Have you ever heard the saying, “Today’s news is tomorrow’s history”? This sentence is very simple, and we all seem to understand what it means, and maybe even agree with it. But if you think about it more carefully, you will find that there are many problems with this sentence.
For example, it seems to imply a standard for what can be written into history. Are only the facts reported by the news media today worthy of being in the halls of history?
Like many small things in our daily lives, how people buy and sell at street stalls, and how they interact on transportation, these things are not qualified to be included in the news because they are too common. But many historians today study the history of daily life.
In today’s article, we introduce “Facts Are Subversion” written by Oxford University history professor Timothy Garton Ash to explore how to get as close to the facts and truth as possible before taking sides and taking a stand under pressure.
“In my opinion, this kind of hesitation, not daring to make judgments, not daring to easily maintain a position, tendentious, but always trying to see the subversive power of the facts themselves, is why this book is still worthy of our reading today. Reasons to read.”
01. Who will subvert facts and narrative?
If someone wants to study daily life in our era in the future and only treats news as historical data, how much will be missed?
He may have missed how we line up to do nucleic acid, and how we can judge whether we have become a companion of time and space. It is not easy to write these things into today’s news. So if history is written only by news in the future, how will they enter history?
There is another problem. Media practitioners often need to judge what is newsworthy.
Making judgments always comes with a presupposition, and this presupposition is always inseparable from the vision of our era. So why should we ask tomorrow’s historians to fully accept the journalistic standards of our era, as well as the various visions and presuppositions behind them?
So why in the history of history, many major new studies, new directions, and new developments are related to the discovery of new historical materials? It was not just a newly discovered batch of forgotten documents, but more fundamentally, the use of some things that people in the past would not have valued at all, and had never thought of archiving and preserving, as historical materials.
To give a simple example, after we cut down a tree, we will see rings on the trunk. Would previous historians consider annual rings to be historical materials? Less likely. But today, it is common for historians to use the growth rings of a forest to determine traces of past climate change. For example, if there is enough rain in a year, the distance between one line and the other line should be wider, and the tree will grow better.
Looking at these materials, we can probably know how many harvest seasons and how many drought years the people who lived in this place experienced in the past.
We might as well say boldly that today’s news can certainly be the history of the future. But questions about today’s journalistic standards are likely to be a key concern for historians in the future.
All historical data, if confirmed to be credible, can be regarded as a fact, a fact that happened in history. But what is fact? It is one of the core issues of modern history. The questions it contains are not only how to discover facts that people in the past ignored, or facts that were buried in the continuous rewriting of history, but also involve what we can use these facts to prove.
Historians may want to discover some new historical phenomena that were unknown to people in the past, and may want to point out the reasons for the formation of a certain historical event or a certain historical dynamic. This may be something we want to use some facts and some reliable historical data to prove.
However, since the very influential historical theorist Hayden White in the last century, there has been less emphasis on the logical relationship between facts and proof.
On the other hand, what is the emphasis? How are these facts used to prove the occurrence of historical events and illustrate the cause-and-effect relationships of historical changes, how are they interpreted and described? Some people say that this is a postmodern tendency, which has gradually become the mainstream trend in history.
Because what counts as historical data and what counts as facts is actually a matter of the framework under which they are put and how they are told. As we just said, the perspectives and value standards used by people of any era to understand their era are narratives that can be told, and this narrative can be constantly re-narrated.
So you will notice that in the past twenty or thirty years, when everyone talks about history, telling stories, narratives, and writing has become a very fashionable thing. It is almost tempting to regard history as a set of novels. Pure narrative technique and art.
On the contrary, the idea of still clinging to a certain simplicity, or even naively believing that facts have power in themselves, seems out of date, and makes you yawn when you hear it. How can you think that if you find a fact, it will definitely bring about subversive real power?
Against this background, Timothy Garden Ash’s “Facts Are Subversion” will not be a book that is very in line with the current trend of historiography. Because even the title of his book is old-school, how can the facts subvert it?
He continues to believe, he says in the book’s preface, that “facts are subversive, capable of overturning the assertions of elected leaders and dictators, biographers and autobiographers, spies and heroes, torturers and postmodernists. Lies, half-truths and myths can overturn all speeches that are said to comfort the miserable.”
02. How do scholar journalists record?
Are what Gaton Ash said true? Can the fact itself be so subversive without any narrative framework? Or is it the new narrative we compose and arrange facts that makes these narrated facts subversive?
Gatton Ash is a well-known name in the English-speaking world and Europe. He once served as the editor of the famous British “Observer” magazine, had a regular column in the famous “Guardian”, and was a professor of European studies at Oxford University. He has lived in Eastern Europe, Poland and the Czech Republic all year round, and is an old friend of Havel (the late Czech writer and president) and Walesa (the leader of the Polish Solidarity trade union, the first president of Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall) , is also considered to be an adviser to former British Prime Minister Blair.
So you see, this man is quite complex. He shuttles between academia, politics, and the mass media. His books and readers are countless. Perry Anderson, a master of New Left history with whom he often writes, once said somewhat unkindly that he was the most powerful voice in overthrowing the communist regimes in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War.
