I picked this up because I’d really enjoyed Warnock’s Ethics Since 1900. This one, though, reads more like it was written by the “Ethics” columnist fI picked this up because I’d really enjoyed Warnock’s Ethics Since 1900. This one, though, reads more like it was written by the “Ethics” columnist for a newspaper than by a philosopher....more
The brother & sister team of progressive journalists Amy Goodman and David Goodman have collected several stories of people who came face to faceThe brother & sister team of progressive journalists Amy Goodman and David Goodman have collected several stories of people who came face to face with some of the evils of the Dubya Squad years but who made the sadly rare but always heartening decision to not take it lying down. They tell these stories in Standing Up to the Madness.
Over the course of the book, team Goodman tell us
* how the Common Ground Relief group got organized and fought back when the government tried to piggy-back an ethnic cleansing campaign on top of Hurricane Katrina
* how when an Iraq-born U.S. citizen got kicked off a flight for wearing a T-shirt with Arabic lettering on it, this inspired whole leagues of “I am Sparticus!”-types to challenge effective Arabic-on-transit bans with their own shirts
* how when the FBI started issuing National Security Letters to libraries — simultaneously demanding patron records without a warrant or court order, denying to the press and to Congress that they were doing any such thing, and issuing a legal gag order to the letter recipients prohibiting them from contradicting the lies — one group of librarians fought back and won
* how a determined climate scientist at NASA defied White House attempts to turn the agency in to a climate change denial propaganda arm, and bypassed the oil industry public relations handlers who had been put in charge of the agency press office to take agency research directly to Congress and the press
* how a small number of American Psychological Association professionals exposed that the association’s anonymous task force on complicity with torture had been stacked with pro-torture military psychologists in order to provide cover for psychologists who were helping the government make their torture techniques more precise and effective
* how a drama teacher and a group of persistent students responded to having their student play about the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans banned by the school principle — by working harder to polish the play and taking it off-Broadway
* how a community rallied around the Jena Six
* how several soldiers have refused to deploy after coming to a crisis of conscience about war, or learning about the mendacity involved in the current set
All of this is heartwarming and can be inspiring. Team Goodman is writing a book of praise and celebration. Because of this, the episodes are not presented with much nuance or objectivity. They reminded me a bit of the sort of hagiographical stories about Jackie Robinson or Neil Armstrong that I would read in elementary school.
But that said, this would be a good book to inspire any progressive who wants to move on from having correct opinions to being capable of heroic decisions. ...more
A collection of vignettes — some only a paragraph long, few longer than a page — of episodes from the years leading up to the second World War, and thA collection of vignettes — some only a paragraph long, few longer than a page — of episodes from the years leading up to the second World War, and then from the years of the war itself up through 1941. Baker mostly leaves his own voice out of it, except for a few paragraphs of “afterword” at the end.
The book generated a lot of heat when it was released a few months ago because it challenges the idea that World War II was a “good” war, something that is today an article of faith for all decent civilized people.
World War II is so revered these days, with all of the “greatest generation” fooferaw, politicians trying to get themselves compared to Churchill, and the like, that people have come to have a weird nostalgia for the period as if it were the high point of civilization, when in fact it was very much the opposite.
The greatest generation gave us the greatest failure of civilization the world has ever seen, resulting in the deaths of millions, the development of the technology of genocide, the normalization of a military policy of barbarity towards civilians, and ending with a gargantuan communist terror-state crushing much of Europe and Asia and, along with the United States, threatening the world with nuclear annihilation.
The only thing that might have been worse would have been if the Axis powers had won. Ay, there’s the rub. And that sentiment has been the quick and potent retort to anyone who questions the article of faith.
Baker isn’t satisfied with this: “My feelings about the war change every day. But I also feel that there is a way of looking at the war and the Holocaust that is truer and sadder and stranger than the received version.”
The defenders of the received version were quick to respond. In the New York Times, a reviewer said:
Did the war “help anyone who needed help?” Mr. Baker asks in a plaintive afterword. The prisoners of Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald come to mind, as well as untold millions of Russians, Danes, Belgians, Czechs and Poles. Nowhere and at no point does Mr. Baker ever suggest, in any serious way, how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms.
But in fact, with few exceptions, the prisoners of Belsen, Dachau, and Buchenwald were not liberated by the war — they were murdered during the course of it. And Baker does suggest, in many places in the book, how many opportunites to aid and rescue Jewish refugees and “untold millions” of suffering Europeans, were squandered — indeed, actively discouraged or forbidden — by the Allies in pursuit of their war aims or other policies.
