There’s a parallel world in which Barack Obama, the worst President in US history (a serial liar, Communist, Islamist, and not even born in the US) is replaced by salt-of-the-earth saviour of the people Donald Trump (repealer of the Obama death panels, vanquisher of Hillary Clinton and her child sex ring), a truly great President who can and will do no wrong. I know this because it’s the narrative pumped out daily by Fox News and right-wing propagandists.
What worries me is that the only thing that stops it being received as fact is that a critical mass of people don’t believe it. Yet. But a quite alarming number of people wholeheartedly do believe it. At some point will we cross the line between political doubletalk and actual revisionist history? I feel like it’s a line we’re meandering along like a giddily unrepentant drunk driver. In our daily lives we can sometimes see history being consciously, mendaciously rewritten even as it happens, and more and more we don’t seem to care — as long as this new history makes us feel better about ourselves, justifies our prejudices, and relieves us of responsibility.
I suppose politics has always been about selling the best narrative, but it feels different this time, at least to me. It feels like we increasingly lack checks and balances, that we’ve lost the patience for such dry and worthy stuff as investigative journalism, public standards in office, and fact-checking. We’ve devalued the idea that there are lines of public integrity you can’t cross without consequences.
Its already the case in America that there are revisionist tussles over history and science. It’s clear that there are people who would, if only they could, literally rewrite the book on evolution, vaccination and climate change. Maybe even the history of civil rights. Political narratives are that much more susceptible, because their factual basis is that much more subjective. It’s quite easy for the public to lose track of why that recession or that war happened, and who was in charge, and who was really to blame. Is it only in my fevered imagination that I put all this together with the likes of Fox News to raise the spectre of a near-future dystopian version of the US, in which things now widely accepted as historical fact have been quietly spun until they are no mainstream; like that scene in Interstellar where the teacher explains that everyone knows the moon landings were faked, but don’t worry because they’ve been recast as an example of a different kind of American ideal.
In the UK, any suggestion that the recession wasn’t caused by profligate Labour spending is now met with jeers of derision, even though it demonstrably wasn’t, because that’s not the narrative that won. Here, in a fairly small way, we can see that history has already been rewritten just a few years later. Maybe not rewritten in text books, but absolutely in public discourse. And there are plenty of politically skewed history books out there too, I imagine. (Aren’t they all?) Some politicians already question whether the British Empire was really a bad thing, whether Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was all that unreasonable. And maybe these voices will always be fringe, like Holocaust denial. But we now have Daily Mail headlines where people who are actually fascist in their outlook are treated as valiant revolutionaries, and “alt-right” is treated a reasonable political position, and suddenly it seems like the trolls have taken over the conversation. It’s really not that big a step to a mainstream politician arguing that Hitler was misunderstood.
Damn: Godwin’s Law. I think that means I should stop. Is it me, or did Not Invoking Hitler used to be quite a lot easier?