A repeated theme in this undertaking is my trying to understand how we know things. (Although my current position is that believing is more important than knowing. Though I am not sure why I believe that.)
I read a lot of non-fiction. The last book I completed (on CD) was called Churchill and Orwell (by Thomas E. Ricks), chronicling the two towering figures’ experiences and contributions during the first half of the Twentieth Century. It was an interesting book, although not particularly artfully written. You know how, in a museum or art gallery, you can buy a companion “Audio Guide” to help explain what you are looking at.
Churchill and Orwell sounded exactly like that.
Here’s the thing.
A writer selects a topic to write about. (In high school or college, they assign you the topic, but the subsequent process is the same.) Then you go off and you do your research.
“In my day” – he quaveringly recalls – I would go to the library – I have always felt anxious about being in libraries, fearing breaking the echoing silence with a fart – and I’d “Dewey Decimal” my way to the appropriate source material for my essay.
I would then skim that material – because they were really long books – culling the salient content supporting whatever thesis I was instructed to defend. I then insinuate the assembled quotes into my essay, and I’m finished.
Not once did I ever think, “Are these quotes telling the truth”? That determination, as they say in the military, was above my pay grade. I assumed if they’re in books in the library, they must be consequently legit.
“‘Inaccurate Quotes Section’, please.”
“We don’t have any.”
So I believed what they told me.
A significant reason England defeated France at the Battle of Waterloo (according to Professor “Blah-Blah” from “Who Cares?” University):
“The Hessians arrived in time to help Wellingon defeat Napoleon.” (Unless it was the other way around, and they arrived too late to help Napoleon defeat Wellington. It doesn’t matter. Napoleon still lost. And I already got my grade.)
Whatever the authoritative research book told me, that’s what I put down. I have a feeling they still do that.
And not just in school essays.
The question remains:
Was what they wrote in those books factually accurate?
And how would we possibly know if it wasn’t?
Yeah, yeah – “Alternate Sources.” But who knows? (Unless you read the Appendix and nobody does that.) The “Alternate Source” may be quoting the book you just finished. That’s not going to help, will it?
Besides, how many “Alternate Sources” can you consult? I used to settle for two. Historians probably dig deeper. But nobody can read everything. At some point, you – non-academically – go, “Enough is enough!” (Fighting the shuddering impulse of, “That next one could possibly change everything!”)
So I am reading Churchill and Orwell. And near the end it, found in a recently unearthed diary, the book quotes a U.S. government “insider” is quoted as saying that, during their World War II collaboration against their Axis enemies –
“Roosevelt despised Churchill.”
That was the quote.
It kind of took me by surprise. I’m treading away on my treadmill, thinking,
“Really? Roosevelt despised Churchill?”
Well, it’s in the book.
We are going to dinner with friends tonight. What if, in casual conversation related to “What are you reading?”, I pass that nuggetty tidbit along.
It would be nice if it were true, don’t you think?
The thing is,
What if it isn’t?
What if it was the “insider” diarist who despised Churchill because, when they dined with the president, Churchill assiduously ignored him, quaffed down all the good brandy and blew billowing cigar smoke into his face?
The P.M. temporarily exits the room – brandy, like beer, being not owned but just rented – and the “insider” diarist exasperatingly goes, “Well!”
To which President Roosevelt sonorously replies,
“I admire that fellow. But I also despise him.”
The diarist goes home, entering the second part of Roosevelt’s evaluation – the part he agrees with – into his diary, while scurrilously omitting the first part, propelling a “half-accuracy” throughout history, where, ultimately, a guy with headphones on a treadmill is told,
“Roosevelt despised Churchill.”
Isn’t it important to understand the (unincluded though possibly determining) context? I mean, people will be go away from this book thinking that Roosevelt despised Churchill, when that damning assertion may have been truncated, inaccurately inferred – maybe it was a chucklingly respectful, “But I despise him” – or totally fabricated. There may be an as yet not unearthed diary claiming,
“The President loved the guy!”
It’s one book.
Quoting an unchallenged source.
And from this “Terre Infirma” – times a billion – is our gathering of “Worldly Wisdom” passed down through the Ages.
What a rickety legacy that is.