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The Vietnam War and Communist Aggression

In Book Review, History, Vietnam War on July 3, 2015 at 5:03 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on April 30th 2015, 4:34 pm

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, the end of the Vietnam War and the day that South Vietnam came under tyrannical Communist rule. That event precipitated hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to flee the country, often on rickety boats. According to United Nations estimates (Associated Press: June 23, 1979 and July 6, 1979), between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea. It is not true that those who left did so purely for economic reasons. Many were expelled from the country as undesirables or encouraged to leave as they were deemed to belong to the wrong social group. Others fled fearing for their lives as a result of communist massacres as reprisals for the Vietnam War. “Revolutionary violence” was used by the Communists to unify the country.

When it comes to the war itself, it is also not true that it was America’s responsibility. In a detailed study, with the use of Vietnamese archival sources now available, Pierre Asselin (Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965, [University of California Press, 2013]) has demonstrated that culpability for the war rests with the North Vietnamese Communists. Below I copy a small section from his introduction (p.3).:

Whether of moderate or militant inclination, DRVN [Communist North Vietnamese] leaders never wanted military confrontation with the United States. It is therefore paradoxical that the eventual conflict between Hanoi and Washington—the Vietnam War—was precipitated by the outcome of a Central Committee meeting that convened in late 1963. Until then, Hanoi’s cautiousness had precluded the introduction of American combat forces and a wider war, which seemed avertable for the immediate future. However, the final resolution adopted at the conclusion of the meeting, which called for unrestricted military struggle in the South and comprehensive commitment of the North to that struggle, proved to be a seminal development in the coming of the Vietnam War, producing as it did a drastic escalation of the ongoing insurgency below the seventeenth parallel [Dividing line between North and South Vietnam] in 1964. In light of that development, it is not unreasonable to consider the deployment of American combat forces to South Vietnam in massive numbers the following year as a response to— and not the source of—the onset of ‘big war’ on the Indochinese peninsula.


Ignorant, Erroneous, Unjustified

In Book Review on October 30, 2014 at 1:24 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on October 21st 2014, 2:39 pm

Book Review:

Owen Jones, The Establishment: And how they get away with it, (Allen Lane, 2014).

Owen Jones, the Oxford-educated left-wing Guardian columnist, has written a book about the establishment. For Jones, the establishment comprises anyone he does not like. Its main activity is to conspire against the working class.

Some of his claims are simply startling. For example, he accuses the current coalition government of privatising the NHS. This might be news to anyone who has recently visited a NHS GP or hospital without being handed a bill for healthcare.

Commenting on the 1992 general election, he states: “the combined political power of the British media had been unleashed against Kinnock’s Labour Party.” Perhaps Jones thinks the Daily Mirror and his own paper, The Guardian, both of which supported the Labour Party, are not part of the British media. More notably, the paper widely read by establishment figures he despises, The Financial Times, backed Kinnock’s Labour Party.

Jones attacks the charitable status of private schools, saying that this benefits the wealthy to the tune of £88 million per year as a result of tax breaks given. This figure, if true, ignores the fact that the wealthy, by sending their children to private schools, are saving the rest of the population substantially more than this as they are not utilising the state system of education to which many would be entitled.

He provides support for the Financial Transaction Tax, claiming it would be a “tiny levy on transactions” that would promote “economic stability.” The truth is that it would be a disaster for the UK. The proposed levy of 0.1 percent on securities would mean a tax on $100,000 on every $100 million bond transaction. If a bond trader working in Dubai could call someone in London to do the trade and suffer $100,000 tax or call someone in an offshore jurisdiction where the tax is not implemented and not pay any tax, it is obvious where he will call. The telephones would stop ringing in London dealing rooms and redundancy notices would be issued.

Jones comments on the percentage of British companies owned by foreign investors – but there is no corresponding figure for foreign companies owned by British investors. Similarly, he mentions British companies now in foreign hands – but he does not mention foreign companies taken over by British companies.

Jones’s scholarship is sloppy. He provides an unsourced 1970s quote fromHarold Lever. When, post-publication, he was asked for a source, he claims it came from an interview with Neil Kinnock. It is at no point clear that this quote is based on a decades-later recollection from someone else.

Of all the things that Jones despises, the City of London is at the top of the list. He cites a former City trader as saying the people who work in the City “are largely despicable, venal, greedy.”  Jones has no comment on ARK, a charity popular with City and hedge fund types, which, in one gala dinner in 2012, raised £14.5 million for children’s health and education around the world.

A central villain is Madsen Pirie of the libertarian Adam Smith Institute. Jones claims that Pirie’s ideological zeal is “shared by politicians of all parties.” But this leads him into a mass of contradictions. He refers to the bailout of the banks in the credit crisis of 2007-9 as “socialism for the rich on an epic scale.” If libertarian thinkers such as Pirie had as much influence as Jones imputes to them, then the banks would never have been bailed out in the first place. Piriespecifically argued against such state action.

Jones simply does not understand finance. The errors are embarrassing. He confuses exchange rates and exchange controls. He refers to the private-equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts as Italian, when it is headquartered in America and does not even have an office in Italy. He states: “Mortgage books that were in actual fact junk were rated as ‘triple A’.” In fact pools of subprime mortgages were securitized and sliced and diced into tranches; the most senior tranches were rated AAA and these were not junk. His claim that packages of mortgages “with very low actual chances of being repaid were rated as having a 99 percent repayment likelihood, if they were structured in a certain way” is false. Specific tranches of structured pools of mortgages were given a high chance of repayment likelihood because this was deemed to be fair.

