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.

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Some interesting things from the web

1. Al Wood, proprietor of the magnificent Ukulele Hunt, disclaims any interest in politics, but he has a post up about copyright law that everyone should read.  He calls for a scrapping of the 95-year term of protection that is now standard in the developed world, and a return to the once-standard renewable 14 year term.

2. Some CT scans subject a patient to the radiation equivalent of 900 chest X-rays.  Several years ago, I heard the physicist Joseph Rotblat explain why he’d become an activist against the testing of nuclear weapons:

People began getting worried about all these tests.  In order to pacify the people, the Atomic Energy Commission issued a statement- this was the beginning of 1955- saying you didn’t need to worry at all about the fallout because the dose which people in the United States received from the tests was not more than from a chest X-ray.

Most people didn’t know how much radiation you get from a chest X-ray.  I knew… [A]fter this statement, I thought this was terribly dangerous.

3. A new article about T S Eliot in Commentary asks “But might it be allowed that one can write or say anti-Semitic things without being an anti-Semite? Eliot is guilty of the former, but does not, I think, stand guilty of the latter.”  The major theme of the piece is the great difficulty his Calvinist heritage left the Tse-Tse in his attempts to enjoy life.  Certainly a man who made several well-publicized anti-Semitic remarks, then earnestly declared anti-Semitism to be a sin, would seem to be an example of someone not having fun.

4. Seats in the US Senate are not apportioned by population, with the result that a candidate can lose by a landslide in one state, while candidates in other states can receive fewer votes and win elections.

 

The American Conservative, May 2010

Can left-wing opponents of the American Empire join with right-wing defenders of the Old Republic to build an effective antiwar movement in the USA?  Fourteen authors, including leftists like Paul Buhle and Matthew Yglesias and rightists like Paul Gottfried and John Lukacs, consider the question.     

The cover image, representing a face-off between Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu, is a bit of an absurdity.  These two men disagree on certain issues and cannot afford to ignore one another, but they are neither adversaries in world affairs nor equal in international influence.  This absurdity strikes me as out of place.  The American Conservative‘s  line about Israel/ Palestine seems simply to be that the USA should moderate its support of Israel; some of the magazine’s contributors might go so far as to advocate a policy of complete neutrality between Israel and its Arab antagonists, while others would recommend that the USA continue its substantive support of Israel, but would counsel American officials to tone down some of their more overheated Zionist preachments.  Most contributors are located somewhere between these viewpoints.  That range of opinion hardly qualifies the magazine as extremist, yet the cover image and article titles such as “Normalizing Relations” (about Mr O’s willingness “to take on America’s most influential ally”), “Out From the Shadows” (in which we are told that the American-Israel Political Action Committee now “confronts its worst fear: daylight,”) and “Can We Avoid Israel’s War?” (about US-Iran relations)suggest the overwrought tone that we expect from the fringes of the debate. 

The issue includes a reprint of a story by the late Louis Auchincloss, “America First,” originally published in Auchincloss’ collection Skinny Island.  Set in 1941, it tells the story of Elaine Wagstaff, a rich old American lady who was driven from her adopted home in Paris when the Germans overran France and moved in with her grown daughter Suzanne in New York.  Elaine’s friends are ardent advocates of US intervention to aid Britain in its fight against the Third Reich; Suzanne’s social circle are equally ardent in their opposition to such intervention.  At first, Elaine goes along with her daughter and joins the America First Committee, an organization which did in fact exist and which was at its peak the largest antiwar group the USA has ever seen (including such members as Auchincloss’ kinsman Gore Vidal.)  Elaine finds the America Firsters so uncouth compared to her Francophile friends that she eventually finds she cannot tolerate their company.  Elaine turns away from Suzanne and Suzanne’s friends, returning to her old circle and their interventionist views. 

