Again with Lawrence Dennis

Lawrence Dennis, touring London as a boy evangelist, with his foster mother

In a couple of comments on an article about James Burnham that Daniel McCarthy wrote for The American Conservative, I brought up Lawrence Dennis. Here are the comments:

1.

Burnham always reminds me of one of his contemporaries, a writer whom he never, to my knowledge, mentioned. That writer is Lawrence Dennis. In The Dynamics of War and Revolution, published in 1940, Dennis predicted the division of the world into precisely the same three spheres of influence that Burnham would predict the following year in The Managerial Revolution.

In his 1932 book Is Capitalism Doomed? and in 1936′s The Coming American Fascism, Dennis developed in depth an economic argument which led him to the conclusion that the future belonged to states in which the great enterprises were nominally owned by private interests and were in some ways subject to fluctuations of markets, but were in the most important things coordinated and subsidized by the state. Again, this idea anticipates the economic views of The Managerial Revolution.For what it’s worth, in the 1960s Lawrence Dennis looked back on his arguments of thirty years before in a book called Operational Thinking for Survival, in which he concluded that he’d been right about pretty much everything.

Burnham’s theory of myth is also anticipated in Dennis’ books from 1932, 1936, and 1940, and was something Dennis enlarged on in his later years. Particularly in The Coming American Fascism, Dennis argues that when the social system he is predicting comes to the USA, it will be impossible for most people to realize that anything has changed, because the outward forms and ritual language of the old order will remain the same. There’s an eerie bit concerning this in The Dynamics of War and Revolution. Dennis predicts that, while the state continues to maintain a body of Constitutional law protesting its reverence for the concept of free speech, it will also prosecute dissidents. I call this eerie, because Dennis predicts that he himself will be among the first dissidents prosecuted. And indeed, in 1944-1945, he, along with George Sylvester Viereck and a bunch of pro-Nazi crackpots, was indeed brought to trial in a federal court on charges of sedition.

That prosecution collapsed, but Dennis remained far outside the realm of the respectable, his writings known to very few. So if it were to, shall we say, slip the mind of a writer to fully acknowledge his indebtedness to Dennis’ work, neither that writer’s editor nor the book’s reviewers would be at all likely to notice the omission.

A couple of other commenters responded to this, encouraging me to enlarge upon it:

2.

@David Naas: Well, Lawrence Dennis seems to have thought that under an enlightened elite, a system which he would classify as fascist could be made more or less tolerable to the broad majority of the population. Dennis’ prescription for a tolerable fascism was one that stimulated the economy with domestic make-work schemes rather than militaristic adventures, and that put as little effort as possible into stirring up racial hatred and persecuting minority groups. Those make-work schemes were supposed to “ensure that wealth flows down across and out,” as EliteCommInc puts it, and the lackadaisical racism was supposed to be no worse than what was in fact established as law in the USA in Dennis’ time.

Dennis himself grew up as an African American child in the state of Georgia in the early twentieth century and as an adult was an extremely unpopular public figure, so he can have been under few illusions as to what sort of life might await those outside that broad majority. Dennis recounts a shocking episode in his book Operational Thinking for Survival. As a visitor to Germany in the mid-1930s, he was granted an audience with the Nazis’ tamed philosopher, Alfred Rosenberg. Dennis tells us that he suggested to Rosenberg that the Nazis stop physically attacking Jews and trying to force them to leave Germany, as they were doing at that point, and that instead they should subject them to the same segregation regime under which African Americans lived. Rosenberg dismissed the idea, but that Dennis would suggest it, in view of his background, is a tragedy in the classical sense of that term.

I’m by no means convinced that any of Dennis’ views were correct, but they are certainly worth considering. Among other things, I think that Burnham’s conception of countervailing power in The Machiavellians gains a great deal of depth and significance if we see it as, in part, a rebuttal to Dennis and an attempt to sketch out an alternative to Dennis’ bleak vision of the future.

I wish that, instead of “worth considering,” I had said that Dennis’ views were “worth studying.”  Especially coming right after an account of his hobnobbing with a representative of the Nazi leadership and proposing a set of anti-Jewish measures, it sounds alarming to suggest that we might “consider” his views, as if we should somehow contemplate following him down that dark path.  It’s true that Dennis’ proposal to Rosenberg would have been far less horrible than the policies the Nazis actually adopted, but there’s quite a lot of space separating “better than the Holocaust” from “worth considering.”  Anyway, it was Dennis’ views on political economy, geopolitics, and the role of ideology in shaping opinion that I had in mind, not his drearily misbegotten attempt to ameliorate the condition of Jews in the Third Reich.

