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Copyright 1992 McClatchy Newspapers, Inc.
December 27, 1992, METRO FINAL
SECTION: FORUM; Pg. FO3
LENGTH: 1588 words
HEADLINE: SEVERING THE CONNECTIONS BETWEEN REALITY AND LANGUAGE
BYLINE: Dan T. Carter
BODY: A YEAR ago I responded to a reporter's questions about David Duke by suggesting that Louisiana's best-known ex-Grand Wizard of the
Ku Klux Klan would soon disappear as a political figure. I was more troubled, I said, by the social and racial tensions revealed by his rise to prominence and by the passive role the news media had often played in that process. Duke was a man who "makes up the truth as he goes along," I added.
The next morning when I arrived at my office, I returned a telephone call from a distinguished Atlanta physician.
"Were you quoted correctly (in the morning newspaper) in your comments on David Duke?" he asked without preamble. "Yes," I said,
adding in a misguided attempt at levity. "Actually, that was probably the only remark I made about Duke that was printable in a family ewspaper."
He was not amused.
"I would like for you to cite one example in which David Duke has not told the truth," he said with barely controlled rage.
I cited chapter and verse of the many lies that Duke has told in an effort to mislead voters about his lifelong involvement in neo-Nazi and Klan activities. I concluded: "Of course all these liesabout his own past are secondary to his continuing insistence that the Holocaust was a hoax, that Hitler and his Nazi inner circle never
attempted to exterminate Jews within the Third Reich." "That's not a lie," he snapped back. "There was no Holocaust."
I knew that such people existed. In the course of my research on right-wing groups I have read much of the anti-Holocaust literature.
The main arguments began appearing within months after the revelation of the Nazi death camps in 1945. Over the last few years, the
so-called "Holocaust revisionists" have managed to elbow their way into the national limelight, masquerading behind the scholarly facade
of the "Institute for Historical Review," a propaganda clearing-house created by Willis Carto, an advocate of anti-Semitic causes.
But this was the first time that I had ever personally encountered someone who was ready to explain away the deliberately genocidal
policies of the Third Reich. I felt a frisson of both distaste and fascination, like a map maker who has suddenly come face to face with a dedicated member of the Flat Earth Society. A surreal conversation followed as my caller dismissed each argument I put forth. The vast documentation rescued from the German Archives contained no hard evidence of a systematic policy of extermination; the elaborate
sealed rooms set up for funneling the prisoners to their deaths were not death chambers, but "delousing facilities"; the movement of
enormous quantities of asphyxiating Xyklon B gas to the death camps proved nothing; the photographs of mounds of bodies simply showed the extent of disease and malnutrition in the crowded camps; the vast body of eyewitness testimony by both victims and their murderers was the product of "torture" or self-serving men desperate to save themselves.
Nothing can atone for the death of millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other victims of Nazism. At most, we have tried to find some solace in remembrance. The vast scale of the death camps seems an inescapable lesson that genocide is more than a crime; it strikes at the very core of what it means to be human. The ultimate obscenity of those who deny the Holocaust lies in their effort to strip away even that slender reed of meaning by saying, in George
Orwell's haunting phrase, "It never happened."
THE MEN and women who deny the existence of the Holocaust are not alone in their attempts to spread paranoid visions. Within the last
two years we have witnessed the astonishing spectacle of the media and the public feverishly debating the veracity of Oliver Stone's film "JFK." This motion picture dramatizes the absurd contention by the late Jim Garrison, ex-district attorney in New Orleans, that John
F. Kennedy's assassination was a coup d'etat planned by officials of U.S. agencies and their networks of "operatives," tacitly approved by
Vice President Lyndon Johnson, carried out by the CIA's covert-operations apparatus and then covered up by dozens of individuals in the FBI, the Secret Service, the Dallas police
department and the armed forces.
