Every Knee Shall Bend

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When I was younger, I was a sports nut. We had season tickets to the Phoenix Suns’ games from their second season in existence, 1969–70, until I was well into my 20s. I went to the very first regular season game the Suns ever played. All I remember about that night was that the other team had green uniforms and that the pages of the program smelled funny. At six, I didn’t pay much attention to the action on the court.

As I advanced through grade school, I came to love the game. We even showed up, when the home court was in the old Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum, while the state fair was going on and the whole place reeked of cow manure. The closest the Suns ever came to a title, in those early years, was in 1976, and I’m still inclined to think that the Celtics robbed us. It’s a vague feeling, probably not backed up by the facts, but fans in Western cities tended to feel that we weren’t getting a fair deal. The East Coast-based powers-that-be in the league and the media didn’t take us seriously, and treated our team as if it had broken some sort of a sacred rule by having dared to advance that far in the playoffs.

My childhood hero was Suns’ star forward-guard Dick Van Arsdale. He’s a gentleman through and through, and has always been gracious to his fans. I have about 50 of his autographs, and at least half a dozen of his identical twin brother, Tom, who played alongside him on the team in their final year as pros. In ’76, 13-year-old me wrote Dick a letter inviting him to our house for a postseason dinner. He actually took the time to send me a handwritten response (with all those autographs in my collection, I knew no secretary had penned it), thanking me for my kind offer but saying that his family was headed out of town for some much needed rest.

We even showed up, when the home court was in the old Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum, while the state fair was going on and the whole place reeked of cow manure.

The Suns’ sister franchise, the Phoenix Mercury, captivated my attention from Day One of the WNBA. And my all-time highlight as a sports fan will always be the Arizona Diamondbacks’ World Series victory over the mighty New York Yankees in the turbulent wake of 9/11. I still follow the fortunes of the baseball and basketball teams of my college alma mater, Grand Canyon University. But over the years, my enthusiasm for professional sports has waned considerably. It has turned, of late, into a hearty dislike.

I’m certainly not a knee-jerk hater of sports in general, as I believe my history makes clear. But I find it increasingly difficult to overlook the fact that there are always any number of teams complaining that their arenas or stadia are out-of-date and attempting to extort the taxpayers into building them new ones. And few of the players, these days, have the humility or grace of a Dick Van Arsdale, a Luis Gonzalez, or a Michele Timms. Far too many behave like spoiled brats, and some are downright criminal. Moreover, a growing number expect us not only to be interested in their political opinions, but to pay them ever higher salaries and lionize them as heroes for having aired them.

Take the current controversy over former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Yes — and do take it, please. For those who’ve been hiding under a rock on the dark side of the moon, last season he refused to stand for the national anthem before some games, choosing to kneel instead. He was protesting something having to do with slavery, police brutality, racism, or oppression in general — take your pick of which. In any case, the young man was grievously aggrieved, and the whole world was expected to care.

It's increasingly difficult to overlook the fact that there are always any number of teams attempting to extort taxpayers into building them new arenas.

He showed up at a press conference, supposedly to explain himself, in a Fidel Castro t-shirt and socks that mocked police officers as pigs. It was immediately apparent that we were supposed to care not only about the causes he espoused, but about him. Perhaps the reason it’s so difficult to figure out exactly what he’s been trying to say is that the message that drowns out any other has consistently been “Look at me!” Celebrities with high-profile opinions tend to have that effect on the public. Few of us remember what it is they want to tell us, because what we seem to be especially expected to notice is that they are saying it.

I think I’ve written somewhere before — maybe here — that professional sports are training Americans to be morons. In my own opinion, that is by far the worst strike against them. It isn’t only that the stars of the game try to manipulate us into supporting the causes and candidates they prefer. It’s that we come to see politics as spectator sports. The entire Republican-Democrat duopoly that keeps our nation’s doings in its iron grip is, indeed, modeled after a neverending game.

It’s all about who wins or loses. Fandom for the favored side is seldom based on any sort of rational thought. And the mega-rich who run the show from behind the scenes rake in endless boodle — at the taxpayers’ expense.

The entire Republican-Democrat duopoly that keeps our nation’s doings in its iron grip is modeled after a neverending game.

Now the overlords of the NFL are worried that, since the onset of the Kaepernick kerfuffle (now ramped up, for his own apparent political gain, by President Trump), attendance has declined. While this is terrible news for them, and for the crybaby players, it may actually be great news for We, the People. It shows where the power really lies — and how much of it we truly hold. It also proves that even in our increasingly socialized nation, the free market is still powerful enough to win the game.




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The Movement to Deify Hillary Clinton

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It’s clear that President Trump has the kind of following that will never go away. No matter what he does, no matter how often or how sharply he confounds his supporters’ expectations, crowds turn out to cheer him, and opinion polls point upward. He is the kind of leader whom crowds follow because he expresses their basic sense of the soundness of their own no-matter-what conceptions.

But what of Hillary Clinton? It could be argued, with great plausibility, that if there were no Hillary Clinton, there would be no Donald Trump. Although people often say that she “stands for nothing, only herself,” that self means a lot to a lot of the people who voted against her. To them she epitomizes the smug, entitled, mendacious, dictatorial, “I don’t mind giving your money away” managerial elite who disgusted enough people who voted for Barack Obama that they voted for Donald Trump the next time.

Nevertheless, Clinton has hardcore followers, and is likely to keep them. Some evidence for this is provided by the sales of her book. By mid-September, even after the pre-released passages and her own public appearances had made it an embarrassment for liberals and a laughingstock for conservatives, the book was said to have sold 300,000 copies. Statistics like this are almost always exaggerated, so let’s call it 200,000. Of that number, 100,000 represent the type of people who bought the memoirs of Ford or Nixon or any of the rest of them — people who had no intention of reading the thing but were planning to give it as a Christmas present to Aunt Bertha, who is suspected of having voted for the author. But that leaves 100,000, which is very good, even for a book that was instantly marked down by 30%. One hundred thousand is more people than there are Scientologists, and you know how much trouble they can cause.

Although people often say that Clinton “stands for nothing, only herself,” that self means a lot to a lot of the people who voted against her.

I won’t psychologize about Clinton supporters; I have no interest in their psychology, per se. But I have some interest in the means by which political cults can be kept alive.

In the old days, monarchs who were tossed out of office could keep being addressed as Your Majesty if they could scrape together enough money to maintain themselves as the target of romantic illusions. For a hundred years after its removal from the thrones of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, the main branch of the Stuart dynasty hung out in France, which subsidized the court of the “rightful king.” The Stuarts continued to attract the allegiance of people who, as Talleyrand was supposed to have said about the Bourbon dynasty, had learned nothing and forgotten nothing: “Ils n'ont rien appris, ni rien oublié.” And if someone wanted evidence of their claim to legitimacy, there it was, flowing in their veins — just look! They had royal blood; they were royal. They were who they were.

Hillary Clinton is now questioning the legitimacy of Trump’s election. But what does her government-in-exile present as evidence for her own legitimacy?

The answer is twofold.

1. Transparent falsehoods. Joe Scarborough, once MSNBC’s only fair-and-balanced talking head, now says that Hillary was done in by a hostile press: "I think the fake news media,” led by the New York Times, “was pretty damn hostile toward Hillary Clinton throughout most of the campaign." For proof, go to her followers: “Hillary Clinton supporters can tell you how many stories were done on [her email scandal]." The hostility consisted of reporting on the scandal; this should never have been done.

Like the Old Testament God, whose name was I Am That I Am, she simply exists as the rightful president.

It’s an odd position for a journalist to take, and few other people have taken it. As reported by The Hill, “A Suffolk University/USA Today poll released one week before the 2016 election showed that just 7.9 percent of 1,000 registered likely voters polled believed the media was rooting for Donald Trump to win, while 75.9 percent answered Clinton.” Transparent falsehoods tend to have small audiences. But this is a sample of the multitude of lies that Hillary and her fans keep telling themselves, as they excuse her failure to be elected, or assert that she actually won (but was counted out by Russian hackers, etc.). The multitude of excuses suggests that none of them works or is really important; they are all just impromptu rationalizations for . . .

2. A central claim. The claim is that Hillary Is What She Is, and that is enough. In fact, it’s plenty. Like the Old Testament God, whose name was I Am That I Am, and the existential situations expressed by the popular expression It Is What It Is, she simply exists as the rightful president. She is eternally, pristinely, incontrovertibly presidential, presidential by definition, presidential by a logic that excludes all questions and qualifications.

Here’s an example of the claim. It comes from a website, Verrit, which was founded by one of Hillary’s people, obviously with her blessing. The site is designed to refute the lies and confirm the truth — about her, and about the fallen world that ignorantly, stupidly, and insanely rejected her. Headlines: “Untold Damage from the G.O.P.’s Theft of a Supreme Court Seat”; “1.2 Trillion Gallons of Untreated Waste Dumped in U.S. Water Each Year”; “Republicans Determined to Strip Health Care from Millions”; “Despite Attacks, Hillary Clinton and Her Voters Refuse to Be Silenced”; “Study: Mainstream Media Acted as Trump’s Mouthpiece, Clinton’s Foe.”

It’s difficult to navigate around this site; you’re fortunate if you land on something that interests you. The item that interested me is headlined “Every Major Media Narrative About 2016 Is Demonstrably False.”

FAKE:Hillary Clinton was a “flawed” candidate.

FACT:Hillary Clinton is the first woman in history to become the presidential nominee of a major party. Would anyone characterize that as a “flaw?” Singling out Hillary Clinton as “flawed” when all humans are flawed has a decidedly sexist tinge. There is nothing particularly flawed about working a lifetime to become one of the most accomplished women in political history.

Furthermore, the incessant “flawed’ narrative is wrong on its face. Hillary Clinton’s approval rating after she left the State Department was a stunning 69% in a WSJ poll. She entered the 2016 race in a very strong position and was immediately met with a character assassination campaign unseen in U.S. politics. This Gallup chart illustrates the effect of the systematic demonization of Clinton . . .

There follows a chart showing Clinton’s popularity bouncing around since 1992, and declining about 20 points, starting with 2015. That’s it; that’s the evidence. Must have been the media, right? Couldn’t have been Hillary Clinton herself, because . . . she was Hillary Clinton, otherwise known as “the first woman in history to become the presidential nominee of a major party.” You can’t deny that, can you? No. Is that a flaw? No. So she is unflawed — by definition.

It’s just frosting on the cake that Clinton spent a lifetime working to become “one of the most accomplished women in political history,” but this also is mysticism. Like other mystical sayings, it means either less or more than it appears to mean. It could apply, not just to Hillary, but to that strange woman who keeps turning up at PTA meetings with her 19-Point Program for School Progress. She’s probably spent her whole life trying to be “one of the most accomplished” — so why isn’t she above reproach? Why isn’t she just as good as Bill Clinton’s wife?

That’s not where you’re supposed to go. You’re supposed to see that we’re talking about Hillary Clinton, and nobody else but Hillary Clinton — a unique person who is uniquely accomplished and therefore uniquely without flaw. This, for most minds, would be an idea susceptible to debate, but for a few hardcore worshipers it’s a dogma that requires nothing but assertion.

Must have been the media, right? Couldn’t have been Hillary Clinton herself, because she was Hillary Clinton.

So, the cult has been launched; the priests are assembling; the idol is in position; the ceremonies will go on for a while. For how long?

Until the money runs out. And it’s not likely to run out soon.

America is strewn with the wrecks of religious cults that continue despite a general collapse of confidence. There is still a House of David, in some form; there is still a Scientology; and, more to the present point, there is still an I Am Movement. You may not have heard of all of these survivals, but that’s just because they no longer have money. The Clintons have tons of money, and they can employ as many priests as they are willing to open their wallets to. Hillary will try it again in 2020, and after her rebuff, and the Disney-produced funeral for Bill, she will anoint her offspring to continue the line of unflawed politicians. Every failed attempt will be regarded as yet more proof of the reality of those forces of darkness that ever wage war upon God and her elect.

She Is What She Is.




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Buying Genocide, Part 3

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Nazis as Socialists: How Accurate a Description?

