In Salman Rushdie’s soon-to-be-published novel, The Enchantress of Florence, one of the characters is NiccolÃ² Machiavelli, the original dark prince of power politics. Il Machia, as he is called, is portrayed as a committed opponent of the obvious. ‘He believed in… hidden truth the way other men believed in God or love, believed that truth was in fact always hidden, that the apparent, the overt, was invariably a kind of lie.’
No doubt all of us have come across individuals with what might politely be termed an ultra-sceptical outlook. The kind of people who use phrases like ‘the powers that be’ without a sniff of irony. Certainty, not doubt, is actually their defining trait, their sure knowledge that the mysterious, omniscient ‘they’ are always responsible. Left to its own devices, this sort of mentality can appear almost charmingly eccentric. But two developments have in recent years helped turn an essentially harmless sensibility into something approaching a sinister ideology.
The first was the postmodern assault on the notion of objective truth that found academic favour in the 1980s and 1990s. A generation of humanities and social sciences students went through the theory mill and learned that reality is simply a cultural construction, a media confection. As very few academics, let alone undergraduates, ever ‘got’ deconstructionism, a bite-sized variety gained popularity: ‘problematising’.
This simplification encouraged the belief that, as George Walden once put it, the exception no longer proves the rule, it is the rule. If you could ‘problematise’ a single stress point of contention, then the whole narrative of objectivity would collapse.
The second development was the internet, which, for all its manifold benefits, has also helped flatten the hierarchy of evidential truth into one vast mass of competing perceptions. Out there on the limitless vistas of the web, empirical fact and wild rumour often appear to share equal billing.
Put these two trends together, add a widespread suspicion of Western governments and a growing boredom with liberal democracy, and you get the ideal conditions for what amounts to intellectual nihilism. Perhaps the most egregious example of this mushrooming cult are the 9/11 ‘Truthers’, that barmy army of opinion which holds that the official version of events leading up to that day is a government conspiracy.
The Truthers pride themselves on merely asking rather than answering questions. To which end, they ignore everything that supports the accepted version and concentrate on what they claim are its weak points – for example, the rapid collapse of the towers – to cast doubt on the overall story. Thus the exception becomes the rule.
But in fact the Truthers play host to various counterfactual theories – some of the more restrained hypotheses propose that it was an inside job, the planes were not passenger jets, and the Pentagon was not hit by a plane.
At the impressionable end of the scale, where rank naivety and fashionable cynicism merge, Charlie Sheen has promoted such theories and the Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard has suggested that the destruction of the World Trade Centre was a ‘money-sucker’ designed to avoid the cost of rewiring the towers. At the (only slightly) more sophisticated end, writers like Gore Vidal, and the Labour MP Michael Meacher, have speculated that some within the US administration may have had cause to turn a blind eye to the hijackers.
But it’s one thing to blame America for the attack on America. That’s hardly radical. No, if you really want to lay waste to the notion of historical truth and the fundamental principles on which Western democratic society is based, then you need to go one step further. You need to blame America for the attack on Nazi Germany.
Even within the liberal arts world, where America has long been a byword for injustice, bellicosity and corruption, Nazi Germany has remained the ultimate example of evil. And that presents a philosophical problem for the most zealous Bush-haters within the arts. If America helped stop a more depraved regime once, is it not at least theoretically possible that it could do the same again?
The common answer is to point out that Iraq and Afghanistan were hardly superpowers bent on global domination. The drawback to that response is that it’s a limited, pragmatic position – a politician’s argument – that lacks the kind of moral righteousness that appeals to a certain artistic imagination.
The bold solution, then, is to reposition Nazi Germany as the victim, and America (and Britain) as the aggressors. This, in essence, is the job the novelist Nicholson Baker appears to have taken on in his new non-fiction book Human Smoke. Baker, who in his novel The Fermata explored the erotics of excreting, seems here to immerse himself in its politics. He is the outrider for paranoid revisionism.
According to Adam Kirsch, writing in the New York Sun, Baker sets out to ‘convince the reader that America should not have fought Germany or Japan; that Franklin Roosevelt connived to get us into the war at the behest of the arms manufacturers, and probably knew about the bombing of Pearl Harbor in advance; that Winston Churchill was a proto-fascist; that in Japan’s invasion of China, China was the aggressor; that after the fall of France, Churchill was culpable in vowing to fight on, and not acceding to Hitler’s “peace” terms; that the Holocaust was, at least in part, Hitler’s response to British aggression, and that the only people who demonstrated true wisdom in the run-up to the war were American and British pacifists.’
Again, Baker’s method, according to Kirsch, is to ignore the overwhelming wealth of material that contradicts the above claims and to focus on any seeming anomalies or exceptions that support his case, no matter what the source. So, for example, in seeking to offload at least some of the blame for the Holocaust on to the British, Baker cites the mayor of Hanover’s reason for deporting Jews to the East, namely that the British bombing campaign had created a housing shortage.
There is much to be said against the British bombing of German cities, and indeed much has been said and written of a critical nature. But it can never be argued that it precipitated the Holocaust, quite simply because it did not, as any self-respecting historian would confirm, supported by a mountain of empirical evidence.
It’s essential for healthy intellectual debate that conventional wisdom is challenged. However, that requires an engagement with reality, not its negation. The mentality that sees 9/11 and 7/7 as government conspiracies, and the Second World War as a singular tale of Allied guilt, refuses to see what’s staring it in the face, so has no choice but to search for buried clues. Sometimes, though, the apparent is true because the only thing hidden is lies.