It may be a mistake to claim that the notion of truth is uniquely threatened in these days of populist politics, fake news, media bias, conspiracy theories and so on. Against these modern allegations of malign intent and bad faith, there have always been the fierce determinations of the “I know what I know” community: people who are surer of everything than more careful minds are about anything. For them, the camera does not lie; the Good Book tells them all they need to know; and what was good enough for their daddy was good enough for them.
T’was ever thus. Modern technology may give wider publicity today to what can appear to be the genetic credulity of the human species, but history abounds with examples of people being encouraged to believe what they’d be happy to believe without encouragement. They assume that the meanings of words are absolute and timeless (not so); that history does not alter perspectives (it does); and that, most critically, a thing that is true is exactly so for all people in all circumstances at all times (err, no).
One example from history of the importance of perspective can be found in the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688, in which year William of Orange arrived on the south coast to depose England’s Catholic king. A skilled communicator as well as an astute politician, he anticipated the challenges of the propaganda war ahead of him given the long tradition of Fleet Street pamphleteers: he brought several printing presses with him along with his 54 warships and 21,000 soldiers.
All in all, it was not surprising that he carried off his “revolution” peacefully while bequeathing to posterity a soubriquet that few today could explain: what precisely was so glorious about it? A parliamentary debate marking the event’s 300th anniversary in 1988 saw English MP Tony Benn conceding its benefits to a small handful of rich, white, Protestant men while it did little or nothing for poor people or women – indeed anyone excluded from the democratic process: so, pretty much everybody.
Those challenges would be met over successive centuries, and marked with great effect on those Fleet Street printing presses mentioned above. Among the giants who were to define the complexion of English radical politics and whose reputations went justifiably global, we celebrate several whose existing statues are unlikely to face toppling: John Wilkes, Richard Cobden, and Thomas Paine among the many.
An amusing footnote to these reflections on perspective: researching this blog brought to light an anecdote of wonderment at someone’s spotting an image of Jesus in the flames of Notre Dame in its dreadful fire of last year. There is no evidence of anyone’s asking how this image might have been interpreted from the other side of the cathedral: a footballer, perhaps, or the Easter bunny. To any charge of blasphemy the obvious riposte is that your author would never imagine seeing the likeness of Christ in a terrible fire, or even in a hot-cross bun.