Jones ends his book by calling for nationalisation of the utility companies, strengthening trade unions, increasing the top rate of tax to 50 percent “as a start” with an implication that 75 percent might be preferable, and by urging the people to “use their collective power to win social justice.”

Oddly, he never employs the words, “Workers of the world, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.”

Eichmann’s Fanaticism

In Book Review, History, Holocaust, Jewish Matters on October 30, 2014 at 1:11 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on October 2nd 2014, 10:44 pm

Book Review

Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) 608pp.

When I first became aware of Bettina Stangneth’s new book on Eichmann, I rolled my eyes and asked myself a question: how much of the book is really about Hannah Arendt?

This cynicism is not unfounded. The main text of David Cesarani’s 2005 biography, Eichmann: His Life and Crimes, is 368 pages. The index informs us that Hannah Arendt or her Eichmann thesis are discussed on 29 of them. So much of Deborah Lipstadt’s 2011 book, The Eichmann Trial, is about Arendt that there is a picture of her on the dust jacket. And one only has to consider the choice of title of Stangneth’s book, Eichmann Before Jerusalem, to realise that it is an allusion to Arendt’s own Eichmann in Jerusalem. I am therefore not surprised that Stangneth views her whole book as a “dialogue with Hannah Arendt.”

In fact, Eichmann Before Jerusalem provides a meticulous account of Eichmann’s time in Argentina. This was where he hid after evading capture as a war criminal after the Second World War. It was in Argentina that Eichmann spent a substantial amount of time with other Nazi bigwigs who likewise had escaped Germany and still believed in the cause. With these insalubrious characters, Eichmann did not have to use his assumed name of Ricardo Klement, he was “Adolf Eichmann – SS-Obersturmbannführer (retired).” There was the Dürer publishing house that published Der Weg, a magazine that was “as openly anti-Semitic, racist, and National Socialist as if the Third Reich had never collapsed.”  In 1954, Der Weg published an article entitled “The Lie of the Six Million.” They were denying that gas chamber existed for the systematic murder of Jews long before Ernst Zündel, Arthur Butz and David Irving. There was also Willem Sassen’s circle. It was here that Eichmann, other unreformed Nazis and their fellow travellers sat around discussing news reports and books that were appearing on the Third Reich, much of which they derided as emanating from the “Jewish enemy.”  Many of these conversations, where participants discussed historical documents and argued over their interpretation, were deliberately recorded and transcribed. Stangneth tracked down twenty-nine hours of the recordings.

Eichmann remained a dedicated anti-Semite and his output was prolific. His so-called “Argentina Papers” contain a 107-page manuscript (with the didactic title, “The Others Spoke, Now I Want to Speak”), over one thousand pages of Sassen interviews, “several introductory essays with accompanying notes, and around one hundred more pages of notes and commentaries on books.” Stangneth’s task was onerous but much of what she was able to access was available neither to the court in Jerusalem when Eichmann was tried, nor to Hannah Arendt for her famous but controversial report of the trial. However, not all of Eichmann’s known writings in Argentina could be seen by Stangneth. He wrote a 260-page document known as the “Tucumán Novel” in which he “attempted to give a detailed account of his life and actions, explaining himself first and foremost to his children, his family, and the ‘generations to come.’” The Eichmann family have this document but – nauseatingly – would not allow Stangneth access without “an appropriate level of remuneration.”

While in Argentina with such septic waste, Eichmann even planned to write and have published an open letter to the West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. As Stangneth explains, the Nazis were not just recording conversations and writing for the benefit of the history books, “they wanted to make a difference, to get back to Europe and involve themselves in West German politics.” The dream was a revival of National Socialism. In order to do this, history was being rewritten and an attempt was being made at redeeming Hitler.

In order to realise this dream, many of the Nazi exiles in Argentina thought it best to minimise the destruction of the Jews. But this was not Eichmann. For him, the Jews were to blame – they were the guilty ones. He raved that Chaim Weizmann had declared war on the German people “in the name of Jewry.” Millions of Germans had died in the war. They were the true victims. The Jews were always the aggressors – so Eichmann pointed out with respect to the Suez crisis – and they were the true war criminals.

Eichmann was proud that one of his superiors said to him, “if we’d had fifty Eichmanns, we’d have won the war for sure.” He was also proud of his Nazi achievements. He is notorious for saying at the end of the war: “I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews [‘enemies of the Reich’] on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.” He retained that view in 1957 in Argentina: “The only good enemy of the Reich is a dead one.” If he had any regrets it was that they had not managed to kill all the 10.3 million Jews in his sights. Only by doing so would they have fulfilled their duty.  After such admissions Stangneth notes that the Sassen project ran into insurmountable problems. Victims’ testimonies and other documents about the killings of Jews could be dismissed as “anti-German,” “propagandist,” “exaggerated,” or “counterfeit,” but Eichmann, a dedicated National Socialist, and the man they hoped would be their chief witness, “had laid a few million more lives on the table.”

What Stangneth has uncovered with her research is remarkable, but she admits there is more work to be done on Eichmann’s Argentinian Papers, and she encourages others to do it. Her research was not plain sailing. In her book she has not been hesitant to make caustic remarks about those who have been less than forthcoming with assistance. In one example she states “I have not been able to convince Daimler that the possibility their staff may have included not only a mass murderer but also someone who aided a famous German attorney general makes cooperating with a researcher a worthwhile exercise.” And in her acknowledgements: “A few inquiries remain unanswered. I would still be delighted to hear from David Cesarani….”

