Never attribute to strategic thought what can be adequately explained by mindless impulse

In the USA, physical attacks on such right-wing figures as Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Gavin McInnes and their supporters have brought those men so much publicity, and have done so much to embarrass and divide their left-wing opponents, that many suspect that the ostensible targets of these attacks in fact arranged them. Former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has expounded this theory on his blog and on television:

Many degrees to Mr Reich’s left, Mike Whitney of Counterpunch considers the theory that the Berkeley incident was a set-up and is more cautious. Mr Whitney’s concern is that these events, whatever their origin, may provide just the cover our new philosopher-king needs to install an authoritarian state:

Trump’s governing style… is geared to deepen divisions, increase social unrest, and create enemies, real or imagined.  In this view, Berkeley was just a dry run, an experiment in perception management orchestrated to sharpen Trump’s image as the hair-trigger Biblical father who will intercede whenever necessary and who is always ready to impose justice with an iron fist.

So the masked rioters actually did Trump a favor, didn’t they? They created a justification for presidential intervention backed by the prospect of direct involvement. One can only wonder how many similar experiments will transpire before Trump puts his foot down and bans demonstrations altogether?

Of course, that may very well be the objective.

It is true that Mr Yiannopoulos, as an editor of the website for which Don John of Astoria’s Chief Strategist was for several years the Executive Chairman, is associated with people whose favorite tactic is tricking left of center types into saying horrible things, and plenty of left of center types have responded to these events by going on social media to gloat about a woman being pepper-sprayed in the face, a Starbucks being demolished, etc. So there is at least a measure of plausibility to the idea that the masked men who did those things when Mr Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak may have been his agents, and even to the idea that they may have been dirty tricksters with links to the White House. Plausibility isn’t evidence, so we oughtn’t to get excited, but it’s an idea to take note of.

As for Richard Spencer, someone who will do and say the kinds of things he has been doing and saying for the last nine years might do pretty nearly anything to get attention. Arranging to have himself punched in the face on television might be a pathetic cry for help, but a considerably less extreme version of the pathetic cry for help than was, for example, his decision to publish articles dwelling on the potential upsides of killing all black people. And Mr Spencer was also rewarded with vast publicity and confusion among his opponents for his minor discomfort. So again, while there may not be evidence or even presumption of evidence that Mr Spencer and his assailant may have been acting in collusion, neither is there a strong prima facie case against the idea.

I would put Gavin McInnes is a different category than Mr Yiannopoulos or Mr Spencer. Despite his efforts to market the phrase “Proud Boys” as a label for his followers, I do not believe that Mr McInnes actually has any followers. Readers, yes, he has many of those; I regularly read him myself, since he’s as funny as he is nasty (that makes him very funny.) But 11 people were arrested last week at the scene of the disturbance at New York University where Mr McInnes was pepper-sprayed in the face and several other people were assaulted; none of those people seems to have been likely to take direction from him, or for that matter from Mr Yiannopoulos or any other right-wing trickster, and I do not believe for one second that there are 11 people in the world who would agree to be arrested for Mr McInnes’ sake, let alone that he could assemble that number in one place.

If the goal of those who perpetrated these acts of violence was to trick left-leaning people into cheering them on, thereby making them look ridiculous and disgusting, they succeeded. Video of Kiara Robles being pepper-sprayed in the face while she tried to assemble her thoughts in defense of Mr Yiannopoulos’ appearance was shared many thousands of times on social media, often with gloating remarks. I’ve been surprised at people I know, who last year were lecturing everyone in sight about the terrible dangers that would face the social order if we rejected the preferred presidential candidate of Goldman Sachs and the CIA and embraced such wild-eyed revolutionaries as Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, who today are extolling the virtues of the Black Bloc and jeering at those who doubt the necessity of political violence.

Nor is it only those on the left who are willing to believe that these actions will damage the causes that men like Mr Yiannopoulos, Mr Spencer, and Mr McInnes promote. As those who openly gloat over this violence and call for more of it are showing us the power of the hormonal rush that comes to fans when they watch their team attack the opposing team in their favorite sport, so there are those on the far right who believe that their failure to make the world work the way they think it ought to work is a symptom of the left’s use of such tactics. Steve Sailer has catered to this sort of thinking in several blog posts (for example, here and here,) though he himself has been careful to limit the number of factual claims to which he commits himself.

