Facts, and Why We Are Doomed to Repeat Them

There is nothing wrong with having a strong opinion. There is nothing wrong with writing a pointedly subjective review. In many ways, fiction is often more interesting to read–and sometimes more truthful, or enlightening–than non-fiction, because we tend to lower our guard around imaginary things that we expect can’t hurt us. (Consider the great psuedo-essay, The Lifespan of a Fact.) But none of this detracts from the power of a fact, but while you’re always entitled to that gut opinion, to your personal viewpoint, these things do not trump a fact.

There are some who argue that facts change as technology evolves and provides greater insight, so by all means, take axioms such as gravity with a grain of salt, if that helps you to get through the day. (Personally, I’d think disputing gravity would make it harder to get through the day, but I suppose life in an insane asylum might be considered comforting to some.) The takeaway from one fact supplanting a once-fact is not that all facts are bullshit, but merely that we must ourselves be honestly open, at all times, to the most statistically and readily available truths, no matter how inconvenient or unsettling they may be.

My least favorite subject in school was history; that’s a fact. The memorization of flat dates or the jingoistic trumpeting of American exceptionalism in our textbooks was frustrating, especially with the Internet providing readily available alternatives. (And no, I’m not referring to conspiracy sites.) “Those who do not learn from their past are doomed to repeat it,” intoned one teacher after another, all the while learning (and teaching) the same incorrect lessons because they were not as pretty or as digestible as the easily teachable “facts.” The textbooks were expensive, full-color affairs–I can understand not wanting to buy new ones, or to print errata–but the text was all too often black and white.

On tonight’s episode of The Amazing Race, I watched a team get eliminated despite having an express pass that would’ve allowed them to bypass any challenge. I can understand not using it when you believe/hope that there is another team behind you. I can understand wanting to save it until the last possible second when you’re neck-and-neck with other teams. But once you’ve been eliminated and you must surely know that you’ve made–at the very least–a miscalculation, I cannot understand trying to spin your actions as correct, let alone in a positive light. That’s delusional, and I refer you back to the straightjacket mentioned in Section II. But belief dies harder than John McClane; just ask the Republican party–although to their credit, they’re at least attempting to change certain facts, such as the composition of current districts, or the rules of the Electoral College.

Benjamin Schwarz, literary editor for The Atlantic, opens his January/February 2013 review of Sheldon M. Stern’s The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory by presenting the oft-taught story as follows: “On October 16, 1962, John F. Kennedy and his advisers were stunned to learn that the Soviet Union was, without provocation, installing nuclear-armed medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba.” On the next page, he pivots: “Every sentence in the above paragraph describing the Cuban missile crisis is misleading or erroneous,” and notes that whatever we may have suspected, scholars have known the truth behind this “crisis” ever since gaining access (in 1997) to recordings from Kennedy’s strategy meetings. And yet, he concludes, “There’s little reason to believe [Stern’s] effort [to set the record straight] will be to any avail, [but that] it should nevertheless be applauded.” New evidence has come to light that proves what we once asserted to be false (see WMDs), and yet we cling to the lie because it casts us in a better light. It’s funny that so many people in government seem to despise Hollywood; their policies are straight-up illusory, their stalling tactics are filled with grandstanding (as in the old Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-era filibuster), they must often be treated as fragilely as a diva, and they insist on elaborate riders to every contract/bill. These same people who insist that we must teach intelligent design beside evolution because both are theories do not seem in much of a hurry to ensure that opposing interpretations of historical events are equally relayed to students.

After all, the takeaway from the Cuban missile crisis should not be that “standing up to aggression (however loosely and broadly defined) will deter future aggression.”

America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq didn’t deter Muammar Qaddafi; America’s war against Yugoslavia didn’t deter Saddam Hussein in 2003; America’s liberation of Kuwait did not deter Slobodan Milosovec… and JFK’s confrontation with Khrushchev over missiles in Cuba certainly did not deter Ho Chi Minh.

Classifying details on the efficacy of enhanced interrorgation [sic] techniques may cast us in a better light, assuming nobody ever notices, just as veiling drone attacks in secrecy may allow them to continue. (Who, upon hearing someone plead the fifth or otherwise refuse to answer, does not immediately assume shenanigans?) But we learn nothing from these short-term solutions; they’re as effective as surgical “answers” to obesity, in which, because the underlying roots were never addressed (or were denied or blamed on hormones), the fat simply comes back. These are claims, not facts, and if we are not to be trusted with some means of validating them (as I mentioned earlier today in my discussion of banks), we ought not to teach them at all. We should certainly avoid broadcasting up-to-the-minute assessments on, say, a 24-hour news network, as when both CNN and Fox screwed up that Supreme Court verdict last year.

In his article, Schwarz goes on to quote Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in saying, “A missile is a missile. It makes no great difference whether you are killed by a missile from the Soviet Union or Cuba.” Likewise, a fact is a fact. The crisis was resolved by “an explicit but concealed deal to remove both the Jupiter and Cuban missiles,” and Kennedy stipulated that the Soviets keep it a secret, lest it harm “America’s image as the indispensible nation” or “cause irreparable harm to [Kennedy’s] political career.” Since what we’re taught apparently changes depending on where we’re taught it and who is doing the teaching, let’s stop pretending that history is made up of facts and seek instead for a more nuanced view, the sort of non-delusional past that we can learn from. You know, lest we be doomed to repeat it.

3 thoughts on “Facts, and Why We Are Doomed to Repeat Them

    • Karen, thanks for following me over here — I’ll be getting back to short-story coverage soon enough, especially since I want to talk more about the great lie that tells a truth — and I appreciate the encouragement.

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