An economic historian, Andrei Znamenski, wrote a nice analysis of the question of whether the National Socialists were really socialists. He begins by noting a fascinating historical fact: in the West outside of Germany, people to this day call the NSDAP “Nazis,” whereas the Germans still call them National Socialists. The full name of the party was of course the National Socialist German Workers Party, but Germans use — and used — just the first two words. Znamenski points out that Hitler and his followers never liked the term “Nazi”; they used “National Socialist” or the initials ND or NSDP. And in the years after the discovery of the Holocaust, “Nazi” — like “fascist” — became a generic term of abuse against political opponents. So we now have expressions like “condo-Nazi” and “femi-Nazi.” But as Znamenski notes, this is odd. Historians and other intellectuals never use “Commies” when writing about the Soviet Union under Stalin — they call people “Soviets” and so on. In fact, Znamenski observes, the Left in the West has systematically refused to recognize the egalitarian and socialist aspects of National Socialism. It has instead pushed two versions of the “Hitler Myth.”

One version — the one the communist and socialist Left most embraced — is that Hitler, while manipulating ordinary Germans, especially the bourgeoisie, was a puppet of the large industrial capitalists. That is, this Leftist myth has it that Nazism in particular and fascism in general “were the last-ditch effort of decaying monopoly capitalism that used them [i.e., dictators like Hitler and Mussolini] in their desperate desire to save the [capitalist] system from its final and unavoidable collapse” (550).

The Left in the West has systematically refused to recognize the egalitarian and socialist aspects of National Socialism.

This idea is belied by the facts. Early on (1925–1933), two-thirds of Nazi Party members were workers, farmers, and professionals. By the mid-1930s, industrial workers — who earlier supported by huge margins the Social Democratic and Communist Parties — were drawn over to the National Socialists, primarily because of the Party’s program of full employment. By the mid-1930s, nearly half of the SS were people of working-class background. By contrast, the industrialists overwhelmingly favored the conservative and ultra-conservative parties — the German National People’s Party, the German People’s Party, and the Catholic Center.

The second version of the Hitler Myth — the one most embraced by the progressive liberal and non-communist Left — was that Hitler was a demonic, uniquely charismatic dictator “who took advantage of the German people’s sadomasochistic and authoritative nature — enabled in this by the Great Depression.” Znamenski cites as an example a recent BBC documentary written by Laurence Rees, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler.

By the mid-1930s, nearly half of the SS were people of working-class background.

Znamenski doesn’t reply directly to this myth, so I will. I would suggest that it is in fact a pseudo-explanation. To say that Hitler was “charismatic” is merely to say that he was able to make his message resonate with many people. But the issues remain: what was the message? Why was it ultimately more appealing than the communist, mainstream socialist, progressive and conservative ideologies? Saying that Hitler (or Churchill, FDR, JFK, or Reagan) was charismatic is like saying that silent movie star Clara Bow was the “It” girl — the word names rather than explains an historical fact.

Yet, as Znamenski argues, the work of Götz Aly and others enables us to see that Hitler’s regime was indeed both nationalistic and socialistic:

Their goal was to empower all people of “Aryan stock” at the expense of non-Germans. Whereas Stalin cannibalized his own population, expropriating and phasing out segments of society on the basis of their social and class origin, Hitler rejected class warfare and acted as a “benign” dictator toward the German people. His bio-politics aspired to mold the members of the Aryan “tribe” into an all-inclusive “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) by uplifting them not through attacks on “class” aliens but on ethnic and racial “others.” Hence the ideological emphasis of Hitler’s regime on the expropriation of resources belonging to non-Germans and the exploitation of their slave labor. (545).

He might have added the exploitation of their bodies — the hair, the gold teeth, and even the ashes of bones used as fertilizer. National Socialism was similar to the international variety: anti-bourgeois, aiming for a classless system, but dissimilar primarily in privileging one ethnic group at the expense of others.

Znamenski adds a number of important points, including the fact that Hitler espoused socialist views before he adopted virulent anti-Semitic ones. Underscoring Aly’s analysis of the regime’s purchase of popular support, Znamenski quotes Albert Speer, the regime’s preferred architect and minister of war production:

It remains one of the oddities of this war that Hitler demanded far less from his people than Churchill and Roosevelt did from their respective nations. The German leaders were not disposed to make sacrifices themselves or ask sacrifices of the people. They tried to keep the morale of the people in the best possible state by concessions. (546)

It is worth noting that the top income tax rate in Germany throughout the war was a mere 13.7%, compared to 23.7% in Great Britain, and a whopping 94% in the United States.

One last, provocative point that Znamenski makes is that as the Nazis gained power, their socialist opponents started aping the nationalist aspect of National Socialism. In Germany, a group of communists formed their own splinter party — National Bolshevism — which (among other things) espoused militarism and anti-Semitism. They had posters with both the red star and the swastika and their street fighters were called “beefsteak” (brown on the outside, red on the inside).

He might have added the exploitation of their bodies — the hair, the gold teeth, and even the ashes of bones used as fertilizer.

Even more interesting is the response of Stalin to Hitler, a man whom Stalin trusted and admired at some level, but also feared. During the ferocious war with Nazi Germany, a war costing the lives of upwards of 22 million Russians, Stalin started openly appealing to Russian patriotism (as opposed to class warfare) and even loosened restrictions on the Russian Orthodox Church. After the war, Stalin aped Hitler ever more closely, In January 1953, an aging Stalin had the state propaganda organ Pravda put out the story that a group of Kremlin doctors, almost all of them Jewish, had poisoned two of Stalin’s closest aides and taken part in a “vast plot conducted by Western imperialists and Zionists to kill the top Soviet political and military leadership.” This was the Doctors’ Plot, and Stalin intended to have a show trial to set up a national campaign to rid the Soviet Union of “cosmopolitan” and “Zionist” elements. In short, Stalin was going to go after Russia’s (then) 2 million Jews. They would be sent to Stalin’s own concentration camp system, under the pretext of protecting them. No doubt the Jews would have been sent to the industrial camps to be used as slaves to support the Soviet regime. Stalin’s own profound anti-Semitism was a partial motive for his actions, but one suspects that he figured out that he could help pay for his war against the West by stealing whatever Jewish assets were left, just as this strategy worked for the Nazis (at least for a while). Only Stalin’s death a few months later stopped this plan from being implemented.

As fine as Znamenski’s analysis is, however, it requires considerable qualification.

First, there was a salient difference between Nazism and socialism (as that was typically defined), concerning ownership of private property. Specifically, even “democratic” socialist regimes traditionally advocated the nationalization (the socialization or social ownership of) major industries. For instance, Britain after WWII nationalized the coal, electricity, railway, and healthcare industries. And the communists essentially tried to own all industries, virtually socializing all sources of production, even family farms.

In Germany, a group of communists formed their own splinter party — National Bolshevism — which espoused militarism and anti-Semitism.

However, the Nazis seemed ambivalent about socialist economics. While their early party platform advocated nationalization of major industries, when in power Hitler actually privatized a number of companies. These included four major banks; the German railway, then the second largest socialized company in the world; the largest German steel company; several shipbuilding companies; and the company that controlled all the metal production in Upper Silesia.

Hitler’s own description of his economic views is at least unclear, if not downright oxymoronic. He said at one point, “We are socialists; we are enemies of today’s capitalistic system.” However, he also held that socialism of the Nazi sort “has nothing to do with Marxian socialism . . . Marxism is anti-property; true socialism is not.” And he said in private, “I absolutely insist on protecting private property . . . we must encourage private initiative.” Again, Hitler said, “Socialism! That is an unfortunate word altogether . . . What does socialism really mean? If people have something to eat and their pleasures, then they have their socialism.” He also said, “The basic feature of our economic theory is that we have no theory at all.”

One revealing thing that Hitler (after achieving power) said in this regard was, “There is no license anymore, no private sphere where the individual belongs to himself. That is socialism, not such trivial matters as the possibility of privately owning the means of production. Such things mean nothing if I subject people to a kind of discipline they can’t escape . . . what need have we to socialize banks and factories? We socialize human beings.”

Stalin figured out that he could help pay for his war against the West by stealing whatever Jewish assets were left, just as this strategy worked for the Nazis (at least for a while)

This has puzzled some commentators, so much that some say the Nazi regime didn’t really have an economic ideology. But it did, of course: it had its own form of corporatism (or “corporativism”). Corporatism permits private businesses but organizes them by industrial sector and tightly controls them (as well as the workers) so that economic production satisfies the state’s needs and purposes. From the corporatist perspective, what was needed was not the elimination of private enterprise but its total control by the State for the good of the people generally.

So under corporatism the State is the chief institution. No wonder the Italian fascists summarized this view as: “Everything for the state; nothing outside the state; nothing against the state.” It is worth noting that this vision (of the various institutions in society not competing and clashing, but of cooperating — under the direction of the state) is a vison shared by more than fascists and National Socialists: it is attractive to many Catholic social philosophers (who have advocated a “Catholic corporatism”), many American soi-disant progressives, and the present-day leadership of both China and Russia.

Under corporatism, people are allowed to keep their private property, including their businesses, even large ones, but only if these are controlled by and run for the benefit of the state. Neosocialism, of which fascism and National Socialism were varieties, can be defined as the state pursuit of socialist social goals (such as equality and “fraternity”) through a corporatist rather than a socialist economy.That is, a neosocialist state will pursue wealth equality, say, or fraternity (e.g., Volksgemeinschaft), not by nationalizing industries sector by sector but by controlling and coordinating the private companies to further these goals, including taxing businesses and redistributing the wealth.

From the corporatist perspective, what was needed was not the elimination of private enterprise but its total control by the State for the good of the people generally.

The concept of Volksgemeinschaft informed the National Socialist form of corporatism. The state would not directly own, but would certainly direct all major industries, and control and coordinate labor, industry, farming, the educational system, and the media for the benefit of the Volk, through its embodiment as the state, which was in turn embodied in the Führer.

The Nazi regime pursued classical corporatist economic policies, including central planning, massive controls, autarkic and one-sided trade policies, and massive spending programs. The regime replaced the trade unions with a unified German Labor Front, under regime control, which banned strikes, lockouts, and summary terminations. The regime replaced all the chambers of commerce with a unified Chamber of Economics, which then was folded into the Labor Front. The combined Labor Front and Chamber of Economics was run by a board of trustees, all appointed by the regime. Small businesses were monitored by shop councils and Courts of Honor that cooperated with small business owners to set working standards and wages — under the supervision of the regime.

The first economic program the regime formulated was a massive infrastructure program, which led to a 300% increase in the number of construction workers. The regime controlled the number of car models made, and (when war broke out) restricted their use. The regime of course rapidly increased military spending, which hit 10% of GDP in 1936, vastly more than that of any other European nation. And while there were regime members who favored free market policies, the faction that favored autarkic policies and a military economy won out — Hitler envisioning a struggle to the death between National Socialism and “Judeo-Bolshevism.” Germany’s trade policy was reconfigured to favor trade with southern and southeastern Europe, aiming to make southern Europe and the Balkans dependent upon the regime, supplying it with raw materials in exchange for German manufactured goods. The regime fostered the creation of monopolies and oligopolies, the better to control them. Naturally, the degree of state control over the economy only increased with the outbreak and then escalation of the war.

The state would not directly own, but would certainly direct all major industries for the benefit of the Volk, through its embodiment as the state.

The clear Nazi aim was to provide a high standard of living for citizens of the country — an aim that was never urgent for Stalin. But consider another major difference between Stalin and Hitler. Lenin had achieved power by armed revolt and Stalin by systematically eliminating his rivals in the party dictatorship. At no point did Lenin, Stalin, or any of the Bolsheviks ever have to face genuine elections with actual opposition parties, parties with competing ideologies, as the Nazis originally did. This may be part of the reason why Stalin could (in Znamenski’s nice phrase) “cannibalize” his own population, selecting various groups on the basis of alleged class affiliation for use in the Soviet’s own vast concentration camp system. However, the Nazis retained to the end the sense that they needed to keep their base — German workers, farmers, small businesses, bureaucrats, big businesses, the military command — at least materially provided for until the end. And as I explain below, there was a deeper motive for the National Socialist transfer of wealth to German citizens.

In the end, the regime collapsed, because as the conquests were halted and then rolled back — and the number of Jews (and others) whose assets and labor it could completely seize diminished — it ran out of money, men, and machines to continue fighting.

The regime fostered the creation of monopolies and oligopolies, the better to control them.

In fine, the Nazi regime was truly socialist. And it died as all socialist schemes must, for precisely the reason Baroness Thatcher identified so clearly: it ran out of other people’s assets to steal.

Nazi Anti-Semitism: Was it Unique?

In the last section I focused on the socialist aspect of National Socialism. Let us turn now to the nationalistic side.

