Knights in Dark Satin

 | 

It’s awards season again, that glittery time when Hollywood elites gather to praise each other’s work, comment on each other’s clothing, and make political statements we mere mortals in suburbia couldn’t possibly understand without the help of their stunning insights.

The circuit began with the Golden Globes on January 8 and will culminate in the awarding of the Oscars on March 4. At the Globes, all the gals showed up in sexy black evening gowns to show their solidarity with women who have been mistreated, abused, harassed, or misunderstood. It made me think of junior high: “What are you going to wear?” “I don’t know, what are you going to wear?” “Muffy Sinclair is wearing plaid overalls and knee socks.” “Ooh! Me too! Me too!” Suddenly the elite of the elite were controlling what all the women would wear to the Globes. And scarcely anyone dared to be different.

I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear.

Regardless of how I feel about their particular issue, I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear. Any woman who had chosen to express her own voice by wearing red or blue or white, no matter what the reason, would have been castigated by the press and by her peers. Just as women knew they had to play the Weinstein game if they wanted a role in Hollywood, they knew they had to wear a black dress if they wanted to fit in. Nothing has changed in Hollywood. You either toe the party line or move into another career.

Let’s face it: many of these seasoned women in their glitzy black dresses had to have known all about the Hollywood casting couches long before Harvey Weinstein’s shame became public. They endured it to get ahead, and then kept quiet about it when other women had to endure it. Sorority hazing at its worst. Not until it became public and, might I say, fashionable, did they join in with their #MeToo stories. Until then, they dared not risk the careers — for which they had paid dearly — by speaking out against Weinstein and his ilk. In fact, they embraced him. They played the game. Even after they were rich enough and famous enough and awarded enough that they didn’t need to. Now, to assuage their guilt and cover their shame, they’re shouting the loudest and pointing the longest fingers. And pressuring other women to play along, like it or not. It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped them get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

Two years ago the hypocrites of the Academy self-righteously awarded the Oscar for Best Picture to Spotlight (2015), a good but hardly great film about the Boston Globe’s exposé of pedophilia within the Catholic church, as though pointing a finger at someone else’s institutionalization of systemic sexual predation would atone for the guilt in their own institution. Last year, after the Academy fielded complaints of racism for not nominating enough black actors and filmmakers in 2016 films, the award for Best Picture went to Moonlight, an obscure little film about a transgender black. Again, a good film, but not great and not memorable.

It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped the likes of Weinstein get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

This week, in another bid for both relevance and absolution, the Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor went, predictably, to Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film about a plucky woman who stands up against injustice (or seems to). After all, this is the year of the woman as victim, right?

So let’s review this film that’s bound to garner increasing acclaim as the award season drags on. Is it a good film? In terms of production values, yes. The story is quirky and unexpected, the plot taking one dark turn after another. The actors are all in, portraying their characters with the kind of free-for-all abandon that often leads to critical acclaim and award nominations. An upbeat musical score contributes to the quirky tone and provides a jarring contrast to the beatings and violence that turn up at the least expected moments. The dialog is sharp and punchy, and the small town setting is authentic and believable, even if the characters are not.

And that’s my main criticism of Three Billboards, a film that’s supposed to be about a heroic woman’s fight against Town Hall in the form of the police department. She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic. She’s vengeful and pathetic and, in many ways, wrong.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving and disgruntled mother whose daughter has been gruesomely raped and murdered. Seven months later, angered that the police haven’t arrested anyone for the crime, she turns on the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) and publicizes his failure by leasing the rights to three billboards, on which she posts: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests?”, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Understandably, the chief is not amused.

She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic.

But he isn’t unsympathetic, either. The thing is, we really can’t find fault with the chief. He’s kind. He’s understanding. And he’s trying. There simply aren’t any leads in the case. Mildred wants a conviction. Any conviction will do. But the only thing worse than not convicting the perpetrator of a crime is arresting the wrong man and convicting him instead, just to make the community feel safer.

I appreciate the chief’s methodical rigor in this case. At one point he says to Mildred, “I'd do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don't match no one who's ever been arrested, and when the DNA don't match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn't a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well . . . right now there ain't too much more we could do.” And I abhor Mildred’s mean, spiteful, crude, ugly vengeance. She responds to Chief Willoughby’s rational concerns about civil rights and due process with “If it was me, I'd start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.”

The story completely jumps the shark when Dixon, Chief Willoughby’s deputy (Sam Rockwell), a disgraced, racist, drunken cop, suddenly becomes the hero, in a way so bizarre and unbelievable that even if I told you how it ends, you would think I was kidding, in order to avoid revealing the true plot. So I won’t tell you. But it’s bad.

Three Billboards has an interesting premise about a vigilante citizen using public opinion to shame a police force into doing its job of bringing a criminal to justice. But it squanders the premise on vulgar, vengeful, violent characters created more for shock value instead of any enlightening or lasting message. You might want to see it just for the production values, but it would have to be an awfully rainy day or interminably long flight to induce me to see it again.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity.

The only reason Three Billboards won three Golden Globes is that it’s about a woman whose daughter was raped and who blames a man, because that’s the name of the game this awards season in Hollywood. Ironically, those short-sighted, dimwitted Hollywood voters didn’t even notice that their heroine agrees to go to dinner with a man and implies that she might “be dessert” in order to get something she wants. Sheesh. Have they learned nothing?

Well, they did learn to wear black dresses to the party when Oprah says so.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity. Libertarians won’t want to miss Molly’s Game, which tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who for a dozen years ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game. Her clients included celebrity athletes, Hollywood stars, Middle Eastern moguls, and underworld figures who came as much for the celebrity as for the game.

Molly is everything we want to see in an entrepreneur: she’s smart, she’s honest, she anticipates demand and creates supply, and she makes decisions based on long-term goals and expectations. She plays within the rules, provides a service that people want, and cares about her customers and her employees. She’s the model libertarian. No wonder the Black Dress Ladies ignored this film.

Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients.

The movie begins two years after Molly has closed her business, when 17 FBI agents bang on her door and arrest her at gunpoint. They know she’s clean, but they arrest her anyway because they need her to turn state’s evidence against some underworld types who had been regulars in her game. Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients. Virtually penniless now and living with her mother, she nevertheless convinces attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her by telling him her story, which we see in flashback and hear in voice-over narration. Based on the book Molly’s Game by the real Molly Bloom, this is a fascinating tale about an unlikely heroine dressed in Coco Chanel and Jimmy Choo’s without a single conservative (or conformative) black dress in the wardrobe closet. Libertarians won’t want to miss it.

Even more impressive in the female protagonist genre is The Shape of Water, a beauty and the beast tale with the added twist of the classic conflict between the individual and the state. Directed by the brilliant Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water has the magical quality of a painting brought to life. In this film he does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

The story is set in the 1950s, an era characterized by the Red Scare, nuclear experiments, conservative values, and the race for space. The Russians have launched a dog into orbit, fueling Americans’ fear of failure. Giant irradiated ants and spiders and creatures from the Black Lagoon terrorize communities on the silver screen. Against this backdrop, life imitates art as military scientist Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) discovers an amphibious man (Doug Jones) in a South American river and brings the creature to a secret laboratory in San Francisco where military leaders hope to learn something that can help them in the race against the Russians.

Del Toro does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning woman who works the night shift at the laboratory and lives a solitary life above a movie theater — another contribution to the film’s liquid mixing of art and life. Found as a baby near a river bank, she has a strange affinity for water, even before meeting the river creature. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a lonely, out-of-work artist with a dozen half-eaten slices of lime green pie in his refrigerator and a pride of cats on his couch. He and Elisa watch old musicals on television and share a close but fraternal relationship.

Prodded and studied by the self-righteous and sadistic Strickland, the creature attacks him and draws blood. Yet Elisa isn’t afraid of him. Assigned to clean the creature’s space, she shares her lunch with him, expressing a shy charm reminiscent of the ingénues in the romantic musicals she enjoys with Giles. She develops a tenderness toward the creature and vows to rescue him when she learns that he is going to be studied by vivisection and then autopsy.

Sally Hawkins delivers a luminous performance as Elisa, communicating eloquently through sign language, body language, and facial expressions that make us forget she cannot speak. She manages to be both meekly shy and fiercely powerful. Richard Jenkins portrays the quiet despair of a man too old to start over who senses that he will leave no footprint on this earth. Michael Shannon has settled nicely into the sadistic villain role that seems to have become his forte. And the creature is, as artist Giles describes him, “beautiful.” This film has been described as “beauty and the beast,” but the only beast in the film is Strickland.

In sum, The Shape of Water celebrates art, emotion, intuition, difference, choice, and individuality. It is everything the Black Dress conformists are not. No wonder they overlooked it in favor of the vulgar, violent, vengeful Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Don’t you make the same mistake.


Editor's Note: Review of "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri," directed by Martin McDonagh. Blueprint Pictures, Fox Searchlight, 2017. 115 minutes; "Molly’s Game," directed by Aaron Sorkin. STX Entertainment, 2017. 140 minutes; and "The Shape of Water," directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Fox Searchlight, 2017. 123 minutes.



Share This


You Won’t Like This Video

 | 

On December 9, National Review ran a story, written by David French, about the police killing of a man in a hallway of the La Quinta Inn at Mesa, Arizona. The story begins in this way:

If you have the stomach for it, I want you to watch one of the most outrageous and infuriating videos I’ve ever seen.

The article includes the video.

I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to think of another way to put it — to say something wiser or cleverer or more analytical than the sentence I just quoted. I can’t think how to do that. Maybe this is because I can’t get over the emotional effects of what I saw when I watched the video. But if you have the stomach for it, I want you to watch it too.




