Monday, March 13, 2017

Twenty Seventeen

Last week, after one of the latest false claims from Donald Trump, Nebraska Republican senator Ben Sasse remarked, “We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust." Why is it that, at the very moment when the public are starving for facts, President Trump is challenging the importance of science in establishing those facts? And when the truth is becoming harder to find, why is he calling the press the enemy of the people?

In a recent Guardian article, Jill Abramson writes: "Fake news has morphed into something far more egregious, fake history." Abramson used as examples of the Trump administration's falsification of history Ben Carson's calling Africans brought to America as slaves "immigrants," Betsy DeVos's assertion that black colleges, which were until fifty or sixty years ago the only places where blacks could get college educations, were examples of the importance of students having the freedom to choose where they are schooled, and Stephen Bannon's claims that Joseph McCarthy was an American hero.(1)

In another article from Politifact, Joshua Gillin reported on "James McDaniel, a 28-year-old Clearwater native, said he created a fake news website last month as a joke to see just how naive Internet readers could be." In less than two weeks, his website received got one million views.(2)

It appears that the very consumption habits of the public contributes to the loss of historical memory. In the Authors' Note to their splendid book, The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge wrote about a quite strange phenomenon:

"We have done what we could to verify the facts contained in this short history. A number of errors must still remain, if only because the sources that we chiefly rely on - memoirs and contemporary newspapers - are themselves far from trustworthy. For example, we have lately been interested to find widespread disagreement in the Press about even so recent and important an event as the German re-occupation of the Rhineland: according to a large body of opinion it took place in March 1934, not 1936. We cannot explain this."

Further into their book, Graves and Hodge suggest that "The more newspapers people read, the shorter grows their historical memory; yet most people read little else. Any sudden overwhelming public event - such as the outbreak of war, the coming of peace, a general election, a large-scale strike, a ruinous financial crisis - that engrosses the headlines for days or weeks, is a sponge for all that immediately preceded it."(3)

Unfortunately, this sort of thing - the deliberate lying of political demagogues - is nothing new. As long ago as 1942, George Orwell, who had witnessed how nearly all the accounts of the Spanish Civil War in the British press were distortions of the facts, worried that unbiased historical accounts were becoming a thing of the past: 

"This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the  feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history. How will the history of the Spanish war be written? If Franco remains in power his nominees will write the history books. But suppose Fascism is finally defeated and some kind of democratic government restored in Spain in the fairly near future; even then, how is the history of the war to be written? What kind of records will Franco have left behind him?  Suppose even that the records kept on the Government side are recoverable — even so, how is a true history of the war to be written? For, as I have pointed out already, the Government also dealt extensively in lies. From the anti-Fascist angle one could write a broadly truthful history of the war, but it would be a partisan history, unreliable on every minor point. Yet, after all, some kind of history will be written, and after those who actually remember the war are dead, it will be universally accepted. So for all practical purposes the lie will have become truth. 

I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is  peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed  and were more or less discoverable. And in practice there was always a considerable body of fact which would have been agreed to by almost everyone. If you look up the history of the [First World] war in, for instance, the Encyclopedia Britannica, you will find  that a respectable amount of the material is drawn from German sources. A British and a German historian would disagree deeply on many things, even on fundamentals, but there would still be that body of, as it were, neutral fact on which neither would seriously challenge the other. It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’. There is only ‘German Science’, ‘Jewish Science’, etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some  ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement."(4)

Two years later, Orwell observed: 

"A certain degree of truthfulness was possible so long as it was admitted that a fact may be true even if you don't like it. Even as late as the last war it was possible for the Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance, to compile its articles on the various campaigns partly from German sources. Some of the facts - the casualty figures, for instance - were regarded as neutral and in substance accepted by everybody. No such thing would be possible now. A Nazi and a non-Nazi version of the present war would have no resemblance to one another, and which of them finally gets into the history books will be decided not by evidential methods but on the battlefield. 

During the Spanish civil war I found myself feeling very strongly that a  true history of this war never would or could be written. Accurate figures, objective accounts of what was happening, simply did not exist. And if I felt that even in 1937, when the Spanish Government was still in being, and the lies which the various Republican factions were telling about each other and about the enemy were relatively small ones, how does the case stand now? Even if Franco is overthrown, what kind of records will the future historian have to go upon?  And if Franco or anyone at all resembling him remains in power, the history of the war will consist quite largely of "facts" which millions of people now living know to be lies. So for practical purposes the lie will have become truth. This kind of thing is happening all the time. In no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the  winners. 

The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits "atrocities" but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future."

And yet Orwell remained optimistic: "There is some hope . . . that the liberal habit of mind, which thinks of truth as something outside yourself, something to be discovered, and not as something you can make up as you go along, will survive. But I still don't envy the future historian's job."(5)

Not unexpectedly, but still at enormous cost, Orwell's side won the war. Still unconvinced that his fellow citizens of Europe had lost their appetite for totalitarianism, he devoted his last years, until his death in January 1950, to its satirization (in Animal Farm) and its chilling future manifestation (1984). While Orwell's prognosis was sound, his timing was off. The year 1984, though chosen arbitrarily, just thirty-five years after the novel's publication, wasn't especially auspicious for totalitarianism. What Orwell and his publishers could not have foreseen was that it would be in 2017 that the slogans
would become so frighteningly relevant, and that his prescient novel would become an international best seller all over again.

(1) Jill Abramson, "Alternative history: the dangerous byproduct of fake facts," The Guardian, 8 March 2017.
(2) Joshua Gillin, "Fake news website starts as joke, gains 1 million views within 2 weeks," Politifact, March 9, 2017.
(3) Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, London: Faber & Faber, 1941.
(4) George Orwell, "Looking Back on the Spanish War," 1942.
(5) George Orwell, "As I Please," Tribune, 4 February 1944.

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