Illustration by Melinda Gebbie.
Show Hide image

The Goebbels of the English language

We cannot state conclusively that anything is true.

I’m not entirely sure what my fellow contributors will have to say upon the subject but I expect they’ll generally see evidence as quite a good thing and will make compelling arguments to that effect, backed up by documented facts, deductions, and, well, evidence. Except that evidence would say that, wouldn’t it? It isn’t going to testify against itself.

I submit that if in the preceding paragraph the reader replace the term “evidence” with, say, the term “News International”, then the sleazy duplicity of this butter-wouldn’t-melt-in- its-mouth logical, scientific and forensic concept will become immediately apparent. Although it might be incautious to suggest that “evidence” and “evil” are synonymous based solely on their first three letters, I say that we go for it. Let’s subject this oily and persuasive abstract noun to the same brutal scrutiny that it is all too ready to inflict on others and see how it likes it.

When we try to build a solid case against our purely notional defendant, though, we start to get an idea of exactly what we’re up against. For one thing we discover that, suspiciously, we’re suddenly without a single shred of data to support our claims. Forthcoming witnesses are nowhere to be found and even the police appear reluctant to become involved. We learn that evidence, being pretty much made of evidence, has got an alibi for absolutely everything, with all the confirmatory theatre ticket-stubs and time-logged credit card exchanges carefully in place. In this, at least, evidence bears a strong resemblance to the imperviously powerful and homicidal drug cartels of Mexico.

Despite evidence appearing to be protected by the prince of darkness from on high, we can still pursue our investigation and construct a profile of our subject. Evidence, it turns out, is a relatively young latecomer to the scene that muscled its way into our vocabulary 700 years ago, ruthlessly ousting older and more venerated competition such as rumour, superstition and some bloke down ye tavern and malicious gossip, in the lexicological equivalent of an axe-wielding turf war.

Now, quite clearly, the mere fact that evidence shares the same medieval pedigree as the Black Death and the Spanish Inquisition doesn’t mean that it is equally abhorrent, but it’s worth observing that airborne carbon particulates are often indicative of a fire, hence smoke alarms.

A glance at evidence’s backstory reveals a seemingly impeccable and spotless record sheet, with glowing testimonials to the subject’s many acts of great social benevolence: tremendous contributions to the methodology of science and medicine that have allowed humanity to crawl up from a swamp of ignorance and early death; providing the foundations for a legal process that goes further than establishing if witches float or not; and blah blah blah. It hardly need be said that representing oneself as a public benefactor is a timeworn strategy for camouflaging acts of dire monstrosity, as employed by Alphonse Capone, the Kray twins and disc jockeys in the 1970s. As yet, no information has emerged connecting evidence with any of the previously mentioned malefactors but there are of course fresh revelations every day. Is it a mere coincidence that the most commonly used adjectives or adjectival nouns describing evidence are “cold”, “hard”, or, more worryingly, “DNA”?

If we are hoping to make something stick with this notoriously slippery and Teflon-coated piece of terminology, we obviously need to dig a little deeper. A good place to start might be with a description of the suspect, something that a sketch artist could work from. Evidence, according to a reputable source, is “that which tends to prove or disprove something; grounds for belief; proof”. The sharp-eyed juror may note a considerable leap between the first two cautious, unassuming clauses of that definition and the confident, declamatory third example. How does “that which tends to prove or disprove” or which gives “grounds for belief” equate so suddenly with “proof”? While a creationist might justifiably regard the book of Genesis as documentary evidence supporting their profoundly stupid version of the universe’s origin, as something which in their opinion tends to prove or to at least give grounds for their belief, that surely doesn’t mean that a several-millennia- old Just So Story is a proof of anything.

Alternatively, back in 1881, the physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley ably demonstrated that the hitherto convincing evidence for the existence of the ether was not actually a proof of that existence. All of this implies that evidence has quite a history of passing itself off as proof. The two are frequently mistaken for each other and I would suggest that it is under this deliberate smokescreen of ambiguity that evidence is free to carry on with its insidious racket.

