Controlling the Narrative
Those who either attack or defend a minister in such a government as ours, where the utmost liberty is allowed, always carry matters to an extreme, and exaggerate his merit or demerit with regard to the public. His enemies are sure to charge him with the greatest enormities, both in domestic and foreign management; and there is no meanness or crime, of which, in their account, he is not capable. Unnecessary wars, scandalous treaties, profusion of public treasure, oppressive taxes, every kind of maladministration is ascribed to him. To aggravate the charge, his pernicious conduct, it is said, will extend its baneful influence even to posterity, by undermining the best constitution in the world, and disordering that wise system of laws, institutions, and customs, by which our ancestors, during so many centuries, have been so happily governed. He is not only a wicked minister in himself, but has removed every security provided against wicked ministers for the future. —the 18th century philosopher David Hume
I used to think, naively it turns out, that history, of all fields, was pretty much settled, at least with regard to the distant past; the only way to change it would be to unearth some inscription, or find some old text in some remote Syrian monastery, or some such, which would call the established narrative into question, or overturn it, or at least fill in some important blanks. I thought records of the past are past and cannot be modified. But it turns out I was very much mistaken.
My first awareness of “historical plasticity” came many years ago when I read an Anglican Christian Bible commentary. The reverend author claimed that, in all probability, the “bad” kings of Israel and Judea denounced in the books of Chronicles and Kings—the ones who defiled the Temple and the land with heathen idols, etc.—were probably not that bad. The “bad” kings lived at times when one of the neighboring powers, generally Egypt in the southwest or Assyria or Babylon in the east, held Israel or Judea in vassalage, thereby requiring the Hebrew kings, for political reasons, to show respect for the dominant power’s state religion. The “good” kings, who tore down the idols and purified the Temple, tended to live at times when the neighboring powers were having difficulties and were not dominant over their Hebrew neighbors. The declarations of rulers to be “good” or “bad” was largely a matter of the authors (and later editors) of the Bible deciding and controlling the official narrative.
Years later, largely because reading about psychopaths is entertaining, I started reading about Roman Emperors on Wikipedia. To my surprise, some of the most notorious emperors in history were defended and claimed to be no worse than most by recent historians. It seems that most chroniclers and historians in those days were members of the patrician elite; and any emperor who was unpopular with them, for example by disdaining the Senate, favoring the plebeian masses, or being of low birth himself, was decried as a monster (rather like the “never Trumpers” in the US Republican Party, let alone almost the entire Democratic Party, are doing with a certain person nowadays). A few more were denigrated by later Christian writers—just today I read the newsletter of an archeological society in my email declaring the emperor Domitian innocent of persecuting Christians, despite the fact that he’s been accused of it for the better part of 2000 years.
It has long been said that history is written by the victors. In history, up until recently at least, the designated good guys are the winners (“on the right side of history”), and the villains are the losers. If the Nazis had won the second World War, and they actually came pretty close, Adolf Hitler could be venerated now as a hero throughout the world, as a kind of messianic figure, with good points emphasized (or just made up) and bad points suppressed. His face would be on your money.
Even a traditional American hero like George Washington could have gone down in history as a traitorous Benedict Arnold if we Americans, the “good guys,” had lost the American Revolution. Even Abraham Lincoln—Honest Abe himself—could have been cast as a villain, or at least an inept bungler, if the Union had failed to win the Civil War. Seriously, the only Republican president of the United States to be hated more furiously by Democrats than Donald Trump was Abraham Lincoln: his election as president triggered southern states to secede from the Union before he ever took office. Even Trump’s electoral victory hasn’t caused a full-on Civil War (at least not yet). Members of the Democratic Party in the northern states tended to lean toward letting the south secede and keep their slaves; consequently they opposed the war and sneered at Lincoln as an uncouth hick. Back in those days, however, there was still some respect for the exalted office of President, so the Democrat-leaning press spent much of its efforts bashing the war effort in general and Lincoln’s two most effective commanders in particular: Ulysses S. Grant was portrayed in the pro-Democrat newspapers as an incompetent drunk; and William T. Sherman was accused of literal insanity. “Fake news” is definitely not a recent invention.
Lately even the evils of McCarthyism and of Richard Nixon have been attributed largely to contemporary leftist propaganda, as McCarthy presumably was right about communists and “pinkos” infiltrating American society—considering that nowadays it is being done right out in the open—although his reactions were of course rather extreme in any case; and Nixon was in a situation not so different from Trump, hated from the start by the Democrats and by many in his own party; and by recent standards he really wasn’t that bad—in his day spying required physical entry into the place where records were stored; whereas now it’s digital, virtual, and relatively easy, and runs rampant. Watergate might be worth about three weeks of hype nowadays, before the press moved on to the next scandal. (Or rather, it might be worth a few week’s hype at most if perpetrated by the side endorsed by the mainstream media, as with the Obama administration’s spying on the Trump campaign, which elicited almost no hype at all.)