Share This


Christie Redux

 | 

In 1931, renowned mystery writer Agatha Christie was traveling on the Orient Express when a flash flood suddenly washed some of the track away. The passengers were stranded while repairs were made. This was not the first time the Orient Express had been stranded; two years earlier a blizzard had halted the train for six days. While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!” The setting for Murder on the Orient Express was established. Now she just needed a plot.

Christie wrote 66 murder mysteries and 14 short story collections, as well as a handful of romance novels and the longest continuously running play in London (The Mousetrap). Most of her mysteries are solved by the eccentric Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot or the no-nonsense matron-next-door, Miss Jane Marple. Her novels have sold an estimated two billion copies, and have been translated into a record 103 languages. She remains one of the world’s best-loved novelists.

While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!”

Murder on the Orient Express can work especially well for film because of its closed set (it takes place almost entirely on a train car) and its large cast of suspects. You may have seen the 1974 film version, for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar; you might wonder: do we really need another? Perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment. Is it worth seeing this version? Yes, indeed.

Even if you’ve already read the story or seen it on screen, you haven’t seen this one, directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the detective Poirot. The enjoyment of an Agatha Christie doesn’t come so much from figuring out who done it or how it was done as from understanding what might drive someone to commit murder — and for a short time, finding ourselves in sympathy with a killer. From that standpoint, Murder on the Orient Express could as easily have been called “A Jury of One’s Peers.”

The story is simple: a group of seemingly unconnected people is traveling together from Istanbul to Paris. Each has a reason for needing to arrive on time. Each is harboring a private grief. Each grief will be uncovered by Poirot. And one of them will be killed. But who is the murderer?

You might wonder: do we really need another version of this story? But perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment.

Filmed in New Zealand and Switzerland, the movie is beautifully rendered, especially the long, wide views of snow-covered mountains and cloudy, luminescent skies. It almost feels as though the train is barreling through a Thomas Kincaid painting. Early scenes in Jerusalem, where Poirot is winding up a previous case before boarding the train, are filmed at odd angles, emphasizing Poirot’s odd way of seeing the world. Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

The cast of suspects includes such notable actors as Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Willem Defoe, and Dame Judi Dench. Gad, usually cast in silly comedic roles, is surprisingly good in his first truly dramatic turn. Even Emma Thompson, Branagh’s former wife, who has appeared in many of his films, makes a cameo appearance in this one. That’s a very young photo of her in the picture frame Poirot keeps by his bedside.

Poirot’s denouement is especially provocative, as the characters are blocked and staged in a way that emphasizes the ultimate theme of the story. I won’t say more here, but watch for it. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.

Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

Murder on the Orient Express evokes the glamour days of drawing room murders populated by characters with impeccable manners camouflaging their sharp claws. Its Alpine landscapes and exterior scenes in Jerusalem are breathtaking. Don’t wait for Netflix — this is one you’ll want to see in a theater. And see it on IMAX if you can.


Editor's Note: Review of "Murder on the Orient Express," directed by Kenneth Branagh. Twentieth Century Fox, 2017. 114 minutes.



Share This


The Preventables and the Deplorables

 | 

Ayn Rand says somewhere that you don’t understand a specific concept or thing until you can state the general class of objects to which it belongs, and you don’t understand a general class until you can identify some of its specific constituents.

She’s right, of course. The problem is that people can, and commonly do, get the specifics in the wrong classes.

We all know Democrats who meet a Republican and immediately put him or her in the class of Bigots and Dumb Asses. And we all know Republicans who meet a Democrat and immediately put this nice, unoffending person in the class of Destroyers of the Republic. When Democrats or Republicans encounter a libertarian, you can see it going on, right behind their eyeballs — the classification process effortlessly identifying “nice young person” as “good example of the Naïve and Feckless Class.”

Whatever the gunman’s motives, it is difficult to see any way of preventing this kind of thing from happening again, except by holding all public events in a bank vault.

This way of thinking can damage the thinker, as it did when Hillary Clinton naively and fecklessly put many of her potential voters in the “basket of deplorables.” More often, it damages society at large.

We live in a time and place when a vast range of specific problems are automatically put in the class of Things that Can Be Prevented, which is considered equivalent to the class of Things that Should Be Prevented, No Matter What.

The latest example is the horrible massacre at Las Vegas. Whatever the gunman’s motives, it is difficult to see any way of preventing this kind of thing from happening again, except by holding all public events in a bank vault. But before the victims’ blood could be wiped from the streets, talk turned to the question of how to, in effect, construct the bank vault.

I hope that means of putting cancer, insanity, and sheer stupidity in the Can Be Prevented category will ultimately be discovered, but they haven’t been discovered yet. And before you discover a means of prevention, your attempts at prevention are bound to be both feckless and destructive. In fact, if we keep going in this way, we will soon be unable to think, because the only classes of concepts we will have in our brains will be (A) The Preventables and (B) The Deplorables who “refuse” to prevent them.




Share This


Liaisin’ the Night Away

 | 

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%.




Share This


Making It Official

 | 

My remarks this month are about official abuse of language — a phenomenon so protean that it’s hard to decide where to start grabbing it. I’ll start at random, with the news about an employee of Google who wrote an essay claiming that there was no room for conservative attitudes in that outfit, and immediately discovered that there was no room for his attitudes:

Google has fired an employee who wrote an internal memo blasting the web company’s diversity policies . . .

“We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company,” [said] Danielle Brown, Google’s new vice president for diversity, integrity and governance.

Emphasizing the fact that corporate officials are sensitive to race, gender, and so forth, but not to irony, the news article continues with a note about Google’s holding company,Alphabet Inc.:

The subject of Google’s ideological bent came up at the most recent shareholder meeting, in June. A shareholder asked executives whether conservatives would feel welcome at the company. Executives disagreed with the idea that anyone wouldn’t.

“The company was founded under the principles of freedom of expression, diversity, inclusiveness and science-based thinking,” Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt said at the time. “You’ll also find that all of the other companies in our industry agree with us.”

Well, that’s diversity for you — universal agreement. It’s science, too. Science means that everybody agrees, and that’s that.

I, for one, do not agree that it’s a good idea to use principles as a kind of camouflage tent and found a company under them. That makes me wonder whether the principles are, in fact, just something to hide beneath. But maybe I’m not thinking scientifically. We know that if science says something, it must be true. That’s that, no matter how preposterous it sounds.

"Science" means that everybody agrees, and that’s that.

Speaking of that’s-that verbiage, let’s turn, without attempt at transition, to President Trump. On August 7, he tweeted this about Senator Richard Blumenthal (D, CT), one of many politicians who have been braying about Trump’s alleged intercourse with Russians (and, oddly, his alleged acceptance of foreign “emoluments”): “Never in U.S. history has anyone lied or defrauded voters like Senator Richard Blumenthal. He told stories about his Vietnam battles and conquests, how brave he was, and it was all a lie. He cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness like a child.”

Cried like a baby isn’t exactly fresh, but it’s fun to see it used about a man so swathed in the dignity of the Senate as Mr. Blumenthal. But I can think of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of anyones who have lied or defrauded worse than Blumenthal, several of them to be found in the Senate today. Maybe Trump can think of some himself, but he also thinks that everyone will understand his untruth as hyperbole.

One may ask, however: what is the use of hyperbole when you’re discussing historical events? If somebody said, “Of all the no-good, lying, dirty dogs, Hillary Clinton is by far the worst,” everyone would understand this as hyperbole; everyone knows she’s not a dog, and everyone can immediately picture all the no-good, lying, dirty “dogs” he has ever encountered, and identify some of them as even worse than Mrs. Clinton. This would not lessen the humorous effect of the trite, though picturesque, characterization of our former almost-president. But when Trump refers to specific, literal, historical facts (about lying, defrauding), he invites people to check them, not just to appreciate his hyperbole. The response is likely to be a pallid, “Sure, Blumenthal’s bad, but he’s not that bad. He isn’t Lyndon Johnson, after all.”

I can think of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of anyones who have lied or defrauded worse than Blumenthal, several of them to be found in the Senate today.

Trump has always trafficked in hyperbole, often to good effect, but historical hyperbole is becoming a habit with him, and a bad habit. On August 3, he tweeted, “Our relationship with Russia is at an all time & very dangerous low.” Since I want to believe, literally and completely, in everything a president of this country says, I immediately went out and bought emergency supplies. If we are at a lower point with Russia than we were during the Berlin blockade, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the breakup of the conference at Reykjavik, I’m preparing for war.

Yes, that’s sarcasm; sorry about that — which is what you say, nowadays, when you aren’t sorry about anything. Let’s pursue this topic of official discourse a little further.

In olden times there was a novel, and then a play, called Ten Nights in a Barroom. It was “temperance” propaganda, endeavoring to shame people out of their favorite saloons. I don’t know whether it accomplished that purpose, but it did show how unpleasant saloons could be, and it turned out to be very popular entertainment. But lately we’ve all spent many more than ten nights in a barroom. Ever since that evil day, now lost to memory, when the 2016 presidential campaign began, we’ve been locked in an old saloon filled with barflies yelling abuse at one another. The barflies are politicians and their journalistic surrogates. They scream, they taunt, they bluster, they try to make life miserable for everyone else. There’s just one good thing about them: they’re acting like human beings — angry, outrageous, extravagantly daft, but overtly, and sometimes interestingly, themselves.

If we are at a lower point with Russia than we were during the Berlin blockade, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the breakup of the conference at Reykjavik, I’m preparing for war.