Much of the criticism of Baker’s book is similarly knee-jerk. Some borders on paranoid — ascribing to Baker opinions and assertions that he never explicitly makes, but finding them implicit in his constellation of vignettes. Baker invites this sort of thing by muting his own voice and leaving the interpretation of his examples (and his choices of what examples to include) to the reader. I think Baker probably deliberately chose to suggest controversial things in this way that he felt afraid to or unable to defend explicitly, which is too bad, but his critics see this as a license to invent straw man arguments to attack, which is also too bad. Someone called the book “a 500-page Rorschach Test,” which hits the nail on the head.
The callousness to the plight of Jewish refugees is one of the themes of the selections Baker chose. Other themes that receive prominent play include:
* the evolution of the policy of attacks on the civilian population, particularly by the Allies — largely aerial bombardments, but also chemical & biological warfare and starvation blockades
* that these attacks on the civilian population, sold as a method for demoralizing and weakening the enemy, most frequently did just the opposite, and served mainly to slake a thirst for bloody revenge on the part of the attackers
* the efforts of various pacifist groups to encourage negotiation, inoculate against war fever, and assist refugees and other war victims
* the evolution of the “final solution” as the war escalated, with the implication (I think) that the Nazis became more savage toward their victims the more they themselves felt the savagery of the war
* the surprising (to me) extent to which the United States was engaging in war against the Axis powers prior to the Pearl Harbor attack and the formal declaration of war
The book is a powerful, captivating, relentless read. It has flaws — Baker’s aforementioned editorial stand-offishness; an unseemly amount of naïveté, particularly when it comes to being shocked and surprised (or worse, credulous) at politicians’ hypocritical platitudes or at the commonplace racism of the period; and a largely United States-centric view of the war. Still, it’s an eye-opener, and a good remedy for anyone who’s had a poisonous dose of History Channel....more
Having just read Ayer, I had to read the great anti-Ayer. Not quite as good, but almost as combatative, and it makes some good points. Unfortunately,Having just read Ayer, I had to read the great anti-Ayer. Not quite as good, but almost as combatative, and it makes some good points. Unfortunately, it was cobbled together from the Austin's notes by someone else, so it doesn't cohere as well as it ought, and sometimes the counter-arguments seem to miss the point of the arguments....more
What if our contemporary moral discourse were a cargo cult in which we picked up fragments of a long lost, once-coherent moral philosophy, and ignoranWhat if our contemporary moral discourse were a cargo cult in which we picked up fragments of a long lost, once-coherent moral philosophy, and ignorantly constructed a bunch of nonsense that didn’t work and could not work in principle?
After Virtue argues that this indeed is what happened, and this explains why our moral discourse is such a mess.
Why when we argue about moral issues do we make our case in a form that resembles rational argument, but the effect seems to be only like imperative statements or exclamations? Why do pro-life folks and pro-choice folks keep arguing when there is no resolution to their argument?
MacIntyre believes we are reenacting forms of argument that once made sense, since people once did have a common ground of morality, but that we have since lost this in a Tower of Babel-like catastrophe.
Our moral arguments today are interminable because the values they express are incommensurable. Though the claims of the emotivists are not necessarily true, they happen to be true for contemporary moral philosophy: when people make moral arguments today they really are just making exclamations of (dis)approval while disguising these as rational arguments about facts.
Moral philosophy adopted the idea that moral systems must eventually descend on first principles that everyone must choose for themselves and for which there are no rational criteria: you cannot get an “ought” from an “is”. The only way to defend any moral framework is in a form that ultimately reduces to “my first principles are better than your first principles, nyaah nyaah.”
Modern philosophy has not found a way out of this predicament. The emotivist explanation of moral argument makes the most sense, and so people who engage in moral arguments are essentially trying to manipulate others and at the same time to resist being manipulated, knowing on some level that there is no resolution, which leads to the perpetual histrionic impasse that keeps the news networks and political parties in business.
Some philosophers suggest that there are no right answers in ethics or that the whole field of inquiry is bogus. MacIntyre says that this isn’t necessarily true but is just the result of the catastrophe that shattered a once-coherent ethics.
Our concept of “the moral” was invented in the 17th–19th centuries to cover “rules of conduct which are neither theological nor legal nor aesthetic.” The philosophical project of justifying these rules developed along with it. The classical world didn’t have this concept — moralis or etikos meant something more like our word “character.” The failure of this philosophical project is “the historical background against which the predicaments of our own culture can become intelligible.”
