George Orwell on willful ignorance

George Orwell observed once that, ‘one of the marks of anti-Semitism is an ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true’. While by no means as serious or unpleasant as antisemitism, I would nevertheless venture that a similar ‘ability’ is possessed by those who still gleefully wallow in the completely discredited, yet much-cherished, Boer War myths.

Without being blessed with such an ‘ability’, there is simply no way that anyone could pretend the Boer republics were ‘only fighting for their freedom’, for example; to buy into this self-pitying nonsense, one has to completely disregard the fact that the independence of neither republic was under threat… until they decided to pick a fight with the British Empire, and invade Imperial territory. It also requires the ability to pretend that the word ‘freedom’ actually means ‘incompetent and corrupt minority rule by a self-appointed master race’.

Similarly, to triumphantly (if brainlessly) trumpet that the Boers ‘won every battle’ requires the ability to believe something which simply cannot possibly be true… how else were their invasions of Natal and the Cape defeated? If the Boers won every battle, why were they totally unable to capture the three towns they famously besieged? How was it that, just a few months into the war, the capitals of both republics were captured and their governments put on the run? If they were never defeated, how come their forces were rounded up in their thousands and packed off to POW camps? And why else would Kruger have to flee to Europe like a panic-stricken coward, leaving his wife behind but with his baggage bulging with loot?

Equally, to buy into the tired old chestnut (still ludicrously peddled by a couple of failed South African ‘academics’) that the Boer invasions of Natal and the Cape were not really invasions at all, but simply the poor, innocent Boers ‘only taking up defensive positions, just over the border’, requires not only a special sort of stupid, but also the ability to believe National Party propaganda which, while perpetuating a cosy feeling of victimhood, cannot possibly be true. Indeed, no one capable of logical thought, or blessed with an inquiring mind, could believe this far-fetched, self-serving nonsense – especially given that Kruger’s modern-day apologists are completely and utterly unable to specify where any of these mythical ‘defensive positions’ were… or why they all just happened to be deep inside British territory, and well beyond towns which for some reason had to be looted and renamed as the poor, innocent Boers made their way to their (ahem) ‘defensive positions’.

Likewise, the very fact that every battle fought in the first few months of the war – Talana Hill, Elandslaagte, Rietfontein, Nicholson’s Nek, Willow Grange, Belmont, Graspan, Modder River, Stormberg, Colenso etc – was fought in British territory should be enough for someone with a brain to grasp that the Boers must have been the ones who started the war by invading their neighbours. To willfully dismiss this inconvenient truth, and instead to claim that the British were the ones who ‘invaded to steal our gold’ certainly requires the ‘ability to believe things which cannot possibly be true’.

And when it comes to every True Believer’s favourite ghoulish topic, ‘the camps’, the reality is that the British authorities not only forked out to establish hospitals in them, and shipped in hundreds of well-paid doctors and nurses to work in these, but also trained hundreds of local girls as nurses. As well as providing free rations (courtesy of the long-suffering British tax-payer), they set up schools to educate the children living there (more than had ever been to school in the peacetime republics), established clean water supplies, set up shops, clubs and sport facilities in them, encouraged those housed there to grow their own vegetables and to find work in nearby towns, and, indeed, even paid / armed some of the resident menfolk to protect the camps. So, whatever mistakes might have been made, to pretend that the ‘wicked’ British secretly wanted to ‘commit genocide’ requires the ability to believe something so ridiculous that one has to wonder at the mental capacity of those who so passionately do so. Indeed, to throw about the term ‘genocide’ to describe deaths from a measles epidemic is to totally devalue the ghastly true meaning of the word.

Which brings us back to the decidedly ugly business of antisemitism; one expert on the subject recently opined: ‘the starting point for any investigation into antisemitism should not be “why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?” but “why does antisemitism appeal to me, and what is there about it that I feel to be true”?’.

Perhaps those who still prefer to believe the utterly discredited Apartheid-era version of the Boer War should start by asking themselves similar questions: “why is it that these totally implausible myths appeal to me, and what gaping void in my life does this completely irrational belief fill?”


  • Paul Quinn Posted November 17, 2023 5:09 pm

    Surely no contemporary South African academics buy into the Boer apologists old school claptrap. The willful ignorance that tarnishes mankind has caused an awful amount of hate and suffering and sadly continues to invade society with bad consequences. Having said that, as always your writing is always engaging in its refreshing historical realignment of well researched material. And actually very funny as well! Some of Kruger’s carrying on was ludicrous to say the least. Why anyone would want to justify his behavior can only be willful ignorance. Let us not forget the role religion played in this unnecessary suffering.

    • Bulldog Posted November 18, 2023 6:27 am

      As hard as it is to believe, the likes of Professors Pretorius and Nasson still frantically peddle the ludicrous ‘defensive invasion’ rubbish, resolutely turning a blind eye to Kruger’s desire to dominate the whole region.

      Though quite what motivates them to perpetuate this blatant nonsense is beyond me; I guess it’s just a desperation to keep the ‘poor, innocent Boer victim’ and ‘nasty British bully’ propaganda alive a little longer.

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