Why censoring our media damages our future as well as our present
Once upon a time I studied history. I studied it because I loved it, not because I had some great plan for a fabulous high-powered career as a historian, but because the past has always fascinated me. Other places and other times, the ways that other people lived and the things that they lived through often held more of a grip on my attention than the dim, grim real world, and although I dutifully kept up with contemporary events, I was much better versed in the political intrigues of the Early Modern period than the day-to-day goings on in Westminster. The past is a fascinating place, made all the more so because it really existed. Or did it? Every story, each event, is a reality with more than one side. Picking over sources, examining them for context and bias, evaluating their weight and creating as true a picture of events as possible is a huge part of being a historian. Like reading a novel and gauging each character’s motivation, so each source has a life and identity of its own. History does not grant access to the truth, but it incorporates the range of truths necessary to discover the full story of any story. Of course, the version of events that gets accepted into the public imagination most often depends on who controls the narrative.
Every school child knows that history is written by the winners. Everything we think we know is based on the information available to us, what was written and what was allowed to survive. It doesn’t take a great enquiring mind to understand that every lesson we are taught is viewed through a prism of right and wrong constructed by contemporary moral and cultural values. Richard III became a murderous hunchback as Shakespeare curried favour with the granddaughter of his usurper. Napoleon was a megalomaniac who overreached himself militarily. Of course, we know the Nazis were bad because they really were bad, but as we see in dystopian television dramas like The Man In The High Castle and The Plot Against America, we may all have ended up holding that knowledge secretly to our hearts between salutes, heils and goose-steps. The Soviet and Chinese communists rewrote their own history books to reflect their ideological rejection of all past societies and punished anyone whose narrative differed from theirs with years in labour camps, and the Khmer Rouge, in a ludicrous feat of revisionist psychosis, decided to set the clock back to Year Zero and begin history again. About as clever and rational as genocide. Oh wait…
I’m veering off all over the shop here, but what has pulled my mind back towards the meaning of history, the need for continued narratives, diverse narratives, contradictory narratives, is the terrifying path we seem to be sliding down right now. We used to think that fake news was all we had to worry about, but with the orange despot’s latest attack on all forms of media that, apparently, should be shut down for daring to question his immense wisdom, who have the gall to suggest readers look into actual facts rather than accepting a blatant pack of lies shoved in their faces, we need to think seriously about what history will say about us, what record there will be left of what people really thought and felt, what was really happening and how we got ourselves into this ghastly mess we’re trying to live through. By attempting to shut down debate, to quash alternative opinions and label any attempts at invoking facts that contradict state propaganda as anti-democratic, our society is literally turning in on itself. We have become the snake chewing on its own tail.
Every war we have fought, every sanction imposed, every negotiating table we have steered towards a democratic resolution is being systematically undermined by this sweeping destruction of our own democracy. The limiting of information to party-sanctioned hyperbole is at the very heart of the communist and fascist ideologies we have spent the last hundred years fighting against in one form or another. How can no one see that we are becoming the thing that we purport to hate? There are so many things wrong with our society, but the limiting of information and undermining of facts that we are currently at risk from is terrifyingly toxic and dangerous, because without free speech and free reportage we won’t even know how many of our other freedoms are being taken away. If we really want to live in a society where dissidents are spirited away by unnamed security forces in the middle of the night without a word and the pleas of their families are never heard or acknowledged we are going the right way about it. Trump is well on the way to ending up with his name on the same list as Franco, Pinochet, Stalin, Pol Pot and of course Hitler. Information is power. Free speech is enshrined in the constitution of this country, but for how much longer? As respected media outlets die from lack of funding and our peer-to-peer social networks face the possibility of censorship, who will tell the other stories, the unofficial stories, arguably the real stories, and how will we preserve them for future generations? And how long before I end up on a blacklist just for writing all this down?