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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Counterfactual history

     For the second time, I'm quoting Jon Meacham here. Funny in some ways, because often my world view diverges comfortably from his. Yet I find his editorials thought-provoking.
     His November 16 column - entitled Rethinking the Lessons of Vietnam - addresses the tendency of historians and journalists alike to repackage history into a form and format that best suits their conclusions.
     In other words, instead of digging for truth, a truth that is objective and as close to stark reality as possible, we who write tend to narrate the historical record subjectively, as seen through our own particular lenses. I know that I do so, although I try to clearly label opinions as such, and subjective discourse similarly as separate from cold, hard facts.
     Meacham's opening quote, attributed to Napoleon, asks, "What is history but a fable agreed-upon?"
     I immediately flashed back to a conversation with a now-deceased Holocaust Studies professor who defended the awful Breinersdorfer-Rothemund movie. I asked him how he could show that film in good conscience, with no critique or rebuttal, nothing to set the record straight, nothing to discuss why perpetrating the Scholl-centric myth is wrong. His answer echoed Napoleon. Once a movie is made, he said, that becomes history.
     I wondered then, and I wonder now, how "historians" and "scholars" could represent that point of view and not have at least a pang of conscience. Meacham's excellent editorial doesn't answer my question. But he does speak further to the danger of the "what if" - otherwise known as counterfactual history - where we get so bogged down in what-iffing ourselves that we miss the facts which in turn can teach us the true lessons.
     We like to think that we mean business with our Nie Wieder and our determined work to remember what happened during the Shoah, so we can prevent future, similar tragedies.
     But just as Vietnam must be accurately dissected and analyzed to keep our country from getting bogged down in more unwinnable wars (or un-won wars, depending on your POV), so must we also cut out all the stuff and nonsense associated with so-called Holocaust research, and start talking plain and simply.
     That means when (not if!) we uncover inconvenient truths, we don't ignore it. We write about it. When (not if!) we learn that an alleged hero was anything but, we don't ignore it. We write about it. When (not if!) political viewpoints were less than black-and-white - then or now - we don't ignore it. We write about it.
     Only when we seriously confront these hard truths can we take a tiny step forward in figuring out what went wrong in 1933 that allowed a civilized nation to become barbarians. Overnight, as it were. We do no one, not ourselves, and certainly not generations to come, any favors if we pretend the truth doesn't matter.

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