Paul Gottfried, a distinguished scholar who had the misfortune to be associated with Richard Spencer before Mr Spencer decided to go Nazi, suspects that violent efforts to suppress far-right speech may succeed, not in ending the careers of its ostensible targets, but in creating a general sense that the country is going out of control and thereby undermining confidence in its elected leaders, most of whom are right of center. While Mr Gottfried, unlike his least-favorite former student, is someone to be taken seriously, I would argue that he too has fallen prey to the thrills of partisanship. There was far more unrest on college campuses in the USA during Richard Nixon’s first term as president than there was during the Johnson-Humphrey administration; that unrest not only failed to stop Mr Nixon gaining a second term in one of the most lopsided election results in history, but it may well have contributed to that win. Indeed, incumbent governors and mayors whose jurisdictions saw heavy unrest did well throughout those years, provided they were seen as taking the toughest possible law and order stand. California governor Ronald Reagan, Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty, Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo all benefited enormously from this kind of thing. Mr Gottfried knows this history well, and I can only suspect that his wish to cheerlead for dynamic action by his side has blinded him to its lessons.

If there are thousands, even millions, of people who are so caught up in the Go Blue! Go Red! cheering match to think that these actions somehow hurt the far right, then it is hard to doubt that there are a couple of dozen who are ready to put their fists and their Bear Mace where their Retweet buttons are. I am reminded of “Hanlon’s Razor,” the rule of analysis dictating that we should “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.” Of course the acts of violence against Ms Robles, Mr McInnes, etc, are malicious deeds, but we are not justified in assuming that the people who perpetrated those deeds were thinking strategically. Therefore we are not justified in believing that those perpetrators realized that their actions would help the far right and harm those whom the far right targets, however obvious that fact may be to everyone who isn’t carried away with left/ right team spirit. That’s why, in the title of this post, I rephrase Hanlon’s Razor as “Never attribute to strategic thought what can be adequately explained by mindless impulse.”

At war with the Gray Goo

Several days ago, a man named Richard Spencer was on camera, finding artful ways to respond to questions as to whether he is an advocate of genocidal violence against black people (by the way, he is very much an advocate of genocidal violence against black people.)  While he did his shtick, a masked person ran up, punched him in the face, and ran off.

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You might think that a minor physical assault on a minor public nuisance would figure in the news as, at most, a single line on the police blotter. Yet people are still talking about it. Today, Freddie deBoer, Rod Dreher, and The Nation magazine all weighed in on this incident.

I tweeted about it the other day:

And pretty healthy odds at that; Spencer’s only job is to get publicity, and with this incident he has gained a tremendous amount of that, as he recently gloated when reached for comment by The Independent.

Since people are still talking about this, I’ll add a bit to that tweet. Street-fighting is one area where Nazis have consistently enjoyed success. To meet them on that ground is to play to their strengths.

That isn’t to say that Spencer commands a street-fighting force; he doesn’t. His followers are guys on the internet, the proverbial fat guy living in his mother’s basement.  “Failsons,” as Chapo Trap House calls them.   Those guys aren’t likely to be much use in a street fight. Nor can they attract support from people who have not already given up on life.

The threat they pose is like the danger people used to talk about regarding nanotechnology.  One tiny machine might impose only a very small ecological cost, but as the number of these in use multiplies, it becomes conceivable that they might collectively cause a very large amount of environmental damage.  In a worst case scenario, a vast number of nanobots might coalesce into a “Gray Goo” that would render the surface of the earth uninhabitable. The Failsons at their keyboards have, figuratively speaking, coalesced into blobs of destructive goo.

Failson blobs floating around a bloodthirsty racist like Spencer stink up the comments sections of blogs and other social media platforms. That isn’t such a problem in itself; it’s easy enough to ban commenters, as I have had occasion to demonstrate to some of you.  Where Spencer’s following has the most potential to do harm is illustrated by something like Gamergate. A few years ago a Failson blob of gamers set out to harass three or four women who had been making a marginal living writing online about video-games. They succeeded in making their lives miserable, and probably did a great deal to discourage other women from getting into gaming journalism. Spencer’s crowd would certainly be capable of targeting particular members of groups they don’t like (blacks, Jews, women, Muslims, etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam) and doing the same damage to their lives that the gamers did to Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian, while intimidating other members of the same groups into silence.

