The Nation, 17 September 2012

The current issue of The Nation carries a piece in which JoAnn Wypijewski remarks on the low probability that the rape charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be investigated in a proper fashion.  Ms Wypijewski points out that Mr Assange’s status as an enemy of the US national security state renders any criminal action taken against him suspect:

This is not about the particulars of oppression; it is about the political context of law, the limits of liberal expectations and the monstrosity of the state.

Liberals have no trouble generally acknowledging that in those [early twentieth century] rape cases against black men, the reasoned application of law was impossible. It was impossible because justice was impossible, foreclosed not by the vagaries of this white jury or that bit of evidence but by the totalizing immorality of white supremacy that placed the Black Man in a separate category of human being, without common rights and expectations. A lawyer might take a case if it hadn’t been settled by the mob, but the warped conscience of white America could do nothing but warp the law and make of its rituals a sham. The Scottsboro Boys might have been innocent or they might have been guilty; it didn’t matter, because either way the result would be the same.

With Assange, the political context is the totalizing immorality of the national security state on a global scale. The sex-crime allegations against Assange emerged in Sweden on August 20, 2010, approximately four and a half months after WikiLeaks blazed into the public sphere by releasing a classified video that showed a US Apache helicopter crew slaughtering more than a dozen civilians, including two journalists, in a Baghdad suburb. By that August, Pfc. Bradley Manning, the reputed source of the video and about 750,000 other leaked government documents, was being held without charge in solitary confinement at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, subjected to what his attorney, David Coombs, describes in harrowing detail in a recent motion as “unlawful pretrial punishment.” In plain terms, Manning was tortured. He faces court-martial for aiding the enemy and has been denounced as a traitor by members of Congress.

I am not at all convinced that the charges against Mr Assange cannot be investigated and prosecuted fairly.  Ms Wypijewski acknowledges several times that the comparison with the Scottsboro Boys is inexact; in view of the level of support Mr Assange enjoys and the conditions of the criminal justice system in Sweden, it strikes me as, well, silly.  I do lament the fact that so many people seem to think that we must choose between support for Mr Assange’s anti-imperialist activities and support for the investigation of the charges that have been brought against him.  Not so very long ago, Western publics would have responded to the sequence of events Ms Wypijewski describes above with deep suspicion of the national security state, even as the case worked its way through the courts.  So, when in 2003 it was made public that Major Scott Ritter, then an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq, had been arrested on suspicion of soliciting sex from an underaged girl, the news proved more embarrassing to the Bush-Cheney administration than to Major Ritter himself.  Some years later, the major was proven guilty of similar charges, and sent to prison.  In the Ritter case, I see a model for a healthy public reaction to the Assange case.  By all means one should be suspicious; if the American people were still as jealous of their liberties as they were in 2003, the Obama administration would be experiencing a public relations nightmare as long as the case is pending.  But the case should nonetheless be handled in the best manner available to the criminal justice system, and if Mr Assange is guilty of the charges against him, it would be no injustice to punish him as Major Ritter has been punished.

The best manner available to the criminal justice system in this case may be far short of what we would hope, but, as Lissa Harris points out in an unforgettable piece on The Nation‘s website, that is so for virtually every rape case.  At the age of five, Ms Harris was raped on several occasions by a sadistic teenaged boy.  Apparently the facts became known to the authorities, but no charges were ever brought.  Over the years, Ms Harris has been presented with many explanations as to why they did not act.  What she considers most noteworthy is that while she knows many women and girls who have been raped, but cannot think of one whose assailant was sent to prison for the rape.  Not one.  So, while she is horrified by the prospect that the laws against rape will be rewritten by men like Congressman Todd Akin, who recently proclaimed that “legitimate rape” rarely produces pregnancy, Ms Harris admits that she cannot see how much damage men like Mr Akin can do to the criminal justice system when the system simply does not function most of the time.  She argues that ideologies thrive on both left and right that allow us to turn a blind eye to rape, to minimize rape, to accept as normal a status quo in which the rapist faces little risk of punishment and the women and girls he has attacked can expect little support and less  respect.

In the same issue, a cartoon pokes fun at novelist-cum-ideologist Ayn Rand.  Rand did make a couple of contributions that I find valuable; I’m fond of the expression “anti-concept,” a term she introduced and defined as “an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listeners a sense of approximate understanding.”  Mr Akin’s immortal phrase “legitimate rape” comes to mind under this heading; unnecessary and rationally unusable, it may well enable a person indoctrinated in one of the rape-minimizing ideologies Ms Harris calls out to replace and obliterate a realistic understanding of rape with some vague approximation that makes it impossible to imagine useful action against it.

One of the examples Rand gave of an anti-concept was the term “isolationist.”  This term, never a self-description adopted by any political movement, was used in the late 1930s and early 1940s by advocates of US intervention in the Second World War to label their opponents.  Since the interventionists eventually had their way and, by most people’s lights, it is just as well that they did, the term has continued to be useful in the decades since as a means of smearing and belittling all anti-war and anti-imperial voices, especially those that emanate from right of center.  I bring this up because the issue carries Jackson Lears’ review of Christopher McKnight Nichols’ Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age.  On its face, the term “isolationist” is absurd.  Nothing could be more isolating than a habit of bombing, invading, and occupying countries; the neighborhood bully is always the most isolated of figures.  Mr Nichols writes a history of American anti-imperialism starting with those who opposed war with Spain in 1898 and leading to those who tried to prevent the rise of a permanent war economy after the First World War.  Mr Lears focuses on the book’s depictions of William James, Randolph Bourne, and Senator William Borah.

