My father served with the Black Watch during World War II and subsequently with the Metropolitan police in London. I remember as I grew from a child to a boy and then a teenager that he took his standing in the community very seriously. This meant that I too had to uphold his values because failing to meet this standard would make him a hypocrite. How could you fight to remove a dictator but then adopt some of his principles? How could you uphold the law if you didn’t abide by it yourself?
In our ‘heart to heart’ discussions he would repeat Evelyn Hall’s words describing Voltaire’s defence of Helvétius, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
Noble words indeed and I would venture to say a sentiment that is woven into the very fabric of democracy. Another of democracy’s foundational elements is “one person, one vote” – albeit a principle that has evolved over time as women, the poor and slaves in so-called democracies of the day would have attested.
But therein lie the seeds of the potential death of democracy. Seeds that are ripening because there are many who exercise that vote today who (consciously and unconsciously) do not believe in democracy or free speech and worse, actively agitate against it. And there are many who have been voted into power who are even today hammering against democracy’s walls. I don’t need to name names, the demagogues are glaringly obvious to anyone who cares to see.
After reflecting on the rise of Bolshevism in Russia, Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, militarism in Japan in the 20th century, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1997 “Democracy in its modern version—representative government, party competition, the secret ballot, all founded on guarantees of individual rights and freedoms—is at most 200 years old ……. a mere flash in the long vistas of recorded history. Now the democratic adventure must confront tremendous pent-up energies that threaten to blow it off course and even drive it onto the rocks” (Has Democracy a Future?). It is more true today than it was 25 years ago.
Remember, Nazi seats in the Reichstag were won in a free vote and Hitler came to power in the 30s even after serving time in prison for attempting to violently overthrow the elected government in 1922 (images of the current proceedings of the January 6th Committee spring to mind)!
It’s the reason Erdogan holds power in Turkey and Maduro in Venezuela and too many others – all erstwhile democracies with autocratic leaders clinging onto power in spite of democracy’s virtues and enabled because of democracy. And this excludes people like Russia’s wannabe Tsar, Vladimir Putin and Syria’s autocrat, Bashar al-Ashad who pretend to rule in a democracy but instead have adopted Hitler’s game plan and have long ago broken democracy’s fragile mould into a million pieces.
My father lived in an age where a man’s word was his bond, where a handshake was worth a thousand clauses in a contract. It was an age where newspapers were the primary communications medium, increasingly supplemented by newsreels at cinemas. As I grew up in the UK, TV became the prime communications outlet. But it’s worth remembering that broadcasting in the UK has been regulated by a body nominally independent of the government and the broadcasters since the 1930s. It is there to ensure accuracy, a lack of bias and impartiality. It may not always have succeeded in its aims and these days appears to have been blown off course but at least the aspiration is there and during the 40s, 50s and 60s TV news was more than likely a reasonably fair reflection of the Truth.
Newspaper journalists and editors of the time also realised that they had to maintain standards – both to retain credibility and to avoid running afoul of laws of slander and libel (a journalist like Boris Johnson would not have lasted and, to be fair, The Times did fire him in 1987 for lying). They also focused on news rather than political opinions and ideology.
So when my father espoused Voltarian principles he assumed that ‘fake news’ couldn’t happen. He believed that he was defending a person’s right to promote their views, not to spread lies, that a government minister would not lie to Parliament, that a man would fall on his sword to maintain his honour (Ah! my father would have choice words about Johnson and his hangers’ on).
Sadly, that time has passed. The unregulated, Orwellian internet has unleashed a world of lies, distortions, disinformation, manufactured conspiracies that slither across the ether to be devoured by masses of people who have no desire to think on their validity or veracity. A poison seeking to feed prejudices, like a salve to a festering wound. In an age where economic inequality has never been greater in our democracies and is steadily getting worse, are we building a Blade Runner scenario – a snarling, embittered, violent underclass?
Leading this ‘underclass’ or perhaps feeding off it to line their pockets, we see broadcasters like Rupert Murdoch who, to Australia’s everlasting shame, has corrupted the news to the point where nothing can be relied upon any more without painstaking verification. Like the slogans of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s ‘1984’ – War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.
Lies are Truth. Dictatorship is Democracy. Fox is News.
They say Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best. Those who truly believe in democracy have a lot of preparing to do.