Friday, 24 February 2017 15:58

Good Reads - From the Danger of Denial to the Nostalgia of Exceptionalism

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Photo: FICG.mx (flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0

Our editor Victoria Jordan points you in the direction of a few articles guaranteed to make you ponder. Read about the danger of denial, what truth means today, how countries yearn for the past exceptionalism, and if historical comparisons can help us understand contemporary situations.


Victoria, Editor of Brain & Baby

As much as I wanted to avoid Trump in particular, and the topic of populism in general, in this edition of E&M’s Good Reads, it has been no more escapable in my latest reads that it is in reality, and seems to be constantly lurking in the background of topics I touch upon. But this might actually be positive, because the last thing we need right now is passive acceptance, or even denial, of recent developments in our surroundings in the hopes of making ourselves feel better about the world. (Obviously, that is not to say that we shouldn’t be happy about other things, and smile at the sight of a puppy.)


Speaking of denial, it is the title of the recent movie portraying Deborah E. Lipstadt’s legal battle against David Irving, who sued her and her publishers for libel in 1996 after she referred to him as a Holocaust denier and falsifier of history. Based on Lipstadt’s book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, the movie focuses on the trial and the strategy adopted by the defence to prove that Lipstadt’s words were indeed true. Cambridge historian Sir Richard Evans, whose character briefly appears in the movie, played a very specific role in this strategy as he successfully demonstrated that Irving had “deliberately falsified the historical evidence to bring it into conformity with his prejudices, his Holocaust denial.” In this recent post on conspiracy theory in the era of post-truth, Evans highlights the victory that this trial had represented in 2000 for historical investigation, and what it means today for our notion of the truth.

And indeed, at the end of the movie, Lipstadt, played by Rachel Weisz, affirms: “Slavery happened. The Black Death happened. Elvis is not alive.” A statement that effectively reminds us of the danger of denial, and the importance of truth today as well. Evans correctly points out that the trial happened before the development of social media, of a sphere in which, increasingly, there is no one single truth but a multitude of opinions that aren’t informed by any form of evidence. His post focuses primarily on Holocaust denial, but his words ring particularly true today and reminded me of this article from last summer by Katharine Viner, the Guardian’s editor-in-chief: How Technology Disrupted the Truth. She refers to the “information cascade” that characterises social media, and refuses to see its evolution only in negative terms as social media have also allowed for journalists to be held accountable to their audience. In this powerful analysis of the effects of technology in journalism, Katharine Viner reminds us of the importance of truth, as backed up by evidence, and concludes that the fight today “is about holding power to account, fighting for a public space, and taking responsibility for creating the kind of world we want to live in.”


A lot of what we have been hearing over and over again from some politicians usually focuses on making our countries great again. Whatever past grandeur some countries might be able to claim, these statements feed on nostalgia for a vision of the past in a rosy light that wilfully forgets darker elements of reality. One most striking example is of course that of the UK, supposedly about to regain its rightful position on the global stage. As Tom Whyman affirms in this really good New York Times article: “Brexit is rooted in imperial nostalgia and myths of British exceptionalism, coming up as they have — especially since 2008 — against the reality that Britain is no longer a major world power.” Populist discourses allow for this nostalgia to be given a public voice, and indeed such myths of exceptionalism are difficult to defeat.

This is also the case for the myth of the so-called “special relationship” between the US and the UK. One that was invented by Churchill in 1946, and that Geoffrey Wheatcroft debunks in this article by looking at the relationships between successive American presidents and British prime ministers since then – concluding that it seems to be more of a one-way relationship (of which Britain is not coming out as a winner). These myths of national exception, and nostalgia for past glory are not limited to the UK, on the contrary, but increasingly characterise an important share of political discourse in European countries. The resilience of these myths and the appeal they have through their idealised version of the past prove to show how powerful and pernicious such nostalgia can be, especially as an incredibly successful tool of populists.


Yet another way of putting the past into the present, this interview with Yale historian Timothy Snyder published earlier this month touches upon a number of issues surrounding Trump’s start in office, notably the position of the media. His comments on the usefulness and subtlety of historical comparisons are particularly interesting, notably since – whether we agree or not with contemporary comparisons with European societies of the 1930s – one can only agree with his point that “we can learn from the 1930s. Again, it’s very important to stress that history does not repeat. But it does offer us examples and patterns, and thereby enlarges our imaginations and creates more possibilities for anticipation and resistance.” If there is one thing to single out of this interview, it is Snyder’s idea of resistance and his call for action. According to him Americans “have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less,” and what is of the utmost importance right now is not to lose the momentum and continue to engage in activism. And I believe that not only Americans, but also we, as Europeans today, should follow this advice.

Last modified on Monday, 06 March 2017 23:12

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