In recent years, China has finally translated several works of Timothy Garden Ash, the famous British celebrity. For example, this book “Facts Are Subversion” can be regarded as the first contact with readers in the Chinese world.
Although looking back, I don’t agree with Timothy Gardenash’s views on many issues, I will still read his writings for many years. Let me quote Zizek, a popular figure in today’s left field: “Although he is my political opponent, I have always believed that his rich and precise observations are still worth reading and can be used as a reliable source of material on the vicissitudes of Eastern Europe.”
To be honest, there are probably few people in the entire English-speaking world who understand what happened in the former Eastern Europe better than Timothy Garden Ash, and that was his field.
We might as well compare it with another famous author who appears in the “Utopia” translation series, Ian Buruma, who is familiar to more people in the Chinese-speaking world. The areas that Ian Buruma writes most frequently and is best at are Japan and East Asia, which he is familiar with; and Garden Ash is like the Eastern European version of Buruma.
Both of them are journalist-type scholars, or conversely, scholar-type reporters. This genre has a tradition in the English-speaking world, and starting with Orwell, journalists have replaced the traditional travel writer who exaggerates exotic locales and romanticizes his or her own experiences.
For example, the famous poet Kipling had never been to Mandalay, but he was able to write a popular poem about Mandalay. Scholar-journalists or reporter-scholars have become a more reliable and interesting source of foreign knowledge than traditional scholars.
Currently, non-fiction books that introduce the development process and basic background of various countries are popular on the market, including the works of a large number of foreign correspondents. They know how to communicate with public readers, have many years of first-hand experience, and some even have quite good academic background.
Garden Ash and Buruma are the best of this kind of people, and they are new intellectuals in the era of internationalization of mass media after the 20th century. They are a bit like anthropologists. When they go back and forth between their homeland and a foreign country, they are often able to clearly observe the facts that the locals are blind to from a distance, and then put them into another frame for examination.
Of course, Garden Ash is also a historian, and his understanding of German history is much deeper than that of ordinary German people. So when he looked at some of the darker corners of today, he had a glimmer of light shining from the depths of the past to help illuminate him.
Yet Fact Is Subversive is not very typical of Garden Ash. Because Eastern Europe plays such a small part in his collection of essays. Instead, he wrote about less familiar places, such as Iran, Myanmar, and even Hong Kong, China. So the question arises, why should he write about those lands where he has not lived for a long time? Why should we communicate with the locals?
We must know that interviews are the primary means for journalists to obtain facts, so proficiency in the local language has always been a basic requirement for scholar-type reporters. Gatton Ash knows Polish, Czech and German, but does he understand Persian? He doesn’t understand.
So how does he write about Iran? Chat with locals? How could he write so much about Muslims in Europe when he was never even an expert on Islam and the Middle East? When all the channels leading to the facts are not so solid, and when the facts themselves are difficult to obtain, can facts still have what he calls “subversive power”?
03. Defend the fence-sitters
The factual issues discussed by Timothy Garton Ash are issues that are closer to the professional concerns of journalists and closer to the meaning of common sense. Therefore, they are easier for us ordinary people to understand, but at the same time, they may also be easier to make mistakes.
For example, when talking about the second Gulf War, he seemed to fully accept the remarks of US Secretary of State Colin Powell when US President Bush was in office. He really believed what the Americans said and believed that Iraq possessed the legendary so-called “weapons of mass destruction” and took it as fact. The results of it? wrong. After the whole of Iraq was once again in trouble, the so-called “weapons of mass destruction” seemed like a joke that was not funny.
More than that, Gaton Ash also said in that article: “Saddam’s regime is one of the most disgusting regimes in the world today. He carried out genocide against the Kurds and made his people live in fear. . Toppling him would be a boon to his country and the region. However chaotic postwar Iraq might be—and it will be, like postwar Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan—it could hardly be worse. ”
However, the subsequent facts may seem to many people to have subverted his judgment at the time. This is probably an embarrassment for all media workers, current affairs commentators, and people like me, that is, some situations you originally expected did not appear, and what you originally thought was very bad, you later discovered , there will be worse situations.
The original English version of the book “Facts Are Disruption” was published in 2009. In fact, Gaton Ash should have discovered at that time that the article he wrote about Iraq was wrong. He had a good chance of deleting it. He regretted that he made the wrong analysis of the facts, but he did not.
why? First of all, if you are wrong, you are wrong, and it is a moral obligation not to cover up your mistakes. Secondly, I guess he might be able to feel a little relieved because he unabashedly expressed his attitude in the title of the article.
What attitude is expressed in the title of that article? It’s called “In defense of the fence sitters.”
In other words, although he believes that it is a fact that Iraq has “weapons of mass destruction” and believes that Iraq will be happier after the collapse of Saddam’s regime, he still dare not easily judge the United States and its allies, including his home country, the United Kingdom. Invading Iraq must be right, because he feels that the anti-war faction’s claims are also very reasonable and justifiable.
The question is, where does he stand? This is probably the “fence-riding faction” mentioned in the title of his article. But let’s not forget that if you still remember what happened back then, you probably still remember what a black and white moment it was.