Chronicles, February 2014

The latest issue of paleoconservative Chronicles magazine features several pieces (by Thomas L. Fleming, Claude Polin, and Chilton Williamson) reflecting on James Burnham’s 1964 book, The Suicide of the West.

Burnham’s work always struck me as highly derivative of Lawrence Dennis, especially Dennis’ 194o The Dynamics of War and Revolution.  Dennis made the mistake of accepting the label “fascist” as a self-description in the 1930s.  Dennis was not an enthusiast for fascism; he thought a fascist regime was inevitable, and that elites ought to face up to that inevitability and try to make the best of what he freely acknowledged was in many ways a bad situation.  He criticized US elites harshly, so that when the United States entered the Second World War, he found himself a friendless man, exposed to attack on all sides.   Prosecuted for sedition in 1944, it was only because the judge died during his trial that Dennis was lucky enough to stay out of prison.  I had hoped that the issue would include at least one reference to Dennis, but it does not.  Justin Raimondo is a regular columnist for Chronicles, and a defender of Dennis; Mr Raimondo’s column this month is about a lady who fixes up old houses.

A couple of pieces in the issue, Dr Fleming’s column linked above and a note by Aaron D. Wolf, bring up homosexuality.  Dr Fleming takes issue with the term “homophobia,” writing: “express the Christian point of view on homosexuality, as Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson did, and you are a homophobic bigot—though the idea of Mr. Robertson being afraid of gay men is truly amusing.”  I am not familiar with Mr Robertson, so I cannot share Dr Fleming’s amusement.  I can only congratulate him on it.

However, I think Mr Wolf’s piece does vindicate the term “homophobia.”  Mr Wolf, also thinking of Mr Robertson, writes:

Robertson believes homosexuality is sinful because God says so in His infallible Word.  He, like Saint Paul, doesn’t make a sophisticated distinction between inclination and activity.  And Robertson follows Paul’s thought process as spelled out in Romans 1—that a society given over to sexual perversion is a society that has followed a long path of degradation.  In addition Robertson, convinced as he is by a higher authority which demands submission and not explaining away, also recognizes that such perversion is not even rational behavior.  Thus, the Duck Commander, in the field, armed, and with his girly-man interviewer in tow, said with vulgar rhetorical flourish what most men, Christian and non-Christian alike, have said in locker rooms or at bars or by the water cooler or wherever: that the very idea of what gay men do, or want to do, is repulsive.

As I understand it, when psychologists talk about phobias, they are talking about anxiety disorders.  So someone who suffers from acrophobia, for example, is not simply “afraid of heights,” but is likely to be seized by anxiety when exposed to heights.   Further, it is my understanding that the two main causes of anxiety attacks are, initially, the fear that one is being forced to meet  impossible demands, and, subsequently, the  fear that one is about to have an anxiety attack.

With those points in mind, I would say that anyone who “doesn’t make a… distinction between inclination and activity” before declaring that God has judged particular people to exemplify “perversion” and “degradation” and to be “repulsive” probably has an anxiety disorder.  Mr Wolf can, by acts of will, prevent himself from engaging in any particular activity at any particular moment.  If he regards same-sex sex as perverse, degrading, and repulsive, he can therefore choose to abstain from it throughout his whole life.  However, inclinations do not respond to acts of the will in that way.  This is not a “sophisticated distinction.”  It is the very crudest sort of magical thinking to imagine that a desire or an inclination will go away simply because we tell it to.  Indeed, it is in the strictest sense unchristian to believe that this can be done, since it denies the reality of temptation.

So, if anxiety is the result of the fear of being forced to meet impossible demands, the belief that one’s inclinations must respond to acts of will in the same way that one’s activities do is a recipe for anxiety.  If that belief is reinforced by the threat that “most men, Christian and non-Christian alike” will regard one as perverse, degraded, and repulsive if one does not succeed in this impossible task, then of course the result will be an anxiety disorder.

And not only in those who have experienced a desire for same-sex sex.  All of us know perfectly well that we cannot shape our inclinations by acts of will, since all of us have at least some inclinations of which we would like to be rid.  Mr Robertson, as a recovering drug addict, knows that better than most.  So, if one believes that merely experiencing a homosexual inclination is enough to mark one as unacceptable for the company of men, one would surely be haunted by the fear that such an inclination might someday, somehow, pop into one’s feelings.