It is a question often asked: How could the Germans — arguably the most culturally advanced people in the world at the time — descend into the barbarism of totalitarianism and genocide? I suggest that a great part of the answer lies precisely in that advanced culture.

Let me start by talking about an influential German sociologist who helped shape National Socialist ideology: Ferdinand Tonnies (1855–1936), a star in the German academic world. Tonnies distinguished between Gemeinschaft (roughly “organic community”) and Gesellschaft (roughly, “associational society”). Gemeinschaft is the sort of emotionally tight community that (allegedly) characterizes the family and long-standing ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods. In such communities, Tonnies held, individuals have mutually recognized roles to play in set relationships defined by Wesenwille (“natural will”), which consists of naturally occurring emotions. People behave towards one another in accordance with traditional social rules developed by a shared organic history.

In the end, the regime died as all socialist schemes must, for precisely the reason Margaret Thatcher identified so clearly: it ran out of other people’s assets to steal.

In contrast, Tonnies said, Gesellschaft is the sort of loosely structured and diverse organizations such as governmental bureaucracies and large industrial companies. Such organizations are characterized by Kurwille (“rational will”), relationships based solely on rational self-interest. The growth of Gesellschaft (during the industrial revolution) undermined the ties of family and neighborhood, resulting in an impersonal society and widespread alienation, the feeling of being separated from one’s work and society generally. This is a line of thought that traces back to Marx at least.

Now, Tonnies held that all societies contain both sorts of organizations, though a given society may have a dominance of either Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft. His view was not that societies should aim at one or the other type of association, but rather (in the words of the New World Encyclopedia), “More important for the developed of a successful society is the effort to harmonize the two aspects, and thus to ensure that both individual goals and the needs of the society as a whole are satisfied, while maintaining the element of care and concern for each person as members of one human family.”

In much sociological literature, then as now, so-called observational science is mixed with ethical value judgments. The fact-value distinction — or in Humean terms, the is-ought distinction — is routinely disregarded by sociologists in particular, and social scientists in general.[1] Whatever Tonnies meant about balancing the two types of association, by his very description, Gemeinschaft is more appealing, especially to people of a romantic bent. Isn’t familial concern a better basis for society than cold, selfish calculation? So, while Tonnies opposed the Nazis, leading them to strip him of his emeritus position in 1933, the National Socialists seized on his concept of Gemeinschaft and made it the center of their worldview. More precisely, the Party’s sociological ideology was centered on turning Germany into a Volksgemeinschaft — in this case, an extended Aryan clan.

German socialism is informed by the national spirit, the antithesis of the German spirit is the Jewish spirit, and the main goal of the German people and National Socialism is to eliminate that Jewish spirit.

We can now turn to Werner Sombart. Znamenski mentions the key influence that Sombart (1863–1941) played in the development of national socialist ideology but doesn’t spell out this influence. Sombart started as a Marxist, but moved away from Marxism to develop his own rightist critique of (modern) capitalism. He laid his views out in his magnum opus, The Modern Capitalism: Historical and Systematic Presentation of the Overall European Economic Life from its Beginnings to the Present Day[2] — first published in two volumes in 1902, then expanded in 1916, and growing to three volumes by 1927 — as well as The Jews and Modern Capitalism — published in 1911.

Sombart held that capitalism developed in three stages: early capitalism (prior to the industrial revolution); high capitalism (beginning in 1760 or so); and late capitalism (beginning with World War I). In Sombart’s analysis, early capitalism — medieval commerce — was a stable, coherent, supportive system, in which guilds and merchants cooperated, with wages held constant at a “just” level, markets shared equitably by the players, profits and wages guaranteed but held to reasonable levels, and markets with production levels limited and protected from competition with those in other places. But, he argued, because Jewish traders and manufacturers were excluded from the guilds, the Jews developed a hatred for the system, deliberately destroyed it and replaced it by modern predatory capitalism, with its unlimited competition.

In a book he wrote at the outset of WWI, Sombart advocated the theory that the war was the unavoidable clash “between the English commercial civilization and the heroic culture of Germany.” The English, under the influence of their commercial mindset, with its utilitarian emphasis on the happiness of individual people, had lost their warlike instincts. He held that the highest ideal was the “German idea of the State. . . . The State is neither founded nor formed by individuals, nor is its purpose to serve any interests of individuals. It is a Volksgemeinschaft in which the individual has no rights but only duties.”

Considering that this is precisely how Hitler consummated his power after gaining office, Schmitt’s work is prophetic, to say the least.

By 1917 Sombart was a full professor at one of the top universities in Germany, and was more renowned as a sociologist than even his longtime friend Max Weber. By the early 1930s, he had moved into the National Socialism orbit.[3] In a 1934 book called German Socialism, he claimed that German socialism puts the “welfare of the whole over the welfare of the individual.” This new socialism requires “a planned economy in accordance with state regulations.” Moreover, German socialism is informed by the Volkgeist (national spirit), the antithesis of the German spirit is the Jewish spirit, and the main goal of the German people and National Socialism is to eliminate that Jewish spirit.

Besides Sombart, there were a number of other academic or intellectual stars whose views informed the development of the National Socialist ideology in the 1920s. These thinkers, whom Jeffrey Herf has called “reactionary modernists,” tried to combine progressive feelings toward modern technology with regressive feelings toward modern democratic government and free market economics. They included sociologist Hans Freyer (1887–1969), philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), writer Ernst Jünger (1895–1998), legal scholar Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), and historian Oswald Spengler (1880–1936). While these thinkers differed in their receptivity to the National Socialist party — most joining the party enthusiastically, but one of them (Spengler) being critical of it — they were all “nationalists who turned the romantic anti-capitalism of the German Right away from backward-looking pastoralism, pointing instead to the outlines of a beautifully new order replacing the formless chaos due to capitalism in a united, technologically advanced nation” (264).

How enthusiastic Sombart and Heidegger were about technological advance is open to dispute, but that these thinkers contributed ideas that informed National Socialism is not. Freyer held that the highest stage of society is the state in which individuals merge into a collective unity. Jünger wrote that the Jews had to be either completely assimilated or forced to immigrate to Palestine. Spengler argued for a Prussian Socialism, meaning a German nationalistic non-Marxist socialism.

This is, of course, a standard fascist trope — suggesting there is such a thing as “the Will of the People” in a collective sense.

Especially useful to the National Socialists in developing their views about government and law was the work of Carl Schmitt. During the 1920s, he wrote a string of influential essays and books with ideas that the National Socialists found useful. For example, in 1921, he published the essay On Dictatorship, in which he argued that one of the most effective components of the new (Weimar) constitution was the power given to the president to declare a state of emergency, which he characterizes as dictatorial. Considering that this is precisely how Hitler consummated his power after gaining office, Schmitt’s work is prophetic, to say the least. And Schmitt urged that dictatorship means simply power achieved by other than the slow means permitted by republican democracy.

Just a year later (1922), Schmitt published another controversial essay — Political Theology — in which he advanced the thesis that political theory investigates the state in precisely the way theology investigates God. In 1923 — a decade before he joined the Nazi Party — he published a critique of the legitimacy of parliamentary government entitled The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. In this work he attacked the practices of representative liberal politics in ways that ironically anticipate by a half-century Public Choice Theory, arguing that actual party politics are far from the ideal of dispassionate rational actors debating policy prescriptions with the goal of reaching the best answer for society, but are instead the trading of favors in back rooms. He also questioned the idea that a majority vote represents the will of the people. As an author of the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Schmitt puts it:

If a majority can overrule a minority, and identify its will with the will of the people, why should it not be possible for the will of a minority to express the will of the people? What if a group of democratic rebels want to establish a democracy in a society where most people are opposed to the principle of democracy? Would they not be justified, from a democratic point of view, to abandon majority rule, to identify their own will as the will of the people, and to subject their compatriots to a re-education dictatorship? Schmitt suggests that such a dictatorship would still have to be considered democratic, since it still appeals to the idea that political rule ought to be base or the will of the people.

This is, of course, a standard fascist trope — suggesting there is such a thing as “the Will of the People” in a collective sense. His was a sophisticated defense and explication of the fascist notion that the dictator can better represent the Will of the People than even — the majority of the people!

The last major work that Schmitt brought out during the period during which the National Socialists were solidifying their general ideology and electoral platforms (the early- to mid-1920s) was The Concept of the Political (1927; with views elaborated in Constitutional Theory, 1928). In this work, he advances the theory that “the political” is what is central to politics, not mere party politics. The political, he held, is always and everywhere constituted by the existential delineation of friend from enemy. Not even friend from other, please note, but friend from enemy. The enemy can be anybody felt by the dominant political group to be different and alien “in an especially intense way.” And the difference that sets the enemy apart need not be nationality — it can be any difference (racial, religious, or ideological) so long as it is felt deeply enough to become a violent struggle with the other.[4]

The notion that the state’s political unity necessarily requires the delineation of an enemy that threatens the people’s interests and wellbeing is tailor-made as a justification for the singularly virulent National Socialist anti-Semitism.

Looking at the work of Tonnies and Sombart in relation to the development of National Socialist ideology, I think we are in a position at least partially to answer the question raised by the work of Goldhagen: whether the reason for Hitler’s support was that the German culture had a uniquely virulent form of anti-Semitism — eliminationist anti-Semitism — that accounted for the German public support of the Holocaust.

The notion that the state’s political unity necessarily requires the delineation of an enemy is tailor-made for National Socialist anti-Semitism.

The idea that there is a unique form of anti-Semitism indigenous in German culture seems dubious on its face. The standard form of anti-Semitism is one common in Europe, but also in North and South America, and the Middle East. It is what I call lumpen anti-Semitism — the anti-Semitism of the average, not particularly well-educated Christian. Among many Christians, it takes the form of hating Jews, allegedly because they “killed Christ,” but also generally from “prophet rejection resentment,” the idea that Jews are people who reject the view of Jesus as Messiah, and even more as the son of God. Lumpen anti-Semitism is quite common among Muslims as well, because Jews also reject Muhammad as a prophet. Pogroms aimed at Jews were recurrent in European history. Note, however, that lumpen anti-Semitism is not eliminationist: throughout European history, typically, if any Jews converted to Christianity (or Islam), no further attacks were made on them.

But the Nazi Party’s ideological anti-Semitism was never based on the idea of prophet rejection, or on any aspect of Christian theology, for the simple reason that the Party never allied itself with any Christian religion, in the way some other German right-wing parties had.[5] No, the Nazi Party’s anti-Semitism was what we can call doctrinaire anti-Semitism. It was informed by the rightist anti-capitalism of the German academic right-wing critics of modern capitalism, which held that Jews represent modern capitalism, that they are solely interested in profit and market share, not Volksgemeinschaft, that they want unrestrained free markets and widespread free trade, rather than structured and controlled nationally autarchic markets. This was the justification for the singular twist of Nationalist Socialist anti-Semitism.

What was unique to Germany was the presence in the late 1800s and early 1900s of a group of major academic thinkers — truly academic superstars — whose writings were not widely influential outside the German world but profoundly informed the National Socialist ideology. It was a more “sophisticated” anti-Semitism based on a hatred of modern capitalism rather than a love of ancient religion. It tapped into a pre-existing strain of German romantic pastoralism. And it was given a racial basis by the Nazis. This is what was deliberately spread by the Nazi propaganda regime, certainly exploiting pre-existing lumpen anti-Semitism but twisting it into the doctrinaire anti-Semitism.

The idea that there is a unique form of anti-Semitism indigenous in German culture seems dubious on its face.

If you want to see the Tonnies-Sombart strain of socioeconomic theory in Nazi ideology, there is no better place to look than one of the five major anti-Semitic propaganda movies the regime produced during the period 1939 to 1940, Linen from Ireland (Linen aus Irland, 1939). I have discussed this film extensively elsewhere, so I will be brief here. Suffice it to say that the plot concerns humble German village artisans and a local company owned by a man who, although he is wealthy, has total respect for them. The artisans make linen, and the local company buys it. Together the local tradesman and the company form a cozy economic Volksgemeinschaft — the artisans earn a decent living, taking pride in the craft that they and their ancestors have practiced time out of mind, the company owner gets rich, but not “obscenely” so, and looks out for the artisans in a patriarchal sort of way. The owner and the artisans are able to get the prices needed for them all to live well because the government imposes steep tariffs on linen imported from Ireland — where apparently it can be produced much more cheaply.