Contrast the robotic calm that all the best people believe should characterize official discourse — the placid self-righteousness that camouflaged, with equal diligence,the foreign-policy hysteria of the Bush regime, the Neronian corruption of the Clintons, the ignorant Ameriphobia of the Obama class. The absence of this camouflaging discourse is one of the major reasons the shadow state detests Donald Trump. It detests him because it measures value by the degree to which erring human nature is repressed and the drama of life is replaced by professional training, best practices, settled science, authorized procedures, mission statements, job descriptions, educational credentials, and community principles.

But to replace messy human discourse with a comfort zone of politically correct official discourse is not to banish savagery. Oh no. It is only to weaponize it with inhuman words. There are few things more dangerous than official persons armed with official discourse.

You may recall that in last month’s Word Watch, I alluded to the hysterical behavior of Minneapolis police, and their panic shootings of innocent beings, human and canine. Soon after I wrote that column, wry signs were posted in the region: “Warning: Twin Cities Police Easily Startled,” with a silhouette of a cop with a gun in each hand, banging away.The AP distinguished these signs from “legitimate” ones, thus advertising its own political assumptions, but the signs showed an apt use of language. Less apt, indeed chillingly stupid, have been revelations about the ways in which Law Enforcement in Minneapolis talks.

To replace messy human discourse with a comfort zone of politically correct official discourse is not to banish savagery.

The policeman who wantonly shot two friendly dogs in the backyard of a woman whose burglar alarm had accidentally gone off claimed that the pooches made him fear for his safety. Apparently he needed a trigger warning. But the first words out of his mouth after he shot the household pets were a robotic, “Yeah, I dispatched both of ’em.”

Is that the way you talk when you’re rattled? But you’re not a trained professional, for whom the automatic term for shooting to kill is dispatched.

Worse is the way in which the state’s investigative agency described what happened when a policeman who was allegedly frightened by a noise fired his gun over the driver of the car in which he was riding and killed the woman who had called these cops to her neighborhood to investigate a possible rape. She seems to have made the absurd mistake of approaching the car. . . . but let the investigating agency, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, narrate the action as it understood it on July 25:

On July 15, 2017 at approximately 11:30 p.m., Minneapolis PD received a 911 call from a (woman) requesting police respond to 5024 Washburn Ave S, Minneapolis for a female screaming at this location. Approximately 10 minutes later, a female called 911 again to check the status of police arrival at this address. Moments later, Minneapolis PD arrived on scene. Upon police arrival, a female “slaps” the back of the patrol squad.

After that, it is unknown to BCA agents what exactly happened, but the female became deceased in the alley, approximately 10 to 20 ft. north of 51st St. with trauma to her torso that could be a gunshot wound. Minneapolis PD has not elaborated on the circumstances, but requested the BCA to investigate an officer-involved shooting regarding this incident.

Note that the woman had to call twice. Be it also noted that, according to court records, the scene wasn’t searched until seven hours after the killing — I mean the decease — took place. But let’s think about the mentality that created this report.

No, I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t need to be. I’m not looking for individual motivation, biases, or intellectual deficiencies. I’m looking at the organizational mentality that is clearly responsible for this atrocious use of language. It’s practically illiterate, for one thing. “An officer-involved shooting regarding this incident” — what? The shooting was the incident. But much of this is the kind of illiteracy that has to be learned. People don’t normally call women females. They don’t normally say that a woman who obviously was shot dead had trauma to her torso that could be a gunshot wound. Even a sociopath wouldn’t spontaneously employ the language of radical skepticism in a case like this. And it’s interesting that the investigating agency has received a revelation that the cop car was the victim of a “female” slap. They aren’t sure what killed her, but they do know that she — or some other suspicious member of her gender — made the mistake of slapping a car.

For brutal coldness, this one can hardly be surpassed.

But who in the hell has ever said that a person became deceased? We’ve heard a lot of substitutions for died or dead: passed away (eventually followed by that weird nonentity, passed), perished, departed this life, and yes, deceased. Innumerable jocular substitutions (kicked the bucket) have been added, humor being one of mankind’s best means of transcending the fear of death. Each of these terms, euphemistic, religious, or jocular, is appropriate to some human attitude or context, but none of them pictures men and women as mere objects undergoing chemical change.

But now we have became deceased, and it’s not meant to be funny. For brutal coldness, this one can hardly be surpassed. A cake became stale in the fridge. A drain became clogged under the sink. A female became deceased in the alley.

Notice the seemingly inevitable progression of bureaucratic thought. You start with a euphemism (deceased for died), then prevent even that from being an occasion for sentiment.

For some reason, I’m thinking of a scene in Citizen Kane:

THOMPSON
I see. And that's what you know about Rosebud?

RAYMOND
Yeah. I heard him say it that other time, too. He just said, uh,
"Rosebud," then he dropped the glass ball and it broke on the
floor. He didn't say anything after that, and I knew he was dead.
He said all kinds of things that didn't mean anything.

THOMPSON
Sentimental fellow, aren't you?

RAYMOND
Mmm . . . Yes and no.




Share This


Blood on the Streets

 | 

The President of the United States is not a Nazi, in the sense of being a member of the historical National Socialist German Workers’ Party or any of its subsequent pale imitators. But as he made clear during his August 15 press conference, Donald Trump is a Nazi sympathizer, in the narrow yet very literal sense of showing sympathy to modern-day Nazis.

Trump’s remarks came in the context of the August 12th white-nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that started with Nazi salutes and slogans and ended in one murder and dozens of malicious woundings. As word of the happenings — and, more specifically, videos and images — fanned out, people began to wonder if Trump could or would do one of the most basic things presidents have done since World War II: issue a denunciation of Nazis. Surely even Trump, whose skills in split-second denunciation are famed all across the digital landscape, and who responded almost immediately to the Aug. 17 vehicular attack in Barcelona, could manage that.

Donald Trump is a Nazi sympathizer, in the narrow yet very literal sense of showing sympathy to modern-day Nazis.

Turns out, no. A man who has taken to his Twitter account to spit on actresses, political rivals, and entire other nations — a man, moreover, whose entire campaign for president centered around the talking point of calling out “radical Islamic terrorism” by name — could not, in the wake of an actual murder, bring himself to condemn white-supremacist terrorism, instead backing himself into the corner of “many sides” contributing to the Charlottesville violence. Two days later, he went before cameras to read what was clearly someone else’s statement; staring ahead, dead-eyed, he was teleprompted the following:

"Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans . . . We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence.”

Sure, he delivered the lines with all the enthusiasm of a hostage listing his captors’ demands, but at least he said them. At the very least, his comments enraged rally attendee and former Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke, which should be the bare minimum for any 21st-century statement on race relations. All he had to do was answer a few questions about why it took so long, and he would be in the clear. But with the self-destructive impulsiveness that formerly was mistaken for strategy, Trump charged hard into the breach. The day wasn’t even over before he was whining about how the “Fake News Media” would never be satisfied (which is, as their treatment of President Obama should remind us, the one thing the media cannot afford to be).

A man who has taken to his Twitter account to spit on actresses, political rivals, and entire other nations could not, in the wake of an actual murder, bring himself to condemn white-supremacist terrorism.

The next day, at a rare press conference following an event meant to be about infrastructure, Trump flipped out and went way off script. He didn’t so much reverse his prior statements as wrap them up in a big bundle and set them on fire. He claimed first that his original Saturday (Aug. 12) statement was “fine,” and that he — Donald Trump! — needed to “wait a little while to get the facts.” Then he lied about the mother of the deceased thanking him for his comments. Next he refused again to say that a vehicular homicide, using tactics borrowed from ISIS, was “terrorism.” Finally, he returned to and elaborated on his “many sides” rhetoric:

Not all of those people were neo Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. . . . You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch. . . . I do think there's blame, yes, I think there's blame on both sides. . . .

But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group . . . protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I'm sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people. Neo Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest. Because I don't know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn't have a permit. So I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country. A horrible moment. But there are two sides.

He finished on a bizarre if characteristic note by pimping his home and winery near Charlottesville.

Setting aside for a moment his equal apportionment of blame to “both sides,” let’s review what the “very fine people” who Trump insists were just “protesting very quietly” actually did this past weekend. (This Vice mini-documentary provides an excellent summary of the weekend’s events, presenting the white supremacists as they chose to present themselves.)

With the self-destructive impulsiveness that formerly was mistaken for strategy, Trump charged hard into the breach.

The festivities started the night before the scheduled rally with a very unscheduled parade through the campus of the University of Virginia. The marchers made Nazi salutes and chanted old favorites like “Blood and soil” as well as new ones like the alternating “You will not replace us / Jews will not replace us!” Almost all of them bore torches — not the rag-around-a-stick type, but backyard Tiki torches, a touch that might seem comical until you remember that they still serve quite adequately as weapons. As the group approached the Rotunda (if you have any mental image of UVA, it’s probably that building), many began swinging their torches at the small knots of summer-school students, faculty, and staff there to protest their presence; one librarian who took a torch to the neck while protecting students would later develop a blood clot that led to a stroke.

After the police finally showed up, the march moved on toward the supposed turf of their protest, the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation (formerly Lee) Park. Along the way, they surrounded a historic black church where a community prayer meeting was in progress. Once at the Park, they found themselves opposed by a small group of students who linked arms around the statue in nonviolent protest. The torchwielders again surrounded the group, chanting Nazi and racist slogans, some sucker-punching the unarmed students, others spraying them with mace and pepper spray. One young counterprotester in a wheelchair was pelted with kerosene cans and threatened with torches, before countering streams of mace and pepper spray — and ultimately, again, the police’s late arrival — spoiled the show.