Perhaps this belief, miserable as it makes so many people, is also behind much of the rapid growth of support for the rights of sexual minorities in the West in recent decades.  If we do not distinguish between the inclination and the activity, then denouncing the activity means reviling the people who are inclined to it.  The more same-sexers one gets to know, the harder it is to believe oneself to be a nice person while using phrases like (to quote Mr Wolf’s note) “designed for the toilet” with application to matters that are essential to their social identity and most intimate relationships.  So, perhaps the Mr Wolfs of the world are the true vanguard of the gay rights struggle.

Ancient Regime

Shortly before the stock markets closed yesterday afternoon, the US Supreme Court announced a ruling on the so-called “Affordable Care Act” (also known as ACA.)  Health care stocks generally rose on the news of the ruling, in some cases sharply, while shares in health insurers showed a mixed reaction.  Today, the trend has been slightly downward across the board.

A majority of the US Supreme Court held that the US government does have the power to compel citizens and other residents of the USA to buy health insurance.  While the court rejected the Obama administration’s argument that this power, the core of the law, was within the scope of the authority the Constitution grants the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, it concluded that, because the law is to be enforced by the Internal Revenue Service in the process of collecting taxes, it is supported by the government’s authority to levy taxes.

In effect, the law establishes a tax that will be paid directly to health insurance companies.  US residents who refuse to pay this tax will be assessed an alternative tax, one paid to the treasury.  As written, the statute did not include the word “tax,” speaking instead of “premiums” and “penalties.”  These words are euphemisms.  This is clear not only from the Supreme Court’s legal reasoning, but also from the most basic economic logic.  A law which directs people to dispose of their wealth in a particular way to advance a particular set of policy objectives is a tax, whatever label marketing-minded politicians may choose to give it.

Many opponents of the ACA have spoken out against the idea of a tax directly payable to private citizens.  For example, today on the Counterpunch website Dr Clark Newhall complains that the bipartisan Supreme majority represents “Corporatists United.”  Dr Newhall denounces the statute and the ruling in strong terms.  I would like to make three quotes from Dr Newhall’s piece abd add my own comments to them:

In an eagerly anticipated opinion on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as “Obamacare’, an unusual alignment of justices upheld the Act nearly entirely.  The crucial part of the decision found the ‘odd bedfellows’ combination of Chief Justice Roberts joining the four ‘liberal’ justices to uphold the ‘individual mandate’, the section of the law requiring all Americans to buy health insurance from private health insurance companies…

Many supporters of the ACA object to the term “Obamacare.”  The law was crafted on the model of a regime of health insurance regulations and subsidies enacted in Massachusetts in 2006.  That regime is widely known as “Romneycare,” in honor of Willard M. Romney (alias “Mitt,”) who, as Massachusetts’ governor at the time, had been its chief advocate.  So calling the federal version “Obamacare” is simply a matter of continuing to follow the Massachusetts model.  Now, of course, Mr Romney is the Republican Party’s choice to oppose Mr Obama in this year’s presidential election.  Therefore Mr Romney and his surrogates are creating much merriment for political observers by trying to attack the president’s most widely-known legislative achievement, which as it so happens is identical to Mr Romney’s most widely-known legislative achievement.

Dr Newhall goes on:

Those who make, interpret and enforce the laws no longer lie on the ‘left-right’ political continuum. Instead, they are in effect at ‘right angles’ to that continuum.  The ideology that drives the Supreme Court, the political administration and the Congress is not Conservative or Liberal but can best be described as “Corporatist.”  This is the ideology that affirms that “corporations are citizens, my friends.”  it is the ideology that drove the Roberts Court to the odious Citizens United decision.  it is the ideology behind a bailout for banks that are ‘too big to fail.’  And it is the ideology that allows Congress to pass a law like the ACA that is essentially written by a favored industry…

It seems to me very clear what Dr Newhall means to evoke in these sentences is the spectre of fascism.  During the 1930’s, fascists in Italy, Britain, Belgium, and several other countries used the words “fascism” and “corporatism” interchangeably, and economic historians still cite Mussolini’s Italy, and to a lesser extent Hitler’s Germany, as examples of corporatist economics in practice.  The American diplomat-turned-economist-turned-journalist-turned-pariah Lawrence Dennis argued in a series of books in the 1930’s that laissez-faire capitalism was doomed, that state ownership of industry was a dead end, and that the economic future of the developed world belonged to a system in which the state coordinated and subsidized the operations of privately-owned corporations.  The most famous of the books in which Dennis endorsed this system was titled The Coming American Fascism.