In a review of Eichmann Before Jerusalem for The New York Times, Seyla Benhabib comments:

Eichmann’s self-immunizing mixture of anti-Semitic clichés, his antiquated idiom of German patriotism and the craving for the warrior’s honor and dignity, led Arendt to conclude that Eichmann could not “think” — not because he was incapable of rational intelligence but because he could not think for himself beyond clichés. He was banal precisely because he was a fanatical anti-Semite, not despite it. [Emphasis added.]

I am surprised that Benhabib, an Arendt specialist, has made this statement, because it is the exact opposite of what Arendt concluded. This is what Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem:

[Eichmann’s] was obviously no case of insane hatred of Jews, of fanatical anti-Semitism or indoctrination of any kind. He “personally” never had anything whatsoever against Jews; on the contrary, he had plenty of “private reasons” for not being a Jew hater. To be sure, there were fanatic anti-Semites among his closest friends…..but this, according to Eichmann, was more or less in the spirit of “some of my best friends are anti-Semites.”

Arendt had a lot to say in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Some of her very controversial comments about the Jewish Councils in Nazi occupied Europe are not even discussed by Stangneth. But from now on, and as a result of Stangneth’s research, those who wish to defend Arendt’s claims will have their work cut out for them.

19th Century Marxist Mantra in 21st Century Feminist Garb

In Book Review, Feminism, Marxism on August 15, 2014 at 4:06 PM

Book Review

Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, (Bloomsbury, 2014) 288pp.

Laurie Penny is a self-declared “political creature” who wants “mutiny.” She has a message for the “fucked-up girls” with eating disorders and the “lost boys” who do not “feel able to talk about their own suffering.” Unspeakable Things is a political manifesto filled with autobiographical detail. Penny is someone who was thrown out of ballet classes at an early age “for teaching the other girls how to masturbate,” spent nine months in a mental institution recovering from anorexia, has had friends in prison, once lived with porn stars, has been raped, and  enjoyed kissing a girl who was sleeping with the same boy that she was. She is someone with the effrontery to write “hairy cocks and cunts” and not only get away with it, but to get it published.  She knows what it is like to have her “arse grabbed in a bar,” to be on the receiving end of an online hate campaign, to be afraid of leaving her house as a result of fear from online stalkers and  to be blackmailed with pictures of her semi naked kissing another girl.

Penny becomes a heroine for the angst ridden, left-wing, teen and early twenties girl who stays at home “with a painted-on smile.” Penny tells them that it is okay to shave their armpits, wear lipstick, have a poster of a half-naked Justin Bieber on their bedroom wall, have sex with as many boys as they like, tell the world about it, and still be a feminist.  She is proud to “fly the flag for sex, for fucking and for love online.” The Pennyettes with their hands down their pants might be pleased to hear Penny tell them “sex online is real sex and love online is real love.”

The Pennyettes might well raise their eyebrows when she tells them that she does not have the kind of high-flying job that allows her “to think in terms of ‘having it all.’” Here is Laurie Penny, private school, Oxford, and soon to be Harvard educated, 27 years old, beautiful, an author of a number of published books and a blog that was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. She is a journalist for national newspapers, a contributing editor at New Statesman, has regular appearances on television and radio, and criss-crosses the Atlantic for work. She has a hundred thousand, many adoring, followers on Twitter, who tells her readers that she does not have it all. One wonders what a twenty year old, working-class woman stacking shelves in Tesco with cans of own brand baked beans would make of that. The truth is such a person is not really Penny’s natural constituency. Penny is the role model for the 18 year old female, unsure of where she is going in the world, or how she fits in, who, despite a firm belief that a thigh gap and a bikini bridge are necessities to succeed in life, has just obtained three grade As at ‘A’ level and entry to an elite university. Unspeakable Things was written by Penny for her own younger sisters.

And what about the male species? Men as a group “hate and hurt women.” But one must not accuse Penny of “reverse sexism” for saying so. That would be a cheap attempt to “shut down debate.” Patriarchy, she tells us, is violent. It has “oppressed and constrained men and boys as well as women.” “Desire,” she claims, “is socially constructed.”  Will the 19 year old male undergraduate with an erection because he is seated next to a hot girl in his sociology lecture believe that? At any rate, who cares if it is true? It sounds like a profound thing for a corduroy jacket wearing, satchel carrying, Foucault reading, Pennyette to say while seated cross legged and sipping a cappuccino in the student union.

After such an analysis of women and men, one might wonder who or what is at fault. It’s the “system” goddammit! All the problems in the “fucked-up world” boil down to one thing: neoliberalism. Penny retreats to the same old Marxist mantra: capitalism and the patriarchy that follows from it. Here is a Penny sentence: “The colonisation of love by capitalist patriarchy is a deeply painful thing.” Being a true Pennyette depends on whether you can 1) take that sentence seriously, and, 2) agree with it. I fail on both counts. Then there are Penny’s unsubstantiated claims. For example: “‘he said’ is almost always more credible than ‘she said’, unless she is white and he is not.” Perhaps Penny writing it makes it true.

According to Penny, there can be no faith in President Obama in the USA or in mainstream left leaning political parties in the UK. There is only one solution: revolution! And that revolution must be a shocking feminist revolution. If, for Penny, “plotting revolution” provides greater happiness than being in love, then so it should for the Pennyettes. Marx, Engels, and Penny. God help us all. It was a lot easier in the 1990s when Gerri Halliwell raised her right fist and said “Girl power.” Now we have Laurie Penny who wants to take a red pen, “annotate the world,” and “scrawl ‘slut power’ in letters too big to ignore.” She lives in a world where the personal is political and the political is personal. But despite all this she admits that she just wants “to be the kind of girl who gets taken in somebody’s arms.” One day she might get married. If so, she might desire a wedding cake inscribed with the words “Smash Monogamy!” It would not be original. Michael Lerner did it in 1971.

