Pointing the finger at finger-pointers

Boris Johnson obviously considers himself a master rhetorician. His fascination with striking words and images, combined with his inability to structure a sentence — perhaps out of indiscipline, perhaps attention deficit, perhaps just out of a general mismatch between high education and mediocre intelligence — makes his speeches read like something out of one of William S. Burroughs’s less successful cut-up compositions.

The clash of tone and images can be jarring, as in the quote on the cover of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph:

Given the leanings of the Telegraph, I’m assuming this was intended to flatter Johnson, not to mock him. And yet… Illustrating an accusation of finger-pointing with a photo of the accuser pointing his finger? And that’s before we even get to the hoary Labour is Stalinist accusation. In 2019? Really? So Johnson has to show that it’s not just a tired slogan by bringing some historical detail into it. With foreign words. So they’re persecuting kulaks. British kulaks should tremble! Before the horror of Jeremy Corbyn, who would be just like Stalin: a notorious scold!

16th century lessons on fake news and disinformation

I’ve just been reading an interesting book on the relationship between two 16th-century social-media influencers, Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther (Fatal Discord, by Michael Massing). I was struck by one comment that came up at the Diet of Worms that speaks to our current conundra over propaganda and disinformation.

Luther argued that he could not recant all of his writings, since some stated truths universally acknowledged by Christians. They must point out to him which particular assertions were false, and demonstrate the falsity with citations from genuine authorities, which could only be scriptural.

Determined not to be drawn into a debate, the theologian Johann Eck countered that Luther’s

assertion that some of his books contained teachings that were sound and acceptable to all was specious, for heretical books, going back to the Arians, had been burned, despite containing much that was godly and Catholic. In fact, Eck said, no doctrine is more effective in deceiving than that which mixes a few false teachings with many that are true.

This is a clear formulation of the principle of optimal fakery that I have discussed at length in this essay.

May God bless and keep the tsar far away from us…

I’m happy to see the UK government interested in attacking antisemitism — even if they do tend to see the main contribution of Jews to UK society as being to shield the Conservative Party against accusations of racism (as demonstrated most recently by Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions) — but I can’t help feeling it shows at the very least some level of insensitivity to historical context for the government to appoint an antisemitism tsar.

I find it jarring in the same way I did this reference to both the “Mecca of the kibbutz movement” and “a huge garage in southern Tel Aviv turned into the new mecca of dance, drugs, and casual encounters.

I suppose we should be grateful the government has not decided to launch a Crusade against Antisemitism.

Everything I needed to know about British politics I learned in kindergarten

The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. Whether or not that ever well described the preparation of the British military I cannot say, but I feel like to understand British politics you need to go back earlier, to the playground of whatever toff kindergarten prepares the English elite for Eton. How else to explain Boris Johnson thinking he can pressure the Labour Party into agreeing to an election on Dominic Cummings’s preferred schedule by calling Jeremy Corbyn “frit”, a “chlorinated chicken”, or “a great big girl’s blouse“.

This last expression struck me as so bizarre — not only is it much too ungainly a phrase to function effectively as an insult, but I can’t think of another term of abuse that compares the target to an item of clothing — but various explainers have revealed that it is indeed a slang expression from the period of Johnson’s childhood, and that Johnson has been known to use it in the past.

It never ceases to astonish me, not just that someone in a position of influence would publicly speak this way, but that his co-partisans seem to find it normal, acceptable, not at all embarrassing, even powerful.

None of this can compare to early-twentieth-century British playground politics. One of the most horrifying details of Christopher Clarke’s meticulous analysis of the march to war in 1914 The Sleepwalkers was his adumbration of the temperamental state of mind prevailing in the British foreign-policy establishment in the decade before the war, illustrated by the comment of UK Ambassador to France Sir Francis ‘the Bull’ Bertie that the Germans wanted “to push us into the water and steal our clothes.”

Early comments by Johnson on the impact of no-deal Brexit

Fully consistent with what the PM is saying now:

There came two other gentlemen, one of whom uttered the common-place complaints, that by the increase of taxes, labour would be dear, other nations would undersell us, and our commerce would be ruined.

JOHNSON (smiling). ‘Never fear, Sir. Our commerce is in a very good state; and suppose we had no commerce at all, we could live very well on the produce of our own country.’

This was Samuel Johnson, in the 1770s, who also wrote that

The interruption of trade, though it may distress part of the community, leaves the rest power to communicate relief; the decay of one manufacture may be compensated by the advancement of another…

Johnson, of course, also famously said that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Which may somehow be relevant.

Writing the Dolchstoßlegende in English

What Johnson wants is for one of two things to happen:

  1. No deal, with blame falling both on the obstreperous, sclerotic, backward-looking EU, and on the traitorous socialists who weakened Britain’s negotiating position from within by suggesting they would block no-deal in any case. We would have had the perfect buccaneering Brexit deal with complete access to European markets, if we hadn’t been betrayed;
  2. A deal that is forced upon the government by the same traitors in parliament.

In either case Johnson then hopes to win a new election by campaigning against the traitors. It’s even better (but riskier) if the country is in chaos because of no-deal Brexit.