The next day, the official, permitted “protest” was slated for noon, but the marchers got an early start parading around Charlottesville’s redbrick downtown. In that crowd, the predominant outfit seemed to be a white polo shirt with khakis and a red cap, likely in tribute to the president’s golfing attire, but there was also an assortment of white-power logos, Klan slogans, paramilitary gear including an array of openly-carried semiautomatic rifles — and, naturally, plenty of Nazi paraphernalia, including t-shirts bearing Hitler quotes, references to the 14 Words and 88 Precepts, Iron Crosses, Imperial Eagles, Black Suns, and swastikas on armbands, patches, and at least one full-sized flag.

Many began swinging their torches at the small knots of summer-school students, faculty, and staff there to protest their presence.

If any of the “very fine people” there solely to support the Lee statue seemed concerned about their cohort in any way, they definitely didn’t show it. Or maybe they somehow totally missed the above, plus all the continued yelling of anti-Semitic slogans, plus the occasional “White lives matter” or “Fuck you faggots” to keep the repertoire fresh. Certainly those fine people weren’t involved when their fellow statue-protestors bore down on an interfaith pacifist group and had to be repelled by antifascist counterprotestors. And they must not have been there when a splinter group brutally beat a young black man in a parking garage, necessitating eight staples in his head.

Well before noon, the event was more street fight than march, and the city tried to move the actual rally to another park, further away from downtown. (They had actually tried to do so two days earlier, in a legally dubious move.) Many of the groups boarded vans or buses they had chartered for the occasion; many more had to rely on their own transport. One of these latter, James Alex Fields, Jr., had spent the day in white polo uniform, rallying with Vanguard America, whose use of “Blood and Soil” as permanent slogan made them a natural choice for someone described by nearly everyone who knew him as a Nazi-military fanboy. In trying to exit the area, Fields turned into one of the wide alleyways crossing over the pedestrian Downtown Mall, only to see at the other end a large crowd of counterprotesters, celebrating the withdrawal of the white supremacist masses. At this point, as video and multiple eyewitness accounts confirm, Fields revved his engine and pointed his Dodge Challenger squarely at the throng.

Estimates vary over the speed of the car when he struck the crowd; he was going at least 30 down a corridor meant for a maximum of 5 MPH. What is clear is that he hit several people before crashing into the back of another car, which jolted forward into a minivan, trapping people in between the various vehicles. Fields then threw the car in reverse, trailing blood streaks and his front bumper up the pedestrian alley, before squealing away back at the top. Heather Heyer died soon after from the injuries she sustained; 19 more would be sent to the hospital, some in critical condition.

Those "very fine people" must not have been there when a group of marchers brutally beat a young black man in a parking garage, necessitating eight staples in his head.

The videos are shocking, but that shock should be tempered (as Trump would never do) with an acknowledgment that right-wing media outlets and social-media feeds have been talking for years — fantasizing, even — about plowing through crowds of protesting pedestrians. And that’s not just on the fringe: pundits such as Glenn Reynolds have suggested people just “run them over,” then howled with indignation when at the idea that anyone might ever actually take them up on it; GOP-dominated legislatures in a number of states have taken up bills to make it easier to get away with, at best, vehicular manslaughter.

And yet, the president among others (including Stormfront contributor and event organizer Jason Kessler, who a few days after being literally run out of town tweeted that Heyer was a “fat disgusting Communist” whose death was “payback”) expects the counterprotesters to bear an equal share of the blame — if not greater — for the violence at the rally. But while some on the opposite side certainly made use of fists as well as chemical deterrents, they didn’t maliciously wound or murder anyone. You can’t use “both sides” rhetoric to whitewash blood off the streets.

Trump, or someone in his administration with more intelligence, seems to have recognized this in the days since, as evidenced by his pivot to talking solely in terms of the statues and the erasure of history. But hanging that story on the Lee statue already erases Charlottesville history: the monument was installed more than half a century after the Civil War, in a town which saw next to no military action. Like most of the glut of such statues erected during the Jim Crow era (in this case 1924, though commissioned in 1917), it had a lot more to do with peak-power white supremacy than with any scarcely existent Confederate heritage — especially given that in order to build it, they had to ignore the words of Robert E. Lee himself, who did not want any statues or memorials, or indeed any potentially nostalgic evocation of the Confederacy.

Fields then threw the car in reverse, trailing blood streaks and his front bumper up the alley, before squealing away back at the top.

Generally I would expect the Democrats’ stupidity and seeming allergy to advantageous situations would get Trump off the hook. But this time he might have gone a bit too far even for those who have cut him enormous slack (David Duke excepted): CEOs jumped ship from his business panel; handwringing conservative columnists actually took him to task; a few odd-duck GOP congressmen in safe districts actually called him out by name. And yet no one resigned from the administration itself, and if any of the senior GOP leadership said anything on the record, they were at best “protesting very quietly,” leaking statements through surrogates of how angry or saddened they were, without actually themselves saying a thing. So many of them still seem to think, despite the pile of evidence to the contrary, that Trump can be contained or at least mitigated long enough for them to get what they want out of his presidency, and most of what they want is scarcely friendly to a freer society.

There’s no saving any of them; whatever they say in private, publicly they are part of the Trump loyalist base, and they won’t leave until the whole thing is in ashes (probably even then, if they can make a quick jump to a Pence presidency). But libertarians find themselves at perhaps the most important crux in movement history. Those who talked themselves into voting for Trump — not against Clinton, mind you, but for Trump — based on one or another mistaken idea about his future performance in office have had more than enough time for a rethink. His supposed isolationist foreign policy has vanished in the smoke of bombs over Syria and Yemen and hot air over North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. He’s declared himself ready to start a trade war at the drop of a MAGA hat. Any slashes to his domestic budget will be made back up, and then some, by bloat in military spending. His healthcare plan is, per Cato, likely even worse than Obamacare. He’s fed the cruelty and callousness in our nation’s policing and immigration enforcement.

Libertarians who can’t denounce authoritarianism in this case cannot and should not be trusted to do so down the line.

Closer to the White House, Trump’s administration churns through employees faster than his own reality shows did, until now the man who promised to “drain the swamp” finds himself surrounded almost entirely by Goldman Sachs employees and military men. Increasingly isolated and subject to the likes of Gen. John Kelly’s attempted “military” discipline, Trump will become more and more likely to lash out and say whatever comes to mind — and that’s a scary prospect, considering what that has involved in the past, from pre-presidential days till now.

Remember that all this is taking place without a single major terrorist attack on American soil, or a large-scale natural disaster, or an outright war, or any similar scenario so often used to massively increase governmental power. This is the last chance to sever cleanly, to make a break, to toss out a mea culpa — just pick your preferred metaphor. Taking a soft line on neo-Nazis is pretty bad, but it’s only going to get worse from here; libertarians who can’t denounce authoritarianism in this case cannot and should not be trusted to do so down the line. There are political battles to be had down the road with liberals and — gasp — socialists, but for right now there’s a common foe. Let’s work to take care of what we can and survive, or else be counted among those “very fine people” for whom history will find labels far more accurate and far less flattering.



Share This


The Reality of “Emerging Markets”

 | 

The British Empire was the largest in history. At the end of World War II Britain had to start pulling out. A major part of the reason was, ironically, the economic prosperity that had come through industrialization, massive improvements in transportation, and the advent of telecommunications, ethnic and religious respect, freedom of speech, and other liberties offered by the empire.

After the departure of the British — as well as the French, German, Belgians, and other European colonizers — most of the newly “independent” countries suffered rapid decay in their institutions, stagnant economises, massive social strife, and a fall in standards of living. An age of anti-liberalism and tyranny descended on these ex-colonized countries. They rightly got to be known as third-world countries.

The blame — at least among those on the Right — went mostly to socialism and the rise of dictators. This is not incorrect, but it is a merely proximate cause.

An armchair economist would have assumed that these ex-colonized countries, still very backward and at a very low base compared to Europe, would grow economically at a faster rate. Quite to the contrary, as time passed by, their growth rate stayed lower than that of the West.

The blame — at least among those on the Right — went mostly to socialism and the rise of dictators. This is not incorrect, but it is a merely proximate cause. Clarity might have been reached if people had contemplated the reason why Marxism and socialism grew like weeds in the formerly colonial countries.

According to conventional wisdom, the situation changed after the fall of the socialist ringleader, the USSR, in the late ’80s. Ex-colonized countries started to liberalize their economies and widely accepted democracy, leading to peace, the spread of education and equality, the establishment of liberal, independent institutions, and a massive economic growth sustained during the past three decades. The “third-world” would soon be known as the “emerging markets.”

In some ways, government regulations and repression of businesses in the “emerging markets” have actually gotten much worse.

Alas, this is a faulty narrative. Economic growth did pick up in these poor countries, and the rate of growth did markedly exceed that of the West, but the conventional narrative confuses correlation with causality. It tries to fit events to ideological preferences, which assume that we are all the same, that if Europeans could progress, so should everyone else, and that all that matters is correct incentives and appropriate institutions.

The claimed liberalization in the “emerging markets” after the collapse of the USSR did not really happen. Progress was always one step forward and two steps back. In some ways, government regulations and repression of businesses in the “emerging markets” have actually gotten much worse. Financed by increased taxes, governments have grown by leaps and bounds — not for the benefit of society but for that of the ruling class — and are now addicted to their own growth.

The ultimate underpinnings of the so-called emerging markets haven’t changed. Their rapid economic progress during the past three decades — a one-off event — happened for reasons completely different from those assumed by most economists. The question is: once the effect of the one-off event has worn off, will the so-called emerging markets revert to the stagnation, institutional degradation, and tyranny that they had leaped into soon after the European colonizers left?

