Saturday, December 26, 2009

History Teaches Us Anything We Like

From In Praise of Prejudice, chapter three: “History Teaches Us Anything We Like.”

In a recent book entitled Menace in Europe…the talented American journalist Claire Berlinski tells us that war and genocide are not part of the history of Europe, but constitute the whole of its history. She arrives at this conclusion by looking at European history through the lens of the Holocaust and a list of wars that fills an entire page of print… Miss Berlinski’s is an example of what might be called the nothing-but school of historiography, by means of which a narrative is constricted [constructed?] from highly selected facts in order to verify a key to the understanding of everything… A present discontent is read backwards, or traced by a golden thread through the whole of history, and made to supply that history with an immanent meaning and teleology. (pp. 8-9)

Inconvenient facts usually spur us to heroic efforts of rationalization to preserve our outlook, rather than to honest re-examination; in medical practice I have been struck by the capacity of even intellectually ungifted people to manufacture an infinitude of rationalizations almost instantaneously in defense of a course of action upon which they have already decided, in spite of the abundant evidence that will be disastrous. When a doctor proposes an eminently sensible course of action to a patient, based upon the most compelling evidence, and the patient replies, “Yes, but…,” the doctor might as well give up there and then…” (p. 11)

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