Not only the word “corporatism,” but also the image of a ruling elite “at right angles” to the old left/right politics might well remind readers of fascism.  The fascists continually claimed to represent a new politics that was neither left nor right; while such anticapitalist fascist tendencies as il fascismo della sinistra or Germany’s Strasserites were not markedly successful in the intra-party politics of fascist movements,* all fascist parties used anticapitalist rhetoric from time to time (think of the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party,” and of Joseph Goebbels’ definition of revolution as a process by which the right adopts the language and tactics of the left.)  Moreover, the image of “left” and “right” suggests that political opinions form a continuum that stretches from one extreme to another, with any number of points in between.  That in turn suggests that people who disagree may have enough in common with each other that their conflicts may be productive.  Fascism, on the other hand, demands a one-party state in which a single ideology is imposed on everyone.  Fascism finds nothing of value in political conflict, and strives to annihilate disagreement.  I think that’s what the late Seymour Martin Lipset was driving at in his book Political Man when he placed most fascist movements, including the Italian fascists and German Nazis, not on the far right, but in the “Radical Center.”

Counterpunch is edited by Alexander Cockburn, who recently declared that the United States of America has completed its transition to fascism.  So it would not be surprising if by these remarks Dr Newhall were insinuating that the ACA is fascist in its substance.  I would demur from such an assessment.  Before I can explain why, permit me to quote one more paragraph from Dr Newhall’s piece:

Why does Corporatism favor Obamacare?  Because Obamacare is nothing more than a huge bailout for another failing industry — the health insurance industry.  No health insurer could continue to raise premiums at the rate of two to three times inflation, as they have done for at least a decade.  No health insurer could continue to pay 200 million dollar plus bonuses to top executives, as they have done repeatedly.  No health insurer could continue to restrict Americans’ access to decent health care, in effect creating slow and silent ‘death panels.’  No health insurer could do those things and survive.  But with the Obamacare act now firmly in place, health insurers will see a HUGE multibillion dollar windfall in the form of 40 million or more new health insurance customers whose premiums are paid largely by government subsidies.  That is the explanation for the numerous expansions and mergers you have seen in the health care industry in the past couple of years.  You will see more of the same, and if you are a stock bettor, you would do well to buy stock in smaller health insurers, because they will be snapped up in a wave of consolidation that dwarfs anything yet seen in this country.

Certainly the health insurance industry was in trouble in 2009, and the ACA is an attempt to enable that industry to continue business more or less as usual.  In that sense, it is a bailout.  Indeed, the health insurance companies are extremely influential in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and there can be little doubt that whichever of those parties won the 2008 elections would have enacted similar legislation.  Had Mr Romney been successful in his 2008 presidential campaign, doubtless he would have signed the same bill that Mr Obama in fact signed.  The loyal  Democrats who today defend the ACA as a great boon to working-class Americans would then be denouncing it in terms like those Dr Newhall employs, while the loyal Republicans who today denounce the ACA as a threat to the “free-enterprise system” that they fondly imagine to characterize American economic life would then defend it on some equally fanciful basis.

In a deeper sense, however, I disagree with Dr Newhall’s assessment quite thoroughly.  A moment ago, I defined taxation as any law that requires people to dispose of their wealth in particular ways to advance particular policy objectives.  If we think about that definition for a moment, we can see that the United States’ entire health insurance industry exists to receive taxes.  In the USA, wages paid to employees are subject to a rather heavy tax called FICA.  Premiums that are paid for employees’ health insurance policies are not subject to FICA, and so employers have an incentive to put a significant fraction of their employees’ compensation packages into health insurance premiums.  Since the health insurers have been collecting taxes all along, it is quite misleading to call the ACA a bailout.  It is, rather, a tax increase.

Now, as to the question of fascism, certainly fascist regimes did blur the line between the public and private sectors.  The most extreme case of this was of course the assignment of concentration camp inmates as slave labor for I. G. Farben and other cartels organized under the supervision of the Nazi state.  So it would not have been much of a stretch for fascists to grant corporations the power to collect taxes.  Even if they had done so, however, fascists could hardly claim to have made an innovation.  Tax farming, the collection of taxes by private-sector groups in pursuit of profit, was the norm in Persia by the sixth century BC, and spread rapidly throughout the ancient world.  In ancient Rome under the later Republic, tax farming proved itself to be a highly efficient means of organizing tax collection. So the fact that tax farming is one of the principal aspects of the US economy is not evidence that the USA is a fascist or a proto-fascist regime.  Indeed, the fact that the Supreme Court seriously considered a case that would have challenged the legitimacy of tax farming is an encouraging sign, however unedifying the opinions that the court issued as a result of that consideration might be.

