History recalls how great the fall can be

26 10 2017

My teaching has changed.

Not that it’s obvious: I’m still teaching the same subjects (politics, bioethics) and assigning the same (-ish) readings, still presenting much of the same material, still asking many of the same questions, and still assigning papers and take home essays.

But I’m also less, mm, neutral than I used to be.

Again, not in terms of conclusions I expect students to reach or questions they may ask—I invite disagreement—but in stressing what is at stake in these questions and conclusions. I want them to know that everything we study has happened, is happening, or could happen, and that these happenings matter. They must be able to think in order to deal with what is and what’s next.

What was that old Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones quote? Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflict!

I don’t say that directly to the students, but, yes, that’s the attitude I now take in teaching them.

This started awhile ago, in teaching bioethics. Bioethics is not neutral: there is explicit value placed on human life, health is a good, and biomedical research is in general (although not always in the particulars) to be encouraged. Those who work in bioethics make commitments to the values of the field, and while there is little consensus on how best to uphold those values, there is a sense that, yes, to work in bioethics is to pick a side.

I think that exists in other fields, as well, although in much older fields (bioethics is quite young), those values may be submerged beneath a veneer of professionalism, i.e., what matters is what is done rather than what is valued in the doing. That doesn’t mean those professionals are value-free so much as value-assumed.

Shit, I’m not getting this right. What I want to say is: read the last chapter of Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler.  Really, read the whole thing—it’s a terrific takedown of David Irving’s Holocaust-denying, Hitler-apologizing, so-called historical work (an evisceration performed in service to Deborah Lipstadt’s defense against Irving’s libel claim)—but in that last chapter he goes all-in on the necessity of standards in historical research, and of the necessity of historical research itself:

Reputable and professional historians do not suppress parts of quotations from documents that go against their own case, but take them into account and if necessary amend their own case accordingly. They do not present as genuine documents those that they know to be forged just because these forgeries happen to back up what they are saying. They do not invent ingenious but implausible and utterly unsupported reasons for distrusting genuine documents because these documents run counter to their arguments; again, they amend their arguments if this is the case or abandon them altogether. They do not consciously attribute their own conclusions to books and other sources which, in fact, on closer inspection, actually say the opposite. They do not eagerly seek out the highest possible figures in a series of statistics, independently of their reliability or otherwise, simply because they want for whatever reason to maximize the figure in question, but rather, they assess all the available figures as impartially as possible in order to arrive as a number that will withstand the critical scrutiny of others. They do not knowingly mistranslate sources in foreign languages to make them more serviceable to themselves. They do not willfully invent words, phrases, quotations, incidents, and events for which there is no historical evidence to make their arguments more plausible to their readers.

At least, they do not do any of these things if they wish to retain any kind of reputable status as historians. [pp. 250-251]

Irving, of course, did all of these.

Now it could be said, fairly, that what Evans presents is an idealized version of what is a good historian, and that, as with idealized versions of scientific inquiry, the reality falls rather short. Still, he is making the argument that we can, with much effort, learn, come to know something of the past, and that this knowledge matters enough for historians to put in that effort.

I am more leery than Evans of speaking of the truth of various events, but, really, if I believe—if I know—that Holocaust denial is false, then aren’t I saying that the truth is, in some way, out there?

Anyway, in last week’s politics & culture course we went over the early career of Hitler; I made a point to highlight that his eliminationist antisemitism was there from the outset (1920) and that those who would deny that Hitler knew anything about or wanted to kill all Jews were not credible. The evidence is there, I said, in documents and speeches, in the recollections of others and in his own book, and these can’t just be dismissed.

You can’t just make shit up.

They tittered when I said that, but I was dead serious. Yes, there are legitimate interpretative differences of agreed-upon evidence, and not everything can be known, but if you want to know—if you value knowledge—then you have to take reasoned account of that evidence. You can’t, I repeated, just make shit up.

