We can’t learn from the present or the future, but only from the past. Yet the past is captive to peoples’ memories, and to peoples’ attitudes about the past. My parents told me nothing of my heritage, by which I mean they told me nothing of their past. In school, ‘History’ was taught so badly that I hated the subject. What passed for teaching methods would seem laughable today. ‘History’ had long been a weapon of war but I didn’t know that then. The Empire had to be respected, public figures had to be revered, family faces were set in stone. What ‘leaders’ said publically was ‘the truth’ and what they did privately was not to be spoken about – it was not ‘proper’ history.
The possibility of learning from the past was undermined by the people who lived it, and then undermined again by the people who taught it.
I’ve learnt since that the possibility of using the past to get at the truth was also undermined at the time it was happening, by on-the-spot reporting like Charles Bean’s view of Anzac Cove. Reporters didn’t get paid if they were not ‘creative’, or selective to match their employers’ wishes, and they ignored a lot. I know now that the myth-makers are like pollution – always with us and will bury us unless we fight back.
At the heart of it all is information…the creating of it, the shaping of it, the destruction of it. The battle for the hearts and minds of readers, listeners and viewers is a war. The past, ‘HISTORY”, can be stolen in different ways. It has been stolen by destroying the evidence, by hiding it, by preventing it from being published, by overwhelming it with other evidence, by mis-representing it…
I’m not speaking of differences of opinion which can amount to different evidences or different interpretations. I’m talking about deliberate falsification and cover-up. Violence and secrecy are natural parts of human societies, as they are of all animal combinations. Western Civilisation has been touted as the end-product of humanity’s progress. Supposedly, the modern world overcomes human nature and our tendencies to violence and cover-up. Education, higher standards of living, freer trade, supposedly, will always bring more peace and less of the seven deadly sins.
And yet, with all its planning, arming, re-building and memorialising, war is our greatest industry. Any war – hot or cold – requires lies and it requires secrecy. The story of what happened in ‘the war’ has always been a bigger prize than the oil-fields, the tungsten mines or the sea-lanes. Spying is perhaps the oldest profession. It is certainly the murkiest. And then there are newspapers, ‘the voices of democracy’, ‘always independent’, and always ‘shining a light into the dark places’. These make up ‘the information war’.
All of history has been about the struggle for power and wealth – who has it? who wants it? and what happens when the fight breaks out? We are always told that wars have been won by the side that had the superior war managers. We are never told that it was won by the side which had the best spies. The winner was the side which better controlled the flow of information, before, during and after.
We cheer our ‘James Bonds’ and damn the treacherous Chinese hackers and the ‘evil’ IS videos – what are the differences? what are the lessons? There was a time when spying was denied altogether – ‘we’ just didn’t act that way. Violence and secrecy are still made out to be unfortunate breakdowns of a system, conflicts we have been forced into for the greater good, because some ‘alien’ has ‘gone off the rails’.
We have all been badly served by historians who have made our past into myth and dreamtime. Deliberately or not, we have been deluded by the media. We don’t expect politicians to tell the truth, but historians, like doctors and journalists, are useless if they don’t. We’re slowly learning that to rely on the public record, or what people said, is not the way to learn from the past.
Secrecy and violence are not necessarily bad things. There have been secret societies which were benign and there have been others that were not. Secrecy has been used by lunatic loners, but also by the apparently good to protect the useful from those who were not. The greatest secret is often the one that hides the fact that there are secrets. We, the electorate, can’t decide which is which, unless we know.
These essays are about conspiracies. Not ‘New World Order/UFO’ ones, but conspiracies that actually happened – when the ALP was being formed, as the Freemasons prospered, and as fraternalism lived and died.
Some of the truth was kept secret at the time for short term purposes. Some cover-ups have had long-term purposes, to win future wars, for example. Labor histories have concentrated on the winners – those that made it into parliament. Some histories have been written about those who scandalised society – drink or adultery, usually – but these are cover-ups too, but of a different kind.
Secrecy and violence have often occurred together, legally, and I don’t mean in war, against ‘the enemy’. Instances of State violence against its own citizens have usually been very public because the point was to intimidate, not necessarily to maim or kill. But while the event was public, the planning, or the contemplation of the violence was kept very quiet. Similarly, actions against ‘the State’ are prepared secretly. In this domestic war, justifications are easily found for agents of the State and/or for ‘enemies of the State’ to perpetrate violence on behalf of ‘the people.’
Secrecy and violence extend the wars over information, and lead to corruption of supposedly reliable information sources. The idea that governments have created hoaxes is still a novel idea to many ‘proper’ scholars. That we may have been taken in by our government is a hurdle too high for many even now. The thought that the manipulation continues and that we may be subject to it right now can lead to paranoia. Recognising that it is normal political behaviour can help to release the tension.
The courts and parliament have been used to determine who can know and who can’t. The narrative after a major event is always hotly contested. Often long after, a counter-vailing narrative comes along and the struggle between knowing and not-knowing continues. The competition of religious narratives goes back hundreds of years and in 2017 still has plenty of explosive power. Use of a faith by politicians against their enemies doesn’t mean they believe in anything but their own survival.
Playing on the public’s fear of violence is a potent political weapon. We can watch it in action – in the so-called ‘war on terror’, for example. Before there was ‘the Islamic State’ bogey-man, there was ‘Anarchism’. The cartoon of the bomb-toting revolutionary was used to win elections, to stifle public dissent, and to legitimate the use of State violence. Before the bogey-man of ‘Anarchist’, there were the scary Freemasons, and before that there were the Jacobins, before that ‘the mob’, and so on. Our failure to learn from the past about secrecy and violence has assisted in the corruption of State-Power and the rise of the guns lobby. A back-yard ‘Arms Race’ is now happening which can only make matters worse. ‘History’ as a useful learning resource has been devalued by continuous distortion of the past for personal, political gains.
The crucial battle, as it always has been, is today between those who believe access to information is a good thing in itself, and those who believe access to information must be controlled, even prevented altogether. Information has always been the most powerful of weapons, and the biggest political prize. The struggle to gain access to ‘the truth’ and the attempts to control access, have always involved violence, of one kind or another. Neutralising journalists with a court writ is a form of violence, as is neutralising a community by genocide, or neutralising an opposition candidate by preventing his or her meetings from proceeding.
All text by Bob James, Newcastle, NSW.