Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Interview with Chip Smith on Revisionism

First Published in Counter-Currents Publishing

by Greg Johnson

My interview with Chip Smith of Nine-Banded Books continues with a discussion on historical revisionism, particularly Holocaust revisionism, and the works of three of his authors, Bradley Smith, L. A. Rollins, and Samuel Crowell. 

What is your take on revisionism?

In an important sense, I think revisionism simply refers to the ongoing process of investigating and interpreting history. It’s like when we were kids and we learned that Pluto was the ninth planet from the sun. Now it’s just a rock, or a proto-planet, or whatever. Only I just read where they've discovered that Pluto has moons. Does that mean it will be promoted to planet status again? I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Notwithstanding a few matters of seismically politicized controversy, where science is concerned most of us live with a tacit understanding that correction, or even upheaval, is part of the process, that new discoveries can supplement or overturn a given theoretical framework that’s been rehearsed in textbooks for decades or more. Once in a while this will manifest in a full-on paradigm shift, and most of us layfolk are yet resigned to adjust our understanding perforce, even if it takes a while. I still have fun arguing with people who believe that peptic ulcers are caused by stress.

When it comes to history, however, people feel a kind of personal investment in the fixed narrative. This fealty can be intensely partisan, and it often comes with deep cultural and emotional moorings, as was evidenced by the recent row over the discovery of the skeletal remains of King Richard III. Such sentiments may be understandable, but they are often at odds with the scholarly enterprise of history, which, like a proper scientific discipline, favors continual revision.

Of course, when most people think of historical revisionism, they have in mind something different. Rather than being rooted in disinterested investigation and interpretation, the kind of revisionism that typically arouses suspicion or hostility has a dissident character that tends—or seeks—not to merely supplement a standing historical narrative but to uproot and replace it with a radically different historical counter-narrative.

This has always been the sticking point with Zinn’s labor-centric alternative history of the United States, to cite one well-known and acceptably controversial example. There are countless other examples of “dissident” revisionism that we could mention without being kicked off the reservation: Windschuttle’s study of the Tasmanian genocide, Michelle Malkin’s defense of Japanese internment during the Second World War, David Graeber’s contrarian study of the roots of money and debt, as well in their general drift as works by Tom Woods, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and the granddaddy of American revisionism, Harry Elmer Barnes.

I think there’s also a meta-revisionist cast to the neoreactionary cultural critique that Mencius Moldbug keeps annotating, and I would say the same regarding Errol Morris’s investigative studies of iconic photojournalism.

In a similar sense, I would say that a nascent strain of dissident revisionism can be detected in a spate of recent books that question aspects of the “Good War” and the corresponding mythos of the “Greatest Generation.” Here I would mention Mary Louise Roberts’ What Soldiers Do, Charles Glass’s The Deserters, and, tracking back a bit further, Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (which I reviewed for Inconvenient History).

Properly understood, Holocaust revisionism—which I suspect is really what you’re asking about—draws on elements of positivist (or disinterested) historical revisionism along with more motivated (or dissident) currents. I find the subject fascinating not least because of the unique aura of taboo—and the very real threat of prosecution (and persecution)—that surrounds it, but also because it is one of very few areas I can think of where the intellectual substance of a body of scholarship exists at such stark remove from public understanding. I’m loath to even discuss the controversy on interpersonal terms because there are vast swaths of misapprehension and bad faith to be overcome before you even get to the point of rational disagreement. And there’s a very real possibility that you'll lose friends in the process.

So, with that much as backmatter, I guess I might offer my take on Holocaust revisionism in the following way.

First, I think it is well to note that the subject comes with a long pedigree; that is, for as long as the “court narrative” of Nazi atrocity has been codified, there have been scholars who have professed skepticism about certain elements of the orthodox account. ...

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