Of course, in the ancient world tax farmers bid competitively for the right to collect taxes, and the winners put their bids into the public treasury.  In the USA, there is no such bidding, and no such payment.  Instead, wealthy individuals and interest groups buy politicians by financing their campaigns and their retirements.  Perhaps we would be better off to adopt the ancient system.

At any rate, “fascism” seems a misnomer for our economic system, almost as misleading as “free enterprise” or as anachronistic as “capitalism.”  A more accurate term, at least as regards the components that are dominated by tax farming, would be neo-feudalist.  The US political class is increasingly an hereditary class; Mr Obama defeated the wife of a former president to win his party’s nomination to succeed the son of a former president, and now faces the son of a former presidential candidate in his campaign for a second term.  This hereditary nobility will now sit atop a system in which the non-rich are legally obligated to pay tribute or provide service to those in power in the land, who will in turn honor certain obligations to them.

*Fascism being what it was, “not markedly successful in intra-party politics” often meant “shot several times in the head and dismembered,” as happened to Gregor Strasser.

Chronicles, December 2010

Lawrence Dennis and his foster mother circa 1908, when he toured England as "the boy evangelist"

I never quite finished my notes on the December 2010 issue of far-right Chronicles magazine, but it includes several notable pieces.  So I’ll mention them now, months late though I may be.

Justin Raimondo brings up one of his favorite writers, Lawrence Dennis.  Dennis is also one of my favorites, though I think it is rather stretching matters for Raimondo to call Dennis an “African-American intellectual.”  Certainly Dennis’ background was African-American; when the 12 year old Dennis toured England as “the boy evangelist” in 1908, his ethnicity gave him an exotic appeal.  And he was undoubtedly an intellectual.  When he was on trial for sedition in 1944, government witness Hermann Rauschning startled the prosecutor by testifying that Dennis was not a tool of the Nazis, but was a thinker fit to be compared with Oswald Spengler.  Dennis was conducting his own defense; when time came for him to cross-examine Rauschning, he rose and thanked him.   Yet Dennis was hardly the spokesman for the African American experience that we’ve come to expect when we hear the phrase “African American intellectual.”  He said little about the African American experience, and never presented himself as a representative of African Americans.  Indeed, the only book-length study of Dennis is titled The Color of Fascism: Lawrence Dennis, Racial Passing, and the Rise of Right Wing Extremism in the United States, and interprets Dennis’ writings and political behavior as symptoms of a life spent passing for white.  As Robert Nedelkoff put it in a sympathetic piece about Dennis that he contributed to issue #13 of The Baffler (published in October 1999,) “when he spoke of race relations he made no reference to his being of a particular race” (page 99.)  Nedelkoff’s piece, covering pages 93-100 in that issue of The Baffler, was the second place I’d read of Dennis; the first was the chapter on Dennis in Ronald Radosh’s 1975 book Prophets on the Right.  Between them, these pieces convinced me that Dennis was more interesting than his onetime embrace of the label “fascist” would indicate.  In a series of books published between 1933 and 1941, Dennis predicted that the USA would eventually adopt an economic system similar to those prevailing in Italy and Germany at that time; that this new system would be promoted as a triumph of America’s traditional system; and that he himself would be prosecuted for sedition for saying that free speech was obsolete.  Looking back in his final book, Operational Thinking for Survival (1969,) Dennis concluded that all of his predictions had been vindicated.

Chilton Williamson shares fond memories of the time when he and the late Joseph Sobran worked together at National Review.   I always looked forward to Sobran’s columns because of the witty remarks that so often appeared there, though I can’t say I ever found a well-constructed argument in any of them.  I must mention a grievance I have against Sobran.  One of the statements he made that got him fired from National Review and driven to the fringes of society was praise for the magazine Instauration.  Because I found much to admire in Sobran’s work, I looked for Instauration.  When the magazine became available online, I read several issues.  I’d expected an intellectual magazine marked by a hard-headed conservatism, with some pieces that crossed the line into racial prejudice.  In other words, I was braced for something rather like Chronicles, only more extreme.  Imagine my disappointment when instead I found a racist tract containing article after article dismissing the Holocaust as a hoax (in the first issue the editors express great satisfaction in putting the word “Holohoax” into print.)