MacIntyre works backwards through Kierkegaard, Kant, Diderot, and Hume, and says that they were unable to find a rational ground for morality in choice, in reason, or in passion and desire. Each was capable of decisively refuting some of these grounds, but each failed to show that their own best guess was right.
The morality that these philosophers were trying to justify consisted of surviving remnants of the virtues like those Aristotle discussed in The Nicomachean Ethics, in which ethics is considered to be the science of how we govern our lives so as to best meet the ends of human living: the human telos.
Aristotle’s ethics has this structure: 1) Humans are untutored; 2) Humans have a telos; 3) Ethics is the tutelage necessary for us to achieve our telos. Enlightenment philosophers abandoned the idea of a telos, and in so doing, lost the only way of making ethical statements statements of fact. To Aristotle, an ethical statement was true if the ethical rule it described did in fact help people achieve their telos. Without reference to a telos, ethical statements don’t mean anything at all.
Enlightenment thinkers, who were okay with #1 (humans are untutored) and #3 (moral precepts correct human nature) stuck themselves with the impossible task of deriving #3 from #1.
The insistence that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is” that so perplexed the moral philosophers is, MacIntyre insists, a bugbear that results from this same undeclared premise: that humans have no telos. For things with purposes, “is” may very well imply “ought” (this is a watch; it ought to tell the correct time). Good or bad for watches is embedded in the very concept of watch. Similarly, if a person has a telos, his or her actions will be more or less ethical, to the extent that they assist in achieving it. What actions are ethical is a factual inquiry: is implies ought.
We still make moral arguments as if they were statements of fact, but we’ve lost the ability to articulate what makes them factual. To try to fill in the gap, we resort to fictions. To replace teleology we have “utility”; to replace God’s revealed laws, we have the categorical imperative or “inalienable human rights”. These are just phantasmagorical placeholders designed to fill in the inconvenient gaps in moral theory, but that have no more real existence than things like the luminiferous aether, which once served a similar purpose in physics.
But we continue to argue as though one of these gambits had succeeded, though we suspect that our moral discourse is just a machiavellian struggle to manipulate and deceive.
This leads to petulant “protest,” a modern form of moral discourse, because rational argument has no hope of succeeding. The other dominant variety of moral discourse today is “unmasking,” in which foes discover each others’ moral pronouncements to be sham façades that mask selfish and arbitrary desires. This amounts to a parlor game, since everybody’s ethics have become incoherent and contradictory.
Along with such fictional devices as “right” and “utility,” the modern age created “effectiveness” as a moral fetish. The bureaucratic manager uses the myth of managerial expertise to manipulate those being managed and to justify the managers’ power. The idea of managerial expertise implies a domain of real knowledge about social structures and their inputs and outputs of which the manager has specialized and true knowledge. This turns out to be a false claim.
The enlightenment also caused the Aristotelian notion of ethics to split into the study of ethics (“what is good?”) and will (“how do intentions become actions?”). In the Aristotelian view, explanations of human actions only make sense in reference to a hierarchy of goods and to the telos, but in the mechanistic worldview, human action must be explained independently of any intentions, purposes, or telos. The social sciences of which managers are presumed to be experts are those in which human subjects are seen this way.
People being manipulated by the practitioners of the social/managerial sciences are considered to have no intention or purpose or telos of their own worth respecting, but the same is implicitly not the case for the manipulators and social scientists themselves.
Human affairs are systematically unpredictable, for several reasons: It is impossible to predict the effects of radically new conceptual innovations. People cannot confidently predict even their own actions. Chance trivialities can have large effects. Game-theory-like situations map poorly to real-life situations, and even so, they imply a necessary level of deceptiveness and recursive counter-plotting that makes real-world scientific observation and prediction difficult. (For example, during the Vietnam war, war-theorists working for the U.S. government cleverly created simulations and projections for victory using the best data they had at their disposal — data that was being systematically falsified by other elements of the government who were using their own game-theory-ish reasons for using deceit in the service of victory.)
All we really should expect from social scientists are “usually”s. Managerial pretensions to expertise (and thereby to the power and money that come with positions like President of the United States or CEO) are based on unfounded claims for the precision and accuracy of the social sciences. When somebody claims to be doing something because of managerial expertise, you can be sure they are really disguising their own desire or arbitrary preference, just the same as if they claimed to be fulfilling the will of god, maximizing utility, or respecting inalienable human rights.
