Information and Truth

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April 26, 2012 by The Editor

Senate House London

Senate House, London.

Not all information is true. This is certain. We are bombarded daily with countless types of information, most of which are designed not to bring clarity, but to cloud the mind with doubt. What is old is new, what is new is old. Advertising asserts claims that ring of the truth, but as everyone knows scientific results can say different things to different people. Also, you can poll for anything and get the results you want based on the questions you ask. Where is the truth in that?

To say that we can, most of us, sit back at the end of the day and be confident that we experienced a day full of truth is objectively not true. Instead what we have experienced is a day full of information. The most that we as individuals can know to be true are the values we live by, the God we give thanks to, and for some of us, the loved one we kiss good night.

Today I attended the Hebraica Libraries Group annual general meeting in London. The HLG is a professional organization of librarians who work with Hebrew and Jewish Studies collections in the United Kingdom. It was organized in London in 1976 and though small, its membership of librarians and scholars constitute a storehouse of information on libraries, publishing, and history that is an intellectual, if not national, treasure taking into account the Judaica collections of the British Library, the Valmadonna Trust Library, the libraries of Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Kings College, and smaller rabbinical and Jewish community libraries.

The meeting was held at the Wiener Library, Russell Square, London. The Wiener Library is the world’s oldest centre dedicated to the study of the Holocaust. It was founded by Alfred Wiener in 1933. Wiener was a German Jew. In 1928 he began to document the activities of the Nazi party, collecting its publications and literature, identifying it early on as a major threat to the Jewish people. Along with David Cohen, he established the Jewish Central Information Office in Amsterdam after fleeing Germany in 1933. He continued his work throughout the Nazi era in various countries and after World War II, established the collection as a library and scholarly center to study the Nazi era.  Wiener died in 1964. The library continues to grow, having recently moved into newly refurbished quarters.

Among its collection are scores of examples of Nazi publications, including children’s literature, board games, and grammar books. These are examples of materials rarely seen. They are items that would be found in homes and in schools. At the end of the war, with the failure and disgrace of the Nazi ideology, they could simply be tossed on a fire and surely were. Crass images of perfect Aryan youth are juxtaposed with obscene characterizations of Jews, worthy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

One example of this is a book titled Trau keinem Fuchs auf grüner Heid und keinem Jud auf seinem Eid [Trust No Fox on His Green Heath, and No Jew on His Oath.] This was normal information for the Aryan child: A Nazi truth. We see such publications for what they are today: lies, propaganda, ideology. But beyond what they inherently are, they become a different sort of truth. That is, through the agency of people like Alfred Wiener and so many others, they constitute the truth of totalitarianism. They are the evidence of man’s inhumanity to man, the willful acceptance of images that turn fellow citizens into monstrous caricatures.

Image from “Trau keinem Fuchs auf grüner Heid und keinem Jud auf seinem Eid,” Nazi children’s book.

Image from “Trau keinem Fuchs auf grüner Heid und keinem Jud auf seinem Eid,” Nazi children’s book.

Looking out of the back window of our conference room, I saw a jumble of academic buildings coming together in the interior of a city block, revealing their duct work, ventilation, and rooftops. Dominating the scene is Senate House, the Art Deco high-rise that today houses Senate House Library. During World War II, Senate House was the Ministry of Information, the British information and propaganda body that fought against the Nazi onslaught with morale-boosting publications in the war of nerves that characterized years of bombing, want, and uncertainty. It is also known as the building that featured as the ‘Ministry of Truth’ in the film version of George Orwell’s 1984, the ministry charged with manufacturing truth that is in reality the falsification of history.

Senate House from Wiener Library

Outwardly, the Wiener Library is an unremarkable Georgian building – attractive without calling attention to itself.  Standing in their conference room, looking out over the expanse of buildings and up the nineteen floors of Senate House, it occurred to me that if ‘information’ is voluminous, outward, insinuating itself into every crevice, then ‘truth’ is modest, even austere, standing as it were in the shadow of information.

Without a doubt, people living in the Nazi era, as well as people today, were fully capable of sorting out the truth from the raw information that was presented to them. But in the fog of war, the fog of information, most chose to ignore the reality. Instead they chose to make evil banal. Unlike Alfred Wiener, they accepted a march toward totalitarianism that might have been stopped. The Wiener Library comes from the insistence of a small group of people that human lives and dignity not be wasted; that history not be forgotten.

If, today, we have reason to worry about truthfulness and integrity in public discourse, it is worth considering how we accept information as it comes to us; who we question and why. What are the motivations of the innumerable interest groups that compete for our attention? Information is plentiful but truth in effect remains in shadow. It is up to each of us to discern its contours and to come to an honest understanding. Refuse to do anything less and stand in good company.

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