ANTONY BEEVOR ON THE DANGERS OF COUNTERKNOWLEDGE
ITN the West, we tend to assume that the greatest threats to democracy and liberty come from outside. We think of the totalitarian systems of the 20th century or fundamentalist terrorism today, but we fail to recognise the viral strain that has developed out of our own entertainment industries.
During the past dozen or so years, television and movie makers have managed to blur the border between fact and fiction to an unprecedented degree. They pretend increasingly that their films are based on true stories.
Every device possible, from computergenerated imagery to place names and dates thrown on to the screen, seek to suspend the disbelief of historically illiterate audiences.
Alarmingly, the new technology has coincided with a dramatic growth in conspiracy theories.
The author Damian Thompson has labelled the phenomenon counterknowledge. This includes the propagation of totally false legends. They may well stem from a completely unbalanced person who genuinely believes in a conspiracy — usually a government one — and who, through the internet, makes it sound plausible to tens of thousands, even to millions of others who also have grievances and are eager to believe the worst. This is done by seizing upon one or two minor discrepancies in a government report, then joining up all the wrong dots to create a monstrous fable that runs completely counter to the facts.
Examples of counterknowledge include the notion that AIDS was created in a CIA laboratory, that Diana, princess of Wales, was murdered by the Secret Intelligence Service, and that the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US were orchestrated by the Bush administration.
The dramatic decline of traditional moderate forms of religion has resulted in a spiritual void and thus a desperate need to believe intensely in something. This has accompanied the emergence of the Wikipedia age. A populist notion has developed that any individual has the right to correct or change the truth according to their beliefs. It is, of course, the democratic ideal taken to its most grotesque extreme. But in reality it is the opposite of democratic. It is the easiest way for the demagogue to exploit gullibility and ignorance.
The home-produced movie Loose Change takes the ultimate conspiracy-theory approach to the September 11 attacks. It is now said to have been seen by more than 100 million people on the internet.
A few weeks ago, a leading Russian TV channel broadcast Loose Change to mark the anniversary of 9/ 11. The film was accepted as completely true by the presenters and the studio HE oldest house in our street is being demolished today. For nearly 130 years this pretty bluestone home has sat quietly while families and history have come and gone. Today I hear the dimpled glass shatter as the big old wooden windows are crushed.
I’ve walked past at night and seen bedroom lights glowing, with children’s heads bent as they did their homework or practised the piano, and it made me feel good, somehow content that I was part of the continuum of the familiar sounds of our neighbourhood street.
For the past 26 years, from my backyard I’ve looked at the fancy brickwork around the lovely old chimneys, as delicate as lace but made from bricks and much more ornate than any other house in the street. Now they’re gone.
The shiny dark bluestone, such a prize for any builder, lets out a grinding screech as the bulldozer pushes it and moves on top of it to get to the next section.
I wonder if the stonemason who expertly placed those stones all those years ago could ever have imagined how his craftsmanship would meet its end. Shiny blue stones, brought to him on the backs of carts pulled by horses and cut from the Adelaide Hills so far away. Adelaide was not even 50 years old and the hanging of Ned Kelly the subject of conversation.
In the rush to demolish, these stones
are audience, who debated it in a three-hour primetime program.
Studies of internet sites reveal an unholy alliance between left-wing 9/ 11 conspiracy theorists, right-wing Holocaust deniers and Islamic fundamentalists. Many Muslims throughout the world now believe that no Arabs were involved in 9/ 11. Significantly, Islamic websites have also been learning from American creationists and have eagerly embraced their theory of intelligent design, which attributes the origin of life to a higher power and opposes theories of natural selection.
In a post-literate society in which the image is king, the scope for mischief is almost without limit. I suspect that it will not be long before we see a Holocaust-denial film. It could take the form of a The Da Vinci Code - style thriller, and be packaged as straightforward entertainment.
The commercial potential for such a project is turned into useless rubble, pretty iron lacework bent and twisted, bullnose veranda and delicate turned veranda posts crushed, and wooden floorboards — where shoes from lace-up Victorian boots to fancy flappers, dancing shoes and cheap Chinese imports have trod — are now just a pile of splinters.
This house would have seen bustles and camisoles and corsets; electric light and every new automobile; and now it seems to screech and scream as it’s twisted and crushed. In the past, these architectural features would have been expertly salvaged so another builder could incorporate them into many new homes and the craftsmanship could be enjoyed again. We’re told by developers that you can’t stop progress, and we feel bullied and shamed if we like things the way they are. But these old homes and the land they stand on, the history surrounding these huge, above all in the Middle East and the Far East. If it were banned under Holocaust denial legislation in some European countries, this would only convince conspiracy theorists that the Holocaust is a Zionist exaggeration or even invention. Already in British schools, many teachers have stopped mentioning the Holocaust to avoid offending Muslim students. This is because, according to one survey, only 29 per cent of Muslims in Britain accept that the Holocaust took place as Western history books describe it.
Political correctness is so easy to exploit. Universities in the US, supposedly the guardians of intellectual rigour and scientific proof, have been cowed into accepting courses that clearly reject normal standards of evidence. This is perhaps the logical extreme of the anti-hierarchical revolution begun in the 1960s and now taken to a ridiculous and dangerous degree.
It may sound alarmist when one talks of these attempts to fragment proven reality. Yet the effects of counterknowledge and pseudo-history might develop into a bigger threat to liberal democracy than the authoritarian onslaughts of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
This new, insidious power to produce intellectual and scientific chaos is easy to underestimate. It should be the duty of not just every scientist and historian, but also of every writer, publisher, filmmaker, TV producer and ordinary citizen to fight all attempts to exploit the ignorance and gullibility of audiences. Today’s silly conspiracy theory in the West can easily become tomorrow’s article of faith in the world at large. Quite simply, we play with facts at our peril. From selling fiction as truth in films to peddling the big lies of counterknowledge is not such a very big step after all.
The Sunday Times Antony Beevor is the author of four novels and eight works of nonfiction, including Stalingrad, Berlin: The Downfall 1945 and The Battle for Spain. places, needs to be swept away, not for progress, but for profit.
This old house cost $ 1.3 million but the developers also bought the neighbour’s garden because they needed more space for their children to play. Once they had it, they had the space for their dream home: a large structure that will take up most of the land, leaving little for any child to play in.
I wonder if they will enjoy their home for 30 or more years and imagine the history that was lived in the remaining old houses in the street. Or whether they will move on in a year or two because their dream is now quite unfashionable and they can make a profit somewhere else.
This house was the oldest in the street. It wasn’t always; the original farmhouse built by the first residents in this area in the 1860s was demolished about five years ago.
There are a handful of newer old homes left. The owners aren’t old but we already know that some time down the track a more powerful person will sweep aside us and our homes, seen as insignificant and inconvenient piles of bricks, and another place of memories and simple family history for generations will be gone.
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