To stick with the Gamergate analogy a moment longer, “Gray Goo” isn’t just a pejorative in discussing them. Supporters of the harassment of Quinn, Wu. and Sarkeesian called themselves a variety of names, including “the Grey Rebellion” and, most commonly, “Shitlords.” So if I were talking only about them, I might use the phrase “Gray Shit” rather than “Gray Goo.”

Punching people in the street isn’t going to drive the Failsons into hiding; as the trope about them living in their mothers’ basements indicates, they have been in hiding their entire lives. However, it will give Spencer and people like him an opportunity to recruit guys who like to express their hostilities, not by persecuting people from behind a computer screen, but in physical combat. Once they get a group of street-fighters going, that’s a whole new population from which they can draw support. And while street-fighters are as much a low-status population as are the couch-bound Failsons, physically violent people attract a following in ways that people whose aggressions are electronic do not. That’s why skinheads were a thing thirty years ago, to the point where there were anti-Nazi skinheads who would spend Friday nights fighting pro-Nazi skinheads.

The original Nazis, remember, kept going throughout all their electoral ups and downs in the 1920s as a street-fighting group. When the global economy collapsed at the end of that decade, Germany’s elite found that the only way they could restore public order and keep their positions was to put Hitler in charge. Hitler’s ascent had many pre-conditions; Germany’s defeat in World War War One, the mindlessly vengeful policies the victorious powers inflicted on Germany from November 1918 to January 1933, and the Great Depression were all bigger contributors to his rise than was the fact that he had an effective street-fighting force at his disposal. But that street-fighting force was certainly one of the contributors, and when I see leftists expressing pleasure at an event which, if it to have any consequence at all, can only have the consequence of building a street-fighting force loyal to Richard Spencer, I hope that the Trump years will not bring the kind of misery to the USA that the years of the Weimar Republic brought to Germany.

Never bring a knife to a clown fight

I just saw this on Twitter:

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I don’t advocate violence against clowns or anyone else. But if, hypothetically, one had to defend oneself against malevolent clowns, I’d think that a knife would be a poor choice of weapon. Clowns typically wear multiple layers of loose-fitting clothing, often with padding underneath, obstructing true thrust. Many clowns are accomplished magicians, far more likely than the average person to disarm an opponent in a knife fight. And many clowns are trained dancers, skilled at avoiding thrust. Since most knife fights require several successful strikes of the blade to terminate the threat from one’s opponent, those advantages make it quite unlikely that an untrained combatant would win a clear victory in a knife fight with a clown.

If this girl is correct in regarding clowns as so grave a threat to her well-being that she needs to carry a weapon, an assessment which I by no means endorse, I would advise her to carry something else, perhaps a heavy club or a spray bottle or something else where a single stroke is likely to disable an opponent. Her school probably has policies against 11 year olds carrying guns (though it is Georgia so maybe not,) so firearms really aren’t worth considering even if her threat-assessment is correct.

War for Helen?

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One of the less well-known legends of Helen’s later life, from Star Trek comics #9

The Classics blog Sententiae Antiquae has a post today about the story that the Trojan War was triggered by Queen Helen of Sparta running off with Paris, alias Alexander, a Trojan prince. The post quotes several ancient Greek authors, sketching a variety of ways in which the ancients crafted the tale and a variety of purposes which they used it to serve.

They quote Herodotus’ remarks about the story:

“If Helen really were in Ilium, they would have given her back to the Greeks whether Paris wanted them to or not. Priam was not so out of his mind, nor were his other subjects, that they would want to risk their own bodies and children and the city itself just so that Paris could sleep with Helen.”

εἰ ἦν Ἑλένη ἐν Ἰλίῳ, ἀποδοθῆναι ἂν αὐτὴν τοῖσι Ἕλλησι ἤτοι ἑκόντος γε ἢ ἀέκοντοςἈλεξάνδρου. οὐ γὰρ δὴ οὕτω γε φρενοβλαβὴς ἦν ὁ Πρίαμος οὐδὲ οἱ ἄλλοι οἱ προσήκοντες αὐτῷ, ὥστε τοῖσι σφετέροισι σώμασι καὶ τοῖσι τέκνοισι καὶ τῇ πόλι κινδυνεύειν ἐβούλοντο, ὅκως Ἀλέξανδρος Ἑλένῃ συνοικέῃ. 

(Book 2, chapter 110)

I offered this comment:

I’ve always been puzzled by the tradition that regards it as self-evidently absurd that a major war could have been sparked by something like Helen and Paris running off together. It sounds pretty plausible to me.

