Sunday, January 3, 2021

In the Service of a Higher Truthiness

The next book I'm going to read will probably be Alan B. Spitzer's Historical Truth and Lies About the Past: Reflections on Dewey, Dreyfus, de Man, and Reagan (North Carolina, 2000).  I'm about half a dozen pages in, and so far it looks promising, as an examination of debates about objectivity in the writing of history, engaging with "postmodernist" critiques without panicking. Very likely I'll be writing more about it. 

What hooked me was this sentence in the publisher's blurb, which quotes part of the book's introduction: "The higher the political stakes, the more likely the antagonists are to appeal to generally warranted standards of relevant evidence and rational inference."  I don't think I quite agree.  At some point in most debates, antagonists are likely to appeal to generally warranted standards of relevant evidence and rational inference, but especially where the political stakes are high, those standards quickly get in the way and have to be set aside in service to a Higher Truthiness.  

Ronald Reagan comes into the discussion because of his 1985 visit to a German World War II cemetery where numerous SS-Waffen dead were buried.  Anything about Reagan would be fun because Reagan was a virtuoso practitioner of what are now often called "alternative facts."  It's not quite fair to call him the first "post-truth" president, but he took recreational lying to new heights, and as an exemplar of the most delusional factions of the American Right, he paved the way for Donald Trump.  Conservatives like to present themselves as opponents of post-modernist relativism, the only adherents of objective reality and Truth, but when the rubber meets the road they side with thinkers like Karen Armstrong, who prefer Higher Truth to mere grubby left-brained factual Truth.  In context, Spitzer was saying that disputants invoke evidence and rationality to hide (even from themselves) the political loyalties that guide their selection and interpretation of the evidence.

The American Historical Review called Historical Truth and Lies About the Past "a hard-hitting defense of objectivity."  So it's fascinating that the three negative reviews (out of five) of the book on Amazon agree that Spitzer is a pointy-head perfessor "more concerned with impressing his post-structuralist colleagues with his familiarity with the latest in literary theory than in doing serious history. I was expecting a serious grappling with misrepresentation of truth in history, and instead got the tired academic canard of truth as not really existing in the first place", as one said.  This, I'm afraid, is an alternative fact: Spitzer does not subscribe to that "canard."  No doubt the reviewer was gesturing toward a higher truth.  Another titled his review "Transcends the issue of politico-historical falsification by hermeneuticizing it," then confessed that he didn't know what it meant, he was just quoting Spitzer, but that the passage "reflects the essential character of the book: unwieldy jargon-heavy prose without much in the way of clear meaning or importance."  These reviewers had to read the book for class; one describes himself as "a senior undergraduate history student."  I'm always bemused when people tout their inability to read for comprehension as a sign of their intellectual superiority.

I'm pretty sure I understand the clause that begins "transcends the issue" well enough.  In context, Spitzer is mocking commentators who tried to find deeper meaning in Reagan's lies about his visit to Bitburg, by leapfrogging the issue of telling the truth in political history by (over)interpreting it.  But hell, I'm a college dropout, not a senior undergraduate history major, what do I know?  True, academic writing can be challenging to read, but if you're going to study these subjects you have to get used to it.  For what it's worth, though, looking through the book I can say pretty confidently that it is not overloaded with post-structuralist jargon.  It must contain some, because Spitzer is discussing post-structuralist writers, among others. There are plenty of abstractions, because Spitzer is writing historiography, the theory or philosophy of history writing: big words, even jargon, go with the territory.  But so far I'm struck by the relative clarity of Spitzer's writing.

The reviewer who declared Spitzer's position to be the exact opposite of the one he holds is more blatant: though he purports to reject "misrepresentation of truth in history," he misrepresents truth in his account of Spitzer's book.  It could be that he's just a shallow undergrad, but the tactic is common among professional scholars and writers too.  (I'm thinking of Noam Chomsky and the historian Morton Smith here, but there are many other examples of thinkers it's safe to lie about because everybody knows they're crazy.)  To paraphrase Orwell's description of Ingsoc in Nineteen Eighty-Four, they defend truth by telling lies, and they do so in the name of truth.  I mean, how many people are going to read Spitzer's book anyway?  Nobody will notice.