Thursday, May 07, 2009

Returning to Human Smoke

In concluding my review of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke last summer, I suggested that, among other things, the value of such a book is that it helps facilitate the asking of questions concerning the uses of history. We might, for example, "ask ourselves what purposes, and whose interests, are served by the maintenance of the myth of 'the good war'." People from across the political spectrum cleave to the myth of World War II as the good war, for several reasons. They want desperately to believe that the U.S. can and did and indeed does stand for good in the world. Convincing themselves that this is basically true, in a general sense (that is, though mistakes are made, or certain administrations are unfortunate, on balance the United States acts on behalf of "the good"), they want to leave "humanitarian intervention" available as an option. "We", the thinking goes, "should do something" to prevent or stop particular humanitarian disasters. Unacknowledged--obscured--is the fact that what "we" in fact end up "doing" invariably only makes things worse. Completely ignored is the history of Western activity leading to these more recent disasters in the first place. The myth of the good war keeps open the possibility, provides a model for people to point to: we did good there. That the war was not a war of liberation is evidently beside the point. In Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker presented a wide variety of details and anecdotes, which help serve to cast doubt on the received wisdom about World War II as the Good War. As such, it elicited a number of high profile denunciations by reviewers apparently concerned with Baker's insufficient reverence for the Allied war effort. In addition, there were some interesting deviations from this general trend.

My earlier post was fairly long, but still I necessarily left quite a lot out and so immediately began a follow-up post intended to address other points, which post got derailed by personal events. But more recent reviews of the book and subsequent discussions (I'm thinking of John Self's positive review, including the related comment thread to that review, and Max Dunbar's generally negative review , which Steve Mitchelmore addressed here, Mark Thwaite entering the fray here, in the midst of which Dunbar produced two follow-up blog posts [1, 2]) have encouraged me to finish up the notes that would have followed my original review and to say a bit more. I will employ the form of numbered points I have favored of late (which may result in some repetition).

1. Many reviewers of Human Smoke, particularly those who have panned it, have written as if the book drops us in the middle of possibly 1938 or 1939, or even 1941, points at which, looking back, war certainly appears to have been unavoidable, given the ambitions of Nazi Germany. But the book's first quotation is from 1892, then it jumps to 1913, making its way piecemeal to the 1930s. It is true that the preponderance of detail is from the late 1930s through December 1941, but this reviewing move ignores much of the effect Baker achieves by beginning earlier. In addition, reviewers generally ignore the role of the United States in provoking the Japanese in the Pacific, throughout the 1930s. Only if we examine the kinds of actions which over time lead to war, for this war in particular, can we hope to avoid being dragged into future wars. It is my contention that, in Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker has made an important contribution to this end.

2. There is a general distrust of popular pressure--anxiety about democracy--which manifests itself in paternalistic distrust of readers. Readers are apparently very stupid, not to be trusted. This is the unvoiced theme running through many reviews of Human Smoke. A recent entry into this type of review is Dunbar's in 3:AM. He is exercised about the supposedly poor scholarship, or apparent lack of scholarship, on display in Human Smoke (echoing Anne Applebaum's review in this case) ; about Baker's allegedly manipulative juxtaposition of details and uncritical presentation of the views of certain pacifists; about the unexamined racism of the latter. . . He borrows from my review the passage from Sam Anderson's excellent review that I in turn had borrowed from Mark Thwaite. Here, again, is how this passage begins:
To dismiss Baker's project as a failed work based on the traditional criteria of history writing, however, is to misunderstand its actual purpose and power—and also to underestimate the good sense of the average reader. No one is likely to mistake Human Smoke for a comprehensive scholarly history of the war. It's an auto-didact's record of his own obsessive, subjective research. It devotes generous airtime to characters who tend to get excluded from popular history (secretaries, pacifist students, journalists), excavates great lost quotes ('What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none'), and powerfully questions canonical events based on carefully identified sources…
Dunbar concedes that Anderson makes a good point here, that Baker is not a historian, but complains that this sort of claim seems designed to protect Human Smoke from criticism. But this is not the important point being made here. The point is that certain reviews "underestimate the good sense of the average reader". It's not that there are no criticisms to be leveled at Nicholson Baker or Human Smoke, it's that so many of the negative reviews assume that readers cannot be trusted with it. To be sure, stupid readers exist, but are books to be judged only on the basis of how its poorest potential readers might read them? But then the real concern for such reviewers is that readers cannot be trusted to come to the correct conclusions.