Had Priam known, as a certainty, that Menelaos and Agamemnon would raise the army Homer describes, lay siege to Troy for 10 years, and then destroy the city, probably he would have handed Helen over the minute Menelaos demanded her. The legend says that it took years to put the coalition together, so that first demand probably came from a military power that Priam could easily have defeated. For Priam to have complied with that demand would have been to present himself as a soft target to every power with designs on Troy.

Even if he had known that a vast army was coming after him and that they would defeat him, however, after that first minute had passed it would have become extremely difficult for Priam to surrender Helen. Every moment Helen was in Troy, a larger share of Priam’s prestige was invested in keeping her there. After just a few days, giving her up would have been a severe loss of face. And the way politics works, if you lose face severely enough, there’s no limit to what you can lose.

I think of the week that followed 11 September 2001. The USA demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden; some very well-informed people of my acquaintance were quite sure that bin Laden and his circle had planned and ordered the attacks without informing the Taliban leadership, but were also sure that the Taliban leaders would not comply with the American demand, even though they knew that refusing to do so would result in the bombing, invasion, and occupation of Afghanistan, because complying would invite out-factions within their movement to stage a coup. Either way, they would lose control of the country. But while they might escape from the American onslaught with their lives, and perhaps even with a chance at returning to power if the occupation went badly, a coup would lead directly to their deaths.

Large-scale rationality, with economic interests and geopolitical power structures and so on, that’s very important in keeping a war going and setting the range of possible postwar environments. But the events that lead up to war take place at a different level, where there’s a lot of contingency and a lot of personality. That must have been quite obvious in ancient times, when a policymaker in Asia Minor had no way of getting information in real time about military alliances that are or are not being formed in mainland Greece, but plenty of information about who’s dominant in the face to face relationships he has with the people around him.

I teach Latin and Greek at a mid-ranking college in the interior of the USA. When the story of Helen and Paris comes up in my classes, I ask my students to imagine what might happen if Michelle Obama fell in love with Ji Xinping’s son and the two of them ran off together. It would be a tremendous challenge to diplomacy to prevent even that situation from ending in disastrous violence. How much more volatile would the situation be if, instead of a bilateral confrontation between nuclear-armed superpowers who are connected by an incalculable number of electronic communications on a daily basis, the parties were loose and shifting coalitions with no access to even the most basic information about each other’s positions and capabilities.

Whom we mourn

May Ethan Schmidt and Amy Prentiss, who were shot to death yesterday in Cleveland, Mississippi, rest in peace, and may those who love them commemorate their lives by living as fully as possible.

Ethan Schmidt, a professor at Delta State University, was killed in his office; Amy Prentiss was killed at home.  As a “school shooting,” Ethan Schmidt’s death dominated US cable news for several hours, and led to massive law enforcement activity on and around the campus of Delta State.

That coverage and law enforcement activity led me to think about social class. What if Ethan Schmidt had been killed at his workplace, not as the professor he was, but as the liquor store clerk he might have been?  Would MSNBC, CNN, and Fox have given the event saturation coverage?  Would dozens of square miles have been subjected to a virtual state of martial law, with multiple local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies on site, until progress was made in the case?  Or would the whole thing have been unlikely to make the front page even of the local paper in Cleveland more than twice, and would the one police officer assigned to investigate the case have faced a challenge trying to get the resources necessary to conduct a proper investigation?

I think of a friend of mine who for some time had two part-time jobs.  He taught a couple of French classes in the same university where I teach. He also worked as the night clerk at a liquor store. Had he been (God forbid!) shot in his office at the university, no doubt it would have provoked the same massive response from the media and law enforcement that followed the death of Ethan Schmidt.  Had he been (God forbid!) shot at the counter in the liquor store, perhaps there would eventually have been some kind of news story about his distinguished record as a teacher on several continents, but for him in his capacity as a liquor store clerk, surely there would have been the same underwhelming response that usually greets crimes against people in that line of work.

May all liquor store clerks killed at work rest in peace, and may those those who love them commemorate their lives by living as fully as possible.

An impossible balance?

Yesterday, I posted this on tumblr:

I don’t exactly agree with what I said there, that we must not remember the twerp or his cause.  It’s really more that we have to strike a balance, and that balance is nearly impossible to achieve.