Into this German spirit heaven — heaven for the workers and owners, but apparently not for the consumers who are forced to pay higher prices! — steps a devil right out of Jewish spirit hell. A big company owned by a good Aryan but controlled by a scheming Jewish manager buys out the local linen companies so that they will not oppose a scheme to end tariffs on imported linen. The manager’s scheme calls for importing cheap linen from Ireland and then shutting down the domestic industry. The Jewish manager is portrayed as quite willing to do this and thereby (the film alleges) destroy the centuries-old community and starve thousands of people, because (as he brags) he is a man of the world, not rooted in any community. Only at the end is his scheme exposed and halted.

The Conviction of Ideologues

In this essay have tried to explore a number of points, some specific to National Socialism, and some more general. I explored the general compliance mechanisms of power, purchase, and persuasion. I argue that these tools are not mutually exclusive; any regime will use all three to get citizens to comply with its goals. Clearly, the National Socialists did so. In an earlier essay I argued that they had a propaganda machine second to none, which I illustrated by showing the amount of work the regime devoted to just one tiny medium of propaganda — uniforms and insignia.[6] In this piece I covered in detail how the regime carefully used racially redistributionist economic policy to give German citizens material prosperity, thus purchasing popular support. (In a subsequent essay, I will explore the regime’s use of power to enforce support).

Into this German spirit heaven steps a devil right out of Jewish spirit hell.

This brings us to another subject that I examined: the degree to which the National Socialists were socialists. Here, the answer is probably surprising to most Americans, but as Aly’s work brilliantly establishes, the National Socialists were indeed profoundly socialistic; that is, they pursued the practice common to all socialist regimes of targeting a subset of the population and then confiscating its assets, but they pushed the practice farther than most socialist regimes do. Rather than take, say, 75% of a targeted person’s income (as the present socialist prime minister of France has tried to do), the National Socialists tried to take, and often succeeded in taking, 100% of the targets’ assets, right down to their labor, personal belongings, and ultimately their bodies — hair, teeth and bones. This worked for a short while — only about a dozen years, which is just a blink of the eye in historical terms — in delivering material wealth to the nontargeted “Aryan” Germans. The National Socialists engaged in a radical redistributionist frenzy, but it worked only for a brief period.

The third subject I explored was the nationalist side of National Socialism. I suggested that what was unique about National Socialism was its explicit identification of Jews as the main enemy, and its focus on proper “Aryan” Germans of all economic classes. It wanted a fascist dictatorship of the Aryans, rather than the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat. This identification with the German nation, presented as a desire for a Volksgemeinschaft, was a crucial feature of Nazi ideology, crafted to win popular support, especially the support of workers and farmers, away from other socialist and communist parties. The strategy worked so well that the communists started emulating the Nazis’ nationalism. Patriotism is a much more powerful identity than class.

The fourth matter I examined was the unique nature of National Socialist anti-Semitism. It transformed the traditional religious lumpen anti-Semitism, based on prophet rejection, into a pseudo-scientific doctrinaire anti-Semitism based on race-genetic theory, Social Darwinist eugenics theory, and right-wing anticapitalist sociological theory promulgated by major German academics. So the National Socialists didn’t just engage in a radical redistributionist frenzy; they engaged in a radical racial redistributionist frenzy.

The National Socialists were indeed profoundly socialistic; they pursued the socialist practice of targeting a subset of the population and then confiscating its assets, but they pushed the practice farther than most socialist regimes do.

How does this understanding of National Socialist ideology help us come at the Goldhagen-Groth dispute? Both authors were right about some things and wrong about others. Goldhagen (and Gellately) are right in thinking that the German people broadly backed the regime, and that anti-Semitism was historically common in German culture. But Groth is right in thinking that native German anti-Semitism was no different from that kind that is present in virtually all Christian and Muslim countries (then and now), not some special “eliminationist” anti-Semitism. More importantly, Groth is right in thinking that the regime’s popular support didn’t rest upon the German people’s anti-Semitism.

He is wrong, however, in his failure to recognize that National Socialist ideology certainly did have a different and more dangerous anti-Semitism than the lumpen variety. The regime’s anti-Semitism was based on racial genetics and anti-capitalist sociological culture. More importantly, Groth is wrong in thinking that the regime did not enjoy broad support throughout its existence. It did have that support, not because the whole populace shared its ideological anti-Semitism, but because the regime delivered substantial material wealth and other seeming geopolitical successes (at least until 1943). To reiterate a rejoinder I earlier made to Groth, this hardly validates Hitler. Yes, he gave his political base material wealth and national pride, but it was wealth stolen from viciously victimized people, especially the Jews, and it was national pride based on the brutal seizure of other countries’ lands.

Let me end by discussing briefly the issue of the role that ideology played in the “Final Solution.” I’ll repeat an observation made by Stephen Kotkin, who is arguably the greatest authority on Stalin and the Soviet Union. He makes the point that contemporary scholars now have access to archives recording what Stalin and other high-level officials said in private to one another. What scholars have discovered, Kotkin notes sarcastically, is that the communists really were — communist! In other words, the Party officials were true believers in Marxist-Leninist ideology at the highest level.

The Nazi regimed enjoyed broad support, not because the whole populace shared its ideological anti-Semitism, but because until 1943 it delivered substantial material wealth and other seeming geopolitical successes.

I would suggest that anyone interested in National Socialism take the same perspective. The Nazi leadership were true believers. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels et al. really accepted National Socialist ideology, including especially its doctrinaire anti-Semitism, as fully true. They didn’t cynically target Jews and just call them racially and culturally inferior and dangerous; no, they targeted Jews because they viewed them precisely as such.

Now, was the National Socialism “eliminationist”? It certainly seems to be an open question, in that while the Party’s hostility towards the Jews was made manifest from the start, with a sequence of targeting actions. Yet in reality no attempts to exterminate the Jews in Germany or elsewhere took place before 1941. What was going on?

My suggestion — or better, my speculation — is that we need to differentiate between inherent and operational eliminationism. From 1933, when Hitler achieved power, to 1939 when he invaded Poland and the English declared war upon him, he was content to rack up geopolitical gains and simply harass Jews into emigrating (after seizing most of their tangible assets). The arch-ideologue Eichmann himself kept pushing his “Madagascar Plan” (under which all European Jews were to be dispossessed of assets and then shipped to Madagascar to live) until 1939 or later.

The Nazi leadership were true believers. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels et al. really accepted National Socialist ideology, including especially its doctrinaire anti-Semitism, as fully true.

This was consistent with what I will call inherent eliminationism. If your anti-Semitism holds that Jews are racially inferior but also culturally dangerous to true Aryans, and you hold that true Aryans will eventually conquer the world, this would seem to imply that eventually, Jewish people must be eliminated. But that is like saying, “Someday, the Messiah will come.” It is more a statement of faith in the future than an imperative for the present.

But in 1939, things began to rapidly change. After earlier geopolitical successes with no military opposition, Hitler’s invasion of Poland finally brought Britain and France into the war. He had earlier threatened to hold Jews at fault if war ever broke out. In 1939, he had his excuse.

I suspect that the planning for the war with Britain and France in late 1938 was a big part of the reason the regime started the production of its first two explicitly anti-Semitic feature films, Robert and Bertram and Linen from Ireland, both produced in 1938 and released the next year (the first just two months before and the second one month after the outbreak of the war). Preparing for the actual use of the Wehrmacht (and recognizing the massive increase in funding this would require) led the regime to start actively preparing the public for the wholesale dispossession of the Jews.

In 1939, planning started in earnest toward the Wehrmacht’s much bigger challenge of invading the Low Countries and France, which again would increase the need for seized assets. Moreover, both Hitler and Goebbels were disappointed with the strength of the anti-Semitic messages of the 1939 films. So the three major regime studios were ordered to start production on major production anti-Semitic propaganda films. These films (The Rothschilds, Jud Suss, and The Eternal Jew) were released in 1940.

The socialistic solution to the nationalistic military program was to target Jews for complete dispossession, followed by the looting of captive peoples generally.

The war clearly went in Germany’s favor from 1939 until 1941. The regime rapidly conquered the Western half of Poland, the Nordic countries, and France with relative ease. It was only with the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the skies over Britain in 1941 (which ended the possibility of invading Britain) that the regime began to sense its vulnerability, and it was in 1941 that the decision was made to exterminate (rather that force the emigration of) the Jews.

So it was a real change in geopolitical realities that induced the National Socialists to move from merely implicit to actually explicit eliminationist anti-Semitism, and then to the implementation of the Final Solution. The socialistic solution to the nationalistic military program was to target Jews for complete dispossession, followed by the looting of captive peoples generally. This allowed the regime to purchase the support of the average (non-Jewish) German with stolen food, clothing, furniture, and homes.

In the first article in this series, “Total Regime, Total Propaganda,” I suggested that one crucial mechanism exploited by compliance agents, especially in totalitarian regimes, is propaganda — persuasion, if you will — and that the National Socialists were adept at that tool. In this article, I’ve put the focus on the mechanism of purchase — that is, gaining compliance by trading items of value; and I’ve reported Götz Aly’s evidence of how attentive the regime was to buying the citizen’s support. Aly nicely points out that the two methods of compliance — persuasion and purchase — were mutually supportive. Dispossessing, deporting, and destroying the Jews was made easier by the relentless and remorseless campaign of propaganda against them.

In the third and final installment of the series, I will turn to the role that power played in the regime’s attainment of popular compliance with its agenda. It is ironic — as Daniel Goldhagen and Götz Aly, despite their differences, agree: the regime’s power apparatus was modest, compared to its reputation. I will examine this idea more closely.

References

Aly, Götz. Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State. New York: Henry Holt and Company (2005).
Backhaus, Jürgen. “Sombart’s Modern Capitalism,” in Kyklos 42 (Fasc. 4) pp. 599–611, (1989). http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6435.1989.tb01276.x/abstract
Groth, Alexander. “Demonizing the Germans: Goldhagen and Gellately on Nazism,” in Political Society Review Vol. 32, No.1, pp. 118-158 (2003). https://isistatic.org/journal-archive/pr/32_01/groth.pdf
Grundmann, Reiner and Stehr, Nico. “Why Is Werner Sombart Not Part of the Core of Classical Sociology? From Fame to (Near) Oblivion,” in Journal of Classical Sociology Vol. 1 (2), pp. 257–287 (2001). http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/14687950122232558
Jason, Gary. “Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer: A Review of Triumph of the Will,” in Liberty, April 2007, p. 44. http://libertyunbound.com/node/92
Jason, Gary. “Film and Propaganda: What Nazi Cinema Has to Tell US,” in Reason Papers 35 (1): 203-219 (2013). https://www.academia.edu/24443412/Film_and_Propaganda_The_Lessons_of_the_Nazi_Film_Industry_2013_
Jason, Gary. “Total Regime, Total Propaganda,” in Liberty, July 3, 2016 (2016a). http://www.libertyunbound.com/node/1574
Jason, Gary. “Whence did German Propaganda Films Derive Their Power?” in Reason Papers 38 (1): 166-181 (2016b). https://reasonpapers.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/rp_381_9.pdf
Jason, Gary. “Selling Genocide I: The Earlier Films,” in Reason Papers 38 (1): pp. 127-157 (2016c). https://reasonpapers.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/rp_381_7.pdf
Kotkin, Stephen. Interview on Uncommon Knowledge, October 6, 2015. http://www.hoover.org/research/hoover-fellow-stephen-kotkin-discusses-stalins-rise-power
Ridley, Matt. Interview with Russ Roberts, Econtalk, 2010. http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2010/Ridleytrade.mp3
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Carl Schmitt” (2014). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/schmitt/
Znamenski, Andrei A. “From ‘National Socialists’ to ‘Nazi’: History, Politics, and the English Language,” The Independent Review Vol. 19, No. 4 pp. 537–561 (2015). http://www.independent.org/pdf/tir/tir_19_04_06_znamenski.pdf.



[1] Werner Sombart in particular couldn’t resist making value judgments — especially about Jews — though he feigned being purely scientific in his writings (Grundmann and Stehr, 270).

[2] For a nice overview of the structure of Sombart’s Modern Capitalism, see Jürgen Backhaus.

[3] Reiner Grundmann and Nico Stehr note that Sombart was initially enthusiastic about National Socialism, and say that he — like other reactionary modernists such as Heidegger and Schmitt — only soured on the regime when they realized it didn’t want them for high positions or for policy advice (271). They don’t explain why the regime didn’t welcome these intellectuals, but I would suggest it was primarily because Hitler was profoundly anti-intellectual, neither comfortable around nor deferential towards intellectuals.