Nonetheless, the contemporary vision of the world is bureaucratically Weberian — Max Weber mixed with Erving Goffman.
MacIntyre says that we are like the Pacific islanders who had taboos they could not explain to the explorers who visited them. Whatever reasons originally led to the establishment of the taboos had vanished, so all they could do to explain their odd customs was to say, “but to do otherwise would be taboo.” MacIntyre says that Kamehameha II could abolish the taboo system abruptly and by fiat precisely because it had no foundation anymore.
(I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s recollection of Nazi Germany: “…the few rules and standards according to which men used to tell right from wrong, and which were invoked to judge or justify others and themselves, and whose validity were supposed to be self-evident to every sane person either as a part of divine or of natural law.… without much notice… collapsed almost overnight, and then it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.”)
MacIntyre says that Nietzsche was our Kamehameha. Nietzsche thought he was abolishing morality, but in fact, MacIntyre says, he was only pointing out the futility of the enlightenment project of rationally justifying the fragmentary remnants of classical ethics — our taboos.
If the classical ethical philosopher asked “what sort of person am I to become, and how?” the modern ethical philosopher asked “what taboos must I follow, and why?” It was a doomed project, because the taboos had become dislodged from their justifications, and the whole framework in which those justifications made sense had been abandoned. The virtues became nothing but tendencies to obey the taboos, with the taboos being somehow more fundamental.
What’s the alternative? In the background of our moral philosophy, and in the virtues we sympathize with but don’t understand enough to be able to justify, is the ghost of an earlier and more coherent ethical system.
The characteristics of “heroic” societies are revealed in the myths of antiquity. In these societies, everyone had a purpose just by virtue of being born into a particular station in society with relations to particular people. Nobody is defined by their “hidden depths” or their inner lives, but by their actions relative to their roles; a person is what a person does. Morality and social structure are the same thing. You can’t “step outside” your society and judge its moral system in comparison to some other system. A story like a saga isn’t just a story about a life, but is a representation of a life that is already understood to have the form of a story. Virtue is what enables you to fulfill the role you have and to conduct yourself in your story.
This heroic background was refined by the Greeks in several ways: The tragedians (Sophocles in particular) focus on what happens when the moral system produces contradictions. A person has two contradictory ethical obligations that cannot be reconciled and the tragedy that results is just that there is no right way to proceed. The Sophists insist that virtues are relative, and the right way to proceed is whatever gets you what you’re after. Plato, and later Aristotle, hoped to show that the virtues don’t actually conflict and aren’t as flimsy as the Sophists would have it.
MacIntyre next recaps The Nicomachean Ethics. But he points out problems with trying to bring Aristotle’s ethics into the modern era. For one thing, they require a telos for human beings, but Aristotle's idea of this was based on his now-ridiculous-seeming metaphysical biology. Also, if Aristotle’s virtues were closely tied to his particular society and to the roles available in it (as we have learned such virtues must be), how can these be relevant to us today? Furthermore, Aristotle views human life as perfectable — he thinks we can ultimately remove the conflicts from it; MacIntyre thinks it’s more likely that conflicts are more basic, and, like the tragidians concluded, are unavoidable.
Healthy, undecayed accounts of virtue have three things in common: a concept of practice, an idea of the narrative order of human life, and a moral tradition that develops out of these.
By “practice,” MacIntyre means some sort of occupation or activity that is deliberate and well-defined and traditional at least to the extent where it can involve internal goods — that is, rewards that exist only within the practice itself and not in terms of what the practice enables you to gain outside of it. For example, if you play chess well, the reward you get is the internal good of having played a good chess game.
External goods are more zero-sum, more the objects of competition. Internal goods are more about personal excellence; when we succeed in attaining internal goods, this tends not to detract from the good of those around us but to enhance them. MacIntyre says that a virtue is that which enables us to achieve internal goods.
This doesn’t mean that all practices are good. Nor does it mean that any practice and associated set of virtues is as good as any other (for that would lead us back to the same problem as our current catastrophe). When you see that life has a telos and therefore there is a practice of life, you see that life itself has its virtues — you can extrapolate from your idea of the internal rewards of a practice to the idea of The Good in life as a whole. In this way the idea of a practice and the understanding of the narrative nature of human life lead to the development of a coherent moral tradition.
The modern view of life makes this difficult. Life is divided into stages and further into roles (“work-life” and “home-life” for instance), and we are encouraged to view behaviors atomistically rather than seeing our lives as unified and ourselves as engaged in large-scale narratives.