On the one hand, terrorists kill because they want to become famous and to gain publicity for their cause.  Therefore we should ignore them.  On the other hand, terrorists kill because they want to blind us to the humanity of their victims and to isolate the group of people to which the victims were targeted for belonging.  Therefore we ought to raise our voices and cry out about the violence, to remember what was done, why it was done, and face the facts which make it likely to be repeated.

So, we have to simultaneously ignore El Twerpo and examine him deeply, simultaneously dismiss his loathsome beliefs and search for their roots in our social order and their echoes in our own minds, simultaneously equate him with all that is weak and contemptible and recognize the bleak power that broods behind him.  How can we strike this balance?  The hell if I know.  But I am sure it must be done.

The Mosley Shuffle

I’ve recently been rereading Robert Skidelsky’s 1975 biography of Oswald Mosley.  Robert Skidelsky* tells a tale the ancient Greeks would have recognized as tragedy in the strictest sense of the term, the story of a man of the rarest gifts brought shockingly low by his own insatiable vanity.  To think that a man as talented and as dashing as Mosley should have welcomed Adolf Hitler as the guest of honor at his wedding and should almost single-handedly have conjured up a significant anti-Semitic movement in England is to realize that a man whose capacities are such that he might have become a very great historical figure may in the end make of himself an absolute jackass.

What brought me back to the story of Mosley was a video that I saw on YouTube several weeks ago.  It is Mosley’s November 1967 appearance on the David Frost Programme.  In Mosley’s time, and indeed until quite recently, the ability to see hecklers off was an essential part of success in British political oratory.  Mosley was apparently quite good at this from the beginning of his political career in the early 1920’s.  After giving over 200 speeches a year throughout the 1930’s, encountering hecklers on the vast majority of those occasions, he was as good at handling hecklers as anyone could be.  It was to Mosley’s advantage, then, that the audience was quite hostile to him (well, what audience wouldn’t have been, by that time?)  It was an even greater advantage that the lead heckler, Solly Kaye, had been a frequent antagonist of Mosley’s in the 1930’s, so that Mosley knew exactly what to expect from him.  After the showdown between Kaye and Mosley in the first half of the program, one rather has the uneasy feeling that Mosley is going to come out a clear winner.  Frost appears to have felt that way, as he resorts to a rather frantic attempt to remind people that the amiable fellow sitting across from him is after all Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists and one of the undoubted villains of the century.

In that interview, embedded below, Mosley executes what I think of as “the Mosley Shuffle.” At the 27 minute mark, Frost asks Mosley whether he thinks Hitler, if he had survived the war, ought to have been tried for and convicted of war crimes.  Mosley says yes, that the killing of defenseless prisoners is a crime under any system of laws and so the murder of massive numbers of Jews in concentration camps should have brought Hitler and his top men into court.  At the 28 minute mark, he throws in a curious aside about that particular mass murder: “while I don’t think nearly so many were killed as were supposed to be killed, that doesn’t matter- that doesn’t matter- because any crime, the killing of any defenseless prisoner, is a crime and everybody must detest it.”  At the 33 minute mark, he acknowledges that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, then immediately blames Jews collectively for starting World War Two (“They made the greatest mistake they ever made when they produced that war,”) without which the Holocaust would not have been possible.

I call it the Mosley Shuffle because it does seem like a dance.  A step forward (the mass murders of Jews in the Nazi concentration camps were a crime that should have been punished,) a step backward (“I don’t think nearly so many were killed as were supposed to be killed,”) a step to the left (“that doesn’t matter- that doesn’t matter.”)  A step forward (it was 6 million after all,) a step backward (world Jewry was to blame for the war,) a step to the right (all of those Jews would still be alive and included within Mosley’s “Europe a Nation” project if Britain and France had listened to Mosley and taken a pro-German line in the 30’s.)  Considering Mosley’s association with Hitler, it’s difficult not to think of this:

I think I understand why Mosley would perform this unbecoming rhetorical box-step.  He was still trying to revive his political career in 1967; in the previous year’s general election, he and two colleagues from his Union Movement stood for parliament, receiving an average of 3.7% of the vote.  Mosley takes great pains in the last minutes of the program to ensure Frost repeats that figure correctly, then tells Frost that it is almost exactly double what the Nazi Party received in the German elections five years before Hitler came to power.  That prompts Frost to ask if Mosley still expects someday to come to power, and the program ends before Mosley can finish his answer.

