I once appeared on a panel on the state of press freedom with a man who had been a reporter with one of America’s prestigious news weeklies. He told of having been on assignment in the Middle East during an especially bloody terrorist atrocity, carried out by Hezbollah, that had killed a number of Americans. When the journalist asked a Hezbollah contact why his group had committed the atrocity, the response was: “You ignored us before we were terrorists; now, after this act, you take us seriously.”
The message that the reporter took from these chilling words was not that the men who made the decisions for Hezbollah were ruthless murderers. Instead, he discovered a measure of wisdom in the terrorist’s rationalization: The Western democracies, and especially the United States, had for too long held sway over how events were interpreted, history was written, and the news was reported. He saw as altogether encouraging the emergence of differing narratives about world events, especially in combustible regions like the Middle East, where the voices and opinions of the victimized had been suppressed for too long.
These views are hardly unique today. The concept of “competing narratives” is embedded in school curriculum, scholarly interpretation, and journalism. In one sense, this is healthy; learning the various “narrative lines” around a particular situation is crucial to developing a critical understanding of it. Too often, however, reporters and others seem more credulous than critical. This is alarming, because there is a sinister version of the “competing narrative” phenomenon that has emerged in authoritarian settings, in which stories about historical injustice are woven to justify policies of repression. In Russia, Vladimir Putin assembled a team of historians-cum-publicists to engage in a thoroughgoing redrafting of history to justify Stalin’s crimes and Putin’s smothering of the country’s democratic stirrings. As is usually the case, the purpose of Putin’s interpretation of history is to place responsibility for the dark corners of Russian history on Western democracies and especially the United States. Our diplomatic and economic aggression had forced Russia to its knees; Putin’s strong leadership had forced the world to respect Russia, much like Stalin’s harsh regime had compelled the world to fear the Soviet Union. Likewise, China’s Communist authorities have developed an account of their country which emphasizes and reemphasizes the insidious schemes foreigners are hatching to prevent Beijing from taking its rightful place among global leaders. According to this line of argument, the most recent manifestation of this vast conspiracy is the presentation of the Nobel Peace prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo.
At one time, many of the “narratives” put forward today to explain acts of terror or policies of repression would have been properly labeled as propaganda. Goebbels, after all, did have a narrative to explain Nazi aggression: the Versailles treaty and political democracy—both imposed by the Western powers—had impoverished the German people and made war inevitable.
But the public by-and-large dismissed the crude and bombastic rationales for dictatorship and war advanced by the totalitarian powers. Today, unfortunately, it has become fashionable among many opinion shapers either to accept without a blink sophistic justifications for terrorism or authoritarian rule or, and this can be particularly maddening, regard them with smug neutrality, treating patently false arguments as somehow worth listening to.
To hear an American scholar or journalist giving credence to arguments that are usually mobilized to refute the suppositions of democracy is particularly disturbing. Western scholarship and the media of the democratic world have played a crucial role in developing an approach to historical analysis that makes a real effort to give all sides a say. Traditional Western scholarship has consistently demonstrated an ability to convey history without succumbing to special constituency pleading, even as the Western tradition assumed as a fundamental premise that freedom and democracy were invariably preferable to repression and autocracy.
Today, it is precisely that premise that is under challenge and in ways far more subtle and sophisticated in presenting the authoritarian case than in the past. The Russian international cable station RT has production values that rival CNN, a battery of presenters with authoritative BBC accents, and a strategy that revolves around the clever exploitation of every failing of the American system. China is even more ambitious, having announced multi-language versions of its global television network and news agency dispatches, all in the service of fortifying its own special narrative of world affairs. To the outside world, today’s authoritarians portray successful and forward-thinking societies that are building democracies at their own pace and in keeping with domestic traditions and customs. To their own people, they tell a story of an American-led campaign to undermine their achievements through the support of fifth columnists, “splittists,” and hirelings.
All this suggests that reporting the news and writing history will be increasingly complicated in the future. In particular, we will be confronted with nuanced and elaborately developed arguments that challenge the propositions that freedom is a noble goal and democracy the best of all possible political systems. Meeting this challenge will be made all the more difficult if the best and brightest among us seem plagued by doubts about the values of our own traditions of intellectual freedom.