Mao’s Murders

In Book Review, China, Far Left, Marxism on January 5, 2014 at 12:27 PM

This is  a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on January 5th 2014, 12:20 pm

The most memorable historical book I have read in the last few years is Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 about the manmade famine responsible for tens of millions of deaths in Communist China. (I reviewed the book here).  Dikötter has recently had published the prequel: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-57. It reads like a horror story but sadly it is true.

What is shocking in the book is how many ingenious ways the Communists found of murdering people.  They had a lot of practice doing so because as Dikötter explains, “the first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.” With an obvious allusion to Daniel Goldhagen’s description of the Nazis, Dikötter labelled many of Mao’s communist henchmen as “willing executioners.”  Even if the Killing was not carried out with gusto, it went on. For as one party official explained to members: “You must hate even if you feel no hatred, you must kill even if you do not wish to kill.” But Mao deemed that the people enjoyed killing. He stated: “The people say that killing counter-revolutionaries is more joyful than a good downpour.” And there is evidence backing up the “willing executioner” label.  Dikötter reports on a twenty year old woman who felt “proud and happy” watching a dozen victims be executed in the wake of a rally she had helped organise.

Mao installed and encouraged a reign of terror and relished in the violence. He declared that they would “sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves.” But it was not necessarily the case that those deemed wealthy or landlords were either.  Ordinary farmers were killed. “Some victims were knifed, a few decapitated. Chinese pastors were paraded through the street as ‘running dogs of imperialism’, their hands bound behind their backs and a rope around their necks.”  Bombed, starved to death, beaten to death, shot, tortured, buried alive, dismembered, throttled to death, strung up from trees, chopped up, hair pulled out, ears bitten off, urinated on, forced to wear dunces caps, stripped and exposed to the cold in winter, trussed up, hung from beams, buried up to the neck and torched, stabbed to death with bayonets, decapitated, choked to death with wire, stoned, forced to sit on their haunches with a kettle of boiling water on their heads, flogged, hanged,  forced to cut out their own tongue, knees broken and sodomised. It is not surprising that the party noted that the suicide rate was “incessant.”

People froze to death hiding from the Communists. It was not enough just to kill those deemed landlords, family members and anyone else they might have thought would seek revenge for the killings were also killed. Indiscriminate beatings were common place. In Pingyi county a local official proclaimed, “from now on we should kill somebody at every one of our meetings.”  Elsewhere, merely looking suspicious was sufficient to be thrown in prison.  One candid report noted that in west Sichuan, “there are extremely few people sentenced to a term of five or more years, as some comrades feel that if a prisoner is given a long sentence, he might as well be killed to save time.”  Nor did they hesitate to “beat one to scare the many.”

Children did not escape. Some even under the age of ten were tortured, crippled or maimed for life with some tortured to death. Other children were given away because “the majority of workers lacked food.”

One foreigner who escaped China wrote in her diary, “Don’t let anyone fool you about Communism.” These are wise words. If there is a lesson for the modern day it is this: when communists of all stripes demonstrate in London against government policy and chant “Hang the Tories from the lampposts,” believe them. That is exactly what they will do if they ever get in power.

Dikötter’s book is a worthy read for anyone interested in history and a must read for anyone interested in Communist history. I await his next book on Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Campus Opposition to the Vietnam War

In Book Review, Vietnam War on June 18, 2013 at 11:14 AM

What does one do when one wants to write a book on a subject where so much has already been written? The answer is find something on the subject that hasn’t been written about in so much detail and publish a book on that. This seems to have been the strategy for Marc Jason Gilbert in the book he edited: The Vietnam War on Campus: Other Voices, More Distant Drums, (Praeger, 2001). There are only so many ways one might be interested in reading what Mark Rudd and the students of Columbia University got up to with their occupation of college buildings as part of their protest about what they perceived as their university’s complicity in the Vietnam War, or what happened at the Days of Rage in Chicago. Even though I am way too young to have been there and I live in a different country, after reading a number of accounts I can almost place myself in the middle of the action. Presumably in part, if not in whole, because these places are the most exciting to read about, they are the areas where authors have focused.

But what happened away from the elite universities?  What were the activities in opposition to the war in sections of the student movement that were not radically left-wing, at backwater universities or in high schools?  This is what Gilbert’s book focuses upon and for that, it is a useful addition to books on the Vietnam antiwar movement. The thirteen chapters are of varying quality but the first two are certainly worthwhile. These are by John Andrew and Jonathan Schoenwald respectively, and they deal with the conservative Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and the burgeoning libertarian movement. The YAF was very much pro the war and anti-Communist, but increasingly became to oppose the draft, whereas the Society for Individual Liberty (SIL)  opposed both the war and the draft.