No one who actually hoped to make a deal would publicly declare that the other side must entirely abandon one of its key demands, that had already been conceded by a previous UK government, and suggest that their opposition is only a public negotiating posture. But it’s a perfectly good way of provoking a crisis, while allowing low-information voters to believe that he’s really tried everything. Continue reading “Writing the Dolchstoßlegende in English”

May we compare Anne Frank’s case to the Holocaust?

Following up on my earlier post on the unequivocal rejection by many authorities — including the US Holocaust Museum — of any comparison between the concentration camps in which Central American migrants are being interned in the US, and Nazi atrocities. No one is being gassed, no one is being murdered, no one is being worked to death. They are simply being interned in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for indeterminate periods.

And here it occurs to me that if we are being very careful about our historical analogies, we really need to strike out one of the most celebrated stories that (erroneously) is placed in this context, that of Anne Frank. The USHMM includes a page about her life and diary, and the “Holocaust Encyclopedia” describes her as “among the most well-known of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.” But was she really? Anne and her sister were undocumented migrants in The Netherlands, rounded up in a police raid and deported to Germany. They were not sent to a death camp, but to Bergen-Belsen, which is commonly referred to as a concentration camp, but that is obviously misleading, since people could think Jews were being gassed there. Nobody killed them there. They just happened to die (like most of their fellow prisoners) of typhus.

Indeed, we should consider Primo Levi’s contention that everyone who survived Auschwitz did so because of some freak combination of exceptional events and exceptional personal qualities (not necessarily positive):

At a distance of years one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. Those who did so did not return, or their capacity for observation was paralysed by suffering and incomprehension.

So if the true generic experience of the Holocaust belonged only to those who died, maybe it is inappropriate to compare anyone’s experience to the Holocaust, including that of its victims.

True freedom of religion

I’ve just been reading David Nirenberg’s history of antisemitism Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, and I came across the interesting letter 40 of Ambrose. Ambrose was Bishop of Milan for two decades in the late 4th century, and is considered one of the Fathers of the Church. The letter, addressed to the Roman emperor Theodosius, is framed as a plea for freedom and tolerance. And what is it that the “Godfearing, merciful, gentle, and calm” Theodosius has not sufficiently tolerated? It is the religious obligation to burn down synagogues.

In 388 a mob of monks in the Mesopotamian city of Callinicum burned down the Jewish synagogue and a gnostic Christian church. The local military governor ordered that the monks be punished and that the synagogue be rebuilt, at the expense of the local bishop, who had incited the attack.

There is, then, no adequate cause for such a commotion, that the people should be so severely punished for the burning of a building, and much less since it is the burning of a synagogue, a home of unbelief, a house of impiety, a receptacle of folly, which God Himself has condemned.

Ambrose goes on to remind Theodosius of the fate of his predecessor, who was thought too solicitous of the safety of Jews and their houses of worship:

Is it not on this account that Maximus was forsaken, who, before the days of the expedition, hearing that a synagogue had been burnt in Rome, had sent an edict to Rome, as if he were the upholder of public order? Wherefore the Christian people said, No good is in store for him. That king has become a Jew.

In other words, if you defend the Jews you might be suspected of being kind of a Jew yourself.

Anyway, this reminded me of John Boswell’s Jews and Bicycle Riders, and certain cries for religious tolerance that are abroad in the land today…

The strange and disturbing life of Hugo Bettauer

I’ve become fascinated by the early-20th-century Austrian writer Hugo Bettauer, author of the prescient satire on antisemitism Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City without Jews). It’s a fascinating look at how Nazism (and allied antisemitic movements) appeared, a decade before it came to power in Germany, when it still seemed a tolerable subject for humour. Among the more striking features of the novel: The Austrian chancellor who proposes the law describes himself as a great friend and admirer of the Jews, in a frighteningly devious speech. The middle-class Viennese women, in Bettauer’s depiction, are distraught at the loss of the Jewish men, with whom most of them were having sexually adventurous and lucrative extramarital affairs. The Jews themselves are portrayed as essentially indifferent to their expulsion (with one important exception), and many of them move to the obviously more tolerant and cosmopolitan Germany. And when the Jews are ultimately allowed to return it is not because anyone has any sympathy for them, but only because it has become clear how useful they are for the economy, and how boring life in Vienna is without them. In one of the weirdest bits of rhetoric, an elderly lawyer, speaking to the salt-of-the-earth waiter in the now empty (because mainly Jews used to populate the cafes) traditional Viennese cafe, remarks

Wien versumpert, sag’ ich Ihnen, und wenn ich als alter, graduierter Antisemit das sag’, so ist es wahr, sag’ ich Ihnen! Ich wer’ Ihnen was sagen, Josef. Wenn ich gegessen hab’, muß ich, Sie wissen’s ja am besten, immer mein Soda-Bikarbonat nehmen, um die elendige Magensäure zu bekämpfen. Wenn ich aber gar keine Magensäure hätt’, so könnt’ ich überhaupt nichts verdauen und müßt’ krepieren. Und wissen S’, der Antisemitismus, der war das Soda zur Bekämpfung der Juden, damit sie nicht lästig werden! Jetzt haben wir aber keine Magensäure, das heißt, keine Juden, sondern nur Soda, und ich glaub’, daran wer’n wir noch zugrund’ geh’n!«


Vienna is rotting, that’s what I say, and when an old dedicated antisemite like me says that, you can believe it. Let me tell you something. After I eat, you know I always have my little bit of bicarbonate of soda, to fight the stomach acid. But if I didn’t have any stomach acid, I wouldn’t be able to digest anything, I’d just croak. And you know, antisemitism was just the soda to fight against the Jews, so that they didn’t get too annoying! But now we have no stomach acid, that is, no Jews, but only soda, and I think we’re all going to perish.

