Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
I’m generally wary of facts. They’re so elusive. When you think you know something, quite often it turns out you only know a part of it, or you thought it was a fact, but it could be something untrue which has gained the feel of a fact because of so many repetitions. I remember a so-called fact that became widespread in the 60s. A San Francisco newspaper reported that various hippie-types had ingested some LSD and were all blinded because they sat around on the grass staring at the sun. The story spread around the world, and it became a ‘well-known fact’. It turned out that a school caretaker made it up, because he was worried about kids taking drugs.
We all cherry-pick the facts that support our opinions, and we ignore those that don’t. Sometimes facts are indisputable. I think. I could probably suggest that the world is made up of super-heated molten rock, without fear of being contradicted. I know people who still believe that the world is flat, and they think this is a fact. I saw a lovely (probably fake) advert for the Flat Earth Society once. It said this – “The Flat Earth Society is flourishing. Join us. We have members all around the globe”. I so wanted that to be true that I’ve reproduced it here, and it would be easy for someone to send it on without the “(probably fake)” part, and it would be read as a fact by people down the line.
Everything they print is true
This is so easy to do, and of course there are daily newspapers that rely totally on this phenomenon to sell large numbers of copies every day. The fact that I can’t imagine anybody actually believing anything they read in these papers doesn’t stop me acknowledging the fact that large numbers of people do exactly that. And here we have it. My fact and that fact, clashing, head to head. Both true, of course. And the owners of these newspapers swearing blind that everything they print is true. And that’s a fact too.
I’m sure there are a lot of people who think I bang on unnecessarily about this stuff, and it’s all just a bit of fun, and people have a perfect right to believe whatever they want to believe. And when it’s put like that, I can’t argue. No. Actually I can, because it causes real harm, and because it suggests that it’s all right to talk nonsense without being challenged. In fact, I would like everyone to be a bit more careful about information they accept and repeat without checking first. There are a lot of people out there who attempt to speak with authority on numerous subjects, and they are often either ignorant of the truth, or they can’t tell the difference between what they want and what’s real, or they deliberately distort the truth for unpleasant reasons.
They don’t have any alternative opinions to think about
While I agree with free speech and everyone’s right to believe or say what they like, I worry about the consequences. A few centuries ago, there were no democracies. Societies had two tiers; the rich and powerful, and everyone else. The poor worked hard all day every day for little in the way of wages, didn’t travel, weren’t educated, and spent all their energy trying to survive. There was a tight little group who controlled everything. Even the Church, which got onto everything, insisted that the Bible and the services were all conducted in Latin, so nobody who attended knew what was being said, except those few who were educated.
Nowadays, we subscribe to the idea that everyone should be educated, there should be equal opportunities for everyone, and the right to free movement and information, and the right to vote. I don’t know about you, but I think this is a good thing, and we can see around the world what happens when small numbers of rulers impose a world-view on their population in order to consolidate their power. And we see those populations going along with these regimes, either through fear, or because they don’t have any alternative opinions to think about. I’m not going to make a list here. They know who they are.
Politicians are supposed to be the representatives of the people
The thing I worry about is that these primitive dictatorships or empires or tyrannies all depend on their population not getting information and not thinking about anything but the propaganda presented to them by the regime. And what we believe in as an alternative is our concept of democracy. Tyrannies depend on force and control, but democracies depend on the will of the people. And the will of the people is influenced enormously by the standard of education and information available, the application of equal opportunities, and the understanding that politicians are supposed to be the representatives of the people. The more educated and informed the population are, the better the quality of the leaders are, and the greater moral authority they have.
Of course, I’m expressing a hope for a better world. Democracy is constantly being undermined by those who seek power by the back door, and politicians notoriously forget that they’re our representatives rather than climbing like ants up the greasy pole towards power. Democratic governments often also suffer from a lack of vision, voluntary blindness to the consequences of their actions, and a fatal lack of courage when it comes to bringing in legislation that might be necessary or unpopular.