One thing that surprised me when reading through this book was how small the campus demonstrations against the Vietnam war actually were. Not being part of this generation but hearing about it second or third hand one might have the sense that the antiwar activity was all-consuming for a very substantial proportion of the student movement. This was not the case. Clyde Brown and Gayle K. Pluta Brown have a chapter dealing with the opposition to the war at Iowa State University that at the time had 21,000 students. As the authors comment, “No significant mass protest had been generated against the Vietnam War at Iowa State University before October 1969.”  When they did commence, the largest rally against the war mentioned “drew three thousand people to central campus.” It is not entirely clear whether all of those who attended were students, and even if they were, it is still a small proportion of the student body. The authors mention another march where “Fifty to seventy-five students participated.” This is so small that it is insignificant.  The antiwar activity at Ball State University is interesting because of how puny it actually was. Writing about this institution Anthony O. Edmonds and Joel Shrock conclude:

[The students]  were local, parochial, ambitious, Midwestern, middle-class, White kids who went to college to make mom and dad proud and find a career. With hardly a red-diaper baby among them, it was a very tough audience for the few anti-war advocates around. Although one Ball State student managed to toss a tomato toward Richard Nixon during inaugural festivities in 1969, that is not the real Ball State. On October 17, 1969, apparently jocked-out residents of Beeman Hall, a women’s dorm at Ball State, started a petition supporting President Nixon’s Vietnam War policy. It read in part: “We must exercise an intelligent degree of faith and trust in our national leader.” By the time it reached the White House, it had over three thousand signatures. This was the “telltale heart” of the heart of the country.

Marc Jason Gilbert’s has his own chapter on antiwar activity at University High School in Los Angeles. As the author admits, this was hardy a typical American high school. The student body contained those who “were children of UCLA faculty and many were second or third-generation Jewish or Asian Americans striving to live up to their parents’ high standards and even higher expectations.” By the mid-1960s “such was the level of academic excellence that even the football team’s linemen went to prestigious academic institutions such as Harvard University.” Given this background it is not surprising that the school had its own radical alternative student newspaper, The Red Tide, that was printed off campus or that a sophomore launched a court case against the Los Angeles Unified School District when the school authorities tried to stifle its distribution at the school. I shall conclude this post with two anecdotes  Gilbert mentions about this school when setting the scene prior to the Vietnam War. I found them both amusing:

So distant was the school from later standards of political correctness that even though a large percentage of its students were Jewish, no one raised a voice in protest over the school’s alma mater, which was set to the music of “Deutschland uber Alles.”

At the climax of the Cuban debacle… many …students were asked to wait at the end of the school day for their parents to pick them up. The school authorities explained that nuclear war was expected to begin before they could get home, and the school system preferred that the children not be incinerated in the school system’s buses.

Ayn Rand Worship

In Ayn Rand, Book Review, Libertarianism on April 24, 2013 at 11:40 AM

According to Jeff Walker, followers of Ayn Rand, who like to call themselves Objectivists, can revere their idol in an unhealthy cultish way. He comments (The Ayn Rand Cult [Open Court, 1999), p.145):

While not official doctrine, Objectivists were nonetheless expected to believe that (1) Ayn Rand is the greatest mind since Aristotle and the greatest human being who ever lived; (2) [Ayn Rand’s novel] Atlas Shrugged is not just the greatest novel of all time, but the greatest achievement in human history; (3) Rand is the ultimate authority on what thoughts, feelings, and aesthetic tastes are appropriate to human beings.

I have just finished reading Allan Gotthelf’s book, On Ayn Rand, published in 2000 as part of the Wadsworth Philosophers Series. Given that I enjoyed Edward Feser’s book, On Nozick, published in the same series, I had high hopes for this volume. How wrong I was. If there is anything that makes one think that Walker might not have been making up his claims, this book would be an example of something to read. Below I copy some extracts:

From page 1:

It is high time that academic philosophers accept the responsibility of understanding, thoroughly and with full, professional expertise, this highly original thinker and the scope and content of her often groundbreaking thought.

From page 2:

This book is dedicated to the memory of Ayn Rand, for her inspiration and her genius.

From pages 13-14:

On the course’s oral final exam she was disappointed to be asked only about Plato. Her answers earned her the highest grade possible, but her professor, discerning her lack of sympathy with Plato, asked her why she disagreed with him. “My philosophical views,” she said, “are not part of the history of philosophy yet. But they will be.

From page 18, note 6:

Her cousin’s remark is of some interest, suggesting (as one might well expect) that Nietzsche’s influence on Ayn Rand was not a matter of her absorbing whole a body of ideas new to her. Rather, Nietzsche articulated and expanded upon ideas she had already formulated and had been presenting to others–and indeed she was aware of important differences from the beginning.

From page 48:

I venture to suggest… that there is no thinker in the history of philosophy who has as profoundly developed and integrated a view of the harmony of mind and body as Ayn Rand.

It is not just the idolisation of Ayn Rand that makes this book worthless as an objective (in the true sense of the term) source to find out about Ayn Rand and her philosophical views, but the content. While the book is only 100 pages long, and it is therefore understandable that Gotthelf had to leave a lot out, it doesn’t mean to say that within the space available he should not have given fair weight to different aspects of Rand and why she is of interest.

After the preface and introduction, the next two chapters are devoted to biographical details of Rand. Excluded from what can only be called a hagiography is the fact that Rand had a long affair with her top student, but the much younger, Nathaniel Branden. When Gotthelf states that “in 1968 [Rand] terminated all relations with Branden,” (p.24) readers would not know that the reason she did so was because Branden informed Rand he no longer sexually desired her and that he was romantically attached to someone else. (Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, [Doubleday, 2009], pp.365-373.)

Gotthelf finds the space to mention that Leonard Peikoff was designated Rand’s heir (p.25), but not the space to mention that she had previously, in her dedication note at the end of Atlas Shrugged, dubbed Branden her “intellectual heir.” (Heller, p.277.)  I do not think it a coincidence that this is the case. Gotthelf is associated with the Ayn Rand Institute that was founded by Peikoff. Following Rand’s excommunication of Branden, Peikoff and others pledged loyalty to Rand and renounced any further contact with Branden. Moreover, Peikoff, who had unquestioning loyalty to Rand, made his own students sign a waiver promising that they would not contact Branden or purchase any of his books. (Heller, pp.381-382.)

