History as Paranoia

There are many conservative, intelligent people who will happily tell you that there is no such thing as the absolute truth of history, only different, mutually complementary versions. History, they will say, is a mutable, fluid continuum, whose multiple truths are constantly undergoing revision and revaluation in one another's reflected light, as well as in the light of other, ever newer truths, ceaselessly emerging from darkness and oblivion. This is all very well, I say in reply, but what about the absolute lie of history? Surely there is such a thing.

To begin with a rather extreme example, there are those versions of history which I periodically read about in national news magazines in the wake of some big education survey: 64 percent of all urban 14-year-olds questioned believe Fidel Castro is president of the United States, every eighth 15-year-old in America imagines that The Waste Land was written by Minnie Mouse, half of all teenagers in Pennsylvania mark Brunei as "(D), a cathedral town in Shropshire" . . . Surely the historical falsehood contained in such statements, made out of nearly absolute ignorance, is for all intents and purposes absolute?

No doubt it is. Yet, laughable as these private untruths are, they are hardly more mendacious than the public untruths to which I, along with a billion others in China and elsewhere, was born just a few decades ago. "The Russian Revolution,"...

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