In the “emerging markets” (except for China) synchronized favorable economic changes were an anomaly. They resulted in large part from the new, extremely cheap telephony that came into existence (a result of massive cabling of the planet done in the ’80s) and the subsequent advent of the new technology of the internet. The internet enabled instantaneous transfer of technology from the West and, by consequence, an unprecedented economic growth in the “emerging markets.”

Those who hold China in contempt for copying Western technology don’t understand that if copying were so easy, the rest of the world would have done the same.

Meanwhile, a real cultural, political, and economic renaissance started in China. It was an event so momentous that it changed the economic structure not just of China but of the whole world. Because China is seen as a communist dictatorship, it fails to be fully appreciated and respected by intellectuals who are obsessed with the institution of democracy. But now that the low-hanging fruit from the emergence of the internet and of China (which continues to progress) have been plucked, the “emerging markets” (except, again, for China) are regressing to the normal: decay in their institutions, stagnant economies, and social strife. They should still be called the “third world.”

There are those who hold China in contempt for copying Western technology, but they don’t understand that if copying were so easy, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia would have done the same. They were, after all, prepared for progress by their colonial history. European colonizers brought in the rule of law and significantly reduced the tribal warfare that had been a daily routine in many of the colonies — in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Britain and other European nations set up institutional structures that allowed for accumulation of intellectual and financial capital. Western-style education and democracy were initiated. But this was helpful in a very marginal way.

For those who have not travelled and immersed themselves in formerly colonized countries, it is hard to understand that although there was piping for water and sewage in Roman days, it still does not exist for a very large segment of the world’s population. The wheel has been in existence for more than 5,000 years, but a very large number of people still carry water pots on their heads.

It is not the absence of technology or money that is stopping these people from starting to use some basic forms of technology. It is something else.

A remark often attributed to Churchill, although unverified, has more than passed the test of time: “If Independence is granted to India, power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles. A day would come when even air and water would be taxed in India.”

The hope that once the correct incentives are in place and institutions have been organized, the third world on a path to perpetual growth, couldn’t be more wrong.

Europeans of that time clearly knew that there was something fundamentally different between the West and the Rest, and that the colonies would not survive without the pillars and cement that European management provided. With the rise of political correctness this wisdom was erased from our common understanding, but it is something that may well return to haunt us in the near future as expectations from the third-world fail and those who immigrate to Europe, Canada, Australia, and the US fail to assimilate.

For now, the hope among those in the World Bank, the IMF, and other armchair intellectuals has been that once the correct incentives are in place and institutions have been organized, imposed structures will put the third world on a path to perpetual growth. They couldn’t be more wrong.

The cart has been put in front of the horse. It is institutions that emerge from the underlying culture, not the other way around. And a cultural change is a millennia-long process, perhaps even longer. As soon as Europeans quitted their colonies, the institutional structures they left started to crumble. Alas, it takes a Ph.D. from an Ivy League college and a quarter of a million dollar salary at the World Bank or IMF not to understand what is the key issue with development economics and institutional failures: the missing ingredient in the third world was the concept of objective, impartial reason, the basis of laws and institutions that protect individual rights. This concept took 2,500 years to develop and get infused into the culture, memes, and genes of Europeans — a difficult process that, even in Europe, has never been completed.

European institutions were at roots a product of this concept. Despite massive effort by missionaries, religious and secular, and of institutions imposed on poor countries, reason failed to get transmitted. Whatever marginal improvement was achieved over 200 to 300 years of colonization is therefore slowly and surely being undone.

Without reason, the concepts of equal law, compassion, and empathy do not operate. Such societies simply cannot have institutions of the rule of law and of fairness. The consequence is that they cannot evolve or even maintain the Western institutions that European colonizers left behind. Any imposed institutions — schools, armies, elections, national executives, banking and taxation systems — must mutate to cater to the underlying irrationalities and tribalisms of the third world.

Alas, it takes a Ph.D. from an Ivy League college and a quarter of a million dollar salary at the World Bank or IMF not to understand what is the key issue with development economics and institutional failures.

In these “emerging markets,” education has become a dogma, not a tool; it floats unassimilated in the minds of people lacking objective reason. It has burdened their minds. Instead of leading to creativity and critical thinking, it is used for propaganda by demagogues. Without impartial reason, democracy is a mere tribal, geographical concept steeped in arrogance. All popular and “educated” rhetoric to the contrary, I can think of no country in the nonwestern world that did well after it took to “democracy.”

The spread of nationalism (which to a rational mind is about the commonality of values) has created crises by unifying people tribally. The most visible example is what is happening in the Middle East, but the basic problem is the same in every South Asian and African country. It is the same problem in most of South America. India, the geographical entity I grew up in, has rapidly been collectivized under the flag and the anthem. It might eventually become the Middle East on steroids, once Hindutava (Hindu nationalism) has become well-rooted.

In Burma, a whiff of democracy does not seem to have inhibited Buddhists’ genocide against the Muslim Rohingya. Thailand (which wasn’t colonized in a strictly political sense) has gone silent, but its crisis hasn’t. Turkey and Malaysia, among the better of these backward societies, have taken paths of rapid regression to their medieval pasts. South Africa, which not too far in the past was seen as a first-world country, got rid of apartheid, but what it now has is even worse. The same happened with Venezuela, which in the recent past was among the richer countries of the world. It is ready to implode, as may Brazil one day. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and East Timor are acknowledged to be in a mess, and are getting worse by the day. Indonesia took a breather for a few years and is now again on the footprints of fanaticism. India is the biggest democracy, so its problems are actively ignored by the Western press, but they won’t be for long, as India continues to become a police state.

The spread of nationalism has created crises by unifying people tribally.

Botswana was seen as a country whose growth was among the fastest for the longest. What was ignored was the fact that this rather large country has a very small population, which benefited hugely from diamonds and other natural resources. The top political layer of Botswana is still a leftover from the British. The local culture continues to corrode what was left by them, and there are clear signs that Botswana is past its peak. Papua New Guinea was another country that was doing reasonably well, before the Australians left. It is now rapidly regressing to its tribal, irrational, and extremely violent norm, where for practical purposes a rape is not even a crime.

The world may recognize most of the above, but it sees these countries’ problems as isolated events that can corrected by a further imposition of Western institutions, under the guidance of the UN or some such international (and therefore “noncolonialist”) organization. Amusingly, our intellectual climate — a product of political correctness — is such that the third world is seen as the backbone of humanity’s future economic growth.

Unfortunately, so-called emerging markets are headed for a chaotic future. The likeliest prospect is that these countries will continue catering to irrational forces, particularly tribalism, and that they will consequently cease to exist, disintegrating into much smaller entities. As their tide of economic growth goes out with the final phase of plucking the free gift of internet technology, their problems will surface rapidly, exactly when the last of those who were trained in the colonial system are sent to the history books.




Share This


Buying Genocide

 | 

“Socialists always run out of other people’s money. It’s quite characteristic of them.”       
—Baroness Thatcher

How are totalitarian regimes able to control the populace and gain its support for even the vilest programs?

In an earlier piece, I suggested that there are three basic methods employed by compliance agents — the people who try to get a targeted group to comply with their wishes — to get what they want. These I termed power, purchase, and persuasion.

The Tools of Compliance

By power I mean force, threat of force, or theft. Of course, the attempt at force may not succeed, if the agent has insufficient strength to overpower — or insufficient guile to successfully steal from — the target.

By purchase I mean trading something that the agent and the target both value — money, labor, physical objects. Again, the attempt may fail — the agent may not have enough of what the target values to pay the target’s price, or they may be unable to agree upon a price. By persuasion (or promotion), I mean offering reasons (other than threats of force or attempted bargaining) to the target. If Fred’s doctor urges Fred to stop smoking or face an increased chance of cancer, the doctor is not threatening Fred — after all, the doctor won’t inflict the cancer on Fred; the cigarettes will.[1] Nor is the doctor bargaining with Fred. He is “arguing from consequences”; that is, he is arguing that Fred’s behavior will objectively hurt Fred, so Fred ought to stop that behavior. Even if Fred’s doctor chose not to argue rationally but decided to manipulate Fred emotionally — say, by showing Fred pictures of his kids crying out “Daddy, please don’t die!” — the doctor is neither threatening nor bargaining.

For one thing, it exonerates the rest of the world for its complicity in the Holocaust, and allows us all to sigh in relief that “it could never happen here.”

An interesting point from cognitive psychology that I’ve heard Matt Ridley[2] make is that while nonhuman animals often use force and theft to get what they want from other animals, they don’t, strictly speaking, trade with others, in the sense of giving something they value to get something they value more. As Adam Smith put it, “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”[3] Applying the point about persuasion to animals: I have never seen a dog offer an argument to get another dog to do something — though a dog does seem to know how to appear or sound pitiable to its owners when it wants something.

Of course, power, purchase, and persuasion are not perfectly distinct categories, as I noted earlier. But they allow us to pursue an interesting discussion — one going back for seven decades in the search for explanations of Nazi totalitarianism. A critical review of this discussion, especially as it appears in a number of distinguished works of the 21st century, provides a framework in which key concepts and controversies can be seen.

The Goldhagen Dispute: Why Did Germans Support the Nazi regime?

Let’s start with an insightful paper by Alexander Groth, called “Demonizing the Germans.” In this paper, the estimable Professor Groth — himself a Holocaust survivor — takes up the issue of the culpability of the German public for the crimes of the Nazis. He reviews two books: Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) and Robert Gellately’s Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (2001). Both these books, Groth says, put forward the view that Hitler’s policies during the 12 years of his regime were based on the “spontaneous preferences” of the German public, not the regime’s “coercion and manipulation.” the regime’s use of the power delivered by its police state and the persuasion delivered by its propaganda machine (118).

