THE FO­RUM

ANTONY BEEVOR ON THE DAN­GERS OF COUN­TER­KNOWL­EDGE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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.

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au For This Life guide­lines, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au/ life­style.

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiedemann

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