[4] Tom G. Palmer in a recent lecture made the point that Carl Schmitt’s perspective is very much alive in Putin’s Russia.

[5] Indeed, there was a fascination with arch-anti-Christian Nietzsche among many of the Nazi hierarchy — including, of course, Hitler himself.

[6] I have written more extensively of the Nazi propaganda machine. Some of my essays of interest might include “Film and Propaganda: The Lessons of the German Film Industry”; “Whence Did German Propaganda Films Derive Their Power?”; and “Selling Genocide: The Earlier Films.”


Editor's Note: This essay is the final part of a three-part series.



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Liaisin’ the Night Away

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No, I am not going to do the predictable thing — review Hillary Clinton’s book. I reviewed her earlier one, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us (Liberty, May 1996, pp. 51–54), and that’s enough to expect from me. True, this one seems to have been written by different ghost writers, although it’s hard to be sure. There’s a point below which stylistic analysis can’t be conclusive. But that’s not enough to justify further consideration of this “author’s” work.

Besides, a lot of other people have already done a good job with What Happened. One of them is Joseph Bottum in the Washington Free Beacon. Says Bottum, writing about the “writer”:

Has there been a more self-conscious major-party presidential candidate since Richard Nixon? The stiff way she moved, the personalizing of every slight, the grimacing smile as though she had been forced to teach herself how to wear her face: Nearly everything about Hillary Clinton spoke of a self-consciousness so vast, so heavy, that only the sternest will could shoulder it. Like a robot with slow actuators, she always seemed to have a gap between a stimulus and her response — a brief but noticeable moment of deciding how to react. Leave aside questions of her truthfulness about everything from her Rose Hill law firm's files to her private email server while she was at the State Department. Trump's needling epithet of "Crooked Hillary" gained traction because, regardless of her actual honesty, she had the affect of dishonesty — the pause that recalls for many viewers a liar choosing what to say.

Well put, and I’ll leave well enough alone. On to other matters.

In 1959, Isabel Paterson found a young couple who wanted to buy her old wooden farmhouse near Princeton, New Jersey. “The young wife,” she wrote to a friend, “‘loves an old house.’ She has certainly got something to love.”

Readers don’t care about somebody being killed, but they do care about penthouses, luxury suites, celebrity yachts, and high-rise apartments.

I’ll say the same thing about the good old English language: those who love it have certainly got something to love. It has the largest vocabulary in the world, and the most chaotic spelling, and sources that are stranger and more varied than those of any other language. In addition, it has the world’s most insensitive users.

I can’t establish that scientifically, but I have plenty of what “scientists” disparage as “anecdotal evidence.”

Here’s some:

On July 27, Wyndham Lathem, a science professor employed by Northwestern University, and Andrew Warren, an employee in the business office of Somerville College, Oxford University, allegedly butchered the boyfriend of Lathem in the latter’s high-rise apartment in Chicago. I put in high-rise because murder stories are always supposed to have stuff like that in them. Readers don’t care about somebody being killed, but they do care about penthouses (Ayn Rand wrote a murder play called Penthouse Legend), luxury suites, celebrity yachts, and high-rise apartments. Readers want class.

If it’s a sign that there are still murderers who love a good book, as they did in the Nero Wolfe stories, then it’s a good thing.

Now, after what seems to have been a high-rise thrill-killing, Lathem and Warren apparently left the corpse to cool and — you will never guess what they did next. They drove to the public library in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where Lathem made a contribution of $1,000 in memory of the victim. They then escaped to California, where they eventually turned themselves in. They are now in jail in Chicago.

I thought your curiosity would be aroused by that part about the donation to the library. It leaves me with a few thousand questions, too. If it’s a sign that there are still murderers who love a good book, as they did in the Nero Wolfe stories, then it’s a good thing. But what makes the story relevant, more or less, to reading and writing is what spokespersons for Oxford University had to say about the university’s employee, Mr. Warren.

The PR release was sensibly worded. It said, among other things: “We have been in contact with the police in the UK and are ready to help the US investigating authorities in any way they need.” Unfortunately, the principal of Somerville College wouldn’t leave well enough alone. She added this:

We and the university authorities will liaise with the investigating authorities and provide any assistance that is required.

This comes as upsetting news to all of us. Counselling support can be made available to anyone who needs it.

The principal, Alice Prochaska, is a distinguished archivist and curator who was once head librarian of Yale. Yet her acquaintance with books seems not to have extended far enough to inform her that “liaise with” is a pretty poor substitute for “help,” especially when it is used as a redundant parallel to “provide assistance.”

At first I was willing to congratulate Principal Prochaska on avoiding the temptation to administrative overreach. According to the well known statement of Rahm Emanuel (which I am about to paraphrase), administrators seldom fail to waste a good crisis, but the principal’s double qualifiers, “anyone who needs it” and “any assistance that is required,” somewhat allayed my fears. Then I realized: everything in the principal’s message is classic overreach.

It’s not just the quantity of words that’s important; it’s the quality.

Consider the rush from helping investigators to providing counselling support for “anyone who needs it.” Is Somerville College, whose alumnae include Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Daphne Park, the Queen of Spies, so sheltered a place that the rumor of crimes committed by a clerk in the financial office can drive its inhabitants round the bend? Principal Prochaska’s psychiatric initiative looks like just another way for a modern bureaucracy to reach out to its subjects and clutch them to its smothering breast.

Somerville College had no connection with the murder. If you were wondering, for some bizarre reason, whether the college would help the police with any facts it might have about Andrew Warren, the press release cleared that up. The principal’s only function was to expand useless verbiage — which appears to be why we employ college administrators. Under their tutelage, help becomes assistance, and assistance gives birth to counselling. To increase the number of syllables, counselling generates counselling support (we wouldn’t want anyone to think that our counselors will be non-supportive), and they need generates that is required. It is only proper, in such an authoritative message, that authorities should appear twice in the same sentence.

But it’s not just the quantity of words that’s important; it’s the quality. That’s where liaise comes in. Its function is to convert a common, low-quality, bureaucratic communication into something fairly stinking with high intrigue.When I read “ready to help,” I picture one cop calling up another cop and saying, “Ya know this bloke Andy Warren? Yeah, that’s the one. Got anything on him?” When I read “liaise,” I picture Allied agents behind the German lines, hoping that the message they inserted in the shoe of the Swedish diplomat will somehow make its way to Churchill.

The purpose of official patois is not to communicate meanings clearly or truly in any way. The purpose is to project the self-importance of the authorities.

It would be unfair to the British if I left this discussion of the Chicago murder case without providing a parallel anecdoteabout American verbiage. Here are the wise remarks of a Chicago police spokesman about the murder’s probable cause: "Something pivotal happened that resulted in the victim being attacked." You don’t say so! I thought it was something completely unimportant. I thought it was something on which nothing turned, so to speak. Now I know it was like, oh, the voyage of Columbus, or the invention of the incandescent light. It was something . . . pivotal — whatever it was.

Am I being petty? No, I’m not. The purpose of official patois is not to communicate meanings clearly, or emphatically, or wittily, or charmingly, or poetically, or individually, or truly in any way. The purpose is to project the self-importance of the authorities. That being so, it’s easy to see that this is commonly the language, not just of obscurity, but of obvious untruth, which the recipients are nevertheless expected to swallow.

One of the TV stations in my area has been trying to capitalize on the autumnal return of school children to their places of so-called instruction, by advertising a series about bullying in the schools. In one of its ads, a reporter intones, “We’re not afraid to stand up to bullying.” Refreshing, isn’t it? Here’s a public institution that is prepared to resist the threats of 12-year-olds.

Also refreshing is the station’s openness to the community. “I want you to be part of the conversation,” the reporter assured me. Well, maybe not me. Maybe the million little me’s out here in watcherland who are thought to be gullible enough to believe that by listening to some gasbag on TV, they’re participating in a conversation.

Refreshing, isn’t it? Here’s a public institution that is prepared to resist the threats of 12-year-olds.

If there’s a grossly politicized word in the vocabulary, it’s conversation. Remember when everyone in the Obama White House wanted to start a national conversation about that never-before-discussed topic, race relations in America? In other words, they wanted a conversation in which they had the final, and possibly the only, word. I remember Gorbachev, when he was in power. He was always calling for openness. One day, when he was out in the street conversing with his fellow citizens, a woman actually said something, and it wasn’t favorable to his policies. His response was, “That is what you think. Now I will tell you what I think.” How much more preposterous is someone with a microphone and a TV tower, inviting the invisible people who pick up his electronic signals to start a lively conversation with him? I quoted Gorbachev; now I’ll quote Brooklyn: “How dumb da ya think we are?”

The issue here is manipulative speech, speech that is less concerned to convey facts or even opinions than to neutralize the audience’s well-justified resistance. In this regard, television “journalists” and political “leaders” face a similar problem. Their audience really doesn’t care what they think; it doesn’t care to converse. It prefers, for the most part, to be left alone — unless, in some highly unusual case, a useful fact needs to be extracted from the flow of sound. Say, for instance, a useful fact about an approaching hurricane.

God help me, I squandered many hours of time watching the TV coverage of Hurricane Irma, particularly the 24/7 treatment offered by the Weather Channel. From this coverage I derived one useful fact: if you live in Florida, a hurricane may hit you sometime, so you should consider the obvious choices — leave or stay. If you stay, you should take in supplies and board up your windows.

That’s it. No other valuable knowledge was imparted. Despite graphic displays of predictive models — the European Model, the American Model, etc. — practically nothing was confided about how these models are constructed, or how hurricanes are constructed, or how to respond to the constant changes in the models’ estimates, or . . . anything.

The more the hurricane fizzled, the more insistent the news crews became about keeping it going.

As wall-to-wall coverage completed its sixth day, I began to pity all those hapless souls who had to stand in front of a camera and recite the same shrill warnings, purported facts, and solemn speculations over and over again. I was fascinated by the number of times I heard how foolish it is to try to ride out a hurricane in a small boat, and how dangerous it supposedly is to use candles if your power goes out.

I could forgive a lot of blather from people who have to keep talking long after they’ve exhausted their material. I could even forgive their obvious desire to cover a big story, which could only be the story of terrible destruction. I had more trouble forgiving their inclusion of the word “meteorologist” in every available sentence: “Turning now to meteorologist Jane Doe,” “As a meteorologist, I can say that this is indeed a big storm,” and so forth. I found it impossible to forgive anyone, meteorologist or not, who inflicted on the audience such locutions as, “Miami stands to get a large douse of rain” and “During the past week, millions of people fleed.”

The more the hurricane fizzled, the more insistent the news crews became about keeping it going. On Monday, September 11, the day after it hit, the weather guys had nothing to do but stand in a light breeze, muttering forecasts about the dreadful things that could yet happen. “There’s nothing weak about this,” one of them said, “only weaker.

Well, OK. What else can you do with all that airtime? One thing you could do is provide a sober consideration of what went wrong with all the confidently scientific predictions about where the storm would strike, how hard it would strike, and what the effects might be. That would be interesting, both scientifically and humanly. “Let’s see where things went wrong” is a fascinating study in imperfect humanity. Or you could share your knowledge (if any) about the history of evacuations, particularly the costs and benefits of leaving a place rather than staying in it.

The stunned weather guy didn’t know what to say. He had finally met someone with a sense of realty.

I heard none of that. What I heard was an increasingly shrill hall-monitorism — more warnings about using candles, evading curfews, driving on the roads during the recovery period. On Monday morning, one of the Weather Channel people positioned himself on a residential street and spent 15 minutes bemoaning the fact that a few cars were making their way through the light debris (palm fronds and such). Why are they here? he wondered. Why can’t people see that they may be blocking the way of first responders? Seeing a plump middle-aged gentleman walking calmly along, the weather guy said, “Let’s find out!” So, sir, why are you here?

The man explained that he had refugeed out but was now returning to see how his house was. He also commented that the storm hadn’t been nearly as bad as expected, and gave details. The stunned weather guy didn’t know what to say. He had finally met someone with a sense of realty. As he dismissed the home owner with an admonition not to block any first responders, I wondered what the gentleman might have replied, if he hadn’t been a gentleman, to this weird guy standing in the street with a microphone and a truckload of TV technicians. “Same to you, fella”?

