Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Consensus Busting

Wasn't all that sleepy last night, so I watched a movie. I chose "All the President's Men". Partly because I could watch it for free, partly because it's a very good, intelligent film (great script, great cast, great director), partly because I wanted to see something about two guys beating the system.

It's not the complexity of the Woodward-and-Bernstein investigation into the Watergate scandal that sticks with me, having watched the film again. It's the sheer number of nay-sayers, gainsayers, cowards and downright liars who tried to stop the investigation in its tracks.

Amazingly, the Washington Post stood by its young reporters, when the entire Nixon administration was crying foul and denying, denying, denying everything that turned out to be true.

But as you watch the film you occasionally get the distinct impression that, had it not been for the sheer persistence of the journalists and a good old-fashioned sense of right and wrong at the Washington Post, the scandal might never have been exposed. There were so many moments when the whole thing could have been called off because only a handful of people doubted the official line.

The pressure to give up, to leave the story alone, and to let Nixon get on with his presidency unencumbered by investigations into his devious ways, must have been incredible.

Still, between them, after an immensity of hard work and many reversals, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein managed to bust through the consensus.

Now, history is basically consensus, and that consensus is always susceptible to change. For example, I discovered only two nights ago that some 300-400 black sailors fought for Britain under Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805. As did a number of Americans, Danes, Portugese, French ... It was kind of a multinational force. Britain won, famously, but many races helped.

To learn that sort of thing is to find that history is different - richer, deeper, more complex - than previously imagined.

But there is always resistance to that sort of thing. Those who create and enforce the consensus have a nasty habit of fighting tooth and nail to preserve it.

Like those White House officials who continually slammed the Washington Post (until some of those officials were found guilty on a number of counts), there are conservative egos out there who will stop at nothing to try to ensure that no view, no perspective, no reading of history - no consensus - ever changes.

I feel a bit like Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. The evidence is definitely there. But there are powerful voices who won't allow their delicate little consensus to be busted. Even though it is vital, if we want to understand Shakespeare's works or recognise Arthur's key role in the history of Britain, to blow that consensus to smithereens.

It is the cosy consensus that stands in the way of such understanding. Why? Because it made up its mind long ago (according to the standards of the time) and has refused to alter it ever since. Which means that generations of students are being fed outdated nonsense in the name of "history". They are also being fed boring history - which is a crime against humanity. History is one of the most fascinating, engaging, intriguing subjects there is. To make it boring is to conspire against knowledge and the spirit of enquiry - it is to destroy when it should be creating, to depress when it ought to inspire.

Currently, the historical establishment is sitting on the facts, rather like those officials at the White House, and doing everything it can to silence or belittle anyone who offers a real insight into their subject.

The establishment relies on consensus - even when that consensus is outworn and no longer of any real value. In fact, it's an elitist affront to learning and understanding, to history itself and to those who lived it.

The historical consensus must be busted altogether. Woodward and Bernstein were right, and the Post was right to stand by them.

So where are our heroes of free speech today? And who is supporting and defending their efforts?

No comments:

Post a Comment