George Walford: Let My People Know

Secrecy is a great evil, defeating democracy and frustrating the reformers; if only the people knew what their rulers were really up to they would arise and assert themselves, sweeping away the old conditions. So the argument runs, but American experience does not do much to confirm it. They have a Freedom of Information Act, and although it has its limitations – getting information about the CIA or the FBI can be troublesome and expensive – yet it does make much knowledge available which in Britain remains hidden from public scrutiny. Even more than that, Congressmen have the right to investigate all expenditure by government agencies; some of them regard this as a duty, and they publish their results. [1]

It hasn’t aroused the masses. In America as in Britain the opposition to imperialism, militarism and exploitation comes from an active minority, the great body of the people caring little whether information is available or not. The condition of the poor in the inner cities is no better, and may be worse, there than here, the inter-racial tensions are quite as severe, it was for American conditions that the phrase “private affluence, public squalor” was invented, and there is no good reason for believing that the great majority of Americans resent their conditions more than do the great majority of the British.

Let the people know, by all means, but don’t imagine that their knowing is going to make any great difference. Much that infuriates the reformers and revolutionaries has long been known to the people without provoking them to action. It is not knowledge that determines action but rather the attitude towards what is known, and that varies with ideology.

[1] Sunday Times, 3 September 1989

from Ideological Commentary 42, November 1989.