I can’t resist dragging another party into court — Rick Scott, governor of the state of Florida. Scott seemed to me a competent organizer of disaster preparations, such as they are. He may have precipitated a run on gasoline by the millions of people whom he urged, perhaps uselessly, to evacuate, but he did arrange for gas to be stored and rushed to market afterward. And probably he can’t be blamed for trusting the scientific models of coming disaster. But I do resent his failure to notice the existence of 54 % of his state’s population.

His failure to make sense was emblematic of our great communicators’ disdain for most of the people who are purportedly part of their conversation.

What I mean is that 54% of adult Floridians are single, but in Scott’s long string of televised announcements he talked almost exclusively of “families” — as in his oft-repeated, literally absurd promise, “No resource or expense will be spared to protect families.” For the sake of families, he was willing to blow up Disney World, execute every alligator in the state, cut off his thumbs, and destroy every unmarried person he could find.

Or maybe not. Maybe he was just being pompous. But his failure to make sense was emblematic of our great communicators’ disdain for most of the people who are purportedly part of their conversation. And this disdain is generally reciprocated. Somewhere there are people who love Rick Scott for finally mentioning families. Somewhere there are people who feel that they are actually conversing with a television station by listening to its lamentations about childhood bullying. Somewhere there’s a person who warms to university administrators when they mention their passion for liaising. But I’m sure that these people amount to far fewer than 46%.




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Evidence for Emerson

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In the olden days — say, the 1960s — college professors were still carrying on debates about something called the Influence of Great Men on History. Basically, they denied that there was any.

Emerson had written, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man . . . and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” A century later, not many earnest professors, spending their lives in the lengthened shadows of the American Historical Association, cared to believe that. Even Bismarck and Napoleon were the products of social circumstances, etc.

Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality.

Arrayed on the other side were the writers of popular history. Whether they were sincerely attracted to the Emersonian idea, or they knew that social history doesn’t sell, they busied themselves about topics that assumed the crucial influence of a few important people. The multitudes of What Would Have Happened articles exemplify the trend: what would have happened if Hitler had ordered more air attacks at Dunkirk? What would have happened if Lincoln had not been shot? What would have happened if Lee had occupied better terrain at Gettysburg?

Well, what indeed? But the academics just got more and more “social.” Today, if you want to publish historical articles with Emersonian assumptions, you will not, I repeat not, get tenure.

Yet although they don’t seem to realize it, the professors are now faced with a dilemma. Almost all of them hate President Trump, and lots of them spend their idle hours — which appear to be many — campaigning against him, asserting that if he is permitted to prevail, America will become a nationalist, white supremacist, xenophobic state. But this assumes that the political shape of the nation has a good chance of being irrevocably changed by the election of a single powerful personality. And this is contrary to what you think you believe.

Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters.

I’ll leave people who are so wise about history to discuss that problem among themselves. I simply wish to note that Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality. If Trump’s personality were not significant, wouldn’t the social movement that elected him have the professors and the other members of the ruling class on the run by now?

A person of normal discernment could have followed up his victory, which was a triumph over the entrenched leadership of both political parties, by getting at least three or four parts of his agenda immediately enacted. Every victory would have strengthened his position for the next big effort to fulfill his movement’s social demands. But no. Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters. So far, none of his opponents’ fears, real or purported, have turned out to have been justified. Is this not evidence for the crucial importance of the individual personality?

And as to his opponents . . . Their strategy has depended on the socialist ideal of mass resistance among the populace. And what has this strategy accomplished? Nothing in particular. What has stymied Trump hasn’t been their Marches for Science and Marches for Women and Marches Against the Border and Marches for the Sake of Marches. It has been the lengthened shadow of Trump himself.




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Crypto-Antifascists

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Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and neo-Nazis are vile, fascist thugs. They have been routinely denounced for decades by both political parties, incessantly so after the Unite the Right rally of August 12 at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally, ostensibly to protest the removal of Confederate statues, did not take place. Under lax police tactics, which have been criticized by both protestors and counter-protestors, 34 people were injured, only four people were arrested, and one woman was killed by a person, likely deranged, who supported the rightwing ralliers.

Antifa (short for Anti-Fascist) is a nationwide network of masked, left-wing agitators and anarchists who have taken it upon themselves to protect communities from right-wing fascists and racists. Their standard mode of operation is to descend upon suspicious events (e.g., rallies, marches, and speaking engagements) to shut down free, but hateful, speech, thereby preventing the violence that it will surely cause — doing so often with violence, which they openly embrace, and, preferably, without police assistance, which they openly reject. In an article in The Atlantic, “The Rise of the Violent Left,” Peter Beinart writes, “They pressure venues to deny white supremacists space to meet. They pressure employers to fire them and landlords to evict them. And when people they deem racists and fascists manage to assemble, antifa’s partisans try to break up their gatherings, including by force.”

Under lax police tactics, which have been criticized by both protestors and counter-protestors, 34 people were injured, only four people were arrested, and one woman was killed.

So far so good, you may be thinking. But before you run out to purchase your mask, black hoodie, and bat, before you head down to the local alt-Left recruitment office to enlist, consider that the universe of fascism extends far beyond the villainous skinhead demographic that you have always despised. That unsuspecting bigot whom you are itching to sneak up behind and cold-cock might be your neighbor, a fellow employee, a relative, perhaps. To the alt-Left, and to the sycophantic news media, academia, and Democrat party, America is awash with fascists and racists.

According to an author featured by CNN, everyone who voted for President Trump is “by default” a white supremacist. And, notes Beinart, roughly three-quarters of Democrats are convinced that he is a racist who is advancing fascist policies. During the racial and radical strife that consumed the presidential campaign of 1968, Gore Vidal famously won a political argument with William F. Buckley, by simply calling Buckley a crypto-Nazi, a Nazi sympathizer — thereby creating an intellectual foundation for modern liberal discourse. Consequently, the “progressive” argument today, that Mr. Trump and the 60 million Americans who elected him are white supremacists because liberals say they are, is thought to be unassailable. And no doubt following this logic, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concluded that rampant bigotry now permeates America, and felt compelled to issue a formal "early warning and urgent action procedure," said to be “a rare move often used to signal the potential of a looming civil conflict.”

To avert this second Civil War, the news media and politicians have decided against denouncing the alt-Left. Politicians, that is, except for Trump, who blamed both the alt-Right and the alt-Left for the Charlottesville violence — and has been excoriated himself, by both political parties, ever since. Republicans such as Mitt Romney and Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio have accused him of equating the acts of racists and fascists with the acts of those fighting against racism and fascism. Said Gary Cohn, Trump’s National Economic Council Director, “Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK.” Mr. Cohn went on to urge his administration to “do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities.”

That unsuspecting bigot whom you are itching to sneak up behind and cold-cock might be your neighbor, a fellow employee, a relative, perhaps.

Good luck salving up those divisions; the alt-Left exists to create them, the deeper the better. Patrisse Cullors, one of Black Lives Matters’ three cofounders, claims that Mr. Trump is prosecuting a Hitler-like genocide on our communities. Says Ms. Cullors, “Trump is literally the epitome of evil, all the evils of this country, be it racism, capitalism, sexism, homophobia and he has set out the most dangerous policies not just that impacts this country but that impacts the globe.” To Antifa’s Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement, she has barely scratched the surface of America’s unjust, illegitimate landscape. In its recruitment video (which should turn neo-Nazi leaders and their videographers green with envy) we are told that the government “has openly declared war on our communities, threatening to ethnically cleanse Latinos, criminalize Muslims, destroy indigenous land, oppress the LGBTQ community, and continues to murder and oppress black people.”

Although little may seem more virtuous than shameless affirmations of the alt-Left’s moral superiority over the alt-Right, Messrs. Romney, McCain, et al. should give “Burn Down the American Plantation” a read. It might cause them to question, possibly challenge, the Alt-Left crusade. Incidentally, the violence produced by such divisive vitriol began long before Trump’s election, in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland.

Democrats, and the media, on the other hand, not only refuse to condemn alt-Left violence; they condone, if not encourage, it; they revel in the division it creates. The alt-Left, they say, does not advocate violence, as does the deplorable alt-Right. Never mind that the alt-Left consciously seeks to stir up violence at every opportunity, and uses “self-defense” as an excuse for its own violence. As such, alt-Left thugs are referred to as counter-protestors and peace activists, sometimes as heroes. For example, former Hillary Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon, Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, and CNN anchorman Chris Cuomo all likened the alt-Left counter-protestors at the “Unite the Right” debacle to American soldiers on D-Day, who “confronted the Nazis without a permit.”

The violence produced by such divisive vitriol began long before Trump’s election, in cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore.

They are not heroes. Heroes (92% of them) don’t live with their parents, hide behind disguises, throw public tantrums, sucker-punch unsuspecting victims (even if the victims are authentic fascists), or hurl balloons filled with urine and feces at police. (By the way, I can’t imagine anything that I could hate enough to make me even touch a shit balloon, let alone fill one. And how is it done, with safety to the hurler? I bet that a terrorist, concerned about a weapon going off prematurely, would be more fearful of a shit balloon then an IED.)

And the alt-Left does not exist to fight fascism. Its violence has plagued the nation for years, and its attacks have been focused, not on avowed or even plausible fascists, but on conservatives or libertarians such as Charles Murray, Anne Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Heather Mac Donald, who were invited to speak at liberal colleges and universities; on police, on attenders of Trump rallies, and on ordinary Americans whose only sin was the ownership of homes, vehicles, and businesses in the vicinity of unchecked alt-Left destruction, burning, and looting. Its principal targets have been capitalism, liberty, tolerance, law and order, property rights, peaceful assembly, American history, and, most importantly, free speech. These so-called antifascists did not confront actual fascists until the Charlottesville tragedy — where their “peace activist” behavior was indistinguishable from that of the vicious fascist thugs that they engaged.

For the most part, alt-Right fascism exists only in the paranoid minds of the alt-Left, and in the hysterical talking points of the journalists, social science professors, and politicians who tell us, incessantly, that it is on the rise. If so, where? The Unite the Right rally was the largest white supremacist gathering in over a decade, drawing an estimated 250 to 500 racists from all over the country. One would expect a racist nation to send tens of thousands of hate-filled bigots to such an event.

The alt-Left's principal targets have been capitalism, liberty, tolerance, law and order, property rights, peaceful assembly, American history, and, most importantly, free speech.

“Alt-Right” groups such as the neo-Nazis and the KKK have been despised for decades by the American public; they hold no positions in government, academia, the news media, entertainment, or corporate America; they have no money; they wield no power. According to Anti-Defamation League estimates, there are only “3,000 Klan members and unaffiliated individuals who identify with Klan ideology” in the entire country — probably only half that number, if the ones in old age homes and prisons are deducted.

As Kevin Williamson observed in his article “Gangs of Berkeley,” “the so-called antifa and the white-nationalist clowns are two sides of the same very sad little coin.” The news media, academia, and politicians — crypto-antifascistswho tacitly endorse the alt-Left — would do well to heed the admonition of Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz: “Do not glorify the violent people who are now tearing down the statues. Many of these people, not all of them, many of these people are trying to tear down America. Antifa is a radical, anti-America, anti-free market, communist, socialist, hard left censorial organization that tries to stop speakers on campuses from speaking.”

One week after the Unite the Right rally, a Free Speech rally was held in Boston (aka the Cradle of American Liberty), Massachusetts. The organizers, the Boston Free Speech Coalition, “publicly distanced themselves from the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and others who fomented violence in Charlottesville,” emphatically stating, "We are strictly about free speech . . . [W]e will not be offering our platform to racism or bigotry. We denounce the politics of supremacy and violence." The Boston Police Department, which assigned 500 police officers to the event, requested that counter-protestors not throw urine at them.

The rally drew fewer than 100 free speech advocates. No Nazis and no Klansmen attended. But 40,000 counter-protesters showed up — witless fools, in effect, protesting against free speech, in the cradle of liberty.

Neo-Nazis and the KKK hold no positions in government, academia, the news media, entertainment, or corporate America; they have no money; they wield no power.

Included among the protesters were an estimated 2,000 members from the alt-Left. They attacked the few free speech advocates that they could find, screamed infantile chants; e.g., "Hate speech is not free speech," "Cops and Klan go hand in hand", "Oink oink, bang bang," and “George Soros, where is our Money!” And, of course, they threw urine at the police.

The news media and Boston politicians celebrated. Evidently, the police too were jubilant. Of the 40,000 protesters, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans gushed that they came to Boston "standing tall against hatred and bigotry in our city, and that's a good feeling."

Not so for national unity, peaceful assembly (33 arrests were made), or the First Amendment.