The fascinating thing about this story is how little the characters’ political allegiances have to do with any of the ostensible reasons people usually give to justify them.  None of them really cares very much about who rules Europe or what happens to the people who live there.  Suzanne recoils from her son-in-law’s antisemitism, not because she cares at all about the fate of Europe’s Jews, but because in her circles antisemitism “was ‘hick’: one could not be bigoted and ‘top-drawer.'”  Nor does any character show a very clear idea of what the national interest of the United States might require.  Each character has devised a little drama in his or her head in which s/he plays the leading role and each of the others is assigned a supporting part.  Elaine’s fascination with France has been a bitter disappointment to Suzanne; Suzanne’s staid absorption in American high society has been a disappointment to Elaine.  Suzanne has scripted a drama in which Elaine will make a lifetime of disappointments up to her by playing a supporting role.  Politics is to her merely the stage on which this drama will play out.  Conversely, Elaine is attached to her old friends and to their shared fantasy of a life in the upper reaches of French society.  When she chooses interventionism, she is in fact choosing them and that fantasy.  Through most of the story The last line of the story is It is an ugly story, in a way, but one that rings true.    

An article about the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) cites numerous publications over the years that have exposed the SPLC as a racket that does virtually nothing to advance its stated aim of battling white supremacists, but a great deal to enrich its leaders.  There doesn’t seem to be anything new in this piece, but it might be useful to have several exposés all cited in one place.   

Bill Kauffman’s column calls on the people of Idaho to embrace a writer who was born in their state and spent most of his life there, Vardis Fisher (1895-1968.)  Kauffman lists two books by the late Mr Fisher that sound interesting, a novel called Mountain Man and the WPA‘s Guide to Idaho.  He also mentions Fisher’s novelistic history of the world in twelve volumes that “drove away most of his modest readership.”  Acknowledging that Fisher’s defense of free-market capitalism and rebellion against his Mormon upbringing left him “almost a parody of the cantankerous libertarian/ village atheist,” Kauffman argues that he deserves remembering as a placeful man, who stayed in Idaho and devoted himself to the spirit of that place when he might have gone to the metropolis and lived for money and fame.

Four bureaucracies

I’ve always been interested in the power of bureaucracy.  The word “bureaucracy” is often used to mean an inefficient organization, but if that’s all bureaucracy really was it would never have become the most pervasive form of social organization in the modern world.  In fact, bureaucracies are the most efficient of organizations.  We become frustrated with them not because they can do nothing right, but because they often seem to do everything except what we need. 

The current issue of The Nation got me thinking about four major bureaucracies in particular: the regime of Nazi Germany; the state of Israel; the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church; and the criminal justice system in the USA.   

One of the writers whose works have done the most to inform my interest in bureaucracy was Raul Hilberg, the historian of the Holocaust.  An essay about Hilberg in the current issue of The Nation quotes a key sentence from Hilberg’s 1961 book The Destruction of the European Jews: “The destruction of the Jews was an administrative process, and the annihilation of Jewry required the implementation of systematic administrative measures in successive steps.”  Hilberg’s masterwork lays out the operation of this process according to the drastically simplified rationality that makes an impersonal bureaucracy so powerful a form of organization. 

The essayist comments on the chapter of The Destruction of the European Jews that Hilberg devotes to an absurdly harsh diatribe against the Judenräte, the Jewish councils that tried to develop a policy of accommodation with the Nazis.  Keeping in mind that much of the power of the Nazi regime came from the smooth functioning of its bureaucratic apparatus, we can see why the Judenräte were not able to be very helpful to their coreligionists.  The informal, traditional, neighborhood-based influence of the Judenräte was no match for the modern bureaucratic state. 

Being unfair to the Jews of Holocaust-era Europe is not a way to win friends; one of the reasons the essay is titled “A Conscious Pariah” is the criticism his chapter on the Judenräte brought Hilberg.   Something else hat might have made Hilberg a pariah among the left-wingers who write for The Nation was his outspoken Zionism.  The Nation is sometimes described as anti-Israel; I don’t think that’s a fair characterization, but certainly the word “Zionist” does not often appear there as a term of praise.  The magazine is largely written by left-wing Jews from New York, and its coverage of Israel/Palestine is mostly based on reports from left-wing Jews in Tel Aviv.  So its views tend to reflect the Meretz/Peace Now line, and to dismiss arguments as to whether it was a good idea to found Israel as distractions from the peace process.  Someone of Hilberg’s orientation would almost have to be a Zionist, though.  If the only force that can resist a modern bureaucratic state is another modern bureaucratic state, then we not only have to condemn the Judenräte of the 1930s and 1940s as  worse than useless to the Jews targeted by the Third Reich’s policy of extermination, but we must also say that the only thing that could have helped them was a modern bureaucratic state with their interests at heart. 

