a member of the Radikale party, on the topic of the EU’s having banned Russia Today and Sputnik from the EU.
Krasnik’s arguments are presented succinctly:
“Firstly, it’s old-fashioned that the EU bans Russian propaganda from two state (television) channels, because propaganda takes place all over social media in every possibly way. Secondly, there’s a built-in distrust of EU citizens. It’s this notion that they’re simply unable to see through it themselves, and it also means that we don’t get a clear and distinct insight into how the Russians carry out propaganda,” says Martin Krasnik, who believes that the EU “perceives EU citizens as children.”
“Thirdly, it gives an excuse to autocrats or dictators who themselves censor wildly, including our own free media and broadcasts to their parts of the world. They can say: Look, you do it yourself. You censor yourselves, hypocrites.”
(Krasnik) believes that the sanction against RT and Sputnik “is part of a larger complex, where the EU isn’t a staunch defender of freedom of expression.”
Vestager’s defense is even more succinct:
“We did it because we believe that this is hybrid warfare, and the way of manipulating our thinking is completely integrated with the drones and missiles that the Russians are sending down on Ukrainian citizens. The two things are completely connected,” said the commissioner.
The host of the podcast asks her why they’re connected:
“Because it is so important for the Russians to have a European openness to the idea that they could actually be a tiny bit right. That the Russians were perhaps victims of the fact that Ukraine would like to be more European. So therefore the propaganda and manipulation from the Russian state-owned media is completely integrated into the rest of their warfare.”
(The podcast host) Mette Østergaard further asks whether it would not be an advantage if the citizens of the EU themselves could be allowed to be critical of the Russian propaganda. Margrethe Vestager replied to that:
“It’s just manipulation…. It has nothing to do with freedom of speech. We are exposed to warfare, and then you can find all sorts of information about Russian propaganda in all sorts of other places. But that you don’t want to commit to the part of the warfare that is aimed directly at our brains, and where you know that it works 100 percent, I think that’s … I think that’s a really, really important discussion.”
When you boil it all down, it comes down to one of the central conflicts of our age: is censorship necessary?
Can we handle the truth?
Vestager plainly thinks not—she comes right out and says that propaganda “works 100 percent.”
Got that? If Russia Today tells us that Ukrainians are all genocidal, drug-snarfing Nazi homosexuals, we’re going to believe it. We’re defenseless against Russian propaganda. (I don’t know why Russian propaganda “works 100 percent” and western propaganda doesn’t; is Vestager deluded or naive enough to believe the west isn’t engaged in the propaganda game? Is her own defense of squashing Russian propaganda not in itself a kind of propaganda?)
Krasnik not only believes that we can handle the truth, but implies that the EU’s lack of trust in its own citizens’ ability to differentiate truth from fiction may be a more significant problem than any Russian propaganda.
In recent years the western left has gone all-in on censorship, always for our own good. Their argument in most cases isn’t that we can’t handle the truth, but more often a variant of our being unable to recognize or understand it—or being too gullible or stupid to be left to our own devices.
Are we free and autonomous citizens governing ourselves by means of representative governments, or are we merely the wards of a benevolent state?
That’s the central question of our era. Everything else is derivative. The climate, energy, inflation, vaccines, masking, lockdowns, Ukraine, Twitter, transgenderism: those are all just different facets of the same carved stone, and that stone is the question of where human sovereignty belongs: with the individual or with the collective.
Martin Krasnik thinks European citizens are free and sovereign individuals entitled to make moral, political, and social judgments of their own—and even have the right to be wrong.
Margrethe Vestager thinks European citizens are helpless children too dimwitted to resist even the clumsiest propaganda.
Those are radically different visions and it’s not clear to me they can ever be reconciled. Either each of us is our own master—or we answer to someone else.
The forces of collectivism are ascendant in the west. Certainly it’s mostly a well-meaning, good-intentioned, smiley kind of collectivism: all of it exercised for our own good, our own protection, our own welfare.
But once the structures of even the most benevolent collectivism are in place, it doesn’t take long for its controls to fall into the wrong hands. (And given enough power, there are no right hands except for those prepared to hurl the ring into the lava of Mt. Doom.)
The debate is not inconsequential.
Can we handle the truth?