SAM Bourne is the author of political thrillers. His real-life persona is Jonathan Freedland, one of the Guardian’s acute columnists and a commentator on British current events, especially Brexit, and Jewish affairs. His opinion piece writing is of a far higher quality than the characterisation in his novels, but their value and virtue lie in the light they throw on the contemporary world.
His latest book features a David Irving-type character from the American Deep South who is a slavery denialist suing a critic for defamation. The denialism method is similar to Irving’s: highlighting minor errors and discrepancies in the historical record to call into question a momentous event. In other words, if a few trees can be made to disappear the forest goes with them.
The global background to this legal case is an attempt to wipe out the historical record. The world’s leading libraries are torched and their digitised backups destroyed; individuals with significant memories of, for instance, the Holocaust are killed; and Amazon book warehouses are hit. Websites vaporise. The ideology behind this vandalism is a belief that we have too much history and that it causes ongoing conflict. Annual commemorations in Northern Ireland and Serbia, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s evocations of Agincourt, might lend a semblance of weight to this. But as the hero of Freedland’s tale points out, individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s die from memory loss long before physical death. So, too, would humanity without recollection. This has historically been the approach of fascists and fundamentalists. In Rwanda’s genocide people were murdered en masse together with the destruction of all records proving they had ever existed. Vandalism by ISIS at Palmyra was an attempt, only partially successful, to obliterate evidence of Syria’s diverse history.
The destruction project in Freedland’s book, masterminded by an outfit with a name worryingly similar to Cambridge Analytica, aims for what it believes is an edenic state of humanity before memory – and evokes the Greek god of amnesia, Lethe. This movement is particularly exciting for the followers of right-wing populism. It clears the ground for the undisputed circulation of fake news and is a direct attack on liberal values and what is perceived as a privileged political and intellectual establishment. Without a documentary record, anything is feasible. It is a particularly apt story for our times where the president of the most powerful nation is a serial and unrepentant liar and millions of his supporters either endorse his lies or simply do not care. It is similarly encouraging for a myriad of right-wing populist causes such as Brexit that feed on myth and half-truths and mock debate based on research and rational thought. After all, it is the ‘man down the pub’ that has all the answers (if not the questions) especially after a pint or three. Who needs a documentary record?
The work of Austin Logica to create a tabula rasa for human existence is light years ahead of Nazi book burning, ANC Youth League book launch invasions and threatened bonfires in Ace Magshule’s Free State. But there is a direct link in fear and loathing of the truth and those who are committed to it. While Freedland has written a novel replete with almost Bond-like episodes, he raises real fears about what is potentially possible in a global village connected by the Internet. We are already very familiar with its use as weapon: state-sponsored hackers have invaded and crashed systems that run basic services such as hospitals and banks.
Austin Logica in Freedland’s tale hacked into library security systems and manipulated the heating and ventilation components to start and fuel conflagrations, a hidden hand that made physical protection pointless. Like Notre Dame cathedral most of the buildings were ancient and burned freely. And in the case of libraries, fire fighters’ water can do more damage than flames. Other hacking tactics were used to make sure that digital backups were also destroyed, although Freedland’s story ends optimistically as counter-hackers have prevented total annihilation of the historical record.
It’s all fiction, but disturbingly well-grounded in contemporary possibility. The world is indeed increasingly threatened by toxic right-wing ideology driven by charlatans and demented fantacists whom millions of people now take seriously. And we already know the potential of deliberately engineered computer system failure. Yet liberal democracy consistently fails to make its case, hobbled perhaps by its very strength in a belief in truth and rational discourse, against the publicists and purveyors of neo-fascist propaganda. And we continue to invest more and more in automated systems that ultimately have no protection against penetration by the evil-minded.
• Sam Bourne, To Kill the Truth (London: Quercus, 2019)