Tag, you’re Hitler

The 7 June 2010 issue of The Nation includes a review of some book about Ayn Rand. 

The part of the review that I wanted to note came about halfway in, where the reviewer, Corey Robin, quotes some remarks from Hitler and Goebbels that sound eerily like things Rand and the heroes of her novels habitually said.  Applying the Führerprinzip to the world of economics, Hitler in 1933 told an audience of business leaders:

Everything positive, good and valuable that has been achieved in the world in the field of economics or culture is solely attributable to the importance of personality…. All the worldly goods we possess we owe to the struggle of the select few.

Robin has an easy time finding examples of Rand saying very similar things.  Robin goes on:

If the first half of Hitler’s economic views celebrates the romantic genius of the individual industrialist, the second spells out the inegalitarian implications of the first. Once we recognize “the outstanding achievements of individuals,” Hitler says in Düsseldorf, we must conclude that “people are not of equal value or of equal importance.” Private property “can be morally and ethically justified only if [we] admit that men’s achievements are different.” An understanding of nature fosters a respect for the heroic individual, which fosters an appreciation of inequality in its most vicious guise. “The creative and decomposing forces in a people always fight against one another.”

Again, Robin can open Rand’s works almost at random and find passages that are almost identical to these translations. 

Robin attributes these similarities to the common influence of Nietzsche on Rand and the Nazis.  Certainly Rand did study Nietzsche’s works; and certainly there were periods when the Nazis tried to use Nietzsche’s name.  But I think that there is a simpler explanation. 

The Nazi party existed for about 25 years.  It ruled Germany for half that period.  During those years, Hitler, Goebbels, and the other Nazi princes made speeches and issued other public statements numerous enough to fill a library.  That Robin can rummage through those countless pages and find a few remarks that sound eerily reminiscent of the works of Ayn Rand tells us nothing about Rand and next to nothing about the Nazis. 

As a critique of Rand’s ideas, Robin’s argumentum ad Hitlerem is ludicrously unfair.  As a way of playing a game with Rand and her acolytes, however, it can be justified by the old maxim “turnabout is fair play.”  In 1963, Rand gave a speech titled “The Fascist New Frontier.”  In this speech, she claimed that the strongest influence on the ideology of the administration of President John F. Kennedy was not Marx or Keynes or Harold Laski, as the president’s right-wing critics sometimes claimed, but that the Kennedy administration was a fascist group.  To support this claim, she juxtaposed snippets of President Kennedy’s public statements with snippets of similar-sounding statements from Hitler, Goebbels, Mussolini, etc.  So, if President Kennedy or his spokesmen said that ideological labels were of little importance, or that personal sacrifice was the index of patriotism, or that strong leadership is essential for national greatness, she would track down some remark from some Nazi or Fascist making the same point.  That the Nazis and Fascists did not invent these ideas, that they have been commonplaces of political discussion for centuries and may very possibly be true, did not seem to her to matter very much.  In Rand’s view of history, Naziism was simply an unfolding of ideas that were already fully developed in the philosophies of thinkers like Kant and Plato.  So, the fact that an idea was familiar long before the end of the First World War doesn’t excuse it from being a symptom of Fascist orr Nazi ideology.   

Robin’s invocation of Nietzsche may suggest a similar theory of history, but the rest of the piece shows a different view.  Robin praises Aristotle at length:

Unlike Kant, the emblematic modern who claimed that the rightness of our deeds is determined solely by reason, unsullied by need, desire or interest, Aristotle rooted his ethics in human nature, in the habits and practices, the dispositions and tendencies, that make us happy and enable our flourishing. And where Kant believed that morality consists of austere rules, imposing unconditional duties upon us and requiring our most strenuous sacrifice, Aristotle located the ethical life in the virtues. These are qualities or states, somewhere between reason and emotion but combining elements of both, that carry and convey us, by the gentlest and subtlest of means, to the outer hills of good conduct. Once there, we are inspired and equipped to scale these lower heights, whence we move onto the higher reaches. A person who acts virtuously develops a nature that wants and is able to act virtuously and that finds happiness in virtue. That coincidence of thought and feeling, reason and desire, is achieved over a lifetime of virtuous deeds. Virtue, in other words, is less a codex of rules, which must be observed in the face of the self’s most violent opposition, than it is the food and fiber, the grease and gasoline, of a properly functioning soul.

So Robin praises Aristotle precisely for his sense of change and development, his attempt to explain how the same action or idea can have different significance in different circumstances.  Robin thus jettisons the idea that gives Rand an excuse for her method of using quotations from historical villains to play “gotcha” with her adversaries.  The comments Robin quotes may drip with menace when we reflect on their source; spoken by another person in another setting, the same words might be rather anodyne, or even true.  For example, the claim that “Private property ‘can be morally and ethically justified only if [we] admit that men’s achievements are different'” would seem to be eminently defensible, even if words to that effect once appeared in a speech delivered by history’s least defensible man.

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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