The concept of history is very curious. as most of it is concerned about things that don’t actually exist, that is to say, events of the past. And the same is true about our expectations about the future. We can only really speak about the past and the future as causal projections of the present. When we say, for instance, that World War 2 started in 1939, we say this because we’re taking the existing evidence about these events (official records, memories, photographs, and so on) and extract from all this a timeline of events, which represents nothing more than a concretization of the causal relation between the evidence and the projected events.
In that sense, our concept of the past is very much an illusion, as much as our concept of the future. This is not to say that I don’t believe events actually happened, of course, but that our present perception of them is very much removed from the events themselves. So this is why, in the case of history, there is a great deal of leeway for delusions, illusions, lies and frauds to insinuate themselves in that gap between reality and knowledge. The idea of a fixed past is probably a brain delusion.
But the same is true about the present. We don’t have immediate access to events that are going on around the world. We rely on other people to tell us, and that supply chain can become a target of co-optation as well. So in fact we are very, very vulnerable to those people who control what we learn about the past and the present, simply because we have very little way to independently verify.
Now think about this. Where do you get your ideas about the past? We imagine specific things when we think about this or that era, where do these images come from? Let’s say, for instance, the “Wild West.” Most of our ideas about that period comes from movies. In fact, most of the things we think are trademarks of the “Wild West” were invented by movie people and have really nothing to do with the habits or events of that time, all the way from details (like cowboy hats) to the big picture of the portrayal of the “Wild West” as a wild, violent place. Of course, this portrayal serves the purposes of the ruling class in associating freedom and lawlessness with violence.
Another source of knowledge about history is schooling. A lot of what is taught about history is a lie, and a lot of vital things to teach in history is simply omitted. Furthermore, their whole approach to teaching history is teaching a timeline, not teaching the principles of why things happen or the principles moving the people you supposedly learn about. They have no interest in teaching history by applying principles to building blocks, the way than one would teach a language, an art or a science. To teach history in such a principled manner would require one to teach about freedom and exploitation, which is a taboo topic in a system which relies on exploitation every step of the way.
Finally, the way we explain history to each other puts the emphasis on individual figures (especially ruling class figures) and individual motivations. In fact, history is dominated by the actions of the people composing broad movements of class and ideology, and the principles that move those actions. But it is a sad attribute of the human race that we think using narratives, and that narratives are most interesting when they involve single individuals that we can identify with. In the end, this creates the whole manichean worldview I’ve discussed before. We look at the trees so closely that we don’t even realize the forest exists.
This also inculcates to people the belief that they can’t change anything, that change comes from some exterior determinism that one must then follow slavishly. If history is made by individuals with the power to do so, then we powerless masses must therefore participate in the system and try to back the right horse. This must be our only hope of salvation. The belief in a messiah figure or a god to atone for our own sins also participates in that feeling of powerlessness.
How do we get our ideas about the present? People get their ideas mainly from the news and television shows. The manipulation of public opinion by the media for ruling class interests is a topic in and of itself: Noam Chomsky has pretty much made it his political theme. Through semantics, selection and plain lying, television presents to us a vision of the world that reinforces our belief in the need for law and order, in a world that is getting always better thanks to political and technological progress, and reassures people by carefully omitting any facts that go contrary to the ruling ideology.
We can identify four main areas from which our ideas about the world outside of our little sphere of observation are derived: the first being our parents when we are children, the second our education, and the third the media that keeps us company (obviously there are also things like the opinions of our friends, but those are also derived the same way). Of these, education and the media occupy by far the greatest mind space. Our parenting influences our basic beliefs about our life and that of others, but does not generally fill out our mental space (except insofar as setting life goals like being “successful,” or getting married).
Now the education system and the media, being heavily dependent on both government and capitalism, are obviously not going to tell people the truth about the capital-democratic system we currently live under. The education system, being a coercive hierarchy, certainly cannot produce free individuals. The media, at least the part that is controlled by giant corporations and dependent on the power elite as its sources of news, approval and funding, cannot tell people the truth about the current state of our freedoms.
In fact, what they indoctrinate people into believing is quite the opposite. They have made people believe that we live in a classless, free society, that democracy and wars are justified by that freedom, that the police is there for us, that “the economy” serves our interests, that without authority there can be no unity of purpose, that group cohesion is more important than values, and so on and so forth. They make hierarchies so omnipresent that we cannot imagine life without them.
Most importantly, they tell us what the important current events are, and what to think about them. Not directly, most of the time (unless you listen to “pundits” or “demagogues”), but through the selection of 1. what is shown, 2. how it is described and 3. what is omitted. As Chomsky has showed, the end result is the manufacture of consent regarding whatever policy is being put on the table, anything from a new municipal bill to a new war.
We can’t talk only of the “manufacture of consent,” but rather of a whole manufactured world. But this is a necessary fact, you see. No matter what system we live under, the limits of individual perception and individual knowledge are intrinsic. The problem becomes, how much control do we have over the sources of this content?
This is why the Anarchist must be very careful in his selection of media. Television, for instance, is an untrustworthy oligarchy which has no interest in telling us the truth and plenty of reasons to lie. Even a suspicious individual can get indoctrinated by watching television shows, because the indoctrination is often subtle.