We didn’t want to lose our access to the truth
Democracy, when it works, can be glorious. Sometimes an issue comes up that is so clear that the vast majority can fall in behind it, and that’s when extraordinary things can be done. I’m thinking of the Second World War right now, because I just saw Dunkirk again. It was a terrible war, but most of the population of this country, I believe, understood that the cause was just. It was about survival, and it was about fighting a great evil. I believe that to be a fact, and I believe that the national effort in that war was driven by that idea.
There are arguments that it could have been prevented at various points, and that it was caused by our country disarming and allowing Germany to re-arm. It can be argued that the Treaty of Versailles after the First Great War, demanded that Germany should accept all the blame for it, and pay reparations. It’s no surprise that Hitler forced France to surrender in exactly the same railway carriage that was used at Versailles. It has been said that this was a deciding factor in the rise of Hitler in the first place. But to my mind, when the war started, the thing that brought people together was the understanding that this was an evil regime, and losing would bring tyranny to our country, and we didn’t want to lose our access to the truth.
Bored by the pettiness of the squabbles amongst the politicians
Times have moved on. There are still some countries where the truth is unavailable or unspeakable. We have different difficulties. There’s too much information. Everything is so much more complicated. Finding out the truth isn’t easy any more. I’m not sure it ever was, but we have grown used to things being easy, and many of us have started to develop a habit of avoiding anything that seems difficult. We’ve stopped expecting rigorous argument about important matters, and we’ve swapped that for how we feel about it.
There’s a huge difference here, and this is what worries me. We’re in danger of creating a disconnect between the mass of the people and the governing classes. There’s a question of the divide between the rich and the poor, which hasn’t been so large for many decades. We’ve become bored by the pettiness of the squabbles amongst the politicians, and the training they obviously go through to avoid answering questions and repeat meaningless phrases instead of attempting to inform the public about issues and engage their minds. So people turn off and give up. What they have left is how they feel, and they vote accordingly.
If they’re treated like children, they’ll behave like children
People who are fed up generally will take any opportunities they’re given to vote against the powers-that-be. They feel that they have no say, and the leaders aren’t explaining anything properly, or attempting to involve them. If they’re treated like children, they’ll behave like children and withdraw their approval. Hence the trouble we’re in now, here and in the USA. The people have spoken. Not about Europe or the Economic Union, but about the remoteness of politicians and the feelings of powerlessness that they experience.
Over here, people aren’t happy about all the years of austerity, and they’ve forgotten that this austerity was caused by the failure of previous governments to manage the economy responsibly. As a result, we’re experiencing a gradual erosion of the Welfare State, fought for so hard for so long, and voted for overwhelmingly by the combatants in the Second World War, who didn’t want everything to stay the same when they got home. They wanted a better life and a better future. For everyone. They wanted all their effort to be worthwhile.
The days tick by, and the tide ebbs a little lower
Now we have governments who have no ideas, who twist and turn, who make futile gestures and fall flat on their faces. We have already given up so much of our rights and our dignity in this century, and the politicians have orchestrated this retreat from responsibility by dumbing down public speaking and debate, and they are continually chipping away at our daily lives and experience and support systems. They’re showing no signs of stopping this relentless cutting-back either.
No wonder we retreat into fantasy and the Internet and celebrity TV. We can’t reach those dizzy heights any more, we’ve fallen too low. What’s the point in trying when you’re bound to fail? Nothing’s going to change. The days tick by, and the tide ebbs a little lower, and we understand less, and we learn less, and yet we still vote for those who are imposing this on us, and we resist change, apart from the sort of change that promises to go back to that fantasy life in the past, when our rulers stood free and strode the world.
I think we’ll wake up and start thinking again
This isn’t actually a depressing column though. I’m just preparing you all for the striking upsurge of the last paragraph. People are resilient. They will take so much, and then they will turn. Evil empires never last. I discount the Roman and British empires, because we were able to offer advantages and advances, and we involved the local people in various ways. But even the Romans and we had to let it all go. We haven’t yet accepted that fact fully, and we don’t yet know what we’re going to be doing next week, let alone in several years’ time. The current miserable crop of politicians hasn’t realised yet that they’ll have to go too. But they will.
I think we’ll wake up and start thinking again, and that’s when things will improve. We’re just not ready yet. But we will be. It’s not a fact yet, but it will be. Spirit of Dunkirk, Arise!
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
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