Thursday, June 13, 2013

There's a time and a place for everything, including an informed public

Posted By on 06.13.13 at 03:43 PM

Houses of Pariliament
  • WikiWitch
  • Houses of Pariliament
The author and critic Bernard Knox once wrote about the time, just after World War II, when he was applying to a graduate program at Yale University. He and the professor interviewing him got to talking about Knox's war record, and it came out that even before the war began he'd fought with a French battalion in the Spanish Civil War. "Oh," said the professor. "You were a premature anti-Fascist."

This got Knox to thinking. He would write:

How, I wondered, could anyone be a premature anti-Fascist? Could there be anything such as a premature antidote to a poison? A premature antiseptic? A premature antitoxin? A premature anti-racist? If you were not premature, what sort of anti-Fascist were you supposed to be? A punctual anti-Fascist? A timely one?

Perhaps, he more or less idly wondered, if there'd been a few prematurely anti-Fascist governments in Europe, rather than governments that decided to be anti-Fascist when Hitler invaded Poland, World War II might have been avoided.

We'll never know.

The British government just did something remarkable. British historian David Anderson reports in the New York Times that the British agreed last week "to compensate 5,228 Kenyans who were tortured and abused while detained during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s. Each claimant will receive around £2,670 (about $4,000)."

The money's chump change; but "the principle it establishes, and the history it rewrites, are both profound," Anderson writes. The evidence of torture is "devastating," he tells us, and can be found in a secret cache of some 1,500 files that the British compiled in Kenya and transferred to London in 1963. "The documents showed that responsibility for torture went right to the top—sanctioned by Kenya’s governor, Evelyn Baring, and authorized at cabinet level in London by Alan Lennox-Boyd, then secretary of state for the colonies in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government."

What would the reception have been if those 1,500 files had been released in 1964—let's say by being leaked to the London Times and the Guardian? Would a grateful kingdom have thanked the plucky whistle-blower for launching a robust and overdue public debate on British colonial policy? Or would he have been accused of high treason and clapped in irons while Britain's subtlest columnists took out their speculums and scrutinized his upbringing for pits and fissures?

I'm idly wondering. If in his own defense he'd argued that the British had a right to know what was being done by their government, would he have been told in no uncertain terms: "Well, of course! But not prematurely!"?

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