But human activity is intelligible and our actions are within a narrative context. An action isn’t just part of a narrative but is part of many narratives from many points of view. These narratives are unpredictable (what happens next?) but that doesn’t mean they lack telos or that the telos is merely retrospectively assigned. The only way I can answer the question “what am I to do?” is if I can answer the question “what stories am I a part of?”
When you ask yourself whether or not you are behaving ethically right, you are trying to justify yourself. You justify yourself by accounting for your behavior, that is to say, telling its story, putting it in a narrative context complete with its telos. By doing this you create a context in which the virtues will shine forth as the sort of excellences of character that advance you to your telos.
The concept of virtue MacIntyre has described was destroyed, he says, by the cult of bureaucratic individualism that emerged from the enlightenment. Employees, for example, do not typically engage in a practice associated with internal goods (they are motivated by salary or other external goods); the typical modern person is not a practitioner but a spectator/consumer, engaged in what MacIntyre calls “institutional acquisitiveness” or “aesthetic consumption”.
Today, people in our culture are unable to weigh conflicting claims of justice because they are inherently incommensurable. John Rawls and Robert Nozick represent sophisticated philosophical justifications of something akin to popular quasi-socialist liberal and property-rights libertarian perspectives, respectively. MacIntyre notes that even if you accept either or both of their arguments as valid, this resolves nothing, since it is their premises that are incompatible.
(Interestingly, neither Rawls nor Nozick relies on the concept of desert, which is central in the popular versions of justice they are trying to provide philosophical support for. MacIntyre says that this is because desert requires a social context in order to make sense, and the thought experiments that Rawls and Nozick rely on assume atomistic individuals without preexisting communities or cultures. The popular notion of desert, MacIntyre says, is yet another remnant of premodern justice that shines through the cracks left after the catastrophe.)
Because there is no common ground on which disagreements can be argued, “modern politics is civil war carried on by other means” — nothing but power masked by rhetoric. But this is not because Nietzsche disproved morality. He successfully defeated the various enlightenment projects of justifying morality, but he left the Aristotelian ethical framework unscathed.
What to do about it? Our task in this post-catastrophe world, MacIntyre says, is to construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”...more
Well, I think I may be being baffled by Kierkegaard here. On the plus side, I think that this translation is much more readable than, say, the last ofWell, I think I may be being baffled by Kierkegaard here. On the plus side, I think that this translation is much more readable than, say, the last of the Camus I read. However, Kierkegaard is notoriously slippery — for instance in the way he uses pseudonyms to give plausible deniability to anything he asserts.
His schtick here is to suggest that there’s something beyond ethics — something that is of the same sort of pull on our behavior but that is less publicly justifiable. We can justify our deviations from self-interest by appealing to a Kantean universal standard, but Kierkegaard says there’s also a possible appeal to an entirely immediable relation between the individual and God that may justify any goddamned thing at all.
His prototype for this is the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. He goes to great pains to make this story vivid and awful, and succeeds to some extent. But every once and a while, I have to retreat from my suspension of disbelief, and at that point the whole exercise reminds me of those cheap op-ed pieces in which the author does the math to determine just how much effort Santa Claus would have to go through to deliver that many packages to that many children in that little time, and whether it worries the laws of physics that he does so.
The fact that the whole exercise seems to (biographically) have been a horrible post-facto excuse for a terribly bungled love affair doesn't make it more interesting in my eyes, but merely more pathetic.
I can’t help but think that I’m just not getting it on some grand level, and if I devoted myself to the pursuit of the rest of Kierkegaard’s more challenging oeuvre, I’d get it.
ADDENDUM: I made it through Fear and Trembling but gave up early into Sickness when I hit the sentence that read “The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but that the relation relates itself to its own self.” Life’s too short to spend it trying to unravel that sort of thing....more
A catalog of the various excuses people make for speaking deceptively, and an ethical examination of these reasons.
Bok thinks that there are some goodA catalog of the various excuses people make for speaking deceptively, and an ethical examination of these reasons.
Bok thinks that there are some good excuses for lying, but that in general people tend to be far too willing to justify lies and that the various reasons they give -- while they may be superficially appealing -- typically don't stand up to scrutiny.
For one thing, justifications for lies tend to be from the liar's point of view, whereas a good justification for deception ought to also be valid from the point of view of the person being lied to.
