If I asked your opinion of the various candidates in the upcoming municipal elections in Otterpiddle, Ontario, I’m guessing you’re going to say you don’t have one. In fact I’d be pretty gobsmacked if you did. But if I asked whether you thought the Holocaust did or didn’t happen, and you confessed you have no opinion on the matter, you’d have instantly made yourself a social pariah. It’s not just that you’re expected to have an opinion; it’s that you’re required to. And you’re required to have the right opinion, namely that it’s not a Zionist myth that six million European Jews were systematically murdered from 1939 to 1945.
But be honest. What more do you know about the Holocaust than you do about the candidates in the upcoming municipal elections in Otterpiddle? It’s true that you’ve been told more about the former than the latter. But by whom? Probably Mrs. Krabappel, your Grade Five history teacher, right? And how did she come by this information? Assuming she’s still alive and remembers, go ahead and ask her. And then ask the same question of her source, and so on. I’m guessing you won’t be able to trace the storytelling back to the original storyteller. But even if you did, how are you going to fact-check his report?
But, you say, surely you could research the matter on your own. By this I hope you don’t mean you can parrot what has itself been just parroted from still other parrotings, and so on. That’s what most of my colleagues mean by “I’ve done the research.” Rather I take it you mean doing actual first-order historical research. Well, as you say, you could do the research, if you had a couple of lifetimes to spare. But you don’t. And so you won’t. And yet, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever beyond this chain of say-so’s, you’ll remain absolutely convinced of the historicity of the Holocaust.
And you’ll do so against all comers. That is, if someone cites an alternative chain of say-so’s that she, given her epistemic situatedness, has as much grounds to trust as you have to trust yours, you’ll dismiss her out of hand as an obvious anti-Semite.
And so will I!
Why? Probably because as a Jew the Holocaust sits at the very core of my self-understanding. But you’re not a Jew. So why will you dismiss the Holocaust denier out of hand as an obvious anti-Semite? Because the Holocaust sits at the core of your self-understanding as well? I doubt it. I suspect you could get along just fine without believing in the Holocaust, were it not that the belief-community to which you belong has decided otherwise.
And why has your community decided as it has? Well, some revisionists chalk it up to an international Zionist conspiracy, a conspiracy intent on, and apparently quite successful at, cathecting your Christian guilt for something you didn’t do. To what purpose? To help establish and maintain the State of Israel. And the fact that you don’t believe them just confirms that they’re right, right?
But hold on. You do believe – do you not? – that the Kuwaiti government-in-exile made up the premie ward story to garner popular support in the U.S. for its invasion of Iraq in 1991, and that the Bush II administration cooked the intel on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction so it could finish the job in 2003. So why do you believe some conspiracy stories but not others?
Because, as on any battlefield, some propaganda campaigns win the day and others don’t. Which is not to deny that some have truth on their side and others don’t. It’s to say only that you’re in no position to know which is which because you don’t have a couple of lifetimes to spare. And because it just isn’t all that important to you. All that matters is that you have your albeit-highly-unqualified opinion, and that it’s the one that keeps you in good standing with your peeps.
There’s a growing consensus, amongst scholars who have spent their lives studying such things, that the Exodus never happened. That it’s a myth. But it’s been a myth worth living by, both for Jews and – judging by the lyrics to many of their spirituals and the heart-swelling rhetoric of Martin Luther King – American blacks alike. Not unlike the Cross and Resurrection for Christians and the Alamo for Americans, the Exodus is for us Jews our foundation myth. And the Holocaust is just a renewal of that myth. One which I happen to believe is true. But then I would, now wouldn’t I?
Impressions to the contrary notwithstanding, this is not a declaration of historical skepticism. I’m not saying that the past cannot be known. All I’m saying is that what we think we know – and by the ‘we’ here I’m referring to you and me – we only believe. And we believe what we believe about the things we’re required to have a belief about because we’re required to have a belief about them. And because we’re required to have this belief about them rather than that one.
And why do we do this? Because we have no other choice! We don’t have the resources to do anything more than parrot what we’re told by those who are holding us to account for our beliefs. Nor are they allowing us to suspend judgment. We are facing what Intro to Critical Thinking teachers call an ad baculum. “Believe what I say or face the consequences!”
But an ad baculum is not a fallacy. It would be a fallacy if the objective of belief-acquisition was truth. But not if its objective is what belief one is well-advised to adopt. In fact I can’t think of anything more instructive in the adoption of a belief than the consequences of doing so. So all of belief-acquisition is driven by an ad baculum. And that’s precisely as it should be.
But if this is right – and it is! – then it applies not just to beliefs about the past, but also to those about the present and the future. The tribe upon which I depend for my survival, delectation, and companionship, is demanding that I have an opinion about all kinds of things, not only about the past, like the Holocaust, but also about the present, like vaccination safety, and about the future, like anthropogenic climate change.
These are all things about which I know nothing. These are all things about which I will forever know nothing. But fortunately they’re all things about which I’m not being asked to actually do anything, other than believe what I’m being asked to believe about them. That is, I’m required to believe in global warming, but I’m not required to do anything more about it than my global warming advocate peeps require of themselves, which is, so far as I can tell, absolutely nothing. In other words, belief is cheap. In fact it costs me nothing. So I might just as well fill my pantry.
Okay, so that’s me. But what about the themselves-parrots who’d have me parrot them? Their pantries are full too. They’ve got their requisite beliefs about vaccinations, climate change, the stupidity of Donald Trump, the irredeemable evil of the Koch brothers … There’s not an issue in the news they don’t have their tribally sanctioned position on.
But they seem to want something more. They want respect. They demand it. They demand that I join them in their delusion that they’ve filled their pantry with honest epistemic toil. I try to give it to them. Honest I do. And more often than not I can pull it off. But every now and then I can’t do it. Every now and then I just can’t stop myself from blurting out, “The Emperor has no clothes!”
And then, sometime last fall, it hit me. Call them out on their nakedness, but do it in a blog. After all, no one’s going to read it. Right?