Groth concedes that the regime’s policies required the collusion and cooperation of millions of Germans. But he criticizes the authors for pushing their cases beyond logic and evidence. Indeed, Groth holds that Goldhagen’s view of Germans is “almost racist in its sweeping character” (119). He takes Goldhagen to mean that “the Germans let Hitler and his minions, soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats, kill the Jews because they fundamentally agreed with Hitler that this was a good idea” (119).

While the average German said nothing about the Nazi destruction of the Jews, neither did FDR or Churchill, even though the latter were far freer to speak out.

Groth has many problems with this view. For one thing, it exonerates the rest of the world for its complicity in the Holocaust, and allows us all to sigh in relief that “it could never happen here.” And he points to a logical gap. Everyone, Goldhagen included, recognizes that the Germans involved in the execution of the Holocaust — the men involved in designing the scheme, arresting and transporting the victims, and running the death camps — could at most amount to 5% of the population of 80 million. The other Germans, while not active, did nothing to stop the killings, but passively accepted them. But Groth points out that while the rest of the Germans did not publicly mourn or protest the mass murder of the Jews, the most reasonable conclusion from that absence of protest would be that they just didn’t care, not that they supported it. I would sharpen the point by adding that while there were no massive protests against the Final Solution, there were no massive rallies in support of it either.

Here Groth rightly notes that Goldhagen fails to distinguish among the German non-genocidaires:

. . . those who could not care less; those who rejoiced in Hitler’s policies; those who were appalled by those policies but feared the risks of speaking out; those who had a variety of doubts and reservations about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews but who also were not willing to jeopardize their lives, their careers, and their families to voice them; and, finally, the many Germans confused and misled by Nazi propaganda and information controls. After all, the Nazis never admitted publicly that they were exterminating the Jews. They were just resettling them in the East. (120)

And Groth adds to this point the observation that while the average German said nothing about the Nazi destruction of the Jews, neither did FDR or Churchill, even though the latter were far freer to speak out, far more informed, and far more protected from reprisals. Were FDR and Churchill “eliminationist anti-Semites” as well?[4]

Groth also criticizes Goldhagen’s claim that the vitriolic German anti-Semitic literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries was unmatched in Europe or elsewhere. Groth observes that Goldhagen adduces no evidence for this claim, and mentions similar anti-Semitic literature in Poland and Rumania. (I will suggest later in this piece that Groth is overlooking something about German anti-Semitism that was unique.)

To Goldhagen’s point that whatever anti-Semitism existed elsewhere in Europe, it was only in Germany that an openly anti-Semitic party was elected to power, Groth replies by noting that in the three Reichstag elections prior to April 1933, the Nazis received only 37%, 33%, and 44% — that last vote coming with the full aid of SA thugs in the streets, intimidating voters. Furthermore, while Hitler’s anti-Semitism is blatant in Mein Kampf, how many voters had read the book? How many dismissed much of it as exaggerated? How many who shared the Nazi antipathy towards Jews favored not merely mass murder, but, say, encouraging Jews to convert to Christianity or emigrate? Remember: from 1933 until the outset of the war or later, the Nazis focused on pressuring Jews to leave. Groth rightly notes that there were no exit polls at the time, so we cannot say why those who voted Nazi did so. Moreover, Theodore Abel’s sociological study of essays by 600 Nazi Party members in the period shortly after Hitler achieved power, describing why they joined the party, showed that only about 36% stated anti-Semitic motives.

From 1871 (when Germany unified) to 1933, Jews were far better off in Germany than in Eastern Europe by any measure — and there were no pogroms in Germany.

Groth cites two scholars in support of his view. First he quotes Sarah Gordon[5] saying that even among Party members, there was considerable diversity of opinion on the “Jewish question,” and only a “small percentage” shared Hitler’s “paranoid” anti-Semitism. She claims that more Germans disapproved of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies than supported them. And, she adds, Hitler’s central role in the Holocaust should never be underestimated. She further points out that Germans faced a (minimum) of two years in a concentration camp for aiding Jews or publicly supporting their cause — a fate much worse than regular jail.

Groth then quotes William Sheridan Allen,[6] who focused his research on the Nazi takeover of the town of Thalburg. Allen reported that most of the townspeople were relatively unsympathetic to the anti-Semitism of the Nazi ideology. Jews at all class levels were well integrated into the town’s society. Though there was “abstract” anti-Semitism — a general dislike of Jewishness that showed up in jokes or expressions of distaste, many people just ignored the anti-Semitic aspect of the Party when voting for it. Indeed, “Thalburgers were drawn to anti-Semitism because they were drawn to Nazism, not the other way around” (127).

And Groth quotes from Saul Friedlander[7] the idea that during the 1930s the German population didn’t demand anti-Jewish measures; in fact, those who supported eliminationist anti-Semitism were only a segment of the Party.

Groth next makes the point that if there were a native German eliminationist anti-Semitism, why didn’t it show up prior to 1933? Indeed, from 1871 (when Germany unified) to 1933, Jews were far better off in Germany than in Eastern Europe by any measure — access to education, participation in social and political institutions, or rate of intermarriage — and there were no pogroms in Germany as there were in Russia and Eastern Europe.

He also cites a survey of 500 German POWs done in 1944. Among men below 30, 33% said anti-Semitism was “helpful” to Germany, while 44% said it was “harmful.” Among men over 30, only 17% agreed it was “helpful” while 60% saw it as “harmful.” (Twenty-three percent of both groups did not reply to the question.) And he notes that when the violence started, be it Kristallnacht in 1938 or the killing camps and Einsatzgruppen later, it was the police, the SS, the SA, and (less often) the regular military who did the killing, not “frenzied, out-of-control German civilian mobs” (130).

Even if the primarily responsibility for the Holocaust lies with the leadership, the question of popular support still remains.

Groth adds that post-WWII, while Germany has seen some Skinhead and neo-Nazi groups, there has been no mass violence against the Jews, but only “scattered” attacks against synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and individual Jews. And political parties espousing anti-Semitism have done poorly in German elections.

Here are some points to ponder.

Regarding the Abel analysis of 600 essays about why Party members joined the NSDAP: the fact that only 36% said they were anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that the rest weren’t. If you surveyed Republicans and asked why they are in the party, perhaps two-thirds would neglect to mention “lower taxes.” But if you explicitly asked whether they favored lower taxes, probably 98% would say yes. Similarly, if you asked Democrats why they support the party perhaps two-thirds would not mention increasing taxes on the rich. But if you asked whether they favored that policy, again, probably 98% would say they did.

Regarding Sarah Gordon, to the effect that few Germans were paranoid anti-Semites of “Hitler’s ilk”: Gordon seems as data-light as Goldhagen. What Groth might have looked at is data on attendance at the Nazi anti-Semitic movies. For example, Jud Süss (1940), which pushed the most extreme anti-Semitism, was the sixth most popular film made during the Third Reich. 20.3 million Germans paid for tickets, about 40% of the adults in greater Germany. Compare the big Spielberg hit, Saving Private Ryan (1998), which was seen by about 20% of American adults at the time, and you see how attractive the anti-Semitic film was.

Regarding Groth’s and Gordon’s point that Hitler played a “central role” in the Holocaust: just why did Hitler and his myrmidons favor extermination of the Jews (at seemingly great cost towards the end of the war)? Was it just, say, schizophrenic paranoia? Was Hitler ever diagnosed as a paranoid, or hospitalized for psychotic symptoms? Or was it a deep ideological conviction, and, if so, why? Even if the primarily responsibility for the Holocaust lies with the leadership, the question of popular support still remains.

Regarding Groth’s point — a completely obvious one — that prior to Hitler coming to power, Germany historically had higher levels of integration of Jews into society, and no pogroms: perhaps the German government (for various reasons) did not allow pogroms, whereas the Tsarist government allowed (and even facilitated) them. And Jews were as well integrated in most of the rest of Western Europe (especially England, which had elected a Jew as Prime Minister as early as 1868), and suffered no pogroms either — but only Germany ever freely elected (by a strong plurality) an openly and deeply anti-Semitic party.

The SS, SA and police were formed from civilian volunteers. And the populace often cooperated with the Gestapo and other police agencies, and did nothing to impede the mass atrocities.

Regarding Groth’s citation (following Gordon) of the survey of 500 German POWs in 1944: the sample size is small (the margin of error is 5%), and its randomness is questionable — maybe German soldiers with attitudes more sympathetic to the Allies surrendered to them more readily. Worse, there is an obvious problem with interviewer error. The Germans were exposing their feelings to — their captors, who the POWs knew were profoundly anti-Nazi. Did those POWs feel free to answer honestly? We need to remember the classic illustration cited by Darrel Huff.[8] During WWII, Gallup interviewed African Americans as to whether they thought they would be treated worse by society if the Japanese won the war, and found that nearly double the number answered in the negative when the interviewer was black compared to those asked by a white interviewer.

Regarding Groth’s point that the actual killers — the genocidaires — of Jews were not civilians, but members of the SS, SA, regular police, and elements of the regular military: the SS, SA and police were formed from civilian volunteers. (The SA and SS had their origins in the Freikorps, organized militias that fought revolutionaries in the German streets after WWI.) And again, the populace often cooperated with the Gestapo and other police agencies, and did nothing to impede the mass atrocities.

