Examples of the manipulation and misreading of sources illustrate the need to be diligent and disciplined in our reading of the alleged “facts.” A failure in such diligence and discipline will make us believers in propaganda and, which is worse, unconscious disseminators of such propaganda.
The only way of standing on the firm ground of objective truth in an age of radical relativism is through the definition of the terms we’re using and the verifying of the “facts” with which we’re being presented. It is only through a diligence with respect to defining our terms and checking our facts that we can differentiate between those things that are verifiably real and true and those that are demonstrably unreal and false. It is the sure means by which we can separate the wheat from the chaff, the solid reality from fake news and propaganda.
A few examples will show how a failure to check our sources can lead us astray with either tragic or comic consequences.
In an essay for The Imaginative Conservative entitled “What is Civilization?,” I highlighted the woefully awry definition of civilization given by Wikipedia and how the poor definition was a consequence of the sources used to form it. According to Wikipedia, civilization is an ideological construct of the Enlightenment, enabling an irreligious and irrational “rationalism” to explain and explain away, to its own prejudiced satisfaction, the history of human culture. Amongst those cited by Wikipedia as crucial to the definition of “civilization” are the social Darwinists, on the one side, and the followers of Rousseau, on the other. Civilization is, therefore, defined either by those who advocate a secularist understanding of “progress” or those who call for its rejection through the secularist idealization of so-called noble savagery. Other thinkers are cited to buttress this materialistic understanding of “civilization,” from Spengler to Toynbee, but one will vainly search the sources cited for the traditional Christian understanding of civilization or any understanding of civilization rooted in classical antiquity. There is no mention of Plato or Aristotle, or of Augustine and Aquinas. Thus, through a checking of the sources, something purporting to be an objective “definition” can be exposed as a deformation and defamation of the traditional understanding of humanity in terms of its culture and history. The proper name for such a “definition” is propaganda.
Another example would be Wikipedia’s entry on Solzhenitsyn’s classic exposé of the Soviet prison system, The Gulag Archipelago. Until the error was corrected, Wikipedia mentioned the abridged version created by Solzhenitsyn’s wife and then quoted her as saying that The Gulag Archipelago consisted of “camp folklore” and that she was “perplexed” that the Western media had accepted The Gulag Archipelago as “the solemn, ultimate truth,” saying that its significance had been “overestimated and wrongly appraised.” The impression is that Solzhenitsyn’s own wife was belittling the importance of her late husband’s seminal work, thereby undermining its credibility as a work of authentic history. In fact, however, it was Solzhenitsyn’s first wife who made the quoted comments in a book she published against her estranged husband at the behest of the KGB, the Soviet secret police. It was his second wife who had edited the abridged version which is now a compulsory set-text in the national curriculum in all Russian high schools. The conflation of the two wives—the one estranged from her husband at the time that she made her comments and did so with the active encouragement of the KGB, and the other loyal to her husband and guarding his legacy—gives an egregiously erroneous view of the real situation. Whether this was a genuine mistake or whether, as one might suspect, it was a deliberate planting of misleading “fake news” by those who remain sympathetic to the Soviet Union, is a moot point. Irrespective of the motive for the error, or the lack thereof, its consequence was a woeful misrepresentation of Solzhenitsyn’s work.
It should be confessed that errors of fact are easily made, especially if we presume that our sources are reliable. I know this from personal and bitter experience. In my book Literary Converts, I wrote that the cause of Oscar Wilde’s death was syphilis, taking at face value the claims of two of Wilde’s biographers, Richard Ellmann and Melissa Knox, that this was the cause of his death. Later, in delving deeper into the facts of Wilde’s life in researching my own biography of him, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, I discovered from contemporary medical records that he “almost certainly never had the disease and certainly never died of it.” Since Ellmann in his so-called definitive biography, and Melissa Knox in her later study, both base their understanding of Wilde’s life and work on the psychological impact of his having contracted the disease as an undergraduate; their misreading of the facts led to their misreading of the man and his works, which undermines the credibility of their own respective works.
Sometimes, however, a misreading of a source can have comic consequences as was the case in The Catholics and Their Houses by Leanda de Lisle and Peter Stanford, a study of England’s Catholic aristocrats and their stately homes. Writing of the aristocratic Bedingfeld family, whose ancestral home is Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, they tell us that the eighth baronet, Sir Henry Edward Paston-Bedingfeld, was an eccentric “who became a cowboy in the Wild West of America and rode with Wild Bill Hickok.” Finding the image of a Bertie Wooster character riding with one of the most notorious gunfighters a little difficult to believe, even if fun to imagine, a little research uncovered that this “fact” was in fact fiction. The eighth baronet was born in 1860, which would have made him only sixteen-years-old when Wild Bill Hickok was killed while playing poker in the wild west town of Deadwood, Dakota. My guess is that the eccentric Sir Henry actually rode with Buffalo Bill, not with Wild Bill, a conflation of mistaken identities as innocent and comic as the conflation of Solzhenitsyn’s wives was probably cynical and malevolent.
Such examples of the manipulation and misreading of sources illustrate the need to be diligent and disciplined in our reading of the alleged “facts.” A failure in such diligence and discipline will make us believers in propaganda and, which is worse, unconscious disseminators of such propaganda.
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The featured image is a photograph of Jim Hutton from the television series Ellery Queen. It is in the public domain and appears here, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.