George McCartney reviews the movie The Social Network, by Aaron Sorkin.  Sorkin’s grand project seems to be showing groups of aggressive, self-indulgent people clashing with each other in the course of work that creates a benign product.  The difficulty with such works as The Social Network and The West Wing is that the real-life counterparts of Sorkin’s characters seem to be far more quietly efficient and their products far more problematic than he allows.  So Mark Zuckerberg is rumored to be rather a pleasant sort of chap; Facebook has unnerving features that lead me to call its administrators “the Zuckforce.”  Actual staffers in the White House probably spend less time dashing about the corridors and snarling at each other than they do showing friendliness and good manners; but the US presidency, as they help to constitute it, may well be the single most destructive institution in the world today.  Someone like Lawrence Dennis, were he to see a society with a surveillance network like Facebook and a political leader who starts a war every year or two, would likely show little interest in whether the people administering that network and staffing that leader observed the social graces.  In the popularity of Facebook, he might see a people who had become so thoroughly inured to surveillance that they can enjoy themselves only in an environment structured to record their every move; in The West Wing, a people so inured to war that they expect to enjoy a cozy relationship with the chief warlord.

Ambrose Bierce and The Man Without Illusions

Several weeks ago, The Nation ran a review-essay about Ambrose Bierce.  A few days before happening on this piece, I’d my old Dover Thrift Edition collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories, a paperback I’d bought for a dollar in 1996 and had been meaning to read ever since.  I was interested in the reviewer’s remarks about one of those stories in particular:

In another powerful story, “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” Bierce writes of a face-off between two batteries of well-fortified Confederate cannons, twelve in total, and a single Union cannon crew led by Captain Coulter. Coulter’s crew is forced into an open notch and ordered to engage in a firefight just because a general in the field wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true. Though Coulter hesitates, he follows the order. He and his crew wheel one cannon out to the notch and commence firing. Soon the twelve Confederate cannons respond and the two sides are lost in the thunderous explosions and enormous clouds of artillery smoke. Each time one of Coulter’s cannons is destroyed, his crew wheels a new one up to the notch so the fight can continue. Eventually the Union officers ride up to the notch to check on Coulter and his men:

Within that defile, barely broad enough for a single gun, were piled the wrecks of no fewer than four. They had noted the silencing of only the last one disabled—there had been a lack of men to replace it quickly with another. The debris lay on both sides of the road; the men had managed to keep an open way between, through which the fifth piece was now firing. The men?—they looked like demons of the pit! All were hatless, all stripped to the waist, their reeking skins black with blotches of powder and spattered with gouts of blood. They worked like madmen, with rammer and cartridge, lever and lanyard. They set their swollen shoulders and bleeding hands against the wheels at each recoil and heaved the heavy gun back to its place. There were no commands; in that awful environment of whooping shot, exploding shells, shrieking fragments of iron, and flying splinters of wood, none could have been heard. Officers, if officers there were, were indistinguishable; all worked together—each while he lasted—governed by the eye. When the gun was sponged, it was loaded; when loaded, aimed and fired. The colonel observed something new to his military experience—something horrible and unnatural: the gun was bleeding at the mouth! In temporary default of water, the man sponging had dipped his sponge into a pool of comrade’s blood.

The cannon drooling blood is certainly a memorable image, and as I read the story I was sure it would be the detail that stayed with me.  By the end, however, even that horror has been put into the shade.  At first we think that Captain Coulter’s commanding officer sent him to that desperately exposed position and ordered him to shell the house opposite simply because he “wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true.”  Then one officer tells another that Coulter was a southerner who had left his family behind Confederate lines to join the Union army.  He goes on to report a rumor that the commander had led an occupying force that patroled the area where Coulter’s family was.  This rumor held that the commander had made advances to Coulter’s wife.  She rebuffed him, and the officer wonders if that was why the commander put Coulter in such danger.  By the end of the story, even this grotesque idea is shown to be short of the full horror of the situation. 

The Nation‘s reviewer quotes Bierce’s definition of “realism” from The Devil’s Dictionary as “The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.”  This quote is at the center of a little disquisition on Bierce’s use of improbable events in his fiction.  The last two paragraphs of the review sum this disquisition up:

Bierce often resorted to horror, whether grisly war stories or even supernatural tales, but he didn’t do this to avoid writing about reality; he used the genre to confront the truths of his day—the monstrosity of battle, the terror of extinction.

Read Bierce and try not to think of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read Bierce and consider the ways “probability” can be a poor test; sometimes realism just fails. Every era needs a genre through which it understands itself. We are living in the age of the uncanny once again. Time to testify.

This point is very close to something that came to my mind while I was reading that collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories.  The stories are full of wildly improbable events; random shots fired at distant enemies can be relied upon to kill the gunners’ fathers, brothers, wives.  Bierce presents these freak occurrences not to undercut the sense of his stories’ reality, but to emphasize their truthfulness.   