In the same issue, Katha Pollitt voices her exasperation that the Roman Catholic Church is still treated as a source of moral authority despite the endless cascade of scandals involving bishops who have sheltered pedophile priests from exposure.  Pollitt responds to defensive Catholics who claim that the hierarchy of their church is being singled out by listing other individuals and groups that have been accused of sexually abusing children.  She goes on to say that there is a difference between the Roman church and these others:

The difference is, when other professionals who work with children are caught out, justice takes its course. People are fired. Licenses are lost. Reputations are ruined. Sometimes jail is involved. No human institution is perfect, and it would be foolish to suggest that incidents are always investigated and that abusers who don’t happen to be priests are never protected by colleagues or superiors. Still, it’s probably safe to say that if a principal was accused of overlooking a child molester in his classrooms or recycling him to other schools, nobody would compare his suffering to Christ’s.

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The Nation magazine’s first issues of 2010

1 February: The first issue to go to press after the earthquake in Haiti includes some recommendations for those who would like to find a good relief organization to give money.  The first organization I looked up when I heard about the quake was one I’d first read of in the pages of The Nation, MADRE.  In her year-end lists of groups that deserve financial support and elsewhere, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt has made mention of this organization, which supports groups around the world.  Most of MADRE’s partner groups are initiatives in poor countries, started and led by citizens of those countries, that prioritize the needs of women and girls.  MADRE’s Haitian partner is Partners in Health, which runs a network of clinics called Zanmi Lasante; they’re on the list.  The magazine’s website includes several more pleas for Haiti; see here and here

In the same issue, Robin Einhorn attacks Gordon Wood’s recent book about the early federal period of the United States, arguing that Wood shows a “remarkably naive sense of politics” that allows him to keep the South at the margins of his story and free white male Northerners at the center of it.  Even as he puts the focus on a rapidly industrializing region, Einhorn argues, Wood shows an uncritical admiration on for the agrarian politics of Thomas Jefferson and his party.  Einhorn grants that Wood’s chapter on the politics of slavery is excellent, but says that confining the topic to a single chapter, quarantined from the rest of the book, is profoundly misleading.  In the end, Einhorn declares that Wood has succeeded in thinking like Thomas Jefferson, but that this is no unmixed virtue:

If Jefferson had known nearly as much about his society as Wood does, Empire of Liberty is the book he would have written. It is no coincidence that the title is Jefferson’s, a phrase encapsulating his brand of velvet-gloved imperialism. Wood seems to know that there was an iron fist lurking inside, but he identifies with an audience that treasures the national fantasy of egalitarian triumph that Jefferson represents. Like Jefferson, Wood nods to the evil of slavery and the violence of westward expansion. Unlike Jefferson, he realizes that there was something undesirable about the way men treated women. But Wood’s focus remains squarely on the subculture of white men–especially in the North–who energetically pursued their liberty and happiness in the “republicanized” world of postrevolutionary America. 

25 January: Alexander Cockburn is disappointed with R. Crumb’s version of the Book of Genesis.  In Cockburn’s view, Crumb does not thoroughly deflate monotheism, but produces a more or less reverent text.  “If a conclusive disresepcting of Genesis was required, wouldn’t you think R. Crumb was the man for the job?… But the overall effect is more solemn than satirical.”  Cockburn is also disappointed that Crumb depicts the characters of the book as recognizably Jewish (in fact stereotypically Jewish, “hairy” and “with big noses,”) missing an opportunity to make the point that “There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion” (a line Cockburn quotes from Israeli journalist Tom Segev) and that Zionism is therefore an illegitimate enterprise.  Indeed at one point Cockburn claims to have “wondered whether Crumb, a Catholic long ago, had converted to Zionism.” 

