We tend to think of historical facts as being among the most durable of intellectual properties. Facts, most of us assume, cannot simply wished away: they have a recalcitrance, an ontological weight that is greater than mere opinion.
Would that it were so simple. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt observed in “Truth and Politics” (reprinted in her book Between Past and Future ), “Facts and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, theories–even the most wildly speculative ones–produced by the human mind; they occur in the field of the ever-changing affairs of men, in whose flux there is nothing more permanent than the admittedly relative permanence of the human mind’s structure. Once they are lost, no rational effort will ever bring them back.”
Hence the importance of cultivating a respect for historical fact, of protecting its integrity from the corrosive onslaughts of political prerogative. “Accustom your children,” Dr. Johnson told Boswell, “constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.”
One example of where it will end was just offered by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, in some remarks about the terrorist attacks of September 11. “Four or five years ago,” he said in a televised speech, a suspect event took place in New York. A building collapsed and they said that 3000 people had been killed, whose names were never published. Under this pretext they (the US) attacked Afghanistan and Iraq and since then a million people have been killed.”
Well, there is nothing new in Ahmadinejad’s mendacious froth. You can find the same sort of politically motivated disregard for–or rather, attack on–the truth in many places, no least in the humanities departments of Western universities. Is there any point in objecting? “Hey, the names are widely published?” In one sense you would be wasting your breath. Ahmadinejad is not going to be convinced because the truth of the matter was never at issue for him. But in another sense it is always wise to insist on the truth, however tedious the exercise becomes. Ahmadinejad’s statement is like an acid spill or a burst of deadly radioactivity. It contaminates and damages what it touches. We require, as Dr. Johnson reminded us, the reagent of truth if we are to escape unscathed.