It is not just the biographical detail that is poor, it is also the discussion about her views. A reason many people become interested in Ayn Rand is for her pro-capitalist political philosophy. Her ideal society would get rid of a welfare state and leave the government in control of the minimum things that she believed necessary: “the police, to protect men from criminals—the armed services, to protect men from foreign invaders—[and] the law courts, to settle disputes among men according to objective laws.” (Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, [Signet, 1964], p.131). According to this view, “taxation—or to be exact, payment for government services—would be voluntary.” (Ibid., p.135). As mentioned, Gotthelf’s book is 100 pages long. The complete discussion of Rand’s political views is no more than one page. (Gotthelf, pp.91-92).

If someone wants to understand what Ayn Rand was about, they are better off reading something other than Gotthelf’s book. I am surprised that Wadsworth published it.


In Book Review, Hitchens, Trotskyism, U.K. Left on February 3, 2013 at 11:07 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published at Harry’s Place on February 3rd 2013, 6:17 pm

I was thinking of writing a review of Richard Seymour’s book, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens.  However, I read (p14) that Seymour believes that Hitchens made himself an ally of David Irving. I also read (p71) that Hitchens must be judged an Islamophobe. Moreover, I read (p66) that in order for there to be a peaceful settlement in the Middle East, the State of Israel must be wiped off the map.

As a result of these and other views expressed by Seymour, I have come to the conclusion that the author of the book is unhinged. Carrying out a review of the book would suggest that it is worthy of a review. It isn’t and hence I won’t.

The Iranian Nuclear Programme

In Book Review, Iran on September 13, 2012 at 9:29 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place  on September 13, 2012 at  10:17 pm

Book Review:

David Patrikarakos, Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, (I.B. Tauris, 2012) 368pp. £25.00. (£17.50 via Amazon)

The problem with the debate about Iran’s nuclear programme is that it is largely ideological, and, what is worse, Manichean: either bomb Iran, or, do anything but bomb Iran. The facts about of the Iranian nuclear programme are only relevant to the extent that they back up the case for either side.

The hawks cite Senator John McCain’s mantra from his 2007 Presidential election campaign: “there is only one thing worse than a military solution, and that… is a nuclear armed Iran.” This formulation has also been used by Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary, in articles that appeared in that magazine in June 2007 (“The Case for Bombing Iran”) and February 2008 (“Stopping Iran: Why the Case for Military Action Still Stands.”) But the hawks have not been helped, as Patrikarakos notes, by repeatedly crying wolf on timescale. He cites a January 1995 estimate where, according to US and Israeli sources, Iran could have a nuclear weapon in “more or less five years.” (p.156). In his February 2008 article, Podhoretz cited an official Israeli estimate where 2009 was “the point of no return.” There was no bomb “more or less five years” after 1995 and 2009 came and went without a nuclear-armed Iran.

But it is not just the hawks with problems; the naysayers have a problem too: they can’t get round the fact that the President of Iran said Israel should be “wiped off the map.” (Patrikarakos translation, p239.) The best that they can do is suggest the 2005 quotation was a translation error and what he had really said was “This occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the arena of time.” How this alternative translation really changes things for the population of Israel is a mystery to me. In any event, with Iranian state sponsored demonstrations where the Israeli flag is burned, and banners read “Death to Israel” combined with President Ahmadinejad appearing on national television to refer to Israel as “cancerous tumour,” the quibble about the exact translations should be irrelevant: the position of the Iranian regime is clear. There is also a further problem: if Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia will want one too and there could be substantial nuclear proliferation in a volatile region of the world.

Standing away from the polemicists and providing a magisterial study with a meticulous attention to detail is David Patrikarakos with his new book, Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State: the culmination of six years of his research in which he travelled across several continents to speak to key players in Iran, the USA, Europe, the Arab world and Israel, and to make copious use of primary archival sources. The fruits of this research enabled Patrikarakos to piece together a complete history of the Iranian nuclear programme since its beginnings in the 1950s right up until the present day. The information is presented in an eminently readable fashion for non-specialists, but would no doubt be of interest to specialists, too.

Patrikarakos largely accepts the McCain formulation: “if the spectre of a possible attack on Iran is deeply troubling, the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran is worse,” he writes.  As far as he is concerned, a nuclear armed Iran “is a deeply undesirable outcome – one that must be avoided at all costs.” But he understands the nuances behind Iran’s nuclear programme, stressing that it is the country’s “attempt to deal with modernity.” (pp.xix-xx).

Much of the book deals with the history of the nuclear programme, and Patrikarakos examines Iran’s negative experiences with the modern world, citing the 1941 invasion of Iran by Britain and Russia, which was “only the latest” incursion into Iran by foreign powers and was “deeply shameful” to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran. For the Shah, as Patrikarakos explains, nuclear power, and perhaps a bomb, was not just about security, but prestige: “If Iran was strong it would also be proud.” (p68). The nuclear programme was Iran’s, or The Empire of Iran’s – to use the country’s official name – equivalent of sending a “man to the moon.” (p.87) And it all perfectly suited a man whose ambition, according to the CIA, was “to make Iran a power to be reckoned with.” (p73).

After the Iranian revolution, Khomeini initially rejected the nuclear programme, denouncing it in 1980 as “harmful for the country from the economic, political and technical points of view” and “a cause of greater dependence on imperialist countries.”  (pp.98-99). But this policy was reversed and in 1982 work on the nuclear reactors at the Bushehr power plant recommenced. (p104).  All the twists and turns in Iran’s nuclear development combined with the reaction from the international community in the period right up to mid 2012 are laid out in a comprehensive fashion in this handy volume.