Finally, regarding Groth’s point that after the 1940s, while Germany has seen skinheads and neo-Nazis, and occasionally attacks on Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and individuals, there have been no governmental attacks: this is a weak point indeed. By the end of WWII most of Germany had been devastated, with millions of its civilians killed; the world came to know the extent of the Holocaust and condemned Germany accordingly, and the county was dismembered and occupied for decades. Of course even the most devout anti-Semites would be deterred from repeating their crimes. Moreover, post-WWII Germany was virtually devoid of Jewish citizens — even now, at about 120,000, there would be few left for modern eliminationist anti-Semites to eliminate.

In sum, while Groth offers some good criticisms of Goldhagen, they are in my view hardly definitive.

I turn now to Groth’s views on Robert Gellately’s work. Groth accuses Gellately of a flawed analysis of the data and a “lack of familiarity with the literature of totalitarianism.” This seems harsh, especially considering that both Gellately’s books were published not though some obscure press, but through Oxford University Press. But let us consider the rival contentions.

The Gestapo’s power was based not so much on its numbers as on its power to disrupt citizens’ lives, its arbitrary operations, its lack of public accountability, its exemption from the rule of law, and its known tendency to torture and murder freely.

Gellately argued in an early book[9] that the Gestapo was in fact “a terribly undermanned institution, incapable of policing German society on its own,” so it relied heavily on informants (Groth 131).

To this, Groth makes some cogent replies. The first is more of a dig: if contemporary American students and faculty report feeling intimidated on college campuses by political correctness, it is strange to think that the Germans would not have feared the Gestapo. Moreover, the Gestapo’s power was based not so much on its numbers as on its power to disrupt citizens’ lives, its arbitrary operations, its lack of public accountability, its exemption from the rule of law, and its known tendency to torture and murder freely.

Moreover, the Gestapo was interconnected with the SS, a very large organization — Groth doesn’t mention it, but the SS at its peak numbered 850,000, which is roughly the number of all local police in the contemporary US, a nation about four times the population of Nazi Germany. And the Gestapo worked in secret. So even if it had relatively few agents, the public could have no clue about that, or about the number of Gestapo informants among the public.

Groth is correct about the power of the German police state, and that will be the focus of the third in this series of essays for this journal. But he is on shakier ground when he critiques Gellately’s more recent book, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.[10] Gellately asks why the German people almost uniformly followed Hitler from 1933 to the bitter end in 1945. Groth notes that while Gellately acknowledges the role of the Nazi propaganda machine, its strict control of communication (read: its silencing of all opposition), and its institutions of coercion and terror, Gellately concludes that the Nazi regime rested mainly on consensus. And this Groth does not accept.

By the outbreak of the war, the Nazi form of anti-Semitism had taken hold.

Gellately argues that besides using coercion and propaganda, Hitler was much more interested in getting and keeping popular support. So, unlike his rival Stalin, Hitler did not target large parts of his country’s population, confining his police state apparatus to the regime’s enemies and its targeted minorities. The regime sought popular backing until the very end of its existence. And Gellately adds that “many Germans went along, not because they were mindless robots, but because they convinced themselves of Hitler’s advantages and the ‘positive’ side of the new dictatorship” (136).

Furthermore, as Gellately points out, certainly from 1933 to 1939, the regime could show apparent successes in reclaiming lost territory, dramatically lowering unemployment, making more consumer goods available, and building out infrastructure. Gellately points to the rise in Nazi Party membership from about 130,000 in 1930 to 850,000 in 1933, and the SA’s growth from 77,000 in 1931 to 3 million in 1934. In the 1932 and 1933 plebiscites, the Nazis won the plurality of the vote. Gellately further argues that by the outbreak of the war, the Nazi form of anti-Semitism had taken hold.

Gellately additionally notes that unlike most other totalitarian regimes, the Nazis openly discussed their coercive system — in particular, their concentration camp system. I would add that it is striking that while most Soviet camps were hidden away in Siberia or elsewhere in the hinterlands, the Nazis opened their first camps near big cities. Similarly, the Nazis were quite open about their anti-Jewish measures and legislation, discussing these laws and rulings in widely circulated papers. The Nuremberg Laws (passed in 1935) were well discussed and widely publicized — as they would have to be: the populace would have to know that having sexual relations with Jews was now forbidden.

Gellately observes that German propaganda was well-crafted and effective, rather than crude and obvious. Here I would note that Goebbels articulated what is now widely acknowledged by propaganda theorists: effective propaganda is often if not typically an exercise in “confirmation bias”: it works best if it takes preexisting attitudes and beliefs and amplifies them, reconstructs them, and uses them to support something. He adds that the regime received thousands of letters a day, which seems to show that the populace supported or at least felt comfortable with it.

Groth offers a welter of criticisms of Gellately’s claims. He starts by noting that Nazi electoral successes actually dropped from 37.3% to 33.1% in the 1932 elections. Yes, a later election, after Hitler was appointed chancellor, showed a plurality of 43.9%, but that (Groth avers) was likely because of the pressure the SA could bring on voters. And in later plebiscites (in late 1933 and 1934), all opposition had been outlawed. Moreover, Groth points out that Stalin routinely won elections with 99% of the vote.

While most Soviet camps were hidden away in Siberia or elsewhere in the hinterlands, the Nazis opened their first camps near big cities.

To the point about the Nazi Party’s membership increasing, Groth replies that the postwar Soviet-backed Polish communist party membership rose from 20,000 to 1 million. As to the Nazis wanting popular backing, Groth replies that Stalin’s regime did as well.

Regarding Gellately’s claim that Hitler didn’t confront large segments of the German population in the way Stalin did the Soviet population, Groth scathingly replies that Hitler abolished trade unions and outlawed strikes — wasn’t that confrontational? To Gellately’s point about the Nazi anti-Semitism having taken root among Germans, Groth cites the reports of two senior British and American diplomats in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) to the effect that all the citizens they talked to disapproved of the event completely.

Discussing the Nazis’ willingness to disclose the nature of their concentration camps system, Groth rightly observes that this was far short of full disclosure. The camps were portrayed as benignly reeducating communists, socialists, and criminals, and (later) as relocating Jews to the East for their own protection. The public was never told of the torture, rape, and murder that took place in those camps. Groth makes the telling point that not once did Hitler or his Propaganda Ministry ever acknowledge that they were systematically killing the Jews and other targeted groups.

Groth goes on to criticize Gellately’s account of Nazi propaganda as being sophisticated (not crude brainwashing and manipulation) and appealing to preexisting German beliefs and desires. Groth replies that this is a truism: any propaganda appeals to what people believe and desire — certainly Soviet, British, and American propaganda did. In this Groth is touching upon the point made earlier, that propaganda is often an exercise in confirmation bias. But he adds to this point another that is interesting:

Here one needs to take note of the symbiotic relationship between “propaganda” and “terror” in order to appreciate why the balance of these factors would predispose a great many people in Germany to deny and repress knowledge of Nazi crimes. At the top of the political system, Hitler and Goebbels set the norms of what it was that made a “good Nazi” and a “good German.” These norms were constantly replayed by the mass of official media — everything from radio to wall posters. Certainly, an “uncompromising hostility” to the Jews was one of the most important norms; ultimately in Hitler’s view, they were Germany’s most implacable and dangerous enemy. Any conspicuous, publicly, or even privately manifested deviation from the norms could potentially bring significant punishment to those involved. (142)

So if Germans didn’t publically defend Jews, Groth suggests, it is because any who did faced brutal treatment. And — he further suggests — the best way for an ordinary (non-anti-Semitic) German to bow to the authority of the regime but still maintain a favorable self-image would be to deliberately not think about the fate of the Jews. Actually, Groth could have invoked cognitive dissonance theory: faced with his belief in tolerance and his awareness that in not helping Jews he is contributing to their destruction, the tolerant German might simply tune out any new, unpleasant information. (Confirmation bias again . . .)

Groth next criticizes Gellately’s inferring from the fact that the Nazi regime received thousands of letters daily the conclusion that the German public was involved and interested rather than passive or powerless, and that the regime could be manipulated from below. Groth replies that the letters could just be “requests for personal favors, petty complaints, protestations of loyalty, and denunciations of other people” (143). And he criticizes Gellately’s data about citizen voluntary reports to the regime. All Gellately can point to is 403 total reports over a 12-year period — which is statistically insignificant, considering the population of Germany.

Any propaganda appeals to what people believe and desire — certainly Soviet, British, and American propaganda did.

Further, Groth notes that when the Gestapo acted, it didn’t wait for letters and other tips. When the von Stauffenberg assassination attempt failed, the Gestapo rapidly arrested the participants and used unrestrained torture, reprisals on families, and so on to get the names of the conspirators and their supporters. One estimate is that the Gestapo rapidly killed 5,000 people, most by simple fiat (no trials), including whole families of the principals.

Finally, Groth wonders whether, even supposing that 60% of the Germans continued to support Hitler even after Stalingrad, coercion wasn’t needed to suppress dissent in the other 40%. He notes that while the Vietnam War still had majority popular support in 1967, the street protests and the support given Senator McCarthy were enough to convince President Johnson not to run for reelection.

Groth agrees with Sarah Gordon that the regime didn’t so much rely on German public opinion as neutralize it, with a propaganda campaign aided by a communication monopoly, and the dictatorial coercion of the police state. And as the conclusion of the war became obvious to the whole population, and the obliteration of German cities more extensive, that coercion became all-important.

Groth concludes with an attack against Goldhagen and Gellately, holding that their view

validates a Nazi or neo-Nazi interpretation of the Fuhrer. He was a great leader of the German people because he carried out, or at least attempted to carry out, the most sincere and universal wishes and aspirations of the whole German nation.

