The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, February 21, 2004

Spin and objectivity: a Spanish Civil War perspective

As I think I've mentioned before, I've tried several times to get into the Spanish Civil War. The obvious high road is Hugh Thomas' book - originally published, from memory, in the early 60s, which has run into several editions. Each time, the eyes have glazed over by page 100, and that was that.

Perhaps an in is to be found in a piece of 13,000 words by Keith Williams called 'History Stopped in 1936' Writing and Media Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War.

Although Williams starts off by namechecking Jean Baudrillard, there is no MLA-speak to speak of. He discusses Arthur Koestler (Spanish Testament) and George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia), as well as sundry anglophone poets, newsreels, etc.

He explores what Koestler calls the dream barrier:
Koestler wrote of the ceaseless difficulty of overcoming ideological dissociation between mundane consciousness and extraordinary events, of which British scepticism about the Endlösung was an extreme instance. People viewed newsreels of 'Nazi tortures, of mass-shootings, of underground conspiracy and self-sacrifice', but without linking them 'with the realities of their normal plane of existence'...Though world facts were made 'accessible' as never before by the technology of the hyperreal, people were 'prisoners, each in his private portable cage'. Unless such 'dream barriers' between audience and victim were broken down 'this will remain a phoney civilization.'

(There is - natch - nothing much about Spanish or French material. Williams is specifically interested in British interactions with the war.)

There are all sorts of reasons why, to the British, the Spanish Civil War was special: it was the first war in which -isms were in play [1]; the first war in Europe [2] in which a decent proportion of Britons felt engaged, albeit mostly as kibitzers [3]; the first where broadcasting was engaged; the first fought in the immense cultural shadow of the First World War [4].

And there was, I think, a genuine feeling at the time that this might be a dress rehearsal for a wider European war.

Whilst, as ever, eschewing crude read-across, comparisons might usefully be made with later wars, including the recent Iraq war. (I've read the thing just once, so I won't get into the substance right now.)

I actually came to the Williams piece while searching for stuff on Claud Cockburn (now best known as the father of Counterpunch's Alexander Cockburn). His mimeographed newsletter The Week was famous for its attacks on the supposedly Nazi-leaning Cliveden Set of the Astors.

It was (which was where I came in) a sort of blog avant l'heure. [5].

Cockburn, an ideologue during the War (I believe he stayed loyal to the Communists throughout, unlike, famously, Orwell), expresses a realistic view (deathbed repentance?) of the nature of news in his 1981 autobiography:
...Cockburn discussed what he called the 'factual heresy', arguing that the real deception of press-reporting lay in the myth of neutrality, because narrative 'construction' of the facts was inevitable in order to give them relationship and meaning:
To hear people talking about the facts you would think that they lay about like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon days waiting to be picked up - arduously, it is true, but still definitely and visibly - by strenuous prospectors whose subsequent problem was only to get them to market. Such a view is evidently and dangerously naïve. There are no such facts. Or if there are, they are meaningless and entirely ineffective ... until the prospector - the journalist - puts them in relation with other facts: presents them, in other words. Then they become as much a part of a pattern created by him as if he were writing a novel. In that sense all stories are written backwards ... Journalistically speaking, 'in the beginning is the word'.

You don't read anything like that in contemporary Communist sources, I suspect. Orwell's 1938 Homage to Catalonia [6] is a tale of disillusionment with the Communists, on account of their Realpolitik-ing in Spain (rubbing out the more English-ly heterogeneous pro-Republican group the POUM, whose forces Orwell had joined). The Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939 persuaded others of his point of view.

Screaming from all of this stuff is the complete absurdity of the possibility of objective journalism - the fairy-tale still being shlepped around by some (many?) American hacks, against all the evidence to the contrary [7].

  1. The Guinness Book of World Records would want a tighter formulation - what about the post-World War 1 wars against the USSR, for instance? But leave it at that.

  2. There were, of course, various conflicts in the Empire that had occurred since 1918. But these had little effect on the public consciousness, I would reckon.

  3. The Abyssinian Crisis of 1935-6 engaged the British public no end - in domestic politics, it was a whole big thing, resulting in the demise of the Foreign Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare (of the Hoare-Laval Pact) and a general raising of heads from domestic concerns.

    I have a book - which I thought I'd mentioned before, but can find no trace of having done - called British Public Opinion and the Abyssinian War 1935-6 by Daniel Waley (1975) which covers the period. It's valuable - and I'd thought I'd used it in the context of the appeasement canard War Party hacks were throwing around in the back end of 2002 - to show that passivity amongst ordinary Britons in the face of world events in the mid-30s was by no means universal.

  4. World War 1 as a peculiar icon for the British is a stock topic. There's the poets, of course - Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, etc; the jerky newsreels; the Western Front; the blind patriotism; the general ignorance and immunity of the Home Front (and consequent shattering effect of the Zeppelin and Gotha raids).

  5. I was going to do a piece bringing in Cockburn, the Left Book Club, Penguin Specials, Commander Stephen King-Hall's K-H Newsletter - of which I have a run - and other British current affairs publishing peculiarities of the pre-War period. Another time, hopefully.

  6. Which was refused by Victor Gollancz, publisher of the Left Book Club, and other left tracts besides (notably Guilty Men by, inter alios, the still alive Michael Foot). HtC is available online. The site has the rest of his stuff, too.

  7. Is this another manifestation of the phenomenon of American innocence? That maidenhead which has, over the years, been surgically reattached, in the manner of the Eastern practice, more times than Bill Clinton was lunched on in the Oval Office...

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