Most accounts of a debate where evidence is in attendance generally depict the aforementioned entity as an intimidating presence, useful when it comes to shutting people up and not afraid to use its hefty physicality as a deterrent. On examination, though, it would appear that evidence is not so much the physical material of which it is comprised, as it is the entirely abstract and subjective processes involved in the selection and classification of material phenomena as evidence. A lead pipe, in and of itself, is after all just a lead pipe and needs considerable human interpretation to connect it with Professor Plum and the conservatory. It is in this dependence on the unreliable perceptions and concealed agendas of an individual that we finally identify the weak spot of this domineering thug.

In order for an item to be classed as evidence, the thing it evidences must be previously extrapolated or determined, presupposing the conditions under which it qualifies as evidence. As an example, you conceivably might be employed by a giant petrochemical concern and have for some time loathed Professor Plum for his outspoken views on global warming, or, I don’t know, because you think he looks Jewish. When you heard about the murder, you immediately let your prejudices as a climate change denying anti-Semite influence your judgement as to whom might be the culprit. The well-known phenomenon of confirmation bias led you to ignore such data as did not support your predetermined theory and instead carefully to select only those facts that did. You gathered evidence and then presented it as proof. For God’s sake, there must be a thousand ways that lead pipe could have ended up in that conservatory, you scientifically illiterate Nazi.

Evidence, that always plausible and superficially convincing psychopath, can only ever be a charting of our own perceptions and our intellectual processes, as in Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation – or at least in my interpretation of it. Evidence is thus the map, while proof by the same token is the territory and the two might not exactly or even remotely correspond, as in the recent mortifying case of Google Earth and that South Pacific island, which, it turned out, wasn’t really there.

The yawning and yet easily ignored gap between map and territory, evidence and proof, along with the confusion that apparently persists between the two, is indicated in the subtle disagreement that is polarising current scientific thought upon what constitutes reality. One side in the debate contends that if our theories on the nature of the universe – for instance, the existence of inferred quantum effects or particles that may be unobservable – are in accordance with the way that space-time seems to function, then we may as well afford these theoretical constructions their full status as reality. Those with opposing views, perhaps more wisely and more cautiously, point to the many “Michelson and Morley” instances where our most informed understanding of existence proves to be fallacious and instead suggest that even our most powerful theories can be only be part of an evolving and continually adapting apprehension of a hypothesised “ultimate reality”.

As the philosopher Karl Popper pointed out, we cannot state conclusively that anything is true, only that it has not thus far been falsified. Since even proof itself is seemingly fatally undermined by Popper’s hard-to-discount observation, might we not therefore conclude that evidence is a completely hopeless bastard?

Evidence is not proof and occasionally it isn’t even evidence. While it undoubtedly illuminates the human landscape, it obscures it in an equal measure. It has led to the incarceration of some thoroughly vile people and similarly has collaborated in the execution or internment of the blameless and the mentally impaired. In its contribution to the sciences, it has repeatedly allowed us to escape from the miasma of disinformation that somebody else’s view of evidence had visited upon us in the first place. Even in those instances where evidence is plentiful, are we entirely capable of judging what the evidence is of?

Approximately 18 months ago, it was announced that measuring the cosmic constant yielded different measurements depending upon which way the observer happened to be facing. This apparently nonsensical discovery would make sense in the context of “etheric flow”, a kind of current having a direction that’s conducted through the rarefied essential medium of our universe, except that back in 1881 we were assured by Michelson and Morley that the ether was entirely fictional, according to their evidence. Now, I’m not saying that these two respected physicists should be exhumed and pilloried, their gravestones rendered to unfathomable rubble by an angry, crowbar-swinging mob. That is, naturally, a matter for the individual reader to decide. My only aim is to present the facts, as they appear to me. If I can do that in around 2,000 words, so much the better.