In his conclusion, Patrikarakos notes that “Iran has lied to the IAEA for over two decades” (p283) but adds that “there remains no ‘smoking gun’ for a weapons programme.”  (p283). He dismisses any claim that Iran’s nuclear activities are purely for civilian purposes (p286). But at the same time, he states that it cannot be known whether Iran has actually decided to build a bomb. His own view is that Iran wishes to achieve a nuclear weapons capability. He explains: “by which the state has surmounted all the technological obstacles to a bomb without actually proceeding to the final stages of weaponization (which could be achieved quickly if the need arose.)” (P287).

If all one wants is a polemical argument for or against bombing Iran, there is no need to read this book, one can read, for example, one of the articles published this year in Foreign Affairs on both sides of this continuing debate. However, if someone has genuine interest in the topical subject of Iran and its nuclear programme, and desires an even-handed analysis, this book is a must read.

You Ought To Read This Book

In Book Review, Freedom of Expression on March 9, 2012 at 10:00 AM

This is a cross post by Michael Ezra. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on March 9th 2012, 9:30 am.

Book Review

Nick Cohen, You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate, 2012) 330 pp.

Nick Cohen has something to say and You Can’t Read This Book is the edifying result of his determination to say it. Cohen is a worried man; he worries about our freedom of expression. The wealthy can silence us with libel actions too expensive to defend, the courts can gag us, and if religious extremists threaten our lives, we can no longer rely upon the liberal left for support; we are not as free as we could or should be.

On February 14, 1989 the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, (a religious ruling) calling for the death of the British novelist Salman Rushdie because his book, The Satanic Verses, supposedly insulted the Prophet Muhammad. For this, Rushdie, “along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents” deserved to die. “The attack on The Satanic Verses,” Cohen writes, “appalled liberals.”

Khomeini issued the fatwah so that no one would “dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth.” The Rushdie Affair was a defining moment in the history of our modern right to freedom of speech: it was when the tenets of Islam became a subject that not even the “edgy” alternative comedians of the 1980s, who had built a new genre of comedy around attacking traditional institutions like the monarchy or Church of England would touch. It was fear, pure and simple.

In September 2005, Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, breached the taboo and published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad – sacrilegious in Islam. After the cartoons were reproduced in newspapers across Europe at least 139 people died in the resulting protests. Salman Rushdie, however, was still alive; and to some, that was the problem. “If there had been a Muslim to carry out Imam Khomeini’s fatwa against the renegade Salman Rushdie,” said Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Islamist group Hizbollah, “this rabble who insult our Prophet Muhammad in Denmark, Norway and France would not have dared to [publish the cartoons].”  In his view there was not enough fear – but there was plenty: not one national newspaper in the UK dared to reprint the cartoons. The Rushdie affair had caused enough trouble; freedom of expression it seemed just wasn’t worth the grief.  Meanwhile, in America, Cohen tells us that US networks banned images of Muhammad, by claiming that they were “liberals who wanted to display their respect and tolerance.” But as Cohen also tells us, this wasn’t entirely true. Matt Stone, a creator of Comedy Central’s South Park, was blunt. It wasn’t liberalism that stopped them: it was their fear of getting blown up. “That’s what you are afraid of,” he said. “Comedy Central copped to that, you know: ‘We’re afraid of getting blown up.’” Because of the silence surrounding the true reasons for censorship, Cohen argues, the enemies of liberalism are strengthened – twice over.

Even the supposedly judicious world of academia wasn’t immune. In an academic book devoted to the controversy, Yale University Press refused to republish the cartoons (bad enough in itself), but the reason Yale gave for its decision not to publish the cartoons was even more instructive: it didn’t want “blood on its hands.”  And so the blame for violence was shifted from perpetrator to victim; a slippery line of reasoning akin to a teenage girl too scared to wear a short skirt in case she provoked her own rape, which she would be “asking for.” Cohen provides detailed descriptions of many of the cartoons, but his book does not reproduce them. I have no idea if Cohen would have liked them in the book, but the question is academic as the truth is that there is more chance of me having a night of wild sex with Natalie Portman than there is of Fourth Estate, Cohen’s publishers, agreeing to republish the Danish cartoons.

Betrayal.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali was a young girl from a Somali family when she suffered female genital mutilation. It was just the beginning of a life she didn’t want and she eventually managed to escape a forced marriage, and flee to the Netherlands where she was granted political asylum. She learned to speak Dutch and graduated from a Dutch university. Rejecting her Muslim upbringing, she embraced atheism and liberalism and a political life. Highly critical of the treatment of women in Islamic society, she wrote the script of a short film on the subject, Submission, produced by Theo van Gogh; a classic story of female emancipation.

Then the death threats arrived. An Islamic extremist murdered Van Gogh and a warning was issued that Hirsi Ali would be next.  Surely the left would support a feminist, secular woman who had suffered so much, and was now threatened with murder? No. Instead there were leftists and liberals who denounced her. She had, some argued, endangered the security of the Dutch people. A leading figure in the Dutch liberal party declared her a bogus asylum seeker, who should be stripped of her citizenship. “Rejected by the Dutch leftists and the Dutch Liberal Party,” Cohen explains, “she eventually found a home at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC…. when her natural allies abandoned her, their opponents were the only people who would take her in.” Here the reader may notice a certain similarity between Hirsi Ali and Cohen himself. Because of his own principled stance, refusing to see the triumvirate of the United States, Britain and Israel as an axis of evil, Hamas and Hizbollah as heroic resistance movements, and Islamists such as Tariq Ramadan and Jamal al-Banna as voices of moderation, he found his own ostracisation by many on the left. Cohen grew up on the left. In his 2007 book, What’s Left? he wrote of his belief, age 13, that “to be good, you had to be on the left.” He now writes for the Spectator and Standpoint. Fine journals but hardly bastions of left wing thought.

