The other night I had a terrible argument with a couple whom I consider particularly close friends. They were spending the weekend at my place, and we had enjoyed two lovely days, when in the evening, I unwittingly stepped on a sore toe. Now, I had been very careful not to even mention Ukraine; in this country we are told in no uncertain terms that we are defending democracy against fascism and that the war is being waged between good and evil. Moreover, those who exclusively read the New York Times and Guardian – and my friends consider them the ultimate sources of information about current events – will “know for a fact” that such is the case. So no, not a word about Ukraine.
Assuming that we would probably agree about “cancelling”, I joked about this growing trend. There are all sorts of views that qualify as grounds for cancelling these days, and I happen to believe – and assumed that my academic friends would agree – that rather than cancel views we don’t like, we should discuss them. Well, my friends, didn’t agree. They were in fact furious with me: 1) The very concept “cancelling”, they maintained, was invented by the ignorati such as Trump and his followers. There was no such thing as cancelling. 2) Misinformation, however, deserved to be suppressed (i.e. cancelled). “People need to check their facts,” they insisted, and they repeated the word again and again: facts. facts. facts.
Admittedly, a few facts, such as many but far from all historic dates, are more or less incontrovertible (except, perhaps, among philosophers). Conversely, in a war, most “facts” are contentious and a great number go on to be debated for centuries.
Even within the exact sciences, calculations are often debatable, if for no other reason because the figures on which they are based,which in turn rely on other figures based on figures, etc. are open to debate. Most social scientists do not even pretend that their “facts” are conclusive. Historians, however, tend to cheat a bit. After all, when all is said and done, history is anything but a-political.
I forget who said that history is always written by the victors, be they Roman or British or US American, not by the Galls, the African peoples or the indigenous (North, Central and South) Americans. Historians live in the victors’ society and their world view will inevitably reflect that of their surroundings. True there will be the occasional deviant interpretation of past events, but in the end, the version that is accepted science and generally agreed upon is the one that gives the best possible impression of “our actions”,”our country”, “us”.
The breakup of the Soviet Union represented the demise of Communism in Europe. Yet, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) which had been established to “defend” Europe against Communism, was not disbanded (why?) and the Great Divide persisted. Why? Why did we not throttle the growth of the monster that was quietly being groomed in our midst? Was there a real threat or was there something else going on? In 2021, Russian military expenditure was fairly modest, whereas the US controlled about 750 bases in at least 80 countries and spent more on its military than the next 10 countries combined. How could anybody imagine that Russia would wish or be able to threaten Europe with such puny means? Even in 2022, the country’s military expenses amounted to a mere 4% of global military expenditure, compared to the USA’s 39%.
Now a SIPRI headline from April 2023 reads: “World military expenditure reaches new record high as European spending surges”. Whom does this absurd military build-up benefit? Certainly not the population of Ukraine! Certainly not the populations of Europe!
The information war waged between the so-called blocks is no less terrifying: the battle for hearts and minds. Remember Vietnam? The Pentagon Papers and the persecution of Daniel Ellsberg? And that was just the beginning.
Before the breakup, during the first Cold War between what the West called Communist states and what so-called Communists called Capitalist states, the stories told on each side were grossly inaccurate. I happen to be familiar with both of them.
Take, for instance, DDR, East Germany, a country which is, with reason, indelibly linked in our minds with “repression”, “fear”, “Stasi”. With reason, yes, but we never heard the whole story. We will probably never know how misinformed we were, because East Germany is gone, subsumed into a greater Germany, and those who lived there have nothing but flighty memories to go by when evoking the past. The German writer Jenny Erpenbeck is one who recalls beautiful fragments of what is gone. True, even in the worst of places you find happy people, just as even in Beverly Hills there are lots of suicides. So I agree, fragments of memory are not reliable.
Analysing quality of life is no joke anywhere, let alone in an entire country, now non-existant, yet still reviled, both by the West and by the East. The only defenders of what was once East Germany are people who actually lived there.
If NATO “wins” Ukraine, as that horrible man at the top insists it will, will the Ukrainians weep for joy? Weep, they will, you may be sure.
The Great Divide runs not only between East and West, but straight down the middle of our societies, splitting families and friendships, spreading distrust, even hate — as welfare states are mangled by military budgets. And fear, yes, because the absurd contradictions imbedded in the concept of waging war as a deterrent to war confuse and frighten us. We suspect we’re being had. We all know that unless these spiralling excesses stop, there will be war for us all. We blame the Russians, but that does not make us feel better.
Formerly respected news outlets, which used to argue about political issues, now all clamour for more weaponry. All who try to paint a fuller picture of the situation are vilified, though I have not yet seen them referred to as “traitors” – just a question of time, you may be sure. Here is a short video explaining what happens to “the fuller picture“.
In short, I very much doubt that the press is much freer in the West than in Russia. In fact I suspect that here, the battle for hearts and minds (in short, indoctrination) has been more successful. Nevertheless it is growing ever more aggressive (in short, authoritarian), not least in the UK, which after Brexit appears to be accountable only to the US administration, not to the EU and certainly not to the British people.
I recommend a conversation between Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden — remember him and the “No Such Agency” story that broke exactly ten years ago on 6 June. The conversation, on Glenn Greenwald’s site, starts at about 21 minutes into the video.