Those who still prefer to picture evidence as some variety of loveable old villain in the manner of Mad Frankie Fraser, despite all the documented torture and brutality, should give some thought as to what a society entirely based on evidence might look like. An informative example is available in South America’s extraordinary Pirãha people, for whom every statement or remark must be accompanied by some sort of supporting evidence or proof. For instance, simply saying “John has gone up river” would not be sufficient by itself and would need qualifying with an explanation of how this conclusion was arrived at. Proof from observation, as in “John has gone upriver and I know because I personally saw him go” would be acceptable, as would proof from deduction, as in “John has gone upriver and I know this because his canoe’s no longer here”. This rigorous approach to conversation would appear to have significant advantages in that it does not permit the Pirãha any concept of a god or notions of an afterlife, surely good news for scientific atheists who may have recently become distressed by the idea that human beings might be “hardwired for religion” and possess a “god-shaped hole” in their psychology. With the world view of the Pirãha, practically unique in having no creation myth, this notion is reliably refuted.

Other things that the Pirãha do not have include a written language, possibly because the provenance of written statements is impossible to validate compared with first-hand verbal information from a trusted relative or colleague. This means that, along with being unencumbered by a deity or a religion, the Pirãha also have no scientific theory, no literature or art, nor any history extending further back than a few generations. On the other hand, if you’re still worrying about where John’s gone, the Pirãha are nothing if not dependable.

To summarise, evidence schmevidence. This Goebbels of the English language has for too long passed itself off as a thing of formidable weight and substance, bolstering its image with the use of terms like “solid”, “irrefutable” and “cast-iron”, when in fact it often only demonstrates the pattern-recognition pro - cesses of those presenting it. A jar of saddlebag-faced Saddam Hussein’s anti-wrinkle cream confirms the presence of weapons of mass destruction and so justifies the comprehensive devastation of Iraq. Evidence is sometimes murderously deceptive.

For all we know, it hasn’t even stopped beating its wife.

Alan Moore is the author of “Watchmen”, “V for Vendetta”, “From Hell” and many other titles

Alan Moore is the author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell and many other titles.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

Show Hide image

Happiness is a huge gun: Cold War thrillers and the modern nuclear deterrent

For all that books and films laud Britain's strength, ultimately, they show that our power is interdependent.

Francisco “Pistols” Scaramanga, the ­assassin for hire in Ian Fleming’s 1965 James Bond novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, has invested more than money in his favourite weapon. Bond’s colleagues in the Secret Service have concluded from Freudian analysis that Scaramanga’s golden gun is “a symbol of virility – an extension of the male organ”. It is just one of many phallic weapons in the Bond saga. In Dr No, for instance, Bond reflects on his 15-year “marriage” to his Beretta handgun as he fondly recalls “pumping the cartridges out on to the bedspread in some hotel bedroom somewhere around the world”. Objectively speaking, guns comprise little more than highly engineered metal and springs, but Fleming invests them with an ­extraordinary degree of psychosexual significance.

Size matters in the Bond novels – a point made by a furious Paul Johnson in a review of Dr No for this paper in 1958 (“everything is giant in Dr No – insects, breasts, and gin-and-tonics”). One of the Bond stories’ biggest weapons is a rocket carrying an atomic warhead: the Moonraker, which gives its name to the third Bond novel, published in 1955. The most important thing about the Moonraker is that it is apparently British – a gift to a grateful nation from the plutocrat Sir Hugo Drax. And, like Bond’s Beretta, it is freighted with psychosexual significance. When Bond first lays eyes on it there is no doubt that this is an erotically charged symbol of destructive power. “One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Bond says, with a “rapt expression”:

Up through the centre of the shaft, which was about thirty feet wide, soared a pencil of glistening chromium [. . .] nothing marred the silken sheen of the fifty feet of polished chrome steel except the spidery fingers of two light gantries which stood out from the walls and clasped the waist of the rocket between thick pads of foam-rubber.