Given his background, any revival of Mosley’s political prospects would have had to begin on the far right, with him consolidating their support, then expanding from that base to reach into the mainstream in a time of crisis.  By the late 60’s, many activists on the far right busied themselves with Holocaust denial, so if Mosley were to reemerge as their leader he had to leave some space in his platform for that noxious pastime.  On the other hand, people in general resent insults, and Holocaust denial is an aggressive insult to the intelligence of the average or even the quite substantially below-average voter.   So it must have been difficult to imagine a movement that allowed itself to be widely identified with Holocaust denial could expand beyond the fringes under any circumstances.   Therefore, Mosley could hope to reconnect with the mainstream only if he kept the denialists at arm’s length.

Yesterday I stumbled upon some writings by a spiritual heir of Mosley’s, a man named David Cole.  Mr Cole writes for Taki’s Magazine, an always-lively, rarely lovely far right publication.  Taki’s is quite undiscriminating in one sense; anyone who can write amusingly is likely to be accepted as a contributor, no matter how scandalous his or her background may be.  Mr Cole is a spectacular example of this; in 2013, after 15 years of working in Hollywood making Holocaust-related documentaries and promoting pro-Israel groups under the name “David Stein,” he was dramatically unmasked as a man who spent several years ending in the mid-1990s promoting a theory that the Holocaust ended in 1943, killing 4 million rather than 6 million Jews, none of them in gas chambers at Auschwitz.  Mr Cole gives two reasons for his retirement from the field of Holocaust minimization.  First, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing made him think twice about the sort of people whose support he was attracting.  And second, the Jewish Defense League offered a $25,000 bounty for his assassination.  When “David Stein” was exposed as David Cole, Mr Cole said that he still believed the stuff he’d peddled back in the 90’s.

Mr Cole’s article for Taki’s is a very amusing piece making fun of the media for hailing every re-editing and re-release of Holocaust-related footage as “a never before seen film.”  Mr Cole says that it was precisely this habit that made it possible for “David Stein” to establish himself in Hollywood as a Holocaust documentarian when he cleaned up some public domain footage of the Nuremberg trials and stamped his copyright on the result.  When Mr Cole describes his ability to get in on this racket, one remembers the old joke, “There’s no business like Shoah business…”

On his blog, Counter-Contempt, Mr Cole gives some examples that suggest the kind of thing he put out in the pre-“David Stein” era.  I was particularly intrigued by a post titled “My Unintentionally Negative Impact on Holocaust Revisionism,” he attacks one denialist after another, ridiculing their arguments and slamming their personalities, declaring that only an idiot could doubt that the Nazis murdered 4 million Jews.  Now 6 million, that he won’t accept.  His final paragraph is “Not everything in life has clearly defined, easily identifiable sides. This does. Revisionist or denier. Pick a side.”

The list of “revisionists” Mr Cole presents is “David Irving,** Mark Weber, and your humble author.”  This seems to be a complete census of the breed, at least of its living representatives as Mr Cole recognizes them.  The various “deniers” Mr Cole describes in this piece he summarizes (evidently with no more than simple justice) as “one man totally uninterested in history, another who forms his opinions based on who accepts or turns down his dinner invitations, another who is a self-described delusional psychotic, and finally a man capable of making the most sweeping statement possible while never bothering to read up on one of the most vital episodes of the period.”  Directed to “pick a side” between these alternatives, I feel like the would-be immigrant to the USA who was asked “Do you advocate the overthrow of the US government by violence or by subversion?”  He thought about it for a moment, then answered “By subversion.”

If we can identify the motive behind Mosley’s box-step, what motivates Mr Cole to perform his wild tarantella?  He doesn’t seem to have any master plan that will culminate in the building of a political force, as Mosley did.  Mr Cole seems to be in search of a small-time racket, the equivalent of running a three-card Monte game on a street corner.

Mr Cole seems to trade on the fact that he is Jewish by ethnicity, as this screen cap from his 1994 appearance on the Phil Donahue show would indicate:

Jewish Holocaust denier seems like a small niche, but I doubt there is much competition to fill it.

The passive-aggressive approach of at once conceding, indeed forcefully arguing, that the Nazis murdered millions of Jews, then making rather less impressive arguments to depress the number of millions significantly below the generally accepted figure, may fit the idea that Mr Cole aspires to be a two-bit operator.  While a highly ambitious figure like Mosley took care not to alienate any of the people he needed to achieve his [evil!] plan, Mr Cole seems to go out of his way to alienate as many people as he can.  He is clearly an intelligent fellow, so presumably this means that his plan does not require the support of any particular person or any particular constituency.  A three-card Monte dealer can get by with any two or three confederates to act as lookout and to lure marks in by pretending to be gamblers winning at the game, but a bigger time scam artist needs particular people and a large number of them.