I do not agree with all Cohen’s opinions. He paints a distorted picture of the credit crunch of 2008 and I raised my eyebrows when reading his judgement that “Sensible countries should treat banks as if they were hostile foreign powers.” But he nonetheless uses the financial crisis to make a valid point: the difficulty employees have in speaking up against their employers. He does not use this acronym, but “CLM” comes to mind, “career limiting move,” the practical effect of criticising a superior. It is not simply hyperbole for Cohen to suggest that the workplace is a not a democracy but a dictatorship. The risks associated with criticising a boss can lead to loss of a job; the rewards, even if the criticism is justified, are not sufficient to make doing so worthwhile.

If internal criticism of a company’s policies or procedures is hard, going public is even harder. In some cases it can even lead to a prison sentence. While there is legal protection for whistleblowers, in practice it is not so simple. Even if a whistleblower acts morally and correctly, his career may be irreparably damaged as finding work elsewhere may be very difficult. Who wants to employ a troublemaker?

Cohen also inveighs against the English libel laws. Writers, editors and publishers in England and Wales operate in a legal jurisdiction where the mere threat of a libel action can cause panic, an apology and a retraction. The truth of what has been written is almost irrelevant; what matters, asLaurie Penny recently put it, is “whether or not it is actionable.” As an example, one can consider what happened when the Sovietologist, Robert Service, sent out an email in 2010 linking fellow academic Orlando Figes, to hostile online anonymous book reviews. The linkage was accurate, but difficult to prove.  When Figes initially denied the link and got his lawyers involved, Service, in his own words, was left both “terrified” and “a gibbering wreck.” According to Rachel Polonsky, a third scholar, and someone with who Service had discussed the online reviews, Service was so “terrorised” by the possibility of libel action that he thought “he would lose his home.”   Deborah Lipstadt successfully defended her case against David Irving – she had described him as a Holocaust Denier, a bigot and a falsifier of history – but not before the defence costs had approached £2 million.  Service’s fears were not unfounded.

The costs associated with a libel action in England and Wales are so high, 140 times the European average, that “I’ll sue you… in England”, a line used in the American comedy show South Park, no doubt garnered recognizable laughs from its viewers. There is no certainty that full costs are awarded to the winner of a libel case or can be paid even if they are. Someone libelled might win their case but lose financially because the damages and costs recovered are less than the costs incurred.  Cohen reminds us that “President Obama signed a law that stated that the US courts should not enforce the orders of English judges against American authors,” – an appalling indictment of English libel laws.

Gagging orders or “super-injunctions,” are also available to English courts to stifle free speech. But perhaps their example also offers hope. An English court ruled that Ryan Giggs, a Premier League soccer player, could not be named as the celebrity involved in extra marital sexual relationship with a glamour model and reality television star. Tens of thousands of users on Twitter made a mockery of the gagging order by promptly naming him. If the English courts think that a 13 year old sitting in an internet café in Hong Kong with an anonymous Twitter account cares about their rulings as to what can and cannot be published, they fully deserve to be derided.

But one can only shake their head in wonderment reading Cohen’s account of what happened to Paul Chambers as a result of an obviously non serious Tweet. Annoyed that snow had grounded all flights, he Tweeted: “Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” As Cohen correctly states, the Tweet is no more a serious threat than a comment such as “I’ll strangle my boyfriend if he hasn’t done the washing up.” The myrmidons of English justice thought differently. Chambers was arrested in his workplace, taken to court, found guilty of sending menacing messages over a public telecommunications network and fined £1,000. He lost two jobs as a result of the series of events. Readers might be forgiven for wondering at what point Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss would show up to tell Chambers that this was necessary for “the best of all possible worlds.”

“It is not what you say but where you say it,” Cohen declares as important, before arguing: “The freedom the net brings is illusory if it confines writers to working under pseudonyms in obscure corners of the web. Writers who wish to be heard must break from the fringe into the mainstream by arguing for their ideas in the open.”  My preferred formulation is that it is not where you say it, but who reads it that is important. This means that an obscure corner of the web can be an effective place to say something if it is read by an influential person who has the ability to bring the argument to a wider audience.

Now, it is true that it should be far more likely that someone writing in the mainstream will be heard by the influential than someone writing in the fringe, but it is not necessarily the case. Anonymous Twitter users in repressive regimes can attract the attention of writers and activists in the West. Nasrin Alavi, for example, brought together translations from the writings of Iranian bloggers in her 2005 book, We Are Iran, raising awareness of the issues facing Iranians.

A book is far more enjoyable if it is well written. Cohen can certainly write.You Can’t Read This Book is accessible and erudite. There are not many writers who, in a single book, can discuss the Peloponnesian War, comment upon Xenophon and Plato’s view of Socrates, give an opinion on Karl Marx’s beliefs in the inevitability of the proletarian revolution, and quote the Bible’s Leviticus, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth, Honoré de Balzac, John Stuart Mill, George Orwell, Saul Bellow and Joel Feinberg, while, at the same time, having the chutzpah to use the phrase, “fercockt Western putzes.” The late Christopher Hitchens, to whom the book is dedicated, was one; Nick Cohen is another.