The alt-Right is vile, but powerless. The alt-Left is vile, but, through the tacit endorsement of the cowardly news media, servile academia, and spineless politicians, it has become a significantly destructive force in American culture. As such, it is immensely more worrisome than the alt-Right. I worry about the contaminating effects of the alt-Left’s hatred for America, in general, and free speech, in particular.




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The Problem of Perspective

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When libertarians (and others) get into debates, we often bewail our opponents’ lack of facts. But I suppose you’ve noticed that even when everybody has the facts, the debate continues — a situation that has become very frequent in this age of quick and plentiful access to information. Often the problem is simply the perfectly accurate perception of people on one side or the other that if the force of the facts were recognized, they would have to alter their political identity.

I recently found myself in a dispute with a person whose writing I admire. (This is not uncommon.) She said that because a certain politician had said X, therefore we must conclude that he was preaching the gospel of Y. I quoted what the man had said, which was literally and vigorously anti-Y. My friend replied, “I know that. But that’s just the cover-up. What he obviously meant was Y.” To my friend, it was so important that X meant Y that she would never be betrayed by mere facts.

People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective.

Even this, however, is not the major barrier to healthy political discourse. The deeper problem is a lack of perspective on facts. People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective. We all know people who can quote every foolish thing that President Obama or President Trump ever said (and that’s a lot), and on that basis are prepared to prove that one of them is a mere pawn of certain Interests or is the master player in a plot to destroy the republic and institute rule by force. What’s missing is common sense, and the perspective it provides. Lots of people say foolish things. In fact, we all do. Anyone can quote some remark by me, or some other libertarian you know, and say, triumphantly, “How can a person who said that pretend to be a libertarian?” Well, it’s quite possible, and it might not be a pretense. Extend the logic to people you don’t know, and it works just as well. To admit this is not to give your sanction to Obama, Trump, or anyone else. It’s to have a little bit of common sense.

A lack of commonsense perspective lies at the root of conspiracy theories generally — the false ones, of course, because people do sometimes conspire to produce certain ends, and why should we be shocked by that? The dedicated researchers who believe that Oswald was a fall guy know many more facts about Oswald than I ever will, but the overwhelming truth that 54 years have passed since Oswald and Kennedy were killed, and no one has emerged to confess that he had any kind of involvement, however peripheral, in any kind of conspiracy to make Oswald a fall guy suggests that facts can easily betray you, absent the perspective of common sense.

The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities.

But there’s another lack of perspective that is especially characteristic of the present moment, and that is sheer ignorance of historical,as opposed to immediate, facts. In 1988, virtually all the public-policy writers in the United States, from the New York Times on down (or up), preached, with the Leninists, that communism in Eastern Europe was an irreversible phenomenon. In 1989, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe crashed. “Oh, who woulda thunk it?” was the experts’ cry. The answer was: anybody who knew some history. Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not. Historical examples: France in 1789. France in 1814. Germany in 1918. The Stuarts in 1688. The Commonwealth of England in 1660. I could go on.

Between 1950 and 1990, Americans were told — and in my experience of some of those decades, Americans believed — that they were living in a unique time in human history: never before had “a civilization and a way of life been threatened with total destruction.” The reference was to the atomic bomb, which was, indeed, new; but the notion about its unique effects was so false to the facts of history as to be laughable. The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities. If your enemies conquer you, they will rape all the women, enslave all the woman and children, and kill all the men. That will be the end of your “way of life.” If one recognized that modern America was not unique in this respect, one couldn’t just go out and deduce some great truth about what should be done regarding, say, Soviet missiles in Cuba, but one might be more rational, and less hysterical, about one’s pacifism or militarism. It’s a matter of perspective.

So much for the myths of the last generation. There were lots more of them, but you get the point. My sense is that the “educated” people of 2017 know a hell of a lot less about history than the “educated” people of 1988 — and not just the history of the world but the history of their own country. I am not a fan of the Southern secessionists, or of Woodrow Wilson. I positively dislike most of what I know about them. But to assume that the only fact about their lives that could possibly be worth knowing is that they were racists is an astonishing intellectual performance. To teach this to children is to warn them against all historical curiosity, to turn history into an endless, and endlessly disgusting, game of hunting the Great Satan. Some people, thus educated, will pretend to join the hunt, out of the cynicism that ideologues are good at inspiring; others will adopt it as their own fanatical crusade; most will get the sense that nothing about history is very interesting, after all — let alone inspiring.

Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not.

Let’s look at another example in which perspective has been completely lost, by the denial of simple curiosity. Unlike many other vocal libertarians, I believe that the current struggle against Islamic terrorism is real and important and must be won. Nevertheless, terrorism results not just from religious or political ideas but from certain, very imperfectly understood, psychological and social factors. Might it not be helpful to know something about the history of terrorism in the modern world?

Well, it didn’t start with 9/11. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “socialist,” “populist,” and “anarchist” (actually communist) terrorists swarmed over Europe and North America, killing, among many others, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria; Umberto, King of Italy; Alexander, Emperor of Russia; William McKinley, President of the United States; and Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago (in an attempt to assassinate President-elect Franklin Roosevelt). They also killed or attempted to kill such private citizens as the industrialist Henry Clay Frick (see Liberty, September 2005, pp. 40–45). Then there was labor union terrorism, which peaked in 1910, with the bomb that blew apart the pressroom at the Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people. This is the case in which the unjustifiably iconic Clarence Darrow, the socialist lawyer, attempted to bribe a juror on the streets of Los Angeles. But the biggest event in “domestic terrorism” was the Bath (Michigan) School Disaster, in which a local farmer, dissatisfied for some reason with his admittedly humdrum life, killed his beloved wife, destroyed his homestead, and blew apart a wing of the schoolhouse down the road, destroying, all told, 44 people, 38 of them children.

These incidents might conceivably shed some light on why depraved men or women (usually men) suddenly decide to kill large numbers of innocent people, but since almost nobody realizes that the events even happened, almost nobody looks for that light.

Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Let’s proceed to another type of violence, the violence of words, and other symbolic deeds, that is making it virtually impossible for sane men and women to read the news without symptoms of convulsion. I, for one, do not wish to rise in the morning only to be assaulted by a vast array of establishment-media venues ravaging the current president as if he were the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Nor is it a pleasure to visit my favorite non-establishment sites and find them wholly given over to defenses of the president. Nor — to give you a third and final nor — is it gratifying to me to read the president’s own abusive messages about the media, which are sometimes amusing, but you can’t bank on that. Strange to say, the chief complaint of all these splenetic keyboard artists is that never before in history has political discourse been so hostile and abusive.

Well, that isn’t true, and I’m glad it’s not true, if only because hostility produced the following delightful letter from Former President John Adams to Former President Thomas Jefferson (April 19, 1817).

Dear Sir

My loving and beloved Friend, [Adams’ Secretary of State Timothy] Pickering, has been pleased to inform the World that I have “few Friends.” I wanted to whip the rogue, and I had it in my power, if it had been in my Will to do it, till the blood come. But all my real Friends as I thought them, with Dexter and Grey at their Head insisted “that I should not say a Word.” “That nothing that such a Person could write would do me the least Injury. That it would betray the Constitution and the Government, if a President out or in should enter a Newspaper controversy, with one of his Ministers whom he had removed from his Office, in Justification of himself for that removal or any thing else.” And they talked a great deal about “The Dignity” of the Office of President, which I do not find that any other Persons, public or private regard very much.

Nevertheless, I fear that Mr. Pickerings Information is too true. It is impossible that any Man should run such a Gauntlet as I have been driven through, and have many Friends at last. This “all who know me know” though I cannot say “who love me tell.”

I’m reminded of the words of Addison DeWitt: “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent.” Adams’ superb wit, proud and knowing, and so characteristic of his letters, would distinguish him in any context, just as the lack of any literary quality whatever would be sufficient to identify virtually all political writing of the present age.

I’ve talked about this in Word Watch, and I’ll talk about it again in that place. What I want to emphasize here is the historical perspective offered by the presidential letter of two centuries ago. It suggests that there is nothing off-the-charts about the “abusive rhetoric” of contemporary politics.

To be fair, of course, we need to consider what exalted condition of politesse American political discourse is supposed to have declined from. That high standard, I believe, is the manner of handling news and opinion that prevailed in the days when the senior members of our current news establishment were growing up, the days of Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Edward R. Murrow. The declension from those glory days is sad, sad. Never before in American history . . .

If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one.

Well, did you ever try to read anything that Edward R. Murrow wrote? David Brinkley, who was one of the tribe, but an eccentric one, could actually write, but he was virtually the only one, and none of the present handwringers ever mentions him. His perspective on history, which was a pretty wide one, has been forgotten, and would certainly not be sought, by the preachers of auld lang syne. What they pine for is the slick modern-liberal sentiments and the passive-aggressive style of that former age, a style inveterately contemptuous of the host of people, places, ideas, and emotions whose existence it refused to recognize. What they miss is its lying veneer of “objectivity,” so-called.

That veneer wasn’t much in evidence in the first great age of American journalism, when innovations in printing, transportation, and data transmission (the telegraph) enabled everyone to read two or three papers — Democrat, Republican, and Just Plain Mean — and to spend all day, if they wanted, soaking themselves in political bile. Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict.

Reporting on the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, which Lincoln lost, though not decisively, one paper reported that “the triumph of Senator Douglas was complete”; Lincoln was “exceedingly lame throughout . . . The Illinois Giant [Douglas] at the first onset pushed his adversary to the wall, and never ceased for a moment his blows, until Abraham was taken by his friends, dispirited and overcome.” Another kind of partisan paper thought that Lincoln had “chewed [Douglas] up . . . Douglas is doomed . . . [the] contest is already practically ended.” From yet another journalistic standpoint, the campaign proved that the two candidates were nothing but “a pair of depraved, blustering, mischievous, lowdown demagogues.”

All these characterizations were false, and most people knew they were. But verbal abuse wasn’t the only oily sheen on the surface of political life. If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one. Here’s Senator Thomas Hart Benton, in his Thirty Years’ View; Or, A History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820 to 1850 (1856), discussing the Anti-Duelling Act of 1839:

The death of Mr. Jonathan Cilley, a representative in Congress from the State of Maine, killed in a duel with rifles, with Mr. Graves of Kentucky, led to the passage of an act with severe penalties against dueling, in the District of Columbia, or out of it upon agreement within the District.. . . Like all acts passed under a sudden excitement [there were sudden excitements in the 1830s, too], this act was defective, and more the result of good intentions than of knowledge of human nature. Passions of the mind, like diseases of the body, are liable to break out in a different form when suppressed in the one they had assumed.

Following that libertarian critique of mere good intentions, Benton notes, as if everyone in his audience already knew it, that the Act

did not suppress the homicidal intent — but gave it a new form: and now many members of Congress go into their seats with deadly weapons under their garments — ready to insult with foul language, and prepared to kill if the language is resented. (Vol. 2, pp. 148-49)

Benton, who had once shot Andrew Jackson in a fight that was something worse than a duel, later became Jackson’s friend and political ally; but in 1850, in the Senate chamber, a fellow member, Henry Foote, attempted to shoot him over a political disagreement. "I have no pistols!”, Benton shouted. “Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!" Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict that in our law-obsessed era would immobilize the capital and the courts in perpetuity.

Less pacific were many of the things that national leaders said. William Seward had cause to regret his “irrepressible conflict” speech, just as Abraham Lincoln had cause to regret his “house divided” speech; both were interpreted by the South, and not unreasonably, as an indication that if either of those gentlemen were elected president, the South must secede. John C. Calhoun had cause to regret the many speeches in which he incited the South to dissolve the union — but Calhoun, like our current politicians, never regretted anything he said, during a lifetime of self-contradiction.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric.

Now, if you look at the public utterances of the people I’ve mentioned (except for Foote), you will find that in both style and intellectual substance they are infinitely above those of anyone now in politics. To say this isn’t to fall into the trap of assuming that everything that happens in one’s own time is happening for the first time in history. If one has any historical perspective, one can distinguish things that actually are new or special from things that actually aren’t.