I agree with Cockburn about a lot of things, but when he turns to Judaism and the Jews I sometimes suspect him of being a bit cracked.  Not that I want to wave the flag for Zionism, but it doesn’t seem especially reasonable to expect a graphic novel, even when that graphic novel is R. Crumb’s adaptation of Genesis, to achieve everything he demanded of it.   

11 January: A piece about the Polaroid camera and the pictures it took includes this:

Polaroid’s “now” having been driven into the past, it has become ripe for nostalgia. Found Magazine, launched in 2001, was well ahead of the Polaroid nostalgia wave and spun off a whole book of Found Polaroids in 2006, when the end of the road was already in sight. But for its author, Jason Bitner, the medium had always been “instant nostalgia–framed and faded, a picture that already looked decades old.”

The same issue includes an essay about Thelonious Monk that ends with this anecdote:

Monk liked to wear a formidable ring bearing his name when he played, an encumbrance that no pianist in his right mind would want to burden a hand with. While he was flashing his ring for the world to see, from his own perspective he saw something else. “KNOW” said the ring, more or less, to the audience. “MONK” was the reply when he saw it himself.

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The American Conservative, December 2009

Florence-King

Florence King

Fifteen writers list “The Best Books You Haven’t Read“; I don’t know about you, but the only one on any of the lists that I had read was Sam Tanenhaus’ pick, The Managerial Revolution by James Burnham.  And that one did not make a very good impression; it struck me as one part dumbed-down Max Weber and three parts shameless plagiarism from Lawrence Dennis.  The other books all sound good, though.  In particular, David Bromwich’s recommendations of two stories by Elizabeth Bowen (“Mysterious Kor” and “Sunday Afternoon”) sent me to the library.  And I always take notice when Florence King speaks; she recommends Kathleen Winsor’s Star Money, which upon its publication in 1950 was received as quasi-pornography.  That first edition sold extremely well, but garnered just one respectful review.  Granted, that review was by André Maurois, which may have taken some of the sting out of the rejection by the other critics.   

Florence King also comes to my mind whenever the name of Ayn Rand is mentioned, and in this issue a piece discusses Ayn Rand’s  Atlas Shrugged.  King’s review of a biography of Rand, reprinted in her With Charity Toward None, quotes a line of Rand’s about how it feels to be a truly creative individual confronted with the unreasoning hatred of lesser beings.  Read the line again, King says, and you’ll realize that it is a very apt description what it’s like to be on the receiving end of any kind of senseless prejudice.  King surmises that Rand, who spent her girlhood as a Jew in late-Tsarist St Petersburg, had found “a way to write about anti-semitism without ever mentioning the Jews.”  That’s a neat trick. 

Nor is it the whole of Rand’s appeal.  Her extreme individualism may not stand up to philosophical analysis, and it may not survive exposure to any well-developed social science.  But what she tries to offer is something that is urgently needed in today’s world.  Look at the USA.  Ever more of the young are in schools, ever more of the old are in nursing homes, ever more of those in-between are in prisons.  At this rate every American will eventually be an inmate in one or another such institution, always an object of service, of scrutiny, of control.  One will create nothing, own nothing, decide nothing.  The major political parties don’t seem to object to this trend; on the contrary, both are committed to accelerating it.  The Democrats promise better accommodations to inmates; the Republicans remind them that the institutions in which they are confined have to turn a profit.  Rand may not have known how to stop this trend, but at least she demanded that it should be stopped.   

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The Atlantic Monthly, May 2009

atlantic-may-2009Recently attempts have been made to launch spacecraft that would sail on the force of photons emanating from the sun.  “Solar sailing” may be a technology that will make it possible to achieve very high speeds, perhaps more than half the speed of light.   An article describes these efforts and the history behind them.  The first place I heard of solar sailing was in a story by Arthur C. Clarke, who according to the article was a major figure in the drive to build them.  Clarke suggested that solar sails might power the first probes intentionally sent to the stars.  The article also mentions the late astrophysicist Thomas Gold, who argued that solar sailing was impossible for the same reasons that perpetual motion machines are impossible.  Once advocates manage to get a sail out of the atmosphere, we should find out whether Gold was right and solar sailing is a physical absurdity, or Clarke was right and it is the royal road to deep space.     

