The triumph of truth

JAMES KENNARD

IN 1984¸ George Orwell imagined a dystopia in which governments were in total control of information. The “Ministry of Truth” told citizens who were the allies, the enemies, the good and the bad. Even when shifting alliances required the past to be re-written, one constant remained; the leader (“Big Brother”) was always feared, beloved, and demanding of total loyalty.

Orwell’s novel was not intended as a prophecy, but for decades totalitarian regimes appeared to be realising his vision. Subjects of such regimes professed their love for their leaders and their hatred for “traitors” who dared to show any sign of dissent.

Yet, in 1989, the world learnt that the dictators had totally and utterly failed. As the Berlin Wall tumbled, and one leader after another resigned or fled, the liberated showed us that they had known the truth all along. They knew that their rulers were nothing but evil despots and they hated them with a passion.

As it was for the revolutions of Eastern Europe, so it is today in the Arab world. Observers of Libya for the past decades have seen masses of demonstrators professing their love for Muammar Gaddafi, bearing his “green book” and quoting from its wisdom. Yet now their true feelings for their leader are clear. With rallies, graffiti and life-risking rebellion, they proclaim their hatred for the dictator and their determination to free themselves from his power.

Similarly, the demonstrators in one Arab capital after another show that decades of government propaganda has failed to hide the truth.

Why was Orwell wrong? With total control of information, why could the regimes not control hearts and minds as well?

In reality, neither Eastern Europe nor the Arab world was totally closed off to outside influences. When I was one of the hundreds who visited refuseniks in the Soviet Union before the era of Gorbachev and Glasnost, despite being watched and occasionally followed, it was not hard to bring information and inspiration from abroad.

East Germans and some other residents of the Soviet bloc were able to receive foreign television that not only provided them with reliable and accurate news, but showed that non-communist life brought both freedom and higher quality of life.

And that was before the internet. Society is only beginning to come to terms with a world in which nearly everyone carries a movie camera in their pocket, and can send text and images instantly around the globe. Unless a country is resourceful enough to block the internet (and powerful enough to persuade or bribe multinational content providers to voluntarily censor their own sites), the days are over when rulers could claim “my people love me” without being immediately contradicted with evidence.

But while television and Facebook may be the handmaidens of a campaign for democracy, they are not its progenitor. Revolutions occurred before the electronic age, when Twitter was another term for birdsong. The scenes from the streets of Cairo and Tunis owe their origin to something much greater and more powerful – the human spirit and ability to determine the truth.

For me, one of the defining images of the late 20th century was that of the crowd in Bucharest on December 21, 1989. Not only did thousands find the courage to heckle their dictator, not knowing whether they would survive the day, but they showed that they could peer behind a lifetime of indoctrination and could perceive reality for themselves.

Perhaps my children will remember the graffiti in the streets of Benghazi depicting Gaddafi as a monkey replacing the hundreds of images and statues that had previously presented him as a virtual demigod, as the iconic symbol of the revolutions of 2011.

These episodes demonstrate that there will always come a time when truth triumphs over falsehood, and that the power of lies and propaganda will come to an end. We might need WikiLeaks to reveal the misrepresentation of subtle nuances of Australia’s foreign policy, but the difference between democracy and dictatorship, between freedom and tyranny, needs no revelation. People know evil when they see it, and when they are forced to live under it.

Our generation has been privileged to see the demise of many tyrannies. Once we could never imagine democracy and  private enterprise throughout Eastern Europe and yet now many know nothing else. There is a long way to go. Intense repression abounds in  North Korea, Burma and China, even if the world’s human rights monitors look away and pursue their obsession with Israel. The final result of the Arab revolutions is far from clear. Syria’s dictator and his torturers remain firmly in control.

But those defaced portraits of Gaddafi give us hope. Freedom’s progress may be impeded but, like truth, its triumph is inevitable.

Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College, Melbourne.