Wednesday, September 23, 2009

'A democracy stands or falls with the courage of its history'

A brilliant, urgent piece by historian Simon Schama in the FT, on the feeble response of the West to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial:

The cowardice of embarrassment; the pragmatic humming and hawing about what to do about the buffoon frontman of a tyranny that endures through brutality and torture, is itself a depressing sign of moral collapse. The victims of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s onslaught on truth include not just the outraged memory of the murdered millions but history itself, the integrity of which is at the heart of the western political tradition. The most absurd affront to reality in his remarks may have been the Iranian president’s complaint that research into the history of the Holocaust was being thwarted by a conspiracy of its purported victims. What he has in mind of course is the kind of history he wants to read.

It is the great glory of the project inaugurated by Thucydides that it endeavoured to disentangle fact from fable and to make history the instrument of honest self-criticism rather than idle self-congratulation. Thus sternly conceived, it was to be the torment of despotisms. This was something fresh and breathtaking in the world, the conviction that the authority of history based on an unflinching scrutiny of evidence would always prevail over fantasies derived from claims of revelation.

But then perhaps we have already abandoned history as the rough upbraider of moronic turpitude. Perhaps it is easier to digest history as costume pabulum, a stroll with Dame Vera Lynn down memory lane; endlessly rerunning the Good War and wallowing in harmless period romance courtesy of Jane Austen, while tough history gets thinned and thinned until it is finally put out of its misery and the age of national amnesia is enthroned.

“Facts are stubborn things,” said one of the flintier Founding Fathers, John Adams, who well understood that democracy stands or falls with the courage of its history.

Read the whole thing here.

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