In a review of recent books on the Holocaust, Benjamin Schwarz points out that ordinary Germans knew a great deal about the slaughter of European Jewry as it was going on.  Not only was the genocide too vast to be truly secret, but the leaders of the Nazi regime may actually have wanted a certain degree of knowledge of their worst crimes to leak out:

By establishing the murder of the Jews as an open secret—open enough that awareness of it pervaded society but secret enough that it couldn’t be protested or even openly discussed—the Nazis devilishly nudged the nation into complicity, and further bound the population to its leaders.

Did the German population perceive the killing of the Jews as a crime, or were they so far gone in their anti-semitism that it seemed like a reasonable thing to do?  Apparently a psychologist named Michael Müller-Claudius conducted interviewed senior Nazi party members in 1938 about their attitudes towards Jews.  He found that 5% of these “fully rejected antisemitism,” while another 69% would not admit to being hostile towards Jews.  If even senior Nazis hesitated to embrace their party’s official antisemitism, one would expect the population at large to have very queasy consciences about the Holocaust.  Schwarz closes his piece with discussion of a line by Goebbels, “As for us, we’ve burned our bridges behind us … We will either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or the greatest criminals.”  I have no idea whether the Nazi regime really did play this coy game with the German public, but the thought that they might have is the sort of idea I tend to find irresistible.   

Peter Hitchens’ less interesting brother writes a piece about Edward Upward, who for a little while in the 1930s was perhaps England’s most influential man of letters.  By the time Upward died this February at the age of 105, he had outlived all the authors on whom he was an influence; certainly his name was not familiar as theirs still are (Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNiece, Cecil Day-Lewis, among others.)  I note the piece here because of its reference to “Upward’s novel Journey to the Border, which was thought of by many as the only English effort at Marxist fiction that was likely to outlast the era in which it was written.”  I might want to read that some day.

The Nation, 13 April 2009

nation-13-april-09Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon review Caryl Churchill‘s new play, Tell Her the Truth, which tells the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict in ten minutes.  “Why is the play so short?  Probably because Churchill means to slap us out of our rehearsed arguments to look at the immediate human crisis.”  Churchill cares about what human beings are doing to each other and how they justify what they have done to themselves and to each other, especially in the justifications parents give their children.  Tell Her the Truth consists of a series of lines giving the parents of seven unseen Jewish children advice as to what they should tell those children about various historical acts of violence, some committed against Jews in the name of antisemitism, some committed by Jews in the name of Zionism. 

Tell Her the Truth, like every publication critical of Israeli policy, has attracted charges of antisemitism; much of the case against it apparently hinges on a line that does not appear in the play.  Some have claimed that the play raises the spectre of “blood libel,” the old idea that Jews ritually murder Gentile children.  “Those who level the blood-libel accusation insist that Churchill has written “tell her I’m happy when I see their children covered in blood.””  What she actually wrote was quite different: “tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.”  Kushner and Solomon interpret the real line thusly: “The last line of the monologue is clearly a warning: you can’t protect your children by being indifferent to the children of others.”

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The American Conservative, 9 March 2009