The guns in the Bond books can be seen as expressions of their bearer’s power – or, as with Scaramanga’s golden gun, compensation for a lack of virility. The Moonraker is equally symbolic, but on a far larger scale: an expression of a nation’s geopolitical power, or compensation for its impotence.

As what is known officially as Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent (“Trident” to everyone else) returns to the top of the political agenda, the cultural dimension of the debate will no doubt continue to be overlooked. Yet culture matters in politics, especially when the issue is a weapon. As the guns in the Bond novels remind us, weapons are not merely tools, they are also symbols. Trident is not just a system comprising nuclear warheads, missiles and four Vanguard-class submarines. Its symbolic meanings are, to a great extent, what this debate is about. Trident stands for Britain itself, and it does so for different people in different ways. Your opinion on whether to cancel or replace it depends to a great extent on what kind of country you think Britain is, or ought to be.

The Cold War British spy thriller is particularly topical because it developed in tandem with Britain’s nuclear programme through the 1950s and 1960s. Moonraker was published just weeks after Churchill’s government announced its intention to build an H-bomb in the 1955 defence white paper, and three years after Britain’s first atomic test on the Montebello Islands, Western Australia. These novels drew on technological reality in their plots concerning the theft of nuclear secrets or the proliferation of nuclear technology, but they influenced reality as well as reflected it, with stories of British power that helped create Britain’s image of itself in a postwar world.

The main theme of the genre is the decline of British power and how the country responded. Atomic or nuclear weapons serve this as symbols and plot devices. Len Deighton’s debut novel, The Ipcress File (1962), for instance, concerns a plan to brainwash British scientists to spy for the Soviet Union, and has as its centrepiece an American neutron-bomb test on a Pacific atoll, observed by a British double agent who is transmitting Allied secrets to an offshore Soviet submarine. The novel’s technical dialogue on nuclear technology, and its appendices providing a fictionalised account of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb test and a factual explanation of the neutron bomb, are in the book not merely for verisimilitude: Deighton’s British spies are observers or victims of the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR, agents with remarkably little agency.

A more dour variation on the theme is John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War (1965), in which the prospect of obtaining information on Soviet nuclear missiles in East Germany provokes “the Department”, a failing military intelligence organisation, to try to regain its wartime glory with an intelligence coup. This hubris leads to tragedy as its amateurish operation unravels to disastrous effect, le Carré’s point being that military and economic might cannot be regained through nostalgic wish-fulfilment. These novels situate British decline in the context of superpower domination; their characters recall the technological and operational successes of the Second World War but seem unable to accept the contemporary reality of military and geopolitical decline. For Deighton and le Carré, Britain simply doesn’t matter as much as it used to, which is why, in le Carré’s later Smiley novels and Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy (1983-85), the spymasters are so desperate to impress the Americans.

Fleming is usually seen as a reactionary, even blimpish writer – his England was “substantially right of centre”, Kingsley Amis remarked – and he signalled his own politics by making a trade unionist the ­villain of his first novel, Casino Royale (1953). So it might seem surprising that he was as concerned as his younger contemporaries Deighton and le Carré with British decline. The historian David Cannadine, for one, emphasises that although Fleming may have been aghast at certain aspects of postwar change such as the welfare state and unionisation (opinions that Bond makes no secret of sharing), he simply refused to believe that Britain was in decline, a refusal embodied in Bond’s very character.

Bond the man is more than the “anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a ­government department” that Fleming described to the Manchester Guardian in 1958. He is an expression of the British state itself, demonstrating Britain’s toughness while besting its enemies – the Russian agents of SMERSH and, later, the international criminals and terrorists of SPECTRE. He is supported by a formidable apparatus of technological and logistical capability that mythologises British research and development, which had peaked during the Second World War (a point made more obviously in the film franchise when Fleming’s Armourer becomes the white-coated Q, heir to Barnes Wallis and the ingenious technicians of the Special Operations Executive). And, as Cannadine astutely observes, “this comforting, escapist theme of Britain’s continued pre-eminence” is most evident in Bond’s relationship with the United States. The Americans may have more money, but they cannot spy or fight anywhere near as well as Bond, as is made plain when the hapless Felix Leiter, Bond’s friend in the CIA, literally loses an arm and a leg to one of Mr Big’s sharks in Live and Let Die (1954).

