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By Anonymous Mike, pseudonymously.

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Monday, December 15, 2008
Belling the Cat

This is a story getting some play on the Internet. The other week Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, who won this year's Nobel Prize winner in Literature, stated in his Nobel lecture that:

Who knows, if the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler's criminal plot would not have succeeded—ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day.

Now I think it would unfair of me to cherry-pick a single sentence from a long lecture given by a man who just won one of the greatest prizes in literature. However as my kids will most certainly attest, I am not a fair person. So here goes.

It may seem unbelievable to 20-somethings, but there was quite a free flow of information and images before the Internet. While done in a more hierarchical fashion and with more filters than you will find today, a person of just modest means but sufficient ambition could be up to speed on the issues and news of the day. Don't think so? Think Somalia in the early 1990s. Images of the famine in that country and the criminal role the various militias played in the tragedy is what drove a lame duck George H.W. Bush to make a major commitment of not only American humanitarian aid but also the military firepower to make sure the chow got into the right hands. Those weren't UN peacekeepers guarding the food convoys, but rather the 7th Marines. People saw the criminal nature of what was happening and applied the pressure to make sure something was done.

The technology at the time was of course television; combined with satellite communications and air travel meant that even events in the farthest corner of the globe could be beamed into your living room.

Now let's go back further in time, to the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s as Hitler began his march to war.

Now of course television hadn't been invented yet, but there was a thriving newspaper industry in France and Britain that could provide plenty of information for the common person in the street. Even more importantly the elites, especially in Britain, who had a much more insulated position in power than today had a very clear view of what was going on. Anybody who paid attention to what Hitler was saying knew exactly what he wanted to do. It wasn't like Mein Kampf was a hard to find book in Europe and Hitler took numerous opportunities to broadcast his intentions.

In short people knew.

What people didn't have was the determination to actually do something about it. Hitler's domestic enemies misunderestimated him; political leaders like Papen and the industrialists thought he could be made a pawn of their interests, the military only saw the glittering opportunity to re-arm. Accordingly, instead of killing Nazism in its cradle, they kept Hitler and his party in play until it was too late.

If you read the history of Britain's interactions with Hitler during the 1930s, you see the problem wasn't one of information but rather of analysis of intent. Figures of appeasement such as Baldwin and Chamberlain looked at the exact same information as Churchill regarding Hitler and his rearmament program but came away very different conclusions of what it actually meant. It was if they were looking at clouds in the sky, trying to ascertain their shape; while Churchill saw a given cloud as being in the shape of a murderous Hun, the appeasers saw the same cloud as being in the shape of a puppy.

That was Churchill's special genius and why he in part occupies his special place in history. Before Hitler even came to power, Churchill had him pegged for what the German truly was and Winston made himself Hitler's nemesis. Churchill paid a tremendous political price for this stance, essentially living in political exile until the start of WW II. That's is why Manchester's famous second volume of Churchill during this time is entitled "Alone."

So let's go back to Mr. Le Clezio's statement.

To act is not just a matter of information, whether in text or images. It is also a matter of analysis and leadership. One of the terrible achievements of the 20th Century was the perfection of propaganda, which is the manipulation of known facts and images to create a picture of reality suitable for political action. A close cousin of propaganda is the natural human tendency to self-manipulate information to meet a preconceived notion; after all we don't necessarily believe what we see as much as we see what we already want to believe.

To know about Hitler's "criminal plot" is necessary to stop it, but it is not only not sufficient but not even the most difficult part. Proper analysis of the information and leadership to act on it is necessary and those factors are rare commodities.

LONG ago, the mice had a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. Some said this, and some said that; but at last a young mouse got up and said he had a proposal to make, which he thought would meet the case. “You will all agree,” said he, “that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighbourhood.” This proposal met with general applause, until an old mouse got up and said: “That is all very well, but who is to bell the Cat?”