First published: 24 May 2006
The most typical form of falsification in political argument is not actually to invent or falsify facts – although that, of course, is far from unknown. It is to rip individual facts out of context and to distort their weight compared to other facts – not infrequently by entirely suppressing the latter. Or as Lenin noted in Statistics and Sociology:
‘The most widely used, and most fallacious, method in the realm of social phenomena is to tear out individual minor facts and juggle with examples. Selecting chance examples presents no difficulty at all, but is of no value, or of purely negative value, for in each individual case everything hinges on the historically concrete situation. Facts, if we take them in their entirety, in their interconnection, are not only stubborn things, but undoubtedly proof-bearing things. Minor facts, if taken out of their entirety, out of their interconnection, if they are arbitrarily selected and torn out of context, are merely things for juggling or even worse. We must seek to build a reliable foundation of precise and indisputable facts that can be confronted to any of the “general” or “example-based” arguments now so grossly misused in certain countries. And if it is to be a real foundation, we must take not individual facts, but the sum total of facts, without a single exception, relating to the question under discussion. Otherwise there will be the inevitable, and fully justified, suspicion that the facts were selected or compiled arbitrarily, that instead of historical phenomena being presented in objective interconnection and interdependence and treated as a whole, we are presenting a “subjective” concoction to justify what might prove to be a dirty business.’1
Some important examples of such distortions, such ‘dirty businesses,’ have been dealt with previously in Politics Today. One is the conceptual sleight of hand involved in narrowing ‘human rights’ to ‘political rights’ and not examining human beings’ real conditions of life (‘Human rights and political rights’ 18 May 2006). Another typical example is seeking to confine judgement of the record of the imperialist states only to actions carried out within their own borders and not examining those that were carried out in countries which were subject to their imperialist actions (‘The US Gulag’ 22 May 2006).
It is worth taking some further illustrations to show how such a ‘dirty business’ is generally constructed, as it helps to clarify how to deal with the daily diet of distortions in the media and of the various apologists for imperialism.
To illustrate the principles involved consider the following example. It is a fact that Hitler was a vegetarian. There is evidence he displayed personal bravery – receiving a decoration in World War I. Concentrate only on these facts and one can easily imagine constructing a campaign thumping away in Sun or Daily Mail fashion: ‘Hitler’s vegetarianism illustrates his kindness to animals,’ ‘Hitler the war hero’ – indeed variants of the latter did appear in Nazi propaganda. Take these two facts in isolation and campaign on them, hammer them out while leaving others out, then of course the ‘brave vegetarian Hitler’ might seem a rather fine figure. The problem is that the decisive facts regarding Hitler are not these but that, among other things, he murdered six million Jews and launched World War II in which more than 30 million people were killed in Europe. Lack of emphasis on, or suppression, of far more decisive facts therefore presents a totally false picture – although that Hitler was a vegetarian and showed personal bravery are both facts. What is decisive is weight and proportion, the total dynamic, of that which is being described.
Another example was that recently the Daily Express listed a series of ‘proofs’ for one of its ‘Britain is best’ campaigns (which of course implies Germans, French, but particularly Iraqis etc are less good!) One of its historical proofs was ‘abolition of the slave trade.’ Abolishing the slave trade was undoubtedly an achievement – a date worth marking. However as regards it proving ‘Britain is better,’ the problem is that the tabloid failed to mention that the main reason the slave trade existed was that the chief slave trading nation in the previous two centuries had been Britain! That is, the reason that it was necessary to abolish the slave trade was, in particular, because British companies had been the main force carrying it out – protected by the British navy and British government policy. That gives a rather dramatically different weight and perspective to the issue of the slave trade in British history, and (the rather ridiculous question) of whether Britain is ‘superior to other nations,’ than that which is produced by simply listing the (true) fact that Britain abolished the slave trade.
Such forms of distortion, that is asserting or giving disproportionate weight to one fact, or ripping facts out of context, while eliminating or downplaying others is one of the scientific definitions of demagogy – and is the most typical technique of the tabloid press. Another example may be taken of the current frenzied campaign of the tabloid press against ‘foreign criminals’.
Evidently criminality is a very serious matter, and socialists are as completely against murder, rape, assault etc as anyone. But it is not one jot better for the victim if they are murdered, assaulted or raped by a British citizen than by a foreigner! It is evident from the figures given in the tabloid press itself that the proportion of serious crime carried out by ‘foreign criminals’ released from prison and not deported is extremely small. The entire central prominence given to this campaign is therefore to stress the threat of ‘foreigners’ – part of a campaign to whip up hatred of immigrants, asylum speakers, ‘foreigners’ in general. Issues responsible for enormously greater quantities of serious crime, for example domestic violence, naturally receive no equivalent campaigns although they vastly overshadow the amount of crime by ‘foreign criminals’. A separate article will consider the less raucus in tone, but almost equally numbing in intellectual character, similar campaigns carried out by the ‘serious’ press and other apologists for imperialism.
In the long run, such constant distortion of real weights and values is one of the reasons the media can be defeated. Because people can feel in their real lives that what counts is not what the media present as the most important. In the short and medium run, it pollutes the political atmosphere and is used to inflict and justify injustice and oppression.
It also makes clear why ‘setting the agenda’ is so crucial in political struggle. Defining the agenda means bringing out into the open which issues are the most important, which may be being entirely ignored, and which determine the character and dynamic of the situation. The ‘facts’ that can be considered must not be confined to those which the mass media sets out – because they are posed in a definite framework according to the false weight given to particular issues. It means that the terms of reference, the weight
accorded to issues, by the media must very frequently be denied and the real facts established. This is the only way to combat a ‘dirty business’.
To return to the beginning, was the big fact about Hitler that he was a vegetarian – or that he killed six million Jews, 27 million Soviet citizens and millions of others?
1. Lenin, ‘Statistics and Sociology’, Collected Works Vol 23 p272-3