Friday, 3 February 2017

The Antiquity of Alternative Facts

There's currently a lot of 'Alternative Facts' (or 'lies' as they used to be called) in the news. You don't have to be a bloated, misogynist, sexist, homophobic, billionaire racist in order to promote the dissemination of blatant untruths (though it evidently helps), for such things have (sadly) been skulking around for millennia.

Alternative Facts and Fake News have a long (and not very distinguished) history. Every brutal despot needs to keep a tight control on 'the truth', especially if it is deemed unpalatable. Those who have followed this blog for some time (both of you) know that I have a love / hate (mostly hate) relationship with 'Double-speak', the lexicon of managerial confusion which drives the world of politics and business. Those who claim to lead, frequently do so by disguising their discrepant / warped / sickening perspective through the use of jargon, euphemism, misinformation, verbal camouflage and techno-babble, excising legitimate forms of speech through a word-based form of regime-change.

Unfortunately it has always been thus,

Although 'Alternative Facts' may be a wholly new euphemism (for a state-sponsored lie), the denial by a government of the truth, however much evidence there is to the contrary, is something that can be traced right back to the earliest civilizations. Don't believe me? Well let's just quickly flit to the 13th century BC and the Battle of Kadesh, fought somewhere along, what is now, the border between Syria and Lebanon. This particularly futile conflict was between the chariot-driven Egyptian army of Pharaoh Ramesses II and the similarly equipped forces of the Hittite king Muwatalli II. We don't know who won the battle, as both sides went home claiming a major victory. For Ramesses, his post-match celebration was marked by the covering of the great temple at Abu Simbel with scenes unequivocally 'proving' that he had single-handedly 'won' the war.

Something to which the Hittites could justifiably retort: "liar, liar, pants on fire"

In the days before objective journalism and a free press (two rather hopelessly idealistic terms, I know), it would have been almost impossible for anyone to prove either Ramesses or Muwatalli wrong. All-powerful psychopaths with a determination to make history in their own image can print whatever version of the 'truth' they like. 

One of my own favourite pieces of Fake News from the Ancient World of Alternative Facts was generated by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus in the early 3rd century AD. Severus, like so many politicians of more recent times, believed that the best way to revive his failing career whilst simultaneously boosting popularity at home, was to start an unprovoked war in a distant land. His subsequent invasion of northern Britain was a particularly catastrophic example of the genre.

Launching a blitzkrieg assault from York, Severus' legions quickly got bogged down (literally) in the swamps and lost in the forested uplands of Scotland. Here they were easy targets. “The Romans suffered great hardships” the historian Dio Cassius tells us, “any stragglers became a prey to ambush”. With supply lines hampered and the army left with no clear targets, their advance faltered. “Unable to go on” Dio Cassius says, “they would be killed by their own men so they might not fall into enemy hands. As a result as many as 50,000 died in all”. 

None of this comes across in the official version of the campaign, of course, contemporary coinage showing the emperor Severus both as a man of peace 

and as a fearsome warrior, single-handedly riding down his barbarian foe.

Aside from the excessively high casualty rate, evidently a piece of 'Fake News' that the Roman government was keen to dismiss, any hint that Severus himself was unwell (later confirmed by Dio Cassius), could be deflected by the deployment of 'Alternative Facts', such as an image of him gallantly stamping on the heads of his enemy with the iron-shod hooves of his own personal Champion-the-Wonder-Horse. 

Oh, and of course he wasn't losing the war; far from it. Look, he was clearly winning multiple victories and acquiring much in the way of barbarian loot

whilst Victory herself was keen to crown him with a laurel wreath as he sat manfully on his imperial throne, firmly clasping his ball (a symbolic representation of the Roman world).

In reality however, failing to attain the glory he so desperately sought, Severus descended into violent recrimination. Finally, in AD 211, he died; crippled by illness and frustrated by an inability to get his own way. After his funeral, the campaign was swiftly terminated and all his foreign policy decisions reversed.

So, in this time of lies, fake news, and propaganda, be assured that the fleshy buttocks of Alternative Fact will eventually be ripped apart by the slavering jaws of history. It, too, has always been thus.

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