Benjamin Disraeli as a Young Man
Benjamin Disraeli as a Young Man

A review of Adam Kirsch’s biography of Benjamin Disraeli focuses on Kirsch’s idea that because Disraeli realized he could not stop his fellow nineteenth-century Englishmen from thinking of him primarily in terms of his Jewish ancestry, he “did not attempt to disguise his Jewish background.  He embellished it.”   Disraeli purported to be far more deeply involved with that side of his ancestry than he in fact was, even explaining his active membership in the Church of England as an example of his fealty to “the only Jewish institution that remains… the visible means which embalms the race.”  Meanwhile, the Jewish characters and themes in Disraeli’s novels appall modern sensibilities.  Sidonia, a character in the Young England trilogy (Coningsby, Sybil, and Tancred,) “looks like nothing so much as an anti-Semitic hate figure.  It is amazing, in fact, how Disraeli manages to combine in this one character every malicious slander and paranoid fear that the anti-Semitic imagination can breed.”  Disraeli’s manipulation of the label his fellows had imposed upon him enabled him to become prime minister of the United Kingdom.  Disraeli’s ability to “outline [an] agenda of radical change to be achieved conservatively, a political program that allowed him to reinvent himself as the representative not only of the wealthy and the working class but of the Tory Party, too” has inspired rightist politicians like Richard Nixon and the neocons.      

If Kirsch is right, Disraeli knotted his contemporaries’ perceptions of him around their image of “the Jew,” using their prejudices to transform  himself from a marginal figure unlikely to make a mark in politics into a figure of England’s national mythology.  Another complex of ideas twists around another such image in Brendan O’Neill’s  analysis of the thoughts of some of Israel’s more fervent defenders in the West.  O’Neill argues that the individuals he cites are less interested in Israel as an actual place inhabited by living people than they are in using a particular idea of Israel as a symbol for the values of the Enlightenment.  “In effect, Israel is cynically, and lazily, being turned into a proxy army for a faction in the Western Culture Wars that has lost the ability to defend Enlightenment values on their own terms or even to define and face up to the central problem of anti-Enlightenment tendencies today.”  This use of Israel as a pawn in cultural struggles centered elsewhere shades into philosemitism.  “[A]s Richard S. Levy writes in his book Anti-Semitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, simple philosemitism, like anti-Semitism, also treats the Jews as ‘radically different or exceptional’…  Where anti-Semites project their frustrations with the world and their naked prejudices onto the Jews, and frequently onto Israel, too, the new philosemites project their desperation for political answers, for some clarity, for a return to Enlightenment values onto Israel and the Jews.  Neither is a burden the Jewish people can, or should be expected to, bear.”    

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The Nation, July 2008

7 July– Alexander Cockburn points out the shortcomings of the late Tim Russert; Jon Wiener derides efforts to depict the University of California at Irvine as a hotbed of anti-semitism.

14 July– In “The Subprime Swindle” Kai Wright shows that many of those now facing foreclosure because of exotic mortgages are African-American, and argues that those mortgages have had the effect of siphoning away a tremendous share of the accumulated wealth of black America.  Stuart Klawans recommends the film Full Battle Rattle, a documentary about a military training exercise in California meant to simulate conditions in Iraq.   

21/28 July– Naomi Klein labels the current state of our political economy “disaster capitalism” and identifies its main instrument of persuasion as extortion.  The rise of private firefighting firms enables the rich to threaten to shut down public fire departments that serve the rest of us; the deal the big oil companies have made in Iraq, apparently giving them right of first refusal on future drilling, puts them in a position to threaten to shut down oil supplies; genetic modification gives seed producers the power to starve the world.  Klein doesn’t have much faith in the power of market mechanisms to rein in the rich, but then why should she.  

In the same issue, U Penn classicist Emily Wilson reviews John Tipton’s translation of Sophocles’ Ajax.  The play puts her in mind of war’s psychological effects.  “[B]y denying the opposition any humanity, and therefore making them killable, we risk making ourselves something less than human.”  When Ajax responds to a slight by setting out to kill his fellow Greek warriors at Troy, the gods delude him into mistaking a herd of sheep for his companions.  He slaughters them with great efficiency.  Classicists used to call this slaughter “the Ovicide” (from the Latin ovis, meaning “sheep.”)  The Ovicide (Wilson doesn’t mention the term, and it is extremely old-fashioned, but I’m rather fond of it)  occurs before the play, which focuses on Ajax’ attempt to come to terms with the fact that he has made a fool of himself.  In Ajax’ torment, Wilson sees a symbol of every warrior whose training and formation have stripped him of the ability to distinguish between human and not-human.