The then US President Bush said very domineeringly: “You are either on our side or on their side.” To fight or not to fight, to be righteous or unjust, there is almost no gray area.
But Garden Ash actually wanted to defend the fence-sitter. If you don’t have a position, then why are you writing this? His explanation goes like this: “That doesn’t mean we all have to do that, effusively, simplistically believe one side of a complex dilemma, even if it does make for better television.”
He even believed that this was not just his personal attitude. He boldly said: “My instinct is that if you injected Tony Blair with a truth-vomiting serum in the dark, he would basically admit to this liberal hesitation. Decide.”
04. Difficulties of “Liberals”
Liberals, or “liberals” as we usually call them in the Chinese world, especially old-school British liberals like Garden Ash, are not nihilists without value tendencies. At the very least, liberals must believe in freedom of speech.
For example, Garden Ash can sympathize with the marginalized situation of Muslims in Europe, but he will never accept that he will justly kill cartoonists who dare to draw pictures of the prophet because his beliefs are offended. He advocated that “believers in all gods and those who insist that there are no gods should compete freely and equally in the square.”
Therefore, he was less in favor of the French Enlightenment and simply did not allow believers of any god—whether you were wearing a hood or a cross necklace—to appear in the square.
British liberals need to embrace some of the most basic human rights. Therefore, he stood with Eastern European dissidents such as Havel and advocated freedom of publishing and association. Such liberals will also pay attention to some of the most obvious factual contradictions. He doesn’t pay much attention to the various esoteric excuses for those contradictions. He thinks they are all sophistry.
The real trouble for the old liberals is not their emptiness of values, but their inability to deal with the passion behind their identity troubles. Take the matter of Brexit as an example. Whether the British are Europeans? Gatton Ash, who understands Europe and is close to Europe, analyzed the various conditions that should be considered here and then laid out A fence-sitting attitude.
What did he say? “My conclusion? No conclusion. This is because of the nature of identity research that rarely leads to clear findings. And because of the nature of British identity, perhaps the statement ‘no conclusion’ is itself a conclusion, even an important and positive one. .”
What we usually require is a clear conclusion, which represents a clear position. But old British liberals like Garden Ash can usually only provide tendencies.
He welcomed the fall of the former Polish and former Czech regimes but also saw the difficulties of the overall transition. Therefore, he cannot be like some people who worship “liberalization” like a god and superstitiously believe that tomorrow will be better regardless of reality; but he cannot be like other people who are angry and cynical about reality and miss the old days or conserve the country. the path of doctrine. A person like him always has to hesitate between the ideal tendencies supported by his beliefs and the endless facts that trouble his ideals.
Since “Fact Is Subversion” leaves the safe zone that Garden Ash is familiar with, in this collection he becomes more like one of those “international experts” who can talk freely about any country. This book further tests his abilities as a journalist, critic and public intellectual.
And because he no longer has the advantage in possession of factual materials, he does not understand Persian, but he still wants to write about Iran, so the beliefs and tendencies that drive his writing will become more prominent, but also more susceptible to challenge.
He is a journalist who defines his writing genre as a “history of the present.” Don’t get me wrong, this is not the kind of “history of how the present became the present” as the thinker Foucault said, but the hybrid writing of academics and journalism promoted by George Kennan, the father of the Cold War “containment theory”. It is a simple Type of writing.
So of course he had to discover the facts and get as close to the scene as possible. But he is a historian after all. Even if he doesn’t like to talk about overly philosophical or theoretical methodologies, he still cannot 100% trust the materials he brought back from the scene.
During the Prague Velvet Affair, a group of people close to Václav Havel met in a strange glass-walled room inside a theater called the Underground Magic Lantern Theater to make important decisions. Most of the time, Garton Ash recalled, “I was the only outsider there, and I must have been the only one with a notebook trying to write down what they were saying. I remember thinking, if I don’t write it down, no one will. ”
Like most of history, like bathwater poured down the drain, it is gone forever. But the foundation of history written in this way is so fragile. The question of memory is at the heart of the witness problem. Memories are CDs that can be reprocessed and ripped, constantly processed, and reprocessed in a special way that not only allows us to understand the story, but also makes us feel more comfortable.
What historian Garden Ash doubts is probably this kind of comfort, the comfort of cutting and trimming the facts to fit the logic of the argument.
What the old-fashioned British liberal Garton Ash doubted was the comfort of converting oneself to a given position.
He doubts this kind of comfort, and he would rather let his ideals and tendencies keep wandering around in reality like trying to focus a camera, unable to find a stable place to stay; he would rather let this cannot be settled by his theoretical framework. Interpretation, putting the facts into the framework of these realities, allows them to continue to make noise, disturbing the tranquility of the ideal world in his mind. So he is always hesitating, always advancing or retreating.
Why should I introduce such a book today? That’s because, in my opinion, this kind of hesitation, not daring to make judgments, not daring to easily maintain a position, tendentious, but always trying to see the subversive power of the facts themselves, is what this book still holds today. Reasons worth reading.