Perhaps that in turn explains why an intelligent man with Mr Cole’s apparent talent for self-promotion wants to become the equivalent of a three-card Monte dealer.  He wants the independence they have.  At a moment’s notice, the three-card Monte dealer can disappear into the night and set up again in a different location.  That Mr Cole dropped out of sight and reinvented himself under an alias, playing another con game built around the same topic that underpinned his original dodge, sounds like something that a man would do who would rather be highly independent than have a broad scope of action.

*Usually on this blog I refer to living people by courtesy titles or professional honorifics, but I find the British aristocracy so preposterous an anachronism that I cannot bring myself to call Robert Skidelsky “Lord Skidelsky.”  Nor would I refer to Oswald Mosley by his title as “Sir Oswald Mosley, 6th Baronet of Ancoats.”  Since Robert Skidelsky does have that title, though, I don’t think I can call him “Mr Skidelsky” or “Professor Skidelsky.”  That’s why I’m stuck with his full name.

**To the extent that Mr Cole associates with Mr Irving, he is a bit more than just a spiritual heir of Oswald Mosley.  In 1961, as a student at University College London, Mr Irving seconded Oswald Mosley in a public debate about immigration.  So Mr Cole appears to have an acquaintance in common with Mosley.

What’s happening in northern Nigeria?

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office put out this map of Nigeria a couple of weeks ago

What’s happening in northern Nigeria? Eric Draitser, founder of the website Stop Imperialism, seems to have an answer, and he shares it with readers of Counterpunch in this, the first of a series of articles he promises to contribute there.

Mr Draitser lists three major factors that have made the rise of Boko Haram possible:

First, there is Nigeria’s domestic politics, and the issue of Boko Haram and the perception of the government and opposition’s responsibility for the chaos it has wreaked.  With elections scheduled to take place in February, Boko Haram and national security have, quite understandably, become dominant issues in the public mind.  The mutual finger-pointing and accusations provide an important backdrop for understanding how Boko Haram fits both into the public discourse, and into the strategies of political networks behind the scenes in Nigeria, and the region more broadly.

Second is the all-important regional political and economic chessboard. In West Africa – an area rich in strategic resources – there are a few interested parties who stand to gain from Boko Haram’s ongoing attacks which amount to a destabilization of the entire Nigerian state.  Nigeria’s neighbor Chad has recently come under heavy scrutiny from Nigeria’s military apparatus for its purported role in financing and facilitating Boko Haram’s expansion. Chad sees in Nigeria potential oil profits as it expands its own oil extraction capabilities throughout the Chad Basin – a geographical region that includes significant territory in Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger.  Of course, major oil companies, not to mention powerful western nations such as France, have a vested interest in maintaining their profits from West African oil. 

Finally and, perhaps most importantly, is the continental and global perspective.  Nigeria, as Africa’s most dynamic economy, presents major opportunities and challenges for key global powers.  For China, Nigeria represents one of its principal investment footholds in Africa. A key trading partner for Beijing, Nigeria has increasingly been moving out of the direct orbit of the West, transforming it from a reliable, if subservient, Western ally, into an obstacle to be overcome.  Coinciding with these developments has been the continually expanding US military presence throughout Africa, one that is increasingly concentrated in West Africa, though without much media fanfare aside from the Ebola story.

Mr Draitser goes on to explain how the destruction of the Gadhafi regime in Libya destabilized the whole region to the north and east of Nigeria, transforming Chad from a subordinate player in North African politics into a revisionist power.

Compare with the FCO map above

Mr Draitser’s piece is the single most illuminating thing I have found about the situation in Nigeria, and I am very glad to have seen it.  I do feel constrained to quote from something I read the same day, a blog post in which Rod Dreher, referring to discussions of conflicts in the Muslim world, including northern Nigeria, complains that “most people on the secular Left simply do not understand how religion works.”  That isn’t to say that we have to take the actors in these conflicts at their word when they claim that their motives are entirely religious, and certainly the conflict in Nigeria would not be possible without the economic and geopolitical facts on which Mr Draitser focuses.  What I suspect is simply this, that it is a mistake to leave religion out altogether when we are analyzing a situation like this.