It is the intellectual and verbal illiteracy of American public culture that has that “never before in history” aspect — and it has that aspect because of the lack of perspective that makes contemporary Americans feel as if they can do without any knowledge of or respect for people who lived in the past. Thus, if you’re a “progressive” leftist, Thomas Jefferson was a racist who considered blacks inferior to whites, as if that were his only historical significance; and Andrew Jackson was a slaveholder who behaved with great barbarity toward Indians, as if those evil characteristics, common to hundreds of thousands of Americans of his time, including Indians who enslaved other Indians, were all we needed to know about one of the most complexly influential people in our or any history. And thus, if you’re a rightist, Ronald Reagan was the world’s greatest inspirational speaker; George Patton embodied all the strengths that make real men and women want to get up in the morning; and Theodore Roosevelt, a little man who kept exclaiming “bully!”, made life worth living for soldiers, workers, and the American bison. Meanwhile, all people worship Lincoln as the incarnation of Christ.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries seem incapable of taking any good to themselves from their acts of ferocious love and cherished hatred. They never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric when compared with that of Lincoln, or their own courage when compared with that of Jackson. They may idolize “Teddy” or spit on the memory of Jefferson or rerun Reagan’s speeches or get off on Patton, the movie, but that’s what they’re seeing, a movie playing on their own TVs, just a few feet from their self-infatuated heads. The rest of the house is empty.




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Infighting: The Libertarian National Pastime

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Baseball is America's national pastime, or so the saying goes. I can say something similar for the libertarian movement. Not a day goes by that two well-known libertarians don't have a fight on Facebook or Twitter, each accusing and condemning the other and seeking to persuade the other to leave the libertarian movement entirely. On some days, in Facebook’s libertarian groups, there are entire wars — the military campaigns and attacks and counterattacks of masses of people fighting each other. All of these people self-define as "libertarian"!

Why does this happen? I think one explanation is that, to be a "libertarian," one must (probably) possess certain core beliefs about freedom, capitalism, etc., and have a certain attitude toward government and individual rights. The Non-Aggression Axiom is a nice summary of that attitude. But that leaves room for many positions, on many issues — which means that there are many issues about which libertarians have passionate feelings. Since core libertarian values don’t clearly define what your position on these issues should be, there are going to be many people in strong opposition, within the same tent.

In Facebook’s libertarian groups, there are entire wars — the military campaigns and attacks and counterattacks of masses of people fighting each other.

For example, a libertarian can be pro-choice or pro-life, can be minarchist or anarchist, can be for open immigration or closed borders, can be pro-GOP or pro-LP or pro-anarchy, can be pro-Trump or anti-Trump. I would even say that a libertarian can be anti-Union and pro-Confederacy (from opposition to centralized government) or anti-Confederacy and pro-Union (from opposition to slavery) — although it is curious that this quarrel is still considered relevant, more than a century and a half after the Civil War ended.

So, let's be frank. Take, for example, abortion. Pro-life people believe they are crusaders against the murder of babies. Pro-choice people believe they are crusaders for women's rights, and that the government’s taking control of a woman's body is the moral equivalent of rape. These people hate each other. But, within the big tent of libertarianism, both types of people exist, often in even numbers.

Because this issue is so important, fighting is inevitable. But note that libertarians, as a group, tend to be people who define their identity by means of their political positions. As such, libertarians will tend, not merely to argue, but to try to say that theirs is the position that should win, that it is the "one true libertarianism," that it is logically necessary from libertarian core principles (which it never is, because the core principles don't define these positions), and then kick everyone who disagrees out of the movement. To continue my example: the pro-life libertarians will accuse the pro-choice ones of being liberals who should go join the Democratic Party; in return, the pro-choice libertarians will call the pro-lifers closet conservatives who should call themselves such. And then, to each other, they will say GFY, GTFO, and other rude, insulting acronyms I only learned after spending some time on Facebook Groups.

A bunch of robots marching in unison is not what people seek in the spirit of truth and beauty that comes from political freedom.

And do you know what I think? I think this is necessary because of the structural foundation of the libertarian position itself. Liberty specifies a few core positions and then leaves gaps and room for individuals to think through their own beliefs on each specific issue. And you know what else? I think that this is how things are always going to be, and any alternative would be no better, even though this state of affairs has some toxic consequences.

What would be better? For some master leader of the movement to choose his position and impose it on every other libertarian, so that the movement could have ideological purity and unity? A bunch of robots marching in unison is not what people seek in the spirit of truth and beauty that comes from political freedom. And, in the absence of someone forcing everyone else to conform to one position, the diversity of positions will persist, and from them follows the necessary infighting.

But what are the toxic side effects? Libertarians can't agree on specific political issues, hence cannot rally around one candidate. If all the libertarians who are registered Republican, and all the ones who are registered Libertarian, and all sympathizers of both, could vote on one unity candidate, that might be enough votes to pose a threat to the establishment. But it can't happen, because there is too much disunity to unite around one candidate. With libertarian votes split between GOP, LP, and people who don't vote as a matter of principle, we just don't have the votes to elect our own candidates. Furthermore, constant infighting creates a militant, disrespectful culture, in which libertarians, who should naturally be friends, become their own fiercest enemies.

What is the solution to this problem? As I see it, there isn't one, and if there were it would be worse than the problem. In a free-for-all, there is fighting, and unregulated capitalism is, among many other things, a free-for-all.

Constant infighting creates a militant, disrespectful culture, in which libertarians, who should naturally be friends, become their own fiercest enemies.

But, to conclude on a note of hope, the candidacy of Trump proves that charisma is far more important for getting votes than party unity. If the Libertarian Party would nominate a candidate with great personal charisma and a cult of personality, then he or she could win the White House. If Trump can win then anyone can. But until that happens, we'll just wait on the sidelines of politics and kick one another in the teeth for disagreeing about which color of mouthwash is correct for libertarian dental hygiene. And, of course, both sides will think that the color of their mouthwash is defined by the Non-Aggression Axiom or Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard or Ron Paul, and that they themselves are obviously correct, and that everyone else can JGTFO.




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Vicars of Christ Say the Darnedest Things

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Pope Francis recently remarked that the US, among other countries, has a
"distorted vision of the world."




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Cruise Ship Books

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I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors while perusing the books other passengers have left behind in shipboard libraries. While cruising in Alaska, I discovered Michael Frayn and couldn’t stop until I had devoured all of his novels and then looked around hungrily for more.

Spies is perhaps my favorite. A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village, where he tries to make grownup sense of things that happened there so many years ago, while he and his boyhood friend hid in the privet bush pretending to be spies. The dual perspective of middle age and childhood, as well as the contrast between the WWII setting and the “present” of 30 years later makes the book particularly evocative, and the mystery of what actually happened drives the story.

Frayn’s books often present a tone of detachment and loss, as expressed in these opening lines from A Landing in the Sun:

On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive, but perfectly still. One of them is sitting, poised like a crab about to scuttle, the fingers steadying a fresh Government-issue folder. The other is holding a grey Government-issue ballpoint above the label on the cover, as motionless as a lizard, waiting to strike down into the space next to the word Subject.

These hands, and the crisp white shirtsleeves that lead away from them, are the only signs of me in the room.

The separation of the action performed by his hands from his intentional, sentient will is also reminiscent of the book-burning fireman, Montag, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Montag . . . glanced to his hands to see what new thing they had done.” Both authors use synecdoche effectively to suggest the protagonist’s looming split with authority and his attempt to regain control over his life.

A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village.

It was on a cruise ship traveling around Australia and New Zealand that I discovered the historical novelist Tracy Chevalier. Her Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which she creates a compelling and poignant backstory for the supposed model of Vermeer’s famous painting, had recently been made into the film that launched Scarlett Johansson to stardom; but the book that hooked me was Fallen Angels, a name that refers to the memorial stones in a local graveyard but also to the fallen characters within the story. Beginning at the end of the Queen Victoria’s reign, the book’s multiple storylines focus on husbands and wives, friends and lovers, ruling class and servant class, and a gravedigger’s son.

From the moment I entered Chevalier’s world of shifting narrative perspectives set in turn-of-the-century England, I didn’t want to leave. I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century. Similarly, while viewing Manhattan from across the river in one of the books I review here, a character observes, “You wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.” That’s how I felt while reading many of the books I’ve mentioned in this review — I wanted to approach the end, but never quite arrive there.

This past month I was cruising the western Mediterranean when I discovered Rules of Civility by the talented author Amor Towles, whose fresh metaphors and unexpected developments delighted and surprised me. I had barely finished reading it when, craving more of his elegantly crafted sentences and trusting his storytelling skills, I downloaded his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, to my Kindle for the long flight home from Europe.

I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century.

The title Rules of Civility refers to George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a dog-eared copy of which is discovered by the narrator, Katey Kontent, on the bedside table of the central character, Tinker Grey. Towles’ book is a novel of manners set in 1938 Manhattan and framed by a 1966 photography exhibition. As the book opens, a middle-aged Katey spies two candid photographs taken of her long-lost friend Tinker at the beginning and the end of 1938. This chance sighting becomes the catalyst for her recollection of that year, a year that became a turning point in her life as she navigated between boarding houses and mansions, trust-fund kids and dockworkers, the upper West side and the lower East side, in her journey to define who she would become.

Katey begins 1938 living in a women’s boardinghouse and working in a steno pool. She and her roommate, Eve Ross, meet the posh and elegant Tinker Grey at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, and he becomes the direct and indirect catalyst for everything else that happens that year.

Like the original “novels of manners,” set in manor houses and often populated by governesses or impoverished heiresses who make satirical observations about the ruling class, Rules of Civility contains biting, cogent cultural commentary. Katey is paid well as a secretary, but when she decides to move on to a job in the literary world, she must accept a huge cut in pay. She wryly observes, “A secretary exchanges her labor for a living wage. But an assistant comes from a fine home, attends Smith College, and lands her positions when her mother happens to be seated beside the publisher in chief at a dinner party.” I worked under an executive director who landed her position in the same way, and it was just as galling. Katey also notes, after guests at a dinner party heap praises upon the hostess at the end of a fine meal, “This was a social nicety that seemed more prevalent the higher you climbed the social ladder and the less your hostess cooked.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer.

Katey is a philosopher by nature, and her thoughts begin to resonate with the reader. As she looks back on 1938, she recalls, “To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course . . . shouldn’t come without a price. I have no doubt [my choices] were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance — in this case, from the bright optimism of making right decisions to the mournful grief of cutting oneself off from other options — permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer. Consider the span of emotion in moments like these: “I tore the letter into a thousand pieces and hurled them at the spot on the wall where a fireplace should have been. Then I carefully considered what I should wear.” And: “Something fell from my jawbone to the back of my hand. It was a teardrop of all things. So I slapped him.” And this cautionary reflection: “In moments of high emotion — whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment — if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”

Katey wants everything to be neat and orderly and open. As a secretary, she “suture[s] split infinitives and hoist[s] dangling modifiers,” and she wants life to be as simple as that, with rules that allow no ambiguities and people who are who they say they are. But soon she realizes that “it’s a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon, a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact . . . there are tens of thousands of butterflies, men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings — one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage — and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings.” Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Katey is not well-bred, but she is well-read, and her running references to such books as Walden, Great Expectations, Washington’s Rules of Civility, Agatha Christie novels, and others add depth to the story. I especially like the way she combines insights from Thoreau and Christie to deliver this:

In the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. . . . For the most part, in the course of our daily lives we abide the abundant evidence that no such universal justice exists. Like a cart horse, we plod along the cobblestones dragging our heads down and our blinders in place, waiting patiently for the next cube of sugar. But there are certain times when chance suddenly provides the justice that Agatha Christie promises.

We all have turning point moments in our lives — moments that occur during the years when we’re deciding who we will be and making decisions so profound that they change our course completely and irrevocably. They often seem insignificant at the time, and the people who influence us most profoundly move on from our lives. Although we may never see them again, we think of them frequently. I have one such friend from my childhood who moved on from my life when we were 11, yet much of who I am today comes from the experiences I shared with her during the three profound years we spent together, just as Michael Frayn’s narrator in Spies is forever influenced by the events he experienced with his childhood chum.

Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Towles suggests the importance of these so-called minor characters when Katey begins reading a Hemingway novel from the middle rather than the beginning: “Without the early chapters, all the incidents became sketches and all the dialogue innuendo. Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way.”

And Katey learns to read life that way too — paying more heed to the side characters who influence us unexpectedly. Eventually she discovers that “when some incident sheds a favorable light on an old and absent friend, that’s about as good a gift as chance intends to offer.” Reading Rules of Civility gave me cause to reflect on many an old and absent friend, and that’s one of the many good gifts of this book.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spies," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2002, 261 pages; "A Landing on the Sun," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2003, 272 pages; and "Rules of Civility," by Amor Towles. Penguin Books, 2011, 338 pages.



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