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Watch for history shaped by culture

25 July 2014

Not all stories are equal, says Paul Vallely

We all have our stories to tell. The great fallacy of post-modernism is that all stories should be accorded equal status. This is my experience, the logic goes; how can you argue against it? But a wide range of recent events give that the lie.

Sometimes the problem is proportion. Hamas is firing rockets at Israel, just as Israel is bombarding Gaza. But the casualty figures - 29 Israelis dead, against more than 600 Palestinians; 3640 injured; and more than 100,000 forced to flee from their homes - undermine claims that there is moral equivalence on both sides.

Sometimes the problem is a partiality which breeds self-delusion in pursuit of self-justification, as with the competing narratives of Russia and the West over the downing of the Malaysian airliner. Propaganda has reached levels unprecedented in recent times in Moscow, with rumours, reported as fact on state television, that Ukrainian troops had crucified a three-year-old child in a rebel stronghold. Amid such high-octane emotions, it is little wonder that most Russians believe that Flight MH17 was shot down by Ukraine to discredit pro-Moscow rebels.

All this is despite a welter of evidence that Ukrainian missile systems were not operative at the time, whereas a Russian Buk missile-launcher was - and that a separatist leader had boasted on Twitter that they had shot down an enemy plane, a message that was deleted once it emerged that 298 foreigners had died.

The theologian the Revd Dr Ian Paul offered an interesting reflection on the fractionality of human experience on his blog this week. Noting the striking lack of theology in Lord Carey's recent emotionally charged intervention in the assisted-dying debate (Press, 18 July), he wrote: "The appeal to experience can turn us intomoral solipsists, where we can say nothing beyond our own existence, and so we all haveto make moral decisions in isolation from one another."

The current Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, concluded something similar in the same debate, saying: "If we are showing compassion only to those we know and love, there is a danger that it becomes a self-centred sentiment."

The danger from the myopia of self-centredness was clear in the new series of the graphic conspiracy thriller Utopia, which has just returned for a second series on Channel 4. In an attempt to provide a plausible backstory for the first series, it flashed back to the 1970s, and mixed fact and fantasy to conjure a world that was both real yet disturbingly unfamiliar. Among the historical events included was footage of the murder of Airey Neave MP in a car bomb planted by Irish Republicans in 1979. In Utopia, he is killed by an MI5 clique bent on covertly sterilising the world population.

As a drama, it is compelling in a pointless way, much as was the film JFK, Oliver Stone's great speculative paranoid thriller on the assassination of President Kennedy, in which the director wove together cold fact and writhing conspiratorial fiction. The trouble is that, as Shakespeare's Richard III shows, history is not shaped by fact, but by what a culture remembers. We disregard that, whether in pursuit of TV ratings or geopolitical advantage, at our peril.

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