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It seems that everyone is at it. Politicians, churches, history books. They are all lying to us.
Harsh? Probably? True? Maybe.
The Oxford English Dictionary (still my favourite) defines a lie as ‘an intentionally false statement.’
Just this week, we had the ‘president-elect’ of the US tweeting this:
Was his claim intentional? Unless the proverbial monkeys got loose on an infinite number of typewriters and happened to post only this from his Twitter account, I’d say it was intentional.
Was it false? Ah, well there it gets a little trickier, but not much. What is false? OED again: ‘Not according with truth or fact; incorrect.’ His statement does not accord with any facts that he has presented. In the absence of any facts, I’m going to go with it being false. I may yet be proven wrong, but only by facts, not wild assertions.
So intentionally and false = lie.
Saying, as we hear so often now, that we are living in a post-truth age, does not make it all right. Saying it again and again just starts to normalise something which we should never accept. We look back at history and shake our heads, saying how could they have been so stupid/naive/deluded/credulous/whatever. But are future generations going to look back at us and think, when did they decide that the facts stopped mattering?
Last week, we celebrated Thanksgiving. The great thing about having a half-Scottish, half-American, German-speaking family is we get to celebrate EVERYTHING! Christmas on the 24th and 25th of December, Santa Claus on the night of the 24th and Nikolaus on the 6th and the Easter Bunny always shows up on cue – the list goes on.
We probably think we know, at least roughly, the Thanksgiving story, but here’s the summary from the History Channel’s website (I think we are all aware of the danger of getting information from the internet and of the importance of using trusted sources):
“In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the historic banquet’s exact menu, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. Historians have suggested that many of the dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods.”
Lovely. Nice story. But is it true? Or is it more akin to the Easter Bunny version of history?
Let’s see what the Huffington Post (also credible source, I think) has to say:
“The idea of the American Thanksgiving feast is a fairly recent fiction. The idyllic partnership of 17th Century European Pilgrims and New England Indians sharing a celebratory meal appears to be less than 120 years-old. And it was only after the First World War that a version of such a Puritan-Indian partnership took hold in elementary schools across the American landscape. We can thank the invention of textbooks and their mass purchase by public schools for embedding this “Thanksgiving” image in our modern minds. It was, of course, a complete invention, a cleverly created slice of cultural propaganda, just another in a long line of inspired nationalistic myths.
“The first Thanksgiving Day did occur in the year 1637, but it was nothing like our Thanksgiving today. On that day the Massachusetts Colony Governor, John Winthrop, proclaimed such a “Thanksgiving” to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters, all colonial volunteers. They had just returned from their journey to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they massacred 700 Pequot Indians. Seven hundred Indians – men, women and children – all murdered.”
Right. Hang on. Was it 1621 or 1637? And are we remembering a generosity of spirit or inadvertently celebrating a massacre?
So now I am stuck. There are two, apparently conflicting, stories of the origins of Thanksgiving. Perhaps the ‘truth’ is that both of them are accurate, but unrelated, episodes in American history. I honestly don’t know now. It should not be that difficult to establish the relationship between these two accounts and the celebration we now know as Thanksgiving. But in the age of the internet, while we have vast quantities of data, finding what is true and what is false is not always easy.
If we look beyond the more obvious lies and deliberate distortions and can accept that in many cases there are different perspectives and that there is some merit to most of them, one of the problems we encounter today is shown in my opening paragraph above. Admit it, you thought I was going off on a rant, didn’t you? Our starting point is starting to become that someone is lying to us. Not making a genuine mistake, not offering a different point of view, just lying. And it’s hard for us to listen when we are shouting so loudly about how we are right (cue any number of clips of politicians ‘discussing’ a topic). So how do we try to avoid falling into that all so easy trap?
I’ll come back to that next week.
Growing up, there were times when I think my generation could be forgiven for thinking that history was something which had all happened before we were old enough to care about it. The world wars were something we read about in books, we missed the 60s, were too young to remember much of the 70s and the 80s were all about music, with the nagging doubt that someone might decide to drop a nuclear bomb on us – Alphaville did not help assuage that concern with the line in their song ‘are they going to drop the bomb or not?’ And then at the end of the 80s, the Cold War was over just as we were becoming adults. We were even told it was the ‘end of history’.
George Santayana wrote that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
Imagine living in a time when politicians say the following:
‘The police should patrol and secure Jewish neighbourhoods.’
‘The black-haired Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce, adulterating her blood and removing her from the bosom of her own people.’
The second was written by Hitler. The first – actually about Muslims rather than Jews – was from Ted Cruz, the US presidential candidate who is supposed to be the acceptable Republican alternative to Donald Trump. Trump, we know, would ban all Muslims from entering the US. What Cruz is calling for was called ghettos in the 1930s. And yet he seems to consider this a perfectly acceptable proposal to make.
Trump, then. Just a series of media-grabbing headlines, saying things he would never carry out in practice? Who knows? But the level of popularity he seems to have, despite everything he has said, makes me wonder if we have really learned so little from history? And this article on Trump’s views on the use of violence against people who disagree with him is not something I ever thought I would hear – repeatedly – from someone wanting to hold elected office in a democracy. Of course it is not the same as Hitler and his Brownshirts and the apparatus he built up to exert control. But it’s on the same continuum of hatred, demonisation and dehumanisation.