3. With respect to the pacifists, Baker is clearly sympathetic to these figures, but I still find it difficult to believe that readers can read his book and come to the conclusion that he really intends for it to be a coherent pacifist argument against the war, his much-quoted afterward notwithstanding. Dunbar (he is not alone) wants us to know that the pacifists were no saints, nor necessarily friends to the Jews, and that their words and actions are presented by Baker "uncritically"; in particular, Gandhi was a "committed racist" who, according to Orwell, suggested the Jews commit "collective suicide". The implication being that, for Nicholson Baker, Gandhi is a hero whose words should have been heeded. But let's look at how Gandhi and the pacifists are actually presented in the book. The pacifists have some important things to say, but they are also incredibly naïve at times, and there are numerous places where they do not come off well at all. And some of things Gandhi is quoted as saying are truly monstrous (some are not; for instance, he is exactly right about the proposed settlement of Jews in Palestine). One example:
"I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators." The discipline of nonviolence--ahimsa--worked most efficaciously in the face of terrible violence, Gandhi said: "Sufferers need not see the result in their lifetime."
If Hitler and Mussolini chose to overrun England, he said, let them. “Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your soul, nor your minds.”
If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.
This method, Gandhi said, had had considerable success in India. (206)
On this latter point, Dunbar cites Orwell to the effect that Gandhi’s non-violence was more useful to power than threatening, particularly in the context of what was going on with the British empire at the time. It's a point worth remembering. But consider the advice Gandhi gives to the Jews and the British here; it amounts to "just lie down and take it". Not unlike the kind of advice women have been known to receive when threatened with the possibility of rape. (This comparison is not irrelevant. For a fairly thorough denunciation of Gandhi, his pacifism and misogyny included, see the second volume of Derrick Jensen’s Endgame. Jensen also reminds us more than once that the Jews who fought back--for example, in the Ghetto uprising--were much more likely to survive than those who did not. Note that violent resistance or insurrection is different than waging total war for political purposes.) The point is that the reader of Human Smoke encounters Gandhi's horrific or at best unhelpful statements in the same sort of context that the reader encounters those of Churchill. In my opinion, both men come off very badly. If one assumes that because Nicholson Baker is sympathetic to the pacifists that he necessarily endorses every comment they ever made, even the ones he presents to us, then one is not reading the book at hand. It is not a polemic, but a tapestry.

4. Let me turn now to the close of Dunbar's review, which was examined by Steve Mitchelmore in his post. Jumping off of a quote from Orwell regarding the aforementioned usefulness of Gandhi to the British, Dunbar says this:
Oppressors don’t fear pacifism. They fear aggression. Baker quotes a
demonstrator’s placard: ‘WAR MEANS FASCISM’. The truth is the exact reverse.
Steve cites a couple of examples to show that oppressors have at times indeed feared pacifism but is chiefly concerned with the "troubling" aspect of the book's reception, where "the issue of the Holocaust has been raised to address and, at the same, to obscure the reviewers' responsibility for more recent atrocities." That is, many reviewers were either supporters of the current war against Iraq and similar crimes against humanity, or at least seem anxious that "humanitarian intervention" remain on the table in the future. There follows, in Steve's post and the responses from Dunbar and Mark Thwaite, discussion about how contemporary attacks are legally equivalent, according to the Nuremberg Principle and the Geneva Conventions, to Nazi Germany's attacks on Poland and Russia, and so on. Steve and Mark handle this fairly well, and Dunbar essentially concedes the point. However, he elaborates on what he meant by reversing the phrase; he meant that "fascism means war":
As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, this is true in two senses. Fascism means war because it is inherently expansionist and imperialist and warlike. And fascism means war because taking up arms is almost always necessary for fascism’s defeat.
I leave his citation to Hitchens as a reference in my excerpt only because it's funny, as all such references to Hitchens end up being. But let's look at the content, the second sense first. Fascism means war because taking up arms is almost always necessary for its defeat. Ok. Sounds plausible, though fascism does not arise in isolation. Which leads back to the first sense in which fascism means war: it is inherently expansionist and imperialist and warlike. Again, this sounds uncontroversial, but what else can be described with those words? It's capitalism, is it not? (Yes, it always comes back to capitalism.) That is to say, fascism is a particular, regional response to crisis inherent in capitalism itself. It does not exist independently. And a given crisis can allow certain elements to exploit popular vulnerability. The Nazis were of course a deeply reactionary movement seeking and able to tap into resentments, the kinds of resentments that proliferate when a country is in the midst of economic upheaval. German capitalists and conservatives liked the anti-communism of the Nazis and mistakenly believed they could control their less savory attributes. The other Western powers welcomed the rise of fascism in both Germany and Italy. No doubt the casual anti-Semitism of the elites allowed them to overlook the more virulent anti-Semitism of the Nazis, but more importantly from their perspective was, again, the strong anti-communism of the fascists. It was after all the Great Depression, with labor in much turmoil.