Moonraker, however, exposes a more complex and sceptical side to Fleming’s Bond. It is significant that this emerges in a book that is explicitly about Englishness and the Bomb. The rocket is being built atop another symbol: the white cliffs of Dover, prompting some surprisingly lyrical passages on the beauty of South Foreland coast. And yet, though replete with emblems of English tradition and bursting with hatred of ugly, evil-minded foreigners, this novel has an unmistakable political subtext that undermines its apparent confidence in British power. Drax, it turns out, is a patriot – but a patriot of Nazi Germany, which he had served as an SS officer and plans to avenge with a missile that is pointing not, as everyone believes, at a test site in the North Sea, but at central London, the intended Ground Zero being a flat in Ebury Street, Belgravia (the location, incidentally, of Fleming’s own bachelor pad in the 1930s and 1940s). The missile has been designed and built by engineers from Wernher von Braun’s wartime rocket programme, and its atomic warhead has been generously donated by the Soviet Union, which is looking to bring Britain to its knees without having to go through the rigmarole of fighting a war.

The Moonraker, we are told repeatedly, will restore Britain to its rightful place at the global top table after its unfortunate postwar period of retrenchment and austerity. But the rocket is not British, except in being built on British soil, and the aim of the man controlling it is to destroy British power, not project it. The implication is that Britain is not only incapable of looking after its own defences, but also pathetically grateful for the favours bestowed on it. After the missile is fired, its trajectory diverted by Bond back to the original target (thereby fortuitously taking out a Soviet submarine carrying the fleeing Drax), the government decides to cover it all up and allow the public to continue believing that the Moonraker is a genuinely British atomic success.

One of the ironies of the Bond phenomenon is that by examining the myths and realities of British hard power, it became a chief instrument of British soft power. Of the first 18 novels to sell over a million copies in Britain, ten were Bond books, and Moonraker (by no means the most successful instalment of the saga) was approaching the two million mark 20 years after publication. The film franchise continues to offer Cannadine’s “comforting, escapist” image of Britain (the two most recent pictures, directed by Sam Mendes, are especially replete with British icons), but the novels are altogether more uncertain about Britain’s role in the world. Moonraker is full of anxiety that the myth of British power is nothing more than a myth, that Britain lacks the industrial and scientific wherewithal to return to greatness. It even conjures up an image of the apocalypse, reminding readers of the precariousness of those cherished British values and institutions, when the love interest, the improbably named Special Branch detective Gala Brand, imagines the terrible consequences of Drax’s plan:

The crowds in the streets. The Palace. The nursemaids in the park. The birds in the trees. The great bloom of flame a mile wide. And then the mushroom cloud. And nothing left. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

***

Even though their plots ensure that apocalypse is averted, Cold War thrillers thus made their own contribution to forcing us to imagine the unimaginable, as did more mainstream post-apocalyptic novels such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Nevil Shute’s bestseller On the Beach (1957) and The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) by Angus Wilson. In Desmond Cory’s Shockwave, first published in 1963 as Hammerhead and featuring the Spanish-British agent Johnny Fedora (whose debut preceded Bond’s by two years), Madrid is saved from destruction by a nuclear bomb that the Soviet master spy Feramontov almost succeeds in delivering to its target. As he contemplates his objective, Feramontov muses that, in the “bomb-haunted world of the Sixties”, death in a nuclear fireball “might even come as a release, like the snapping of an overtautened string; and after the rains of death had flooded the Earth, those who survived in the sodden ruins might think of him as a benefactor of the race”.

