Denial: The Unspeakable Truth by Keith Kahn-Harris
Anyone who takes the faintest interest in politics is bound to wonder why, while behaving in a manner so loutish, shameless and disrespectful of conventional wisdom, Donald Trump has managed to form such a close bond with the American public.
Keith Kahn-Harris touches only in passing on that question, yet succeeds in casting much light on it.
His book has the merit of being short. He examines a phenomenon – the yearning to deny various commonly accepted positions – which could have spawned a treatise of inordinate length.
He manages to write not much more than an extended essay by selecting only a few examples of denial. These include denial of the Holocaust, of the harm done by tobacco, of the link between HIV and AIDS, and of man-made climate change.
One may question how much in common with each other these denials have. The Holocaust has already taken place, while climate change is to a large extent a series of predictions about the future.
And denialism (a term he admits to be “terrible”) as a form of non-argument, where one refuses to listen to the opposing point of view or to take into account strong opposing evidence, and is instead driven by inner compulsions of one’s own, has also been seen quite a bit during our own referendum campaign.
In his frivolous youth, Kahn-Harris tells us in his preface, he developed a love of “nonsense dressed up as scholarship”, and revelled in the “portentous ludicrousness” of books such as Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, which in the 1970s contended that aliens had visited earth and inspired the glories of ancient civilisations.
Kahn-Harris’s Jewish upbringing meant he was conscious of the Holocaust from an early age, but when he heard of people who denied it had ever happened, this too “was all a big joke to me”.
It is easier to be heartless in one’s teens than later on, when he begins to worry that those who challenge “real scholarship” are helping “something deeply poisonous” to grow, and to produce “diseased fruit in our ‘post-truth’ age”.
In some ways, I prefer the earlier and more heartless Kahn-Harris, who shrieks with laughter at the flat earthers and other cranks he comes across. For as he himself says, these people yearn to be taken seriously, and one should be wary of paying them that compliment.
But one advantage of taking them seriously is that he starts to see that they are not just liberals who have somehow gone astray, and only need a bit of education in order to enable them to perceive the truth:
“Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation, it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences… Denialism arises from being in an impossible bind: holding to desires, values, ideologies and morals that cannot be openly spoken of.”
Later on, Kahn-Harris remarks that “all denialists share a burning desire to continue to appear decent while rejecting the path of decency”. They cannot say what they really want, and
“politics becomes a kind of shadow play, in which – shorn of of real discussions of real differences – all that is left is a battle over who can really claim the mantle of righteousness, who can rightly claim to embody the values we all sign up to.”
We are all, he points out, anti-racists now. The anti-Zionist Left vehemently rejects any idea that it might be anti-semitic. Holocaust deniers similarly reject with indignation the charge that they hate Jews, and indeed find themselves adopting the ludicrous position that Hitler was pro-Jewish, for after all, in their version of events, the Nazis were not actually evil and the Jews were not actually killed.
Kahn-Harris sees “the pathos, the desperation and the fierce hope” that undergird denialist tracts – qualities one is liable to miss if one just debunks such works as ludicrously unscientific and unscholarly.
And here one starts to see Trump’s appeal. There is no way to be a polite racist. It is an inherently rude position, and in, for example, his attacks on Mexicans, Trump embraces that rudeness, revels in it, is authentically and genuinely loutish, appalls respectable society and thus convinces his supporters that he is on their side.
I have just been reading about the Mexican War of 1846-48, in which the United States made vast gains of territory at the expense of an enfeebled Mexico, which was provoked into war, fought bravely but was thrashed by well-led American forces with superior equipment. It was in many ways a disgraceful affair, and people like Abraham Lincoln said at the time that it was disgraceful.
But at the same time, a strong moral case was made for the expansion. It was, the Democratic Review declared in 1845, “the fulfilment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
The war was popular – democratic, one might say – and no one supposed afterwards that these gains stretching all the way to the Pacific, including what became the states of California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, and a southern border pushed down to the Rio Grande, should be handed back.
One of the heroes of the war, General Zachary Taylor, who had no political experience, was adopted as a presidential candidate in the election of 1848, which he proceeded to win.
Kahn-Harris does not go in to this history, and if he had done his book would have become unmanageable. But he does observe that denialists have beliefs which used to be regarded as morally defensible and now are not.
In the old days, one could win presidential elections thanks to one’s heroic record in unequal wars waged against native Americans and Mexicans. Today one cannot advocate that kind of thing. But Trump, with brutal skill, knows how to show whose side he is on. He is a more traditional figure than his opponents, whose outlook is usually bounded by their own lifetimes, tend to realise.
Throughout his essay, Kahn-Harris touches on the pleasure to be derived from shocking people, behaving in an outrageous fashion, claiming to be in possession of arcane information, and throwing one’s opponents off balance by saying things they never imagined could be said. Trump has a genius for that kind of performance.
At the end of his essay, Kahn-Harris admits his book has not been particularly helpful in showing how denialism should be dealt with. He attempts, rather unconvincingly, to frame messages for Holocaust deniers and global warming deniers.
But his purpose is to understand, not to cure, and his essay can be recommended not just to anyone interested in denialism, but to anyone dismayed by the narrow limits within which our political debates take place.