Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Re-fighting the last war

Many of the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all who are promoting Brexit are fond – excessively so, in some cases – of parallels between the forthcoming Brexit-induced difficulties and past military conflicts, most particularly the second world war.  They invoke the ‘blitz spirit’, as though it is the solution to all problems, overlooking the fact that none of them were born at the time, and their ‘memories’ of it are based entirely on second or third hand experiences distorted through the prism of a highly selective folk history.  They seem to see only the lipstick; the pig is invisible to them.
There is, though, one important strand of truth in their position; history shows that people faced with something seen as an external existential threat can and do come together to seek a way through.  I suspect that that is what Johnson and others mean when they talk about ‘uniting’ the ‘country’ in order to successfully deal with Brexit.  There are one or two obvious flaws in the analogy, however, the most obvious being that this is not any sort of ‘external’ threat.  This threat is entirely home-grown, generated not by an external aggressor but by domestic politicians in pursuit of their own ends.  It is, of course, a matter of conjecture whether the ‘blitz spirit’ would have been the same had half the people on whom the bombs were falling realised that they were falling because that was what the other half had voted for.  I rather doubt that the ‘unity’ which people see when they look back at that period in history would have been quite as solid in such circumstances.  Demanding that others support them in facing a threat which they themselves have created is having the sort of ‘success’ which logic might suggest it would have, but they still seem genuinely surprised when people point out to them that it might be better to simply remove the threat rather than put all our time and effort into trying to mitigate its effects.
A second key difference between then and now is the availability of information and alternative views.  To say that the content of news during the war period was tightly controlled would be an understatement, but the idea that such a level of control could be implemented in the twenty-first century is inconceivable.  But without an ability to control what information people receive, it is extremely difficult to silence dissenting views and without silencing dissenting views, the narrative that everything is the fault of those pesky foreigners is impossible to sustain.  In a sense that brings us to the question of ‘fake news’.  There’s certainly a lot of it about – much of the ‘information’ which people read and share on the internet is indeed false, although things sometimes seem to acquire a status of ‘truth’ simply by being shared and liked often enough.  Trump and the Brexiteers have a simple definition of ‘fake news’, a definition which is as fake as the news itself, which is that ‘what I say is true, anything different is fake’.  It’s a definition which Orwell would readily recognise, but because of the wide availability of alternative sources, the result is not to shut down debate but increasingly to split the readership of news into two camps, based not on the accuracy of their ‘knowledge’ but on their adherence to a particular viewpoint.
I don’t see an obvious way out of the situation which is created as a result.  For instance, to those who believe that the EU is being beastly and punishing the UK for daring to leave, that is not an opinion, it is a ‘fact’.  From that perspective, when Gove claims that the EU is ‘refusing to negotiate’, he is not telling a porky, he is supporting that ‘fact’ with another ‘fact’.  For all the sterling work being done by fact-checker sites, most of us prefer to stick with those ‘facts’ which reinforce our own prejudices and priors, rather than examine conflicting claims before drawing a conclusion.  Mere truth is no longer enough to win an argument.  (And none of this applies only to the debate about the EU – consider also the ‘fact’ of an independent Wales’ £14 billion deficit, another piece of fake news which mere truth is inadequate to dismiss.)
It seems that we are about to face a government-led propaganda onslaught on a scale unseen since the second world war, with the stated objective of preparing us for what is to come and the less publicised one of trying to unite us in the face of the self-imposed threat.  It’s doomed to fail on both counts; whilst it will be taken as gospel truth by half the recipients, the other half are more likely to lampoon it mercilessly.  The availability of alternative media makes it easier both to spread the message and to undermine it.  Like most generals throughout history the current government are setting out to fight the last war rather than the next.  Those who are so keen to use the last war as their model and analogy are completely unable to see the flaw in doing so.


Anonymous said...

Haven't we heard all this before, some eighty years ago. Thankfully no-one bothered to listen then and I doubt they are bothering to listen now.

The world has come to depend upon the people of Britain doing the right thing, in the right way, with the rule of international law on its side.

Why do you always want to paint the Welsh in such a bad light?

John Dixon said...

I'm afraid that I don't have a clue what you're on about, or in what way you think your comment relevant to the original post, let alone why you suggest that I always paint the Welsh in a bad light. I can only suspect that you've actually proved the point that I was making rather well - from your alternative set of 'facts' and prejudices, your comment makes some sort of sense to you; from mine it is just gibberish.