But where the post-apocalyptic dystopias might be viewed as an argument for nuclear disarmament, later Cold War thrillers such as Cory’s usually accepted the fact of mutually assured destruction – and that British peace and prosperity were guaranteed by US nuclear firepower. Nowhere is this more apparent than Frederick Forsyth’s 1984 bestseller, The Fourth Protocol, which turns the Labour Party’s famously unilateralist 1983 election manifesto into a uniquely party-political espionage plot. In it, the general secretary of the Soviet Union conspires with the elderly Kim Philby to smuggle into Britain a small, self-assembly nuclear bomb that a KGB “illegal” will put together and ­detonate at a US air force base in East Anglia.

Unlike in Moonraker and Shockwave, however, the objective is not to provoke hostilities or prompt military capitulation, but to persuade the British public to vote Labour – by provoking horror and outrage at the risks of US nuclear weapons remaining on British soil. However, the new and moderate Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, will have a scant few hours in Downing Street, as a hard-left rival under Soviet control (such as a certain Ken Livingstone, whom Philby describes as “a nondescript, instantly forgettable little fellow with a nasal voice”) will at once usurp Kinnock and reinstate a policy of unilateral disarmament, leading to the removal of the US missiles.

The ideological force of Forsyth’s novel is clear enough: Britain is beset by enemies within and without, and must arm itself morally and politically against communism. But although this is an insistently, even tiresomely patriotic novel, its plot makes no attempt to conceal Britain’s relative military weakness and dependence on the United States, though disaster is averted by the combined brilliance of MI5, MI6 and the SAS. The Fourth Protocol thus becomes an allegory of this country’s world-leading “niche capabilities”, which maintain Britain’s prestige and relevance despite its declining military and economic might.

Today, the political argument remains on much the same terms as at the start of the Cold War. Whichever way you look at it, Trident symbolises Britain. To its supporters, it is symbolic of Britain’s talent for “punching above its weight”, and its responsibility to protect freedom and keep the global peace. To its opponents, it is an emblem of economic folly, militaristic excess, and a misunderstanding of contemporary strategic threats; it is an expression not of British confidence but of a misplaced machismo, a way for Britons to feel good about themselves that fails to address the real threats to the nation. One academic, Nick Ritchie of York University, argues that Britain’s nuclear policy discourse “is underpinned by powerful ideas about masculinity in international politics in which nuclear weapons are associated with ideas of virility, strength, autonomy and rationality”.

In 1945, shortly after Hiroshima became a byword for mass destruction, George ­Orwell predicted in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” that nuclear weapons would bring about what he was the first to call a “cold war”. Because an atomic bomb “is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship”, it could be produced at scale only by countries with vast industrial capacity; this would lead to the emergence of two or three superpowers, confronting each other in a “peace that is no peace”.

Orwell’s point about industrial capacity helps explain why Trident is totemic: it is proof that our industrial might has not entirely vanished. Alternatively, it can be seen as a consolation for industrial decline. This may be why the huge cost of the Successor programme – one of the main arguments wielded by Trident’s opponents against replacement – appears to be a source of pride for the government: the Strategic Defence and Security Review proclaims that, at £31bn, with a further £10bn for contingencies, Successor will be “one of the largest government investment programmes”.

Clearly, size matters today as much as it did when Fleming was writing. But Moonraker again helps us see that all is not what it seems. Just as the Moonraker is a German missile with a Soviet warhead, even if it is being built in Kent, so the missiles carried by the Vanguard-class submarines are, in fact, made in California, Britain having given up missile production in the 1960s. The Trident warheads are made in Berkshire – but by a privatised government agency part-owned by two American firms. Trident may be British, but only in the way Manchester United or a James Bond movie are British.

The Cold War spy thriller presciently suggests that true independence is an illusion. Britain may consume the most destructive weapons yet invented, but it can no longer produce them or deliver them without America’s industrial might. British power is interdependent, not independent: that is the Cold War thriller’s most politically prescient message.

Andrew Glazzard is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “Conrad’s Popular Fictions: Secret Histories and Sensational Novels” (Palgrave Macmillan)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt