Thursday, November 6, 2008

Truth is What it is, Not What Someone Says it is

The Law of Historic Memory, as it is known in Spain, is described by those who have sponsored it as an attempt to do justice to the remaining victims of the Civil War and the Dictatorship, understood to mean those who suffered directly, and their living families in many cases. It is not as bad as it is sometimes made out to be- it wasn’t, after all, written by idiots- but its primary motivation is clearly political. The political intent is not disguised.

It is criticised for many reasons. It is hard to see why it is necessary. During the transition agreement was reached by all political parties, other social organizations, and the public through a referendum, to accept the War and the Dictatorship as part of history, to seek to redress still rightable wrongs, and to work together to create a stable and prosperous democracy. Not even the Communists tried to upset things too much. If it was the right answer then, and hindsight has shown it undoubtedly was, then surely it is not suddenly wrong after more than three decades.

The effects are unpredictable. The left appears to be trying to win the War that it lost seventy years ago. Spanish society could be destabilized by this. It is hard to imagine it increasing stability, and stability, prosperity and freedom are still greatly valued here by those who remember how it was. The idea of doing justice where it still remains to be done is, of course, a good one, but not in this divisive, highly politicized fashion.

The victims of the Republicans are being forgotten. There were many thousands murdered by the left during the War, including half my wife’s family, and although the law supposedly recognizes this, there is a very strong feeling that it will not in fact be used in favour of these victims. This is being borne out in practice, in that the press, the government itself, and the more vocal of the groups that are interested in this, are only investigating or calling for the investigation of crimes attributed to the Nationalists. Those whose families were murdered by the Communists are deeply unhappy about this, unsurprisingly, and those who try to have Republican crimes looked into are dismissed as trouble-makers or even fascists.

Federico García Lorca is about to be dug up on the orders of a judge, though his family don’t seem too keen on the idea, to attempt to prove some point or other, or just to draw attention to what they are doing. He is perhaps the most famous of the victims murdered by the Nationalists. It was undoubtedly a terrible crime, depriving a young man of his life, and Spain of one of its greatest poets. But we shall hear little or nothing, I fear, of the murder by the Communists of Ramiro de Maeztu, one of the greatest intellectual writers of his time, and Pedro Muñoz Seca, a popular, prolific and rather good dramatist, whose work is still well-known. The latter was killed along with hundreds of others, most of them guilty of nothing more than Monarchist sympathies. When I say murder in this article I refer to the extra-judicial killing of non-combatants, neither convicted nor accused of any crime, usually for their supposed political stance, for owning land, or simply out of greed, revenge or hate.

It is hard to see what purpose any of this will serve. And it bound to do a great deal of damage. But the real danger, and what everyone should be concerned with, whatever side of history or politics they are on, is that the government believes it has the power to legislate truth, to define truths which the people must acknowledge on pain of imprisonment. It is bad enough that governments indoctrinate children by forcing teachers to present certain material in particular ways, with no possibility of encouraging research, analysis and debate, but to criminalize the expression of certain thoughts is far worse, and much more dangerous.

A narrative is being constructed, an official version of the history of the Civil War and the dictatorship of Franco, with identified victims, heroes and villains named as such, events described in a form which is defined as the reality, and to deviate from this is to become an outlaw; subject to criminal law. There will be thoughts that it will be illegal to express, ideas which cannot be articulated, opinions which must be kept to ourselves, and our children will parrot the official truth in chorus until everyone finally comes to believe it. Research will become difficult, politicians and the press will have a new way of setting the dogs on their opponents, and no good will come of it.

Freedom of thought should be absolute; freedom of speech can be subject to limits, where it is intended, or very likely to result in violence- fire, theatres, incitement and other words come to mind. Freedom of speech is the freedom to be wrong, the freedom to be stupid, to speak in ignorance, to blindly defend a position one does not even understand, to articulate one’s gut feelings and reactions, to offend others if that is the result, but also to speak intelligently, to question and investigate matters, to express hypotheses, to overturn the established understanding, and to use the truth one has discovered for purposes less reputable than the process of finding it.

Once we accept that we can be forbidden from saying some things, or from questioning the truth as we have been told it is, we will have lost an important part of what makes freedom available to those who are not afraid to possess it and use it.

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