What truth does Bierce want us to think fills his stories?  I think it is the same truth that was publicized almost two decades ago, when a hit movie was advertised with an image of a Marine colonel shouting “You can’t handle the truth!”  Even though the movie passed through theaters in 1992,  a Google search for “You can’t handle the truth” restricted to results that went up this week draws over 16,000 hits.  I wonder if the resonance of that line and the power of Bierce’s stories don’t combine to show that there is an idea at large in American culture of truth as something necessarily violent, of war as the ultimate truth.  If so, the colonel in the movie and the highly decorated Civil War veteran Bierce would both figure as men with a privileged access to truth, as warriors who had seen the heart of battle. 

(more…)

Some hide themselves, and some are hidden; some are forgotten, and some forget themselves

July’s issue of The American Conservative features a piece by Sydney Schanberg arguing that American prisoners of war were left over in Vietnam after direct US involvement in the war there ended in the early 1970s.  Several other pieces pick up on Schanberg’s claims, drawing various dire conclusions about the nature of the political leadership in the USA.   

In October 2008, The Nation ran an article in which Schanberg made this same case.  I noted that article here, remarking that I had never given that idea much credence, but that I was impressed by what Schanberg wrote.  Amid the pro-Schanberg pieces in this issue of The American Conservative is a short article by Gareth Porter titled “The evidence doesn’t stack up.”  Unlike the readers who wrote The Nation to protest the appearance of Schanberg’s piece there , Porter does not list his credentials as a scholar of the US military involvement in Vietnam.  Also unlike them, he does not declare himself to be displeased that the topic is being discussed.  Most profoundly unlike them, he looks at Schanberg’s evidence and judges it on its merits.  Indeed, the only way in which Porter resembles the outraged letter writers of The Nation is that he finds Schanberg’s case entirely unconvincing.  Porter argues that the document to which Schanberg has attached the greatest weight is almost certainly a forgery, and in any case doesn’t say what Schanberg claims it says.   Porter goes on to find many other faults with Schanberg’s argument. 

Something that is, I think, quite well-founded appears in Andrew Bacevich’s contribution to the discussion:

Like slavery or the Holocaust, Vietnam is part of the past not yet fully consigned to the past.

The practice of publicly displaying the POW/MIA flag testifies to this fact. On the one hand, it represents a lingering communal acknowledgment of loss and more broadly of massive national failure. On the other, it sustains the pretense—utterly illusory—that a proper accounting, not only of the missing but of the entire Vietnam experience, is still forthcoming. “You deserve to be brought home,” the flag implicitly states, “And we deserve to know why you were sent in the first place.”

Yet to undertake a serious accounting would find Americans facing a plethora of discomfiting truths, not only about the knaves and fools who concocted the Vietnam War but about the American way of life and the premises on which it is based. Tell the whole truth about Vietnam and you crack open a door that few Americans wish to peer behind. To do so is to come face-to-face with troubling questions about the meaning of freedom and democracy as actually practiced in the United States.

Few Americans are willing to confront such questions, the answers to which could oblige us to revise the way we live. So we salve our consciences by flying flags, sustaining the pretense that we care when what we desperately want to do is to forget as much as possible.

In the same issue, Paul Gottfried finds it odd that many Americans who stand on the political Right are so fond of calling their opponents “fascists” and of claiming that fascism was a left-wing movement.  Gottfried is himself very, very conservative in his politics.  Much as he might like to disassociate himself and his fellow Rightists from the taint of fascism, Gottfried also has a scholarly reputation and a lifetime of intellectual integrity, both of which he would like to preserve.  Gottfried lists a number of facts which, he says, make it impossible for a serious person of any disposition to see fascism as anything other than a phenomenon of the extreme Right, and ridicules those who disregard these facts.    

If the idea of fascism as a leftist movement is so ludicrous, why does it have so much support among American right-wingers?  Gottfried gives four possible reasons.  First, Leftists who keep their cool when they are accused of being Communists or utopians tend to sputter and look silly when they hear themselves being called fascists.  While this might be fun for conmservatives who are frustrated to meet opponents who don’t take their ideas seriously, Gottfried says that “only a cultural illiterate could believe that interwar fascists were intent on pursuing a massive welfare state centered on the achievement of social equality, with special protection for racial minorities, feminists, alternative lifestyles, and whatever else the latter-day Left is about.”    

Second, some American right-wingers in the 1930s “had a very limited understanding of the European Right or the European Left” and so “made the unwarranted leap from thinking that all forms of economic planning were unacceptable to believing that all were virtually identical.”  Thus they came to believe that the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, the Five-Year Plans of Stalin, and the corporatism of Mussolini were three names for the same thing.  Those thinkers started a tradition that is still alive and well in some circles in today’s USA. 