Curious about his life, I had a look in Wikipedia, and found numerous brief remarks that each seemed like there was material for a feature-length movie hidden behind it, if not for a whole miniseries. The son of a wealthy stockbroker, Bettauer ran away from home at the age of 16 to Alexandria, “where the Austrian Consul sent him straight back again”.

In Zürich he married the love of his youth, Olga Steiner, with whom, after the death of his mother, he emigrated to the United States. During the crossing, in a disastrous speculation Bettauer lost his entire fortune.

Unable to find work in the US, despite acquiring US citizenship, Bettauer and his wife moved to Berlin, where he became a prominent journalist.

In 1901 after the suicide of the director of the Berliner Hoftheater, whom he had accused of corruption, Bettauer was expelled from the Kingdom of Prussia

Following a divorce and then remarrying during another eventful crossing to America, and half a decade as a journalist in New York, he returned to work for the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna, where he was then excluded from army service in WWI because of his US citizenship. In one of the oddest turns,

In 1918, after an altercation caused by a defective typewriter, he was fired from the Neue Freie Presse.

He went on to become a prominent and controversial novelist — Greta Garbo’s first international film was based on one of Bettauer’s novels — until he was assassinated by a Nazi dentist in March 1925. The assassin was declared insane, and released after 18 months in a psychiatric clinic.

Hugo Bettauer

A wall with two sides

Right after the EU referendum I commented

Those now entering retirement have locked in promises of high pensions to themselves that no one before or after them will be able to receive…

I can’t help but wonder whether, on some level, the over-60s see the situation they’ve manoeuvred the younger generations into — crumbling infrastructure, insufficient and overpriced housing, excessive pensions that will come at the expense of social spending for decades, and the only solution they can see — since a pension isn’t worth much if there aren’t enough working people to actually provide the services you depend on — is to block off their children’s potential escape routes.

Maybe it’s not about keeping THEM out. It’s about keeping the younger generation IN.

This is, of course, intentionally provocative, and while I believe there’s some truth to it I’m not sure exactly how profoundly I really believe it. But I was reminded of this perspective while reading James C. Scott’s eye-opening “deep history of the earliest states” Against the Grain:

Owen Lattimore… has made the case most forcefully that the purpose of the Great Wall(s) was as much to keep the Chinese taxpayers inside as to block barbarian incursions.

In the latter part of the twentieth century people in the wealthy world got used to the notion that everyone is free to travel, but there is a natural right of nations to decide who to let in — a right granted primarily to wealthy individuals and citizens of wealthy nations. This belief was communicated to me so strongly that when I first encountered the historical fact that passports were originally documents confirming the permission to leave granted by a state to its subject — rather like the travel passes issued to slaves by their owners — I found this intensely shocking, and put it on my growing the-past-is-a-foreign-country list, right next to the Roman practice of “exposing” surplus newborns, leaving them to die or be picked up by other families in need of a slave. Indeed, I just came across this comment in Jill Lepore’s magisterial new one-volume history of the US, on the first US federal laws regulating passports:

In 1856, Congress passed a law declaring that only the secretary of state “may grant and issue passports,” and that only citizens could obtain them. In August of 1861, Lincoln’s secretcary of state, William Seward, issued this order: “Until further notice, no person will be allowed to go abroad from a port of the United States without a passport either from this Department or countersigned by the Secretary of State.” From then until the end of the war, this restriction was enforced; its aim was to prevent men from leaving the country in order to avoid military service.

The fact that the soi-disant German Democratic Republic had built a wall, with armed guards to prevent its own citizens from fleeing was widely seen to fatally undermine that state’s legitimacy. Indeed, the GDR’s rulers themselves seemed to concede this point, as they denied the obvious truth of the wall’s function, designating it in official proclamations the antifaschistischer Schutzwall [antifascist defensive rampart]. (Just by the way, I’ve long been fascinated by the way this word “Wall”, a partly-false-cognate to the English expression for what Germans generally called by the more standard German word Mauer, came to be used as a competing term in GDR propaganda.)

Possibly one effect of rising economic inequality is that freedom of movement will be one of the special privileges that states had been routinely providing to their citizens that will increasingly be reserved to a privileged elite. And like the GDR, states like the UK will assure their citizens that they are not being kept in, but rather, that they are being protected from the barbarian hordes outside.

(Title of this post with apologies to André Cayatte.)