Anyway, I finally realized that history, as well as journalism, is largely based on very biased and unreliable propaganda; and journalistic integrity is, for the most part, a myth. So what can be done about it? The philosopher Bertrand Russell suggested education of young people in such a way that they could actually think for themselves:
If there is to be toleration in the world, one of the things taught in schools must be the habit of weighing evidence, and the practice of not giving full assent to propositions which there is no reason to believe true. For example, the art of reading the newspapers should be taught. The schoolmaster should select some incident which happened a good many years ago, and roused political passions in its day. He should then read to the school children what was said by the newspapers on one side, what was said by those on the other, and some impartial account of what really happened. He should show how, from the biased account of either side, a practised reader could infer what really happened, and he should make them understand that everything in newspapers is more or less untrue.
But Russell’s suggestions for a better world in this speech, delivered in 1922, are almost the exact opposite of those endorsed by so-called “Progressives”:
There are two simple principles which, if they were adopted, would solve almost all social problems. The first is that education should have for one of its aims to teach people only to believe propositions when there is some reason to think that they are true. The second is that jobs should be given solely for fitness to do the work.
In addition to media bias, another obstacle to understanding past events is the fact that history is rewritten by academic historians stirring up new theories to make a name for themselves; which sometimes is useful for human knowledge and sometimes not. Also, new kinds of history are being written: feminist history, neo-Marxist history, black history, gay and lesbian history, and so forth. These also may make a legitimate contribution to human knowledge so long as they can steer clear of gross propagandism, which often is not the case. And the undermining of objectivity has escalated as a result of leftist postmodernism taking over academia, which of course includes departments of journalism and history. With postmodernism denying the very existence of objective truth, empirical reality is not so much discovered as dictated by whomever is in a position of authority—in essence, a regression to the Middle Ages.
So long as the narrative is one-sided, as it has usually been with us humans, it is very powerful in keeping people under control within a carefully maintained “consensus reality”; this helps to keep us docile and in line (which is one very important purpose of mass religions in the past). When the one-sided narrative of a society is questioned by a large number of its members, it can result in instability, a “paradigm shift,” and possibly bloody revolution and overthrow of the system. So it can be very convenient for the members of a society to agree, more or less, on one version of truth. In modern times the bedrock of this one version has been scientific empiricism; although now even science is under siege by the postmodern votaries of “It’s all a cultural construct.” The new left is attempting a paradigm shift and the control of consensus reality, and thereby the control of the minds of the people.
Consequently, it is becoming more and more obvious that the struggling mainstream media in the west are vehemently trying to control that one version of truth, the narrative that will become history after it stops being “news” (or rather propaganda). They are steadily losing control of this narrative, mainly as a result of Internet and alternative sources of information, as well as the common sense of the people; and they, along with the political left whom they represent, are growing frightened and desperate. They are doubling down on their insistence that they and no one else are calling it as it is, intensifying their efforts instead of more sensibly backing off, as though it’s all or nothing now. Furthermore, the desperation of their doubling down is apparent, and causing even more people to turn away from them. The Progressive endgame is going awry.
Here’s a big question to consider, and only time will tell what the answer will be: Will the globalist progressives or the nationalist cultural libertarians go down in history not only as the victors of the Culture War, but as the heroes and saviors of civilization? (I think we can safely rule out old-school liberal and conservative ruling elites in either case.) Will Donald Trump be described in history books a hundred years from now as a hero (a flawed, rascally Lincoln or at least a shrewd Reagan) or as a Hitler-like sociopath or Mussolini-esque swaggering, fraudulent buffoon? (Even these caricatures are prevalent now, and conditioned by propaganda.) Of course it depends upon who wins the Culture War, and I’m rooting for a vulgar, rascally Lincoln.
|the three most hated Republican presidents of all time|
(in descending order of hatedness)
The quotes by Bertrand Russell are taken from a transcript of a speech entitled “Free Thought and Official Propaganda,” which is worth reading, and which can be downloaded for free from projectgutenberg.org.
Also: Here is a link to a long but interesting article in The Weekly Standard, apparently a more or less right-wing news outlet in America, concerning antifa and its recent atrocities in Berkeley, in which, in all typicality, black-masked anarcho-communists physically attacked unarmed people in the streets because they were supposedly fascists, when of course, they weren’t actually fascists at all. This triggered even the mainstream media to disown their darling antifa, after not long ago howling against President Trump when he declared that they were also to blame, along with white supremacists, for the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. Up until very recently the mainstream leftist media, plus a few Trump-hating Establishment Republicans, hailed these same antifa rioters as heroes. At least they’ve backed off on that.