Third, the use of “fascism” as an all-purpose term of abuse represents an appeal to the argumentum ad Hitlerem, in which any resemblance between one’s opponent and Adolf Hitler, no matter how superficial or strained, is treated as if it released one from the obligation to answer that opponent’s claims.  Fourth, by attempting to brand what Gottfried calls “the latter-day Left” as fascist, the latter-day Right can pretend to be more different than it in fact is from its opposition.  

I can think of a fifth possible reason.  American economic analyst Lawrence Dennis became notorious in the 1930s and 1940s for a series of books in which he argued that market-driven capitalism was doomed, and that representative democracy would go down with it.  The economic system of the future, Dennis decided, was one in which capitalists retained nominal ownership and day-to-day control of the means of production, but government coordinated their activities.  The political system that would go along with this corporatist economy might be dressed up to look like a democracy, but would in fact be dominated by an elite that would remain in power regardless of the outcome of any elections that might be held.  To keep the public in support of this system and to keep the money supply from contracting, the elite would likely encourage an attitude of militant nationalism and a warlike foreign policy.  This system Dennis called fascism. 

 Dennis consistently said that when fascism came to America, it would not be called by that name.  Rather, it would be marketed as a new form of democracy, as the very antidote to fascism.  He predicted that he himself would be among the first dissidents prosecuted once the USA had become fascist.  Indeed, in 1944 Dennis was put on trial for sedition.  The prosecution collapsed, and Dennis wrote a book about it

In his 1969 book Operational Thinking for Survival, Dennis reviewed the arguments he had made in the 1930s and early 1940s.  He concluded that his predictions had been substantially correct.  Avoiding the word “fascism,” he wrote that our current political and economic system “is one that has no generally accepted name.” 

So, perhaps the reason Left and Right are so eager to fling the word “fascism” at each other is that each is haunted by the fear that it is powerless to keep the country from becoming fascist.  For all that Rightists might long to restore the Old Republic and Leftists might long to create a new system “centered on the achievement of social equality, with special protection for racial minorities, feminists, alternative lifestyles,” each looks on helplessly as events make a mockery of these ambitions.  Whatever success each side might have in its attempts to promote its vision of freedom, the movement towards fascism goes on relentlessly.

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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A picture of Lawrence Dennis as a boy

Here’s a picture of Lawrence Dennis and his aunt as they were when they toured England in 1910.  In those days he was billed as “the boy evangelist.”  Before long Dennis would be sent from his boyhood home in Atlanta to elite schools in the North, schools where he began passing for white.  After graduating from Harvard, Dennis would serve as a US Army officer in World War I, a diplomatic agent in Central America in the 1920s, and a banker on Wall Street in the days before the Great Crash.  In a series of books published in the 1930s, he would argue that the USA was destined to become a fascist state in which dissent would be greeted with criminal prosecution.  For predicting the end of free speech in America, he would be arrested and tried for sedition in 1944.  I guess that showed him. 

lawrencedennis-as-a-boy1

New Year, Old Right

The latest issues of my two standard “paleocon” reads, The American Conservative and Chronicles, include fewer really noteworthy articles than average.  The election of Mr O as president and a solidly Democratic Congress freed them to turn from the constant struggle to show how they differ from the Bush/ Cheney Right and toward standard-issue conservative territory, denouncing government spending, unconventional family structures, etc. 

The contest, 1972

The contest, 1972

In The American Conservative, Daniel McCarthy argues that George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign triggered a transformation of the Republican Party by driving Cold War liberals into its ranks.  Mary Wakefield reviews Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, Wakefield reports that Dowden, the current director of the Royal African Society, is deeply pessimistic about western programs to aid Africa, but deeply optimistic about Africans’ ability to build a future for themselves if left alone. 

Sheldon Richman offers a succinct explanation of the Austrian school of economics’ theory of malinvestment and uses this theory to explain the current financial crisis.  David Gordon reviews a book by the most celebrated living opponent of the theory of malinvestment, Paul Krugman. 

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi

Jim Pittaway,  licensed psychotherapist and friend of the late Michael Aris, applies his professional expertise and his personal animosity to Aris’ widow, Aung San Suu Kyi, to an analysis of western policy towards Burma.  The professional expertise part is quite illuminating.  Suggesting that we should view the Burmese regime’s relationship to its people as one of captor to hostage, he asks us to apply “the biggest rule of hostage crises: unless you can take him out right now, don’t threaten the perp.”  Since the 1990 election, the West’s dealings with Burma have consisted primarily of a series of idle threats, and the hostages have paid the price. 

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