Meanwhile, business continues, including, crucially, the business of selling arms. In my review, I provided an array of passages from Human Smoke, intended to give the reader a sense of the variety of material included by Nicholson Baker. One passage focused on the words of one H.C. Engelbrecht, who had written a best-selling book about arms dealers called Merchants of Death. I chose this passage with care, since I sought to given an indication of how the normal workings of capitalism led to the war, as I am expanding on now. Here, again, is the bulk of that passage (the quotes date from 1934):

"Armament is an industry that knows no politics, friends, right or wrong--but
only customers," Engelbrecht said. "If you can pay, you can buy."

The French arms company Schneider had recently sold four hundred tanks to Hitler's Germany, Engelbrecht observed; the company disguised the sale by shipping the tanks via the Netherlands. The Germans had also ordered sixty airplanes from Vickers, the British maker of bombers."

In every war," said Engelbrecht, "the armament maker who sells internationally is arming a potential enemy of his own country--and that, practically, if not legally, is treason."

There are numerous anecdotes and details about the arms deals of the 1920s and 1930s in the book. And much else is known about the American and other Western corporations that continued to do business with the Nazis right up until war was declared, and in some cases after. The truth is that capital "knows no politics, friends, right or wrong". The further truth is that, effectively, the West manufactured its own enemy, arming it all the way, and then when it found that it could not be contained ("appeased"), war became a necessity, to the ruin of millions of people.

Those of us who are Anglo-American, because we have the rights we have, enjoy the privileges we enjoy, because we have nominal democratic forms at home and have sacred documents that espouse admirable ideals and goals, we like to imagine that governmental actions are undertaken in pursuit or defense of these ideals and goals. We like to imagine, and we apparently need to believe, that the United States truly is a generally benign actor on the world stage, and a defender of democracy. The fact is that in the 1930s capitalism was in deep trouble, and out of that trouble emerged the Nazis as a power. If it were just a matter of defeating the Nazis once they emerged, or even once war began, or if saving the Jews were of any concern for the elites, it would indeed be difficult to argue, but it was not, and the corresponding course of the war reflects the divergence of these goals (this is why motivations and outcomes both matter, and why outcomes need to be judged clearly). The war was not just about defeating the Nazis, and it certainly was not at all about saving or protecting the doomed Jewish population, which was anyway in a much worse position after the war began. It was ultimately about reconstituting the capitalist system, with the United States positioning itself to take over as that system's lead enforcer and guarantor, and in this the war was very successful indeed. Human Smoke does not and could not get into this, given the form the book takes, but it includes enough different kinds of material to allow one to better appreciate the climate which lead to what became total war, and it is in this way that the book makes an important contribution.

Update: the three posts immediately following this one are related; the first includes material I couldn't fit here, the second quotes a passage from David Harvey about capitalism and the war, the third provides links and an excerpt from Derrick Jensen on pacifism and Gandhi, which I made reference to above.

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