Tuesday, July 27, 2021
One of my favorite movies is Akiro Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The film tells different versions of the same event, from the view of the different participants. These version differ a lot, but you can understand how each of the participants bends the truth to make himself look better. The movie is a great lesson on why we will never arrive at an agreement on some universal truth, and helps understand why the same event today can be covered by different media and commented very differently.
As European I follow American news like somebody would follow a horror comedy series. Many of the characters are totally over the top. In fact, people who made political satire series like Veep have given up, because some of the real world people in the news behave in ways beyond the imagination of scriptwriters. You can’t *invent* people that crazy. But in many cases it is still Rashomon: People agree on some basic facts, e.g. “women in the women’s section of a spa in L.A. were exposed to the sight of a penis”; the fight is then about the interpretation of these facts. Is a penis in a women’s spa okay if the owner “identifies as a woman”? Is it a case of transgender rights, or a case of indecent exposure? You don’t need to be a political extremist to understand how opinions on this might differ. Even if you gathered a group of completely apolitical people, they would probably disagree on a complicated issue like this.
But where it starts to really worry me is when there isn’t even the slightest agreement on the underlying event anymore. I have been reading about politicians who claim that on January 6 a group of tourists were invited by the Republican party to a peaceful guided tour of the capitol, somebody accidentally broke something there, and the Democratic deep state reacted by killing one of the tourists and locking others away as political prisoners. Obviously the abundant video evidence of the event doesn’t support this version at all, which is why all reporting on this version is done without video or photo evidence. I would understand if the Republicans claimed that it was a protest gone wrong, not an insurrection. But to claim that basically nothing at all happened, after everybody *watched* it happening on TV, is beyond Rashomon-like truth bending.
I also worry about the left changing history. As a hobby historian, I always thought that the best way to deal with uncomfortable truths of the past is the 2000-page annotated new version of Mein Kampf, with 3500 notes about why Hitler’s arguments were wrong. The worst way to deal with uncomfotable truths of the past is to deny that past happened, and reinvent an alternative version of it, which is more in line with modern social standards. Falsifying the past, even in an entertainment context, is counterproductive to enlightment. How do you explain the Windrush scandal to somebody who watched Bridgerton and now believes that the British ruling class was mixed race for centuries?
Civil society is based on a fundamental agreement to be able to disagree on the political interpretation of facts. Attempts to just change the facts are the stuff of Orwellian nightmares.