I used to read more news than I do now. This made sense, because I used to be a newspaper pundit – a job in which one must at least pretend to know what is going on. The appearance is quite easy to create; the reality is a little beyond human aspiration.
We don’t know, and can’t know, what is going on. This becomes evident whenever one looks closely at any event. One obtains an insight into the nature of history, or shall we call it “historical narrative.” This contains much factual matter that can be checked, from sources that hold reasonably still, the way tombstones do (until they disappear). But the history never “writes itself,” and the reader is utterly subject to the historian’s judgment, no less than he is to the novelist’s judgment when the novelist is telling a story.
The historian has the advantage over the journalist, of time. Things once concealed become open to investigation. The journalist has the advantage because in some cases he is actually there. I think the journalist’s advantage (if he will seize it) is underestimated.
As a hack, who traveled, this point was brought home to me many times. Before coming to some strange city, where I had never been before, I might read books, articles, travel guides. I would have an idea of the landscape, the streetscape, the “culture,” before arrival. Hours, even minutes after touchdown, all this information could be thrown away. “Being there” made all the difference – between reading about the flavor of something, and putting it in your mouth.
“Thrown away” is an exaggeration. The information continued to be useful. I could use it, for instance, to find my hotel, and otherwise to attach names to things. Photographs do not lie, much. A building will look as it did in a recent photo, when glimpsed from the same angle. The person one interviews will (often) resemble his mug.
In Israel, where security is important, one must sometimes spend twenty, even thirty minutes, chatting with an officer before getting in. He or she will show extraordinary, if not whimsical interest in one’s life and times. One may feel almost flattered. The passport is consulted repeatedly, and the picture in the passport is lovingly examined.
The officer looks at the picture, looks at you, again looks at the picture. As if uncertain, she repeats this operation, her head adjusting to appreciate angle and lighting, like an art student. I am thinking of one who once asked me to smile for her; and then to frown. I didn’t mind, I was enjoying the attention.
Even fingerprints require a second look, and as we’ve learnt painfully in the courts, DNA evidence can be unreliable. It must be interpreted; a process of logic must be applied, and one is dealing with a balance of likelihoods. Sometimes the result makes no sense. We go back to the beginning.
All this is necessary to belabor, for with the collapse of education and the spread of smugness, little things are easily overlooked. Moreover, glibness is as if written into the human genetic code; I think it an aspect of original sin. We think we know. But we don’t know. The very thing that seemed most obvious is suddenly kicked away. How many times I thought I knew someone, yet it turned out I didn’t know him at all.
The “rush to judgment” I file usually under “the glib.” It is a rush where there is seldom any urgency. It is understandable because, even in a walk to the corner store, to obtain let us say some milk or some potatoes, many, many things must be assumed. We do not have time to philosophically examine each of the premisses we are working upon.
Perhaps the examined life alone is worth living, but should this be so we are in a bind. For life is very hard to examine. We must make judgments – as every good Catholic must know in the queue to the confessional – about what is worth forensic examination. Something outwardly big might be of no consequence; something might be significant, that is outwardly small. Alternatively, a very big thing might be “psychologically avoided” – because shame itself is a form of blindness, and our fear of humiliation is greater than our fear of pain.
I tried to read Michelet, once. At the time I was more young and impressionable. He could be exhilarating both in his mediaevalist phase, and then in his revolutionist. The one told against the other. He was an “enthusiast.” He was at his most inspiring when writing nonsense.
As Owen Chadwick wrote of Michelet, and Lecky his English parallel (in The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, a must read), the facts didn’t matter anyway. What most of their contemporary readers took away were the attitudes, instead. The facts could change, and did change as historical research continued; but the interpretation of the facts was “settled” for such readers – whether at first or at second hand.
Take for instance the storming of the Bastille. As we know today, every detail of Michelet’s account is not only false, but implausible. It was a fantasy in which Michelet himself perhaps “believed,” raised by him to the status of myth: the fundamental myth of tyranny overthrown. How many it inspired – to tyranny and slaughter.
How many, indirectly, it continues to inspire, as we have seen from the media adulation of Orange Revolutions and Arab Springs and every other iteration of “democracy in the streets.” Again and again we discover, when looking back over the events in calm, that the “facts” were. . .not as reported.
Law and order – justice – requires this calm: a certain emotional chastity in a field of “known unknowns.” If it is not taught, it is not learnt. We live in a time when it is not taught.