It's not surprising that advocates of traditional journalism like Bill Moyers have raised the alarm over what they call the rise of "civic illiteracy." This is a disease, Moyers said in an op-ed piece
in The New York Times, that leaves the American people at the mercy of a "new culture of information" concocted from "Hollywood film and TV, pop music and pop art, mixed with popular culture and celebrity magazines, tabloid telecasts, cable and home video."
Moyers may well be right in his gloomy assessment, but our nation's infatuation with conspiracies is not a unique product of our
contemporary civic culture. Abraham Lincoln and many of his fellow Republicans believed that a cabal of Southern slave holders had dragged the nation into war with Mexico in the 1840s in order to obtain new territory for the expansion of slavery. Agrarian radicals in the 1890s described a secret clique of Wall Street bankers bent on using the gold standard to force the nation's farmers into bankruptcy and ruin. In this century, we have seen the rise and fall of the "Red scare," an outburst of mass hysteria that distorted almost every facet of American life and culture.
THERE IS, however, a fundamental difference in our present circumstances: Our efforts to confront recurring epidemics of mass irrationality are crippled by the crisis of belief that exists in much of the academy.
Over the last 40 years, humanists and social scientists alike have become acutely aware of the limitations of "knowing" -- the problems
that philosophers have always grouped under the term epistemology. Influential scholars in many fields have moved beyond the "hermeneutics of suspicion" toward a skepticism so pervasive that it severs the connections between reality and language. Pushing the argument to its limit, they embrace the complete contingency of
language and treat all knowledge as "texts" that are divorced from reality, totally dependent upon the prejudice and preconceptions of the author (and the reader) and thus subject to infinite
interpretation. Even social scientists, who traditionally have prided themselves on their commitment to the search for forms of objective,
verifiable truth, have suddenly found that the very foundations of their enterprise are in doubt.
Historians, the most reactionary members of the academy, have not escaped unchallenged. Beginning with his influential 1976 study,
Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe, the historian Hayden White has developed the argument that what we
call "history" -- the stories we tell about the past -- are only a half step away from pure fiction. The faith that has guided historians for 2,000 years, White argued in a later book, The Content
of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, can only have its origin in "wishes, daydreams, reveries."
While many scholars have not adopted the new theories that blur fact and fiction, all of us have been forced to confront the social and moral implications of our culture's loss of confidence in reason itself.
As scholars and teachers, we cannot hope to challenge mass paranoia or outlandish conspiracy theories if we accept the notion that one version of reality (past or present) is as "truthful" as
another; that our choices between different descriptions of reality are to be made simply on the basis of which version is more witty or
interesting or cleverly constructed. The distinction between fact and fiction is essential both to our sanity and to our ability to make
moral judgments. We may never know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but we have to believe that some descriptions of our past and our present conditions are more truthful than others.
Oliver Stone's "JFK" is dramatically more compelling and infinitely more imaginative than the Warren Commission's plodding assessment of
the weight of evidence. For all its many failings and shortcomings, however, the commission's report is more faithful to reality than Stone's film.
The Holocaust was not simply a dream (or a nightmare). It was a historical event in which the men who manned the death camps butchered millions of men, women and children. The fact that the frailties of our intellectual powers and the limitations of our language make it impossible to recreate with absolute accuracy every jot and title of that experience does not make the Holocaust a "text" subject to the infinite manipulation of Willis Carto and his
IT IS foolish to believe that we can easily know the truth or that knowing the truth will create a just society. But I believe there is a connection between moral and intellectual anarchy. If that is
"true," then we have a moral obligation to confront these outbreaks of irrationality in our classrooms and in the larger arena of civic
life. In that confrontation, we cannot meet dogmatism with dogmatism or simply shrug our shoulders and say that there are "many kinds of
truth." We have to rely upon the long traditions of rational inquiry:
the careful accumulation of empirical evidence, rigorous analysis and the marshaling of logical argument. However frail these methods may
seem in the face of both paranoia and nihilism, they are all that we have.
LOAD-DATE-MDC: December 30, 1992