But When is That?
Let me tell you why my grandfather, Alfred Wiener, began this collection. It was because he believed in the power of truth. He believed that the facts would win in the end. He was not a pacifist – you need to be ready to meet force with force. But lies must be fought with truth.
Daniel Finkelstein’s grandfather was clearly an admirable man (no, there is no ‘but’ coming). I agree with him in a way, perhaps the most salient way; but (there’s the but) I don’t agree in another. (At least, I don’t agree with one way that Finkelstein phrases the matter, which could be his own rather than his grandfather’s.) I don’t agree that the facts will win ‘in the end’ – because I don’t think there is any end (and probably neither do most people, if they pause to think about it). There is only now. There is a series of ‘ends’ which keep coming in, like waves hitting the shore; they are never final, permanent, secure. The facts can win at any given moment, but they are never beyond being altered, distorted, hidden, burned up, lied about. There never comes a point at which we can all heave a sigh of relief because the truth or the facts have been established for all time and no one will ever again dispute them or tell whoppers about them. That just doesn’t happen and can’t happen – humans being what they are, it isn’t possible.
But I do believe in the power of truth (though in the power of all humans to take it in, not so much), and I do believe lies must be fought with truth. It would be odd if I didn’t, given what I’ve spent the last three and a half years doing! But that’s a different thing. I think the truth is the best answer to lies, but it does not follow and it is not true that I think the truth will always automatically prevail. It’s so visibly not prevailing right now – and why should we not consider this particular moment as ‘the end’ just as much as some hazy time in the future which, when it arrives, will be no more special or end-like than this moment now is? At any given time, there are myriad places and ways the truth is not prevailing; fighting lies with truth is a constant and often losing battle. Depressing but – er – true.
I have always shared this belief. Yet this week, as David Irving begins his sentence in an Austrian jail for denying the Holocaust, my belief, our belief, is being tested. Do I really trust in the power of truth that I have proclaimed so often?…Alfred Wiener retained his belief in the power of the truth. And the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, the growing historical understanding of the Holocaust and the triumph of liberal democracy over totalitarian doctrine in Europe vindicate that belief. His library has played a role in all of those things. Yet it is hard to hear the words of Irving and his fellow Holocaust deniers without wishing to be armed with something tougher even than the truth. A baseball bat, for instance, or a pair of Austrian handcuffs.
This is pretty much what I’m saying. Irving is a real test. It’s just too easy and way too comfortable to say airily that the way to deal with Irving is with facts to counter his lies, and that that will make everything all right. Maybe it will, but at least in some places and with some people, maybe it won’t. It’s really quite simple. Irving can (when and if free to do so) give lectures that tell factual falsehoods, and there is no magical guarantee whatsoever that people who hear him won’t 1) believe his account and 2) fail ever to encounter a corrected version. Note – please, pay attention – I’m not saying therefore he should be imprisoned; I’m simply saying the truth doesn’t always win, and it’s not useful to assume that it does.
it is difficult not to feel anger, rage at Irving. It is difficult not to wish him behind bars. And I do feel rage. But I do not wish him behind bars, not for giving his opinion, not for delivering a lecture, however warped and horrible his opinion is. I still believe in the power of truth. And my belief in truth is what separates me from Irving.
But there again – it’s not just his opinion that Irving gives, it’s also his falsifications. His opinion is not just warped and horrible, it’s also backed up by systematic falsifications. It does seem to me that the right to give an opinion is different from the right to tell factual lies. I’m not a bit convinced that there is such a thing as a right to tell factual lies. What one does with that thought I’m not at all sure, but I don’t think we get much forwarder with thinking about it by simply pretending it doesn’t exist, by never mentioning it. I think Irving’s lies should be way more conspicuous than his opinions in this public discussion.
The admirable author Deborah Lipstadt had it right when she destroyed Irving in the courts, challenging his methods as a historian, undermining his reputation, demonstrating his falsehoods and his distortions. It is always tempting to fear the liar and believe, as Mark Twain did that “A lie can make it half way around the world before the truth has time to put its boots on”. But I have more faith than that. I believe that by allowing free exchange, by allowing anyone to assert anything, the truth will triumph, provided that its friends are vigilant and relentless.
But when? When will the truth do that? In the sweet by-and-by? Tomorrow? The ever-postponed future? But that’s the same as never, you know. And looking around us – it is very very difficult to believe that the truth generally does triumph, however vigilant and relentless its friends are. It’s a damn uphill battle, making the truth triumph; it’s certainly one that has to be fought; but it’s no good thinking the outcome is in our pockets. It isn’t.
But I’ll give Finkelstein the last word, because I agree with it, I’m just not quite as optimistic about it.
David Irving is the least of our troubles. But through it all we must hold fast to this: that we must always be ready to meet force with force, but lies — lies we fight with truth.