Inconvenient History Update

If anyone's interested, I have a review of Melissa Katsoulis' Literary Hoaxes in the Summer issue of Inconvenient History.

From the same issue, I would especially recommend Michael K. Smith's essay, "Must We Loathe David Irving," which provides a perceptive study of the Irving-Lipstadt libel trial that played out in Britain over a decade ago. Whatever your thoughts on Irving, Lipstadt, or libel actions generally, Smith's account is elevated by a sharp epistemological unpacking of the assumptions informing the "denier" label/smear. He uses apt analogies that would scarcely occur to right-leaning revisionists, and he makes important points in response to the Shermer-approved "convergence of evidence" trump so often deployed as a kind of  smokescreen to selectively and preemptively discredit the critical reading of evidence before it is engaged. Given sufficient support from whatever ranks, the catchall of "convergence" or "cumulative proof" may be dispatched by believers of any persuasion to situate the subject of their preferred belief beyond the bounds of critical inquiry. David Ray Griffin uses essentially the same tack (as Smith notes), as do those who are convinced of the Christian resurrection story, alien abductions, telepathy, global warming, sudden acceleration vehicular malfunction, satanic ritual abuse, and, of course, Nazi gas chambers. It should go without saying that proponents of any particular claim may ultimately be correct or mistaken in their conclusions. But the assertion that convergent lines of evidence — often regardless of empirical quality — effectively close the case is a crude ruse that leads to overconfidence and name-calling.

Mikael K. Smith is the author of two books published by Common Courage Press. He is co-contributor (with Frank Scott) to the blog Legalienate.

The first volume of Richard Widmann's web-based journal Inconvenient History has been compiled into a hardbound book that can be ordered here for the weird price of $29.68.

Memento mori.


7 thoughts on “Inconvenient History Update

  1. >> At the lecture he delivered a few months before he died, a question was put to Hilberg: “Why do you not feel part of your community?” Without missing a beat, he responded, in an even voice, “I don’t feel part of anything. I don’t feel part of the university I’ve been a part of for decades. I don’t feel part of Burlington, where I’ve spent all my years since 1956. I think some of us are just destined to be alone.” <<

  2. So how do reckon such a thoughtful and defiantly independent-minded man could, on your apparent view, be mistaken about Nazi gas chambers?

  3. Rob,
    Brilliant minds are often led astray. Freud remains an intellectual giant, yet his major concepts have largely collapsed under the weight of empirical psychology. Leo Strauss and Martin Heidegger seem to have been chasing dragons as well, and I wouldn’t deny their stature in the history of ideas. Other names come to mind, but those are the first to latch.
    Of course, with Hilberg the situation is different. His historiography was in many ways scrupulous, yet he was locked on this catastrophic narrative that carried its own momentum. As I try to suggest in the review, I think he was seduced by the idea of a stark teleological crisis and I think this rendered him credulous, at least in his interpretation of fantastic eyewitness accounts that should have elicited some measure of disinterested skepticism. Under such a spell, I sincerely doubt that he was capable of entertaining the possibility that the gassing stories could have been generated through rumor, confusion and propaganda, as I believe they were.
    In the closing chapters of “Destruction” you find plaintively intoned accounts of events that, upon reflection, are simply preposterous, and every bit as lurid as the Sadeian pastiches that would later work their way into downmarket Holocaust literature and Stalag fiction. There are the stories of whip-cracking Nazi guards snatching babies by their feet and smashing them into brick walls (before handing the “bloody mess” back to mama, just for kicks). And even if you’re willing to let such filthy tales slide, Hilberg’s astronomical claims about per diem killing capacities (to wit, that 10,000 and even 20,000 gassings were being caried out daily at various camps, all under subterfuge) cannot be — and seldom are, these days — taken seriously.
    So. My preferred explanation is that Hilberg, a good man and a dutiful scholar, had a story to tell. The source materials were available in the form of court affidavits and assorted testimonies, the provenance and integrity of which he never paused to question. Had he taken such pause — as I’m inclined to believe he did later in his life — the form of the resulting narrative might have been quite different, yet no less salient as an account of destruction and suffering under the yoke of tyranny.

  4. I agree with Chip on Hilberg. Always respected the man. His sincerity becomes apparent when one sees him interviewed on film. Compare that f.e. to Elie Wiesel who is constantly pulling off a show (but well… so is David Irving. Only in a more sympathethic, entertaining way.)
    Towards the end of his life he admitted to an Austrian newspaper that only an estimated 20% of the Holocaust are thoroughly researched. He also condemned the persecution of revisionists, and claimed that their questions were important for science to always recheck the facts and theories.
    The often stunning mistakes and fallacies of even the greatest thinkers should humble us all. But also they should us encourage to think boldly and not fear making such mistakes or exposing ourselves to embarrassment.

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