And then there is Europe.
The Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia, was the home of the Prague Spring in 1968, the uprising against the Soviet model that had been forced upon it. The phrase Arab Spring, decades later, got its name from that mass protest thousands of miles away. And now we have the current Czech president, Milos Zeman, attending in 2015 the mass military parade in China that would have been replicated in his own country under Soviet control. And saying on a previous visit to China that he had gone there to learn ‘how to stabilise society.’ I cannot imagine his predecessor, Vaclav Havel, a dissident in the Soviet era, praising the brutally suppressive Chinese policies that “stabilise society” and had already been experienced in his own country. The Czech Republic is not alone in prioritising business interests over human rights. I’ve written previously about the actions of the Metropolitan Police when a Tiananmen Square survivor protested peacefully during the visit of the Chinese president to London.
One of the features of dictatorships is the need to control the media. We saw it in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. North Korea continues the practice, as does China, and even in the era of the internet, they are able to censor what information is made available to their citizens. Just this year, Poland changed its laws to give its treasury minister the power to appoint the heads of the major media outlets. This, we were told, was to ensure the media are ‘impartial, objective and reliable.’ How state control ensures the first two of these is a mystery to me, although East Germany solved the ‘objective’ part by defining the term differently from how you and I would use it. The Polish prime minister even used the classic defence against criticism of the law which restricts press freedom by saying it was an ‘internal matter.’ This was the same accusation the East German government made when Hungarian authorities started allowing East German citizens to cross the border into Austria – ‘This is a direct intervention into the internal affairs of the German Democratic Republic.’ (They had their own definition of ‘democratic’ too.)
And I don’t think that the UK is a shining example in any of these areas. Our government’s dismal response to the refugee crisis, courting the current Chinese dictator in the interest of more business, and our finance minister’s attacks on the BBC through its funding model.
And everywhere I look, people are wanting to build new walls to separate us from someone.
Perhaps this is why I’m finding re-reading 1984 both so fascinating and so troubling. It seems we might, in common with previous generations, have learned too little from the past after all.
One of the few benefits of waking up in the middle of the night is that, if you put the radio on in our house, you get the BBC World Service. And as you drift in and out of sleep, you can pick up the most remarkable things. I think they are perhaps even more noteworthy for being mixed up in a brain that doesn’t know if it’s awake or asleep and is still trying to process everything from the previous day. And if you are in the middle of writing a novel, you can really get a screwed up brain because what you’re writing can be as real as what you’ve actually experienced.
If there were more hours in the day, I would try to spend some of the extra ones listening to Radio 4 or the World Service. Where else do you have some of the best minds out there coming together for a discussion about topics you didn’t even know someone was thinking about. Just this morning, I picked up part of a programme while driving back home again. Something to do with Shakespeare, Cromwell, historicity, writing and theatre productions. And there was a couple of minutes of a discussion about facts and fiction.
This is one of the things I’ve been mulling over. I’m writing about people who lived in a certain time in a certain setting, decades ago. I was not there. I don’t remember what life was like in those years and even if I had, it would have been from a very different perspective. The internet is wonderful for filling in some of those gaps. Pictures, videos, articles, all made available by some altruistic souls (thank you!). But… I have a picture in my head of what it looked like, and it’s never going to be the same as reality. And it turns out there are internet sites devoted to telling you what was ‘wrong’ in books, TV shows, theatre productions. I know this now because I get some of this from the girls on the drive in to school in the mornings, all the details which someone else has got wrong. Do I care about whether the dragon in Harry Potter started off being able to shoot fire out for thirty feet and then later could only manage a small puff (apparently)? No. Some writers (Sarah Waters springs to mind) research and then describe the details meticulously. Will it be perfect? Probably not. And it doesn’t matter to me as a reader . I smiled when Jodi Picoult referred in one of her books to the ‘Scottish National Trust’ instead of the ‘National Trust for Scotland.’ Did it make any difference to either my enjoyment of the book or what I got from it? Not at all.
One of the panel on the radio programme was talking about this problem (his potential issue is worse than mine because he has to create a production in which the audience sees all the detail as he portrays it, I can choose to omit detail that doesn’t add anything to the story). I liked his approach, which is to ask the question ‘is it misleading?’ That works for me. His example was getting the wallpaper pattern right versus turning what was an amicable discussion in (historical) fact into a heated fight. The wallpaper isn’t misleading as to the characters or the essence of what happened in history. The conversation (if treated incorrectly) would be.
So I’m still not going to look at the websites on what isn’t strictly right. Instead, I’m going to focus on trying to create something which feels emotionally real. Last week, I found myself crying for the first time while writing one scene. Of course it was fiction. But it felt real. That’s one scene I intend keeping in. The description of the back seat of a Trabant car probably isn’t going to make the cut.
But while I’m on the subject of getting inconsequential things wrong, I received this in the post this week.
My reaction to the first question was ‘I’d like to work for an employer that knows the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s”. But really, I’m not that bothered. I got the point. Still not interested in the job, but not because of a silly mistake that just made me smile.