Saturday, June 2, 2018

What Becomes The Thinker Part 2: History Is A Mystery

     This brief essay of a few days ago has drawn some feedback of a sort I didn’t expect. As it appears I left a few people wondering “what are you driving at, Fran?” I’ve decided to extend and amplify it.

     The great quest of the serious thinker is for reliable knowledge, specifically about why things happen. One who focuses on social, economic, and political systems will be especially concerned with the causal mechanisms that govern them. There are innumerable pockets of history that seem to bear on those mechanisms. Some of them offer insights of importance. However, it’s important to keep mindful of the Bertrand Russell quote from the previous piece, and never be perfectly sure about one’s inferences.

     I recall, in high school, being taught that the French Revolution of 1789 was a reaction to the tyranny of the French aristocracy, which was supported by the nation’s Catholic clergy. My world history textbook said so in black and white. It was only many years later that I encountered divergent assessments of that time and place, and so began to wonder “what was really going on” in pre-revolutionary France.

     It didn’t take long for me to conclude that I would never know.

     Historians who’ve written about the French Revolution and its genesis are all over the motivational map about it. There are some who maintain the aristocratic-tyranny thesis. There are others who attribute the rising to “a peak in the satisfactions curve:” i.e., that the conditions of the common Frenchman had been getting steadily better, but then ceased to do so, causing “a revolution of rising expectations.” There are still others who believe that a proletarian reaction against the Church’s grip on French education – at that time, wholly a Churchly undertaking – was the main reason. The Marxist historians have their thesis that the Revolution was the product of “the contradictions of capitalism.” No doubt there are still others.

     The interested Gentle Reader can find all of these notions on the shelves at his local library. He’s welcome to do his own research and form his own conclusions. What he can’t do is fire up his Acme Industries Time Machine (beep beep), go back to pre-Revolutionary France, and assess the ground state conditions and the motives of the French people for himself. Neither can I nor anyone else alive today.

     All we have are the records written in that era, which are inherently partial and of varying quality, and the histories that have been written about it. None of these things are inherently 100% trustworthy; the biases, blinders, and incomplete knowledge of those who composed them guarantee that.

     Events past and gone become shrouded in mystery. Did it really happen? is a question that has no hard-and-fast answer unless you witnessed it with your own eyes and ears...and even then, there’s the possibility of illusion, hallucination, and misremembrance. It follows – at least, it should – that if what happened is somewhat uncertain, then why it happened is at least as uncertain.

     And there is absolutely no help for it.

     I dislike this subject. Indeed, I resent it. I have a need to know that shatters the measuring instruments. The inability to be perfectly certain of anything past and gone frustrates me greatly.

     An example: Some years ago there was a great foofaurauw over the emissions of two historians – David Irving, an Englishman, and Robert Faurisson, a Frenchman – who disputed the most common accounts and records of the Nazi program to exterminate European Jewry, a.k.a. the Holocaust. Those men cast doubt on the official accounts, despite their volume and overall consistency. Both suffered legal penalties because of it.

     I do not share Irving’s and Faurisson’s beliefs about the Holocaust. But I dislike the idea that a man can be punished by the force of law for holding a dissident opinion. even about something as horrific as the Holocaust. Indeed, it might be the only time I’ve ever agreed with Noam Chomsky, who argued, along with others, that Faurisson’s civil rights entitled him to speak and write what he believed.

     To grant credence to Holocaust denialism requires that one entertain doubts about a lot of the evidence. It’s a mighty stretch to doubt all the concentration camp survivors, the physical relics of the camps themselves, the Third Reich’s meticulous records of the exterminations, and so forth. But Irving and Faurisson did express such doubts. Were they sincere in doing so? Who knows? My Acme Industries Mind Reading Machine is on the fritz, if you’ll pardon the choice of words.

     Moreover, the further back in history the Holocaust recedes, the easier it will be for some dissident to doubt the evidence that remains. Only they who witnessed the events of the time can be at all certain what occurred...and they, too, are disappearing into history. Those of us who have “derived certainty” by virtue of the testimonies and accounts contemporaneous with the Holocaust will never be as authoritative as those who witnessed it, or in some cases experienced it.

     The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. – L. P. Hartley

     The clinching argument for not allowing oneself to be cocksure about anything is, of course, how easy it is to be wrong yet certain, and how many great thinkers have been so.

     Strictly speaking, even personal witness is subject to a modicum of uncertainty. Memories shift and fade; they suffer admixture from the “if onlies” and the “might have beens.” To be absolutely, unalterably certain is, if not an error, a point of vulnerability. All of us make mistakes, even in remembrance. When the subject is something that occurred long ago, it’s the part of a reasonable man, no matter how certain he might be that his version is the correct one, to allow that “it might have been otherwise.”

1 comment:

Linda Fox said...

The older I get, the more I realize that stories, myths, and cultural norms are the glue that hold civilizations together.

I'm beginning to get truly alarmed about the extent to which the school systems (not individual teachers, for the most part, but the curriculums, 'experts', admins, and Leftist government authorities and Leftist academics) have enforced their lock on history.

The 'story' they tell - of a very bad and evil America, eager to oppress the not-White, not-male inhabitants of this country - is the only game in town. In large ways and small, they impose their worldview on their captive audience. Even in middle school and high school, they keep dissident viewpoints from surfacing. And, they have viciously used the totalitarian mechanism of peer pressure to ensure that alternative ideas will be suppressed.

In colleges and universities, they force all students to endure the relentless brainwashing:
- required coursework in 'social justice'
- mandatory meetings, workshops, and events that promote Leftist goals
- use of persecution against men, to keep them in line, and make them fearful of contradicting any womyn, for any reason

Home schooling is a viable option for some. It is not for most. Even virtual schools require that someone supervise the student.

I am a retired teacher. I'd gladly give up some time to provide alternatives for parents, whether that's curriculum/lesson planning, videos, or online instruction. Anyone have any concrete ideas?