In remembrance of Oskar Schindler, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Monsignor Bernhard Lichtenberg, Claus von Stauffenberg, and Konrad Adenauer, Hitler is not entitled to this presumption. Some facts about German public opinion on the Third Reich may perhaps forever remain in dispute. But holding a pistol to the head of a captive has certain moral . . . consequences for the assailant which cannot be removed by the argument that the pistol was not very large, and that if the captive had only been a little braver and more enterprising, it could have been dislodged. (152–3)

While I deeply respect Groth’s fair-mindedness regarding the question of German anti-Semitism and complicity in Nazi crimes (especially considering his personal story), let me make a few rebuttals to Groth’s attacks on Gellately, before presenting a deeper critique.

Let’s start with Groth’s criticism of Gellately’s general claim that while the regime’s propaganda machine and its coercive institutions helped keep people in line, the Nazi regime rested mainly on consensus. This claim Groth dismisses as “flawed analysis,” but is it? Hitler’s regime, after achieving power, dramatically delivered on its promises. It lowered unemployment (which dropped from over 30% in 1933 to virtually nothing by 1939), in great measure from a massive buildup in military and in infrastructure spending. This is what Gellately meant when he suggested that the regime’s real and seeming successes from 1933 to 1939 built popular support.

Hitler, sitting in his jail cell after a failed, farcical putsch, realized that both the Communist Left and the Nazi Right were unable to overthrow the government by revolution.

Imagine you are a German worker inclined to internationalism, socialism, or communism, and are initially skeptical about National Socialism. But Hitler achieves power, and lo! He apparently fulfills his economic promises. You and your friends have work, bread, sausage! Again, suppose you are a German businessperson, very nationalistic, but skeptical of (in your view) a group of rowdies led by an ex-corporal who don’t seem to represent German Glory, and call openly for socialism. But they achieve power, and behold! They do rebuild the military in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, take back the Ruhr and annex the Sudetenland, and achieve union with Austria. In 1939, war does break out and you see the regime rapidly take half of Poland, and rapidly defeat France — erasing in your mind an historic grievance. You might well now support this regime you initially opposed.

Groth’s argument that Stalin was like Hitler in that Stalin, too, wanted popular support seems dismissive if not downright disingenuous. One obvious and huge difference between the two figures is that the Bolsheviks never once faced fair elections with real opponents. Lenin won a revolution, and Stalin climbed to the top of the resulting Byzantine power structure by adroitly killing off competitors. But Hitler, sitting in his jail cell after a failed, farcical putsch, realized that both the Communist Left and the Nazi Right were unable to overthrow the government by revolution — so he would have to appeal for votes. And Hitler and the Party hierarchy crafted an ideology accordingly — based on the identification of an International Jewish Order as the enemy, a stab-in-the-back Nazi Historical Narrative, protectionist economics, and socialist envy of the rich — together with a political platform built on ending unemployment and restoring the national military.

To Groth’s point that Stalin won 99% of the vote, whereas Hitler won only 44% in the last election with other parties allowed, and the 44% is suspect because of the activity of the SA: these points seem contradictory. The fact that the Nazis polled only 44% suggests that the election was fairly free after all. More generally, the elections make it clear that the Nazis were able to win the plurality of votes in free elections in margins between 33% and 40%. Groth needs to ask whether the Bolsheviks could have ever done that well at any point.

Any non-Jewish German couple being given an apartment previously owned by Jews would have to know or strongly suspect that the rightful owners would not be reclaiming their property.

Regarding Groth’s comments about those British and American diplomats in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht: again, we need to remember the problem of interviewer bias. Would the average German feel comfortable in expressing support for violent anti-Semitic demonstrations to foreign diplomats — especially from England and America, which according to Nazi ideology were bastions of International Jewish financial power? Indeed, did these diplomats talk to any German workers at all, and if so, how free would those workers have felt in answering the foreign diplomats?

To Groth’s point that the regime never admitted to its own people that it was killing the Jews, two replies are in order. First, any non-Jewish German couple being given furniture or (more obviously) an apartment previously owned by Jews would have to know or strongly suspect that the rightful owners would not be reclaiming their property, and would surely have known or suspected why. But if the people were so completely cowed by the regime’s police and convinced by propaganda, why wouldn’t it just tell the citizens the truth?

Moreover, I think Groth has the relationship between power (coercion) and propaganda somewhat muddled. The relation is symbiotic, but not as he describes it. The propaganda campaign helped solidify popular support for the regime, and make people compliant to its agenda. However, coercion doesn’t so make people want to watch propaganda — it removes the most effective weapon against propaganda: free speech. Specifically, absent the use of power (coercion, terror) to silence all countervailing views, the propaganda of any regime will not be effective long-term.

Critical voices can expose propaganda for what it is — sunlight disinfects — and this is why the coercive power of any authoritarian regime enables its propaganda to be effective. Imagine the damage the satirical power of a Saturday Night Live show could have inflicted on the Nazi Party and its ideology. Imagine if critics had been allowed to do their own documentary on Judaism and the Jews in reply to The Eternal Jew. Groth himself touches upon this when he says:

As long as the Nazis could maintain a communication monopoly supported by terror, the issue of their Jewish policy could be framed for public consumption in such euphemistic terms as “removal of Jews from Germany” and “resettlement of Jews in the East.” An opposition . . . would have framed the issue as mass murder and state-sponsored criminal mayhem. (150)

Finally, to Groth’s criticism that (Goldhagen’s and) Gellately’s view validates the Nazi idea of Hitler as hero, and that this betrays the memory of people who struggled against the regime, two replies. First, Groth cites six anti-regime fighters. But that was six out of 80 million people over a 12-year period — not much of a resistance. And the attempt on Hitler’s life involved military men who were worried about Hitler’s losing the war, not plagued by desperation to save the Jews. Second, maintaining that the very notion that Hitler delivered the goods to the average (non-Jewish) German validates the view of Hitler as a great leader is absurd. Yes, Hitler gave Germans the goods, but they were goods stolen from murdered people and colonized countries. That hardly “validates” Hitler.

Coercion doesn’t so make people want to watch propaganda — it removes the most effective weapon against propaganda: free speech.

In sum, I agree with Groth that the move to tar all or most Germans of the time with some special murderous kind of anti-Semitism is wrong. However, I don’t think he quite makes the case that there wasn’t anything unique about German anti-Semitic ideology. I will return to this point. But even more questionable is Groth’s feeling that Gellately was wrong to say the regime rested on consensus. To be fair to both Gellately and Groth, they were writing a few years before a more powerful explanation of the general support for the regime among the people: the regime purchased its support. Just how and how much the regime did this was not explained deeply until Götz Aly’s seminal research, to which I now turn.



[1] Doctors don’t typically bargain with patients in the sense of “If you quit smoking, I will lower my fees by 10%.” They may bargain about method of payment, and give discounts for fees paid by cash. But of course insurance companies routinely offer lower fees to patients who avoid risky behaviors.

[2] Listen to the Ridley interview here.

[3] The Wealth of Nations, book I, chapter 2.

[4] Groth doesn’t mention this, but in 1943 Polish underground hero Jan Karski told both leaders in person that the Jews were being exterminated.

[5] From her book: Hitler, Germans and the Jewish Question, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1984).

[6] From his book: The Experience of a Single German Town 1930–1935, New York: New Viewpoints (1965).

[7] From Friedlander’s book: Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939, New York: Harper Collins (1997).

[8] In his classic book, How to Lie with Statistics, New York: Norton (1954).

[9] The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing the Racial Policy 1933–1945, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1990).

[10] Oxford: Oxford University Press (2001).


Editor's Note: This review-essay is part 1 of a three-part series.



Share This


Responsive Government

 | 

Libertarians are of two minds about government.

To some, the state is a system of entrenched powers and interests unwilling to yield a particle of authority. Evidence: even the president can’t make any significant change in the power structure.

To others, the state is a vast assemblage of freeloaders and influence peddlers, perfectly willing to assimilate anyone or anything — even you or me — because it is confident in its ability to survive and grow, no matter what. Evidence: the 535 members of Congress, living proof that anyone can become part of the state.

The mayor tearfully apologized, claiming that he knew nothing of the important honor granted by his office.

The first theory pictures government as an endless web of armed DMVs, the second as an endless series of doors that can be accessed, eventually, by anybody. If even a Maxine Waters or a Mitch McConnell knocks on enough of those doors, eventually one of them will open. There are policemen in the state of California who get paid $550,000 a year. They found a door that opened.

The city of Cincinnati has provided fresh evidence for the second theory. It appears that if you ask the people in the mayor’s office, they will give you a day, a special day, just for you, or for anyone you know, no matter who you or either of you may be.

In 2015, a police officer named Sonny Kim was ambushed and killed on the streets of Cincinnati by a man named Trepierre Hummons, who was then killed. This year, Hummons’ father contacted the city asking that a day be set aside to honor his son. His intention, it is reported, was “to raise awareness of child abuse and mental illness” — two things that something called the Trepierre Foundation — a GoFundMe venue — exists to fight. In any event, the father’s intention was soon honored, and the city declared June 1 “Tre Day” in honor of the cop killer, whose “sacrifice,” the proclamation said, would “save the lives of children for generations to come.”

If you ask the people in the Cincinnati mayor’s office, they will give you a day, a special day, just for you, or for anyone you know.

This action finally leaked into the knowledge of someone outside the mayor’s office, and protests were lodged. “Tre Day” was ousted from the calendar, and the mayor tearfully apologized, claiming that he knew nothing of the important honor granted by his office, which allegedly did not recognize the distinctive name of the person it was honoring. So much for Tre Day. But the awful extent of government is indicated by the fact that it does millions of things like this without its actions even being noticed.

And let me tell you, Tiw, Woden, Thor, Freya, and Saturn are really pissed off.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2018 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.