I’ve done some pretty nasty things in my time. I’ve definitely put the ain’t in Saint and, what’s more, too spineless to admit my own flaws, I constantly lie to myself about it. So in my version of the world, after drunkenly stealing some roadworks diversion signs, and thinking it hilarious to reroute all the traffic on Cheyne Walk the wrong way up Old Church Street, none of the potentially fatal car crashes I may have caused ever happened. Nope. Never happened.
Through the 20th century, as the fledgling science of “psychology” blossomed, we started to realise how flawed the human brain is. Now neuroscience can show our brains physically rewire in response to stimuli; we are biologically capable of rewriting past experiences. Hangover amnesia is probably the most common phenomenon of this neurological self-editing. “Drinks? I’ve had a few. But then again… I’ve rerouted my synapses so I’ll never be reminded.” Done something you’re not proud of? Don’t worry, your brain will fix it because it still needs to function and get some sleep.
If we’re rewriting the events we’re uncomfortable with, what we’re replacing them with are just, well, stories. Concepts such as “the truth” and “the past” have not only become subject to relativism, but the very fact that I can call them “concepts” without your alarm bells ringing “logical fallacy” shows how far down the rabbit hole we’ve already descended. Dr Blasey Ford did herself no favours explaining how she could remember US Supreme Court Judge nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulting her over 30 years ago. “Just basic memory functions,” she said, “and also just the level of norepinephrine and the epinephrine in the brain that as you know encodes that neurotransmitter that codes memories into the hippocampus.” The entire inquisitorial panel stared at her with open mouths and then dismissed it as clearly a herstory/history.
It seems that, before the Western Liberal orthodoxy began to implode in 2016, no one had noticed how far reality and truth had actually drifted from each other. Now we can only gawp at Trump’s flat denials or the Boris Mogg glorious pre-Euro, British idyll, (when there definitely wasn’t abject poverty, childkilling measles, general strikes, and whole generations toiling in servitude), as mad as a cricket bat, village green, fantasy that Brexit can take us “back” to. “Make America Great Again” relies on a mass delusion that America was ‘great’ at some point. America has done great things: won wars, assured peace, policed the world, and promoted democracy. But, from its founding Native American genocide, through slavery, to the “No Coloreds” white picket fences of the Madison Avenue/Hollywood dream sellers, America has only ever been a “great” place to live in stories and for a privileged few. The version of the past that the alt-right succeeds in selling is a selective nostalgia.
So if the victors write history and our memories are neurological shifting sands, can we say the past actually exists? I know that’s the sort of question philosophers like to ask whilst skinning up rollies outside the jobcentre. But then, if we didn’t have philosophers to ask stupid questions we’d have to rely on Piers Morgan and no one, not even Mrs Morgan, wants to do that. Of course it’s possible that, like homework-eating dogs, working late at the office or some really bad heroin, the past could be one gigantic fabrication we spin ourselves to explain the terrible state we’re in right now. But, beyond the solipsism, even if we can’t agree on what the past is, we allseem to function by agreeing that there is one.
In The Battle of the Books (1704), Jonathan Swift contended that all arguments eventually come down to one difference: past or future, you’re either an Ancient or a Modern. Ancients look to the past and fight to preserve it, maintaining the status quo (read conservatism) whilst the Moderns want to move forward, improve, reform and change (read whig/liberalism). It’s Stasis vs Kinetic, Stability vs Innovation, Status Quo vs Prog Rock.
You would think that, with the growth of our post-Freudian relativism about the past, as it gradually fractured and became less distinct, conservatives would have had less to hold on to and the progressives would have won the day. But 21st century conservatives have found a new opportunity in all this. Can’t be sure of the past? Build a better one! They’ve finally realised it’s all in the stories you tell. There’s a spitfire forever flying in the blue skies above Kent in their makebelieve past; it’s plucky Britain against the world, before all the foreigners arrived. Make your story compelling enough, and you’ll attract 17.4 million moths to your flame, many apparently willing to fly right in, and go down in smoke.
But the real fantasy behind Trump’s pre-civil rights America; the Brexiteers’ Blitz spirit Britain; ISIS’s “Caliphate”; Russia’s rerun of Cold War sabre rattling; the alt-right’s climate change denial and even the anti-vaxxers hankering for lost childhood diseases, is the notion that there’s a Ctrl-Z for life, an undo button, something that will magically revert us to a happier place, even if it’s a version that never existed in the first place. Along with nearly every Remain voter, and the 1.1 million Leave voters who say they regret the way they voted, I too want us to go back in time. For us though, it’s not to some Downton Abbey fantasy Britain but, specifically, to 23rd June 2016 so that, infinitely better informed, completely aware of how messy, ridiculous and utterly damaging the alternative is, we vote again.
As any salesman will tell you, if you’ve sold someone a crock and a story, better close quick. You can’t give the suckers time to think. You certainly can’t give them a two year cooling-off period when they might realise how the dream just doesn’t stack up with reality: the tearing up of the Good Friday Agreement, the return of the IRA and expensive foreign holidays while nurses and doctors disappear… they might just change their minds. They might just want a people’s vote.