My copy of “Harvest of Sorrow”, inscribed with some kind remarks by the author, is one of my most treasured possessions. Robert Conquest, who died this week aged 98, was one of the great truth-tellers of the past century. He unearthed in unprecedented detail the story of Stalin’s mass murders — the artificial famine in Ukraine, the human meat-grinder of the Gulag, and the destruction of whole nations in the maw of the Soviet empire — at a time when much bien-pensant opinion in the West preferred fair-mindedness over clear-sightedness.
They still do. Truth is out of fashion in many quarters, along with the idea that terms such as right and wrong have a meaning. One reason for this is intellectual fashion, which highlights subjective interpretation over objective reality. Instead of a single truth, we have multiple narratives. Who is to say whose narrative is better? It is much easier to take this approach than to accept that one side is right and the other wrong, and then to think about your own moral responsibility for what you do.
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In some circumstances this is sensible. Modern literary criticism rightly encourages us to think that the same text may mean different things to different readers. You can read George Orwell’s 1984 and interpret it as a story mainly about love, or about dictatorship, or about memory. Neither version excludes the validity of the other. But this approach has its limits. When Winston Smith insists that O’Brien is holding up four fingers not five, he is telling the truth. Any other answer — no matter how much conviction is behind it — is a lie.
In the same way, blame for the downing over Ukraine a year ago of the Malaysian airliner MH17 can land in only one place. Either Russian-backed rebels shot it down, in which case responsibility for mass murder lies with the commander in chief, Vladimir Putin. Or (as Russians claim) the Ukrainians did, in which case the blame lies with them. Despite Kremlin propaganda efforts to muddy the water, all the evidence points to Russian rebels as the culprits. Yet the media still present the two versions of events as comparable. One can imagine the modern BBC reporting, with studious fairness, that: “Mr Smith asserts that only four fingers are on display whereas Mr. O’Brien maintains there number is five.”
Conquest, along with Orwell, worked for a while in a (now-closed) information-warfare division of Britain’s Foreign Office. Both men understood how powerful a weapon lies can be, especially when backed by fear. The lies can be blatant or subtle. But either way they corrode decision-making and distort public opinion. Correcting them is tedious and expensive.
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In those days there was little dispute about who should pay for such work. Western taxpayers financed the information war against Communism in the same spirit that they had paid for (or in the case of some occupied countries listened to) anti-Nazi broadcasts during the war.
But since the collapse of Communism, Western countries have gutted their public information services. They are only now beginning to pick up the pieces. Britain has a new military unit devoted to psychological warfare and social media. The Foreign Office and the State Department have produced some sharp material rebutting the more absurd Russian claims about the West and its allies. But the best efforts are closer to the frontline – such as the estimable StopFake in Ukraine.
Ukrainians make huge efforts, despite dismally disappointing political leadership and scant resources, because they can imagine what their country will be like if they lose. Most Westerners cannot make that leap of imagination. The crackdown on human-rights lawyers in China, or squabbles about reefs and rocks in the South China sea, have little bearing on daily life. Nor (for many Westerners) does Russia’s war in Ukraine, or the menacing of its Nordic and Baltic neighbours. The migration crisis and the plight of Yazidi sex slaves in ISIS captivity are distressing, but we can still turn the page on them. It is easier to nitpick at our own shortcomings than to fret about far away problems.
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That is the approach taken by the followers of Edward Snowden, Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald —and now Jeremy Corbyn. Rather than wrestle with the real questions of how to deal with authoritarian crony capitalism in China, or Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, or the rise of murderous Islamism, they turn their inwards to the faults of the West, be they snooping by the NSA and GCHQ, or wider woes such as militarism, corruption, abuse of power and hypocrisy.
Some of these problems are real, others imagined. But it is the hallmark of a free society that we can discuss them and try to fix them. People living under dictatorships cannot. Orwell and Conquest understood — and defended — that difference. So should we.