And that, I guess, is how I take a shortcut to this post’s end: I have until too recently been too cavalier about the value of knowledge itself. Ye gads, yes, the post-structuralist in me is screaming and the epistemological nihilist rolling her eyes, but I can’t, or really, won’t, in this moment, say Lol, nothing matters.

I never really did teach as if nothing mattered, and I’m (almost) always enthusiastic about what I do teach—it is not uncommon for me to interject Isn’t this cool!—but, yeah, I have had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude with regard to what the students get out of a course. I wanted them, sure, to get something out of it, but I don’t know that I ever thought it necessary that they do so.

Now, I think it’s necessary, that it was always necessary.


Nazi punks fuck off

20 09 2017

Ohhh, I don’t know why, but it seemed that it might be a good time to read Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust.

No reason, really. Y’know, I just happened to have recently watched Denial, happened to have been at the Strand, happened to have to have found myself in the Holocaust Studies section, and, Oh, look, there it is. And then I just happened to have found myself in the opposite corner of the basement in the Law section, where, again, Lookee, here’s History on Trial.

I have said before that, after that first rush to do something, anything, to grit up the gears of the Trump machine, I’d deflated.

I’m still flat. Oh, I still go to the occasional protest and holler, but mostly, I read of all the harm this administration is doing and think God. Fucking. Dammit. And not much more.

I am still trying to think, however, and I figured Lipstadt would be among those authors who could give me something to think about. She doesn’t sketch out an explicit typology of denial in Denying, but in laying out the stories of Hitler and Nazi apologetics, she makes it easy to see the tricks and bullshit these horrid wretches pull to advance their pernicious claims. (In fact, I think I may go through the book and pull out and arrange that tricksy shit for all of y’all.)

It is discouraging, however, to note that, in the preface to Denying, she writes of the incredulity her work provoked, as if no one could believe such a rebuttal were necessary. But then, she continues, That situation has changed dramatically. Regrettably, I no longer have to convince others of the relevance of this work.

Why discouraging? Denying was published in 1993.


I know, it’s easy to laugh at tiki torches and fashy haircuts, but anyone who wears a swastika is a menace. I absolutely believe that we can and should laugh at these assholes as much as possible—if mockery can shrink ’em, then let’s errrrybody mock—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take them seriously, and shouldn’t be ready to confront them at every possible turn.*

I’ve long thought it important to keep an eye on the fringes, even if I didn’t think it necessary to do more than that. The overt antisemites are still on the fringes, along with the hood-wearing racists, but that they’re popping up has made it even easier for the ‘respectable’ white supremacists to advance their ideas about “globalists”, “thugs”, and “aliens”.

Again, none of these convictions translates, for me, into a clear sense of what, exactly, I should be doing. But I know I need to prepare for whatever comes.


*I just re-read Jen Graves’s 2013 piece on Charles Krafft, an artist who worked—ironically, it was thought—in Nazi imagery; turns out that, no, really not ironic.

So Krafft is a piece of shit. But what’s striking is less his shittiness than his friends’ reactions to that shittiness:

Another old friend, Tacoma writer Peggy Andersen, said she had to stop socializing with Krafft. “I told him, ‘When I hang out with you, I feel like I’m endorsing something.’… His main thing is that the Holocaust is an exaggeration. I say, if they only killed 10,000 people because they were Jewish, it would still be a holocaust, jackass.” As Andersen and I ended our interview, she said, “Be sure to say I love Charlie.”

A longtime friend who insisted on anonymity said, “It’s not only anti-Semitic stuff, it’s also racism—you know, blacks and women and anything that is held dear by the liberal establishment. And I can see a reaction against holier-than-thou attitudes, I mean, yeah, of course. But…”

Other friends, like Larry Reid, coauthor of the 2002 monograph on Krafft, Villa Delirium, just sort of look away. “I try not to pay too much attention,” Reid said.

Yeah, no, looking away, proclaiming love, not paying attention: not gonna fly.

Like I said, I may not know what to do, big-picture, but if one of my “kind”, “generous”, “articulate”, Zen friends goes Nazi, I sure as hell hope I know at least enough to say NOPE.