Be that as it may, I very much look forward to Mr Draitser’s next installment.  He refers to a forthcoming “Part Two”; I hope there will also be a Part Three, Part Four, and as many other parts as he can manage.

Martin Luther King Day, 2015

Last week, National Public Radio reported on a study by Indiana University professor Sara Konrath and others.  Professor Konrath and her co-authors showed that, while Americans of all races think warmer thoughts about African Americans in general on Martin Luther King Day than they do the rest of the year, their opinion of General Colin Powell and President Barack Obama goes down on that day.  Professor Konrath’s theory is that this is because Mr Powell and Mr O are prominent male African American leaders, and Dr King was a prominent male African American leader, so we compare them to him on that day.  Since Dr King is presented on his birthday as a saint of America’s civic religion, that sets an impossible standard for any living person to meet, and they look bad by contrast.

I am sure there is much truth in Professor Konrath’s theory.  At the same time, I would point out that Messrs. Powell and Obama are particularly ill-chosen as comparisons with Dr King.  Dr King was a thoroughgoing pacifist, while Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1991 war against Iraq and Secretary of State during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  And Barack Obama is one of the most warlike US presidents ever, responsible for ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, for injecting the US into wars in Libya and Syria, and for sponsoring a coup in Honduras that constituted an act of aggressive war against that country, among many other acts of extreme violence.  If people actually listen to Dr King’s message on the day America sets aside to remember him, one would expect their opinion of warlords like Mr Powell and Mr O to be very low indeed.

In honor of this MLK Day, I’d like to post this statement of Dr King’s on the power of nonviolence:

Freedom of thought is always freedom for the thought we hate

Discussion of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo would, I think, benefit from a focus on Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1929 dictum that freedom of thought is necessarily “freedom for the thought we hate.”  It’s only when a good many people hate a thought that private violence or state-sanctioned coercion against the people who insist on expressing it is likely to attract support.

Charlie Hebdo has long specialized in airing thoughts that range from the unpleasant to the disgusting.  Not only Muslims, but decent people of any sort are unlikely to read much of any issue of the paper without a sense of revulsion.  To say, as so many have done in these last 48 hours, Je suis Charlie or Nous sommes tous Charlie is rather a bold act, or would be if 99% of those saying it had ever seen an issue of Charlie Hebdo.

I affirm that freedom for the thought we hate, that is to say, the assurance that one will not suffer violence because one has expressed ideas that someone finds obnoxious, is indispensable to a free society, and that without it no other freedom can long survive.  In that sense I would be tempted to join in saying Je suis Charlie. What, then, do we say about Anwar al-Awlaki?  In 2011, President Barack Obama openly ordered the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and justified that killing on the grounds that Mr al-Awlaki had spoken in favor of terrorist attacks against Americans and that terrorists had sought him and his words out for comfort.  No evidence was presented that Mr al-Awlaki had been involved in any terrorist act, and there was no judicial process regarding him whatever.  Mr Obama simply ordered a drone strike, and the killing was done.  The following year, Mr Obama was reelected president.  The most prominent candidate to call for a criminal investigation of the killing of Mr al-Awlaki, former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, received 0.03% of the votes cast in that election; Mr Obama’s leading opponent, former Massachusetts governor Willard “Mitt” Romney, enthusiastically supported the president’s deadliest policies, and promised to expand them.

As an American, I would ask my countrymen: If we as a people sincerely believed in protecting the freedom of the thought we hate, where would Mr Obama be today?  How can we say Je suis Charlie if we are not prepared at the same time to say “I am Anwar al-Awlaki”?

If we cannot take that step, then the freedom we actually support is not the freedom of the thought we hate, but the freedom of people of whom we approve to express their contempt for people of whom we disapprove. That is an odd sort of freedom.  Political freedoms as traditionally conceived require the established authorities to renounce parts of their power, to subject themselves to various sorts of accountability, and to recognize that the rights of minorities, even minorities of one, sometimes take precedence over the will of the majority.  The freedom of the approved to scorn the unapproved does none of those things. On the contrary, it gives more power to those authorities who take part in deciding who will and who will not be invited to join the charmed circle of the approved; it prevents the authorities being held to account for anything they might do to those outside that circle; and it elevates the majority to an unchallengable, virtually divine status.  Nothing could be more totally alien to the irreverent spirit that Charlie’s newfound champions claim to cherish than this kind of pseudo-freedom.