For another, even the more sophisticated ethical defenses of lying tend to only look at the isolated instance of the particular lie and its effect on the person or persons being directly deceived. Bok believes we need to also take into account the effects of the lie on the character of the liar, on the culture of communication and trust, and on by-standers....more
This is Wolfe finding his voice and his element and it's a good showcase both of the things I love about Wolfe — his curiosity, power of observation,This is Wolfe finding his voice and his element and it's a good showcase both of the things I love about Wolfe — his curiosity, power of observation, and wit — and the things I find annoying, such as his need to let you know that he's down with it all and above it all at the same time....more
Liked it lots, but I always feel a little gypped when a publisher puffs up what amounts to a magazine feature’s worth of words with a big font, generoLiked it lots, but I always feel a little gypped when a publisher puffs up what amounts to a magazine feature’s worth of words with a big font, generous line-spacing and margins, and some illustrations, to make it just big enough to put legible text on the spine so they can sell it as a book....more
Myself, I’m pretty satisfied with the orthodox interpretation of the Holocaust: roughly, that the virulently race-crazed, antisemitic, and murderous NMyself, I’m pretty satisfied with the orthodox interpretation of the Holocaust: roughly, that the virulently race-crazed, antisemitic, and murderous Nazi regime increased its bloodlust year after year until finally they had plunged whole continents into war and built an industry of mass-murder in which millions of people were gassed to death.
Smith believes that the jury is still out on parts of the story. He buys that the Nazis were wicked, antisemitic, and belligerent, and that they were bent on destroying Jewish culture in Europe. He isn’t ready to believe that there was a state policy to exterminate Jews, nor that Jews were mass murdered in camps by gas or any other means. He thinks that unreliable witnesses, testimony summoned by torture, and propaganda campaigns that were misinterpreted as evidence, have all been uncritically accepted into the historical record by a “Holocaust industry” that isn’t devoted to determining the truth so much as it is to building a monument (one that usefully justifies Israel’s claims to Palestine and to American obsequiousness).
I’m used to hearing these sorts of arguments from people who have a pro-Nazi or anti-Jew axe to grind. After having read Smith’s book, I don’t see much evidence for either one in Smith. Some make the case that there can be no such thing as non antisemitic Holocaust denial — that to deny the Holocaust can be nothing but an antisemitic act. And certainly if you don’t believe the Nazi regime carried out a policy of mass murder, this does tend to make Nazi Germany seem just one among many wicked regimes who inflicted war and suffering on the world — and not the supremely evil icon and Godwin’s law foil that it is today — which is perhaps objectively a pro-Nazi maneuver (though this stretches “pro-Nazi” a bit). Smith does say he hopes to remove the burden of what he provocatively calls the “blood libel” of the Holocaust from the German people.
People believe all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, and their motivations are often hard to fathom and not at all obvious. And people can be disingenuous or evasive about their motives. But part of the charm of Smith’s writing is how he shares his sometimes self-deprecating introspection into his own motives. If I had to guess from this, I’d say he’s not antisemitic, but mostly just ornery.
In the 1960s, he ran a bookstore, and was arrested, jailed, and convicted for selling Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. This makes him a First Amendment Martyr, First Class. When he now claims that his passion for “Holocaust revisionism” is based in his beliefs in free inquiry and free speech, he’s at least got that point on the résumé in his favor.
Smith doesn’t like being told what to think, and when he saw that the orthodox Holocaust story was something that was taboo to question — indeed illegal in some places — he decided he’d have to stand up for the underdog.
But not without some misgivings:
When you express doubts which others believe are evil, and which in fact may cause many individuals to suffer and to feel diminished and perhaps even humiliated, you have an obligation to act out of a good conscience and to value what can be called right relationship. Which means I must be a good man or the mischief and grief I cause by saying I doubt what I doubt will be gratuitous.
For me, misgivings like this would make me want to make damn sure I had all my facts straight before shooting my mouth off. But Smith’s conclusion was that he must be “willing to say publicly I do not believe what I do not believe, particularly when what I no longer believe relieves another people, in this instance Germans, of the moral burden of a specifically horrendous crime I no longer believe they committed.”
Myself, I possess no rock solid proof that the Holocaust happened as it is most typically described — certainly nothing that would convince Smith. But this doesn’t bother me much. I also have no rock solid proof that England exists and is not the result of “a conspiracy of cartographers.” But, as Smith himself points out:
There’s no end to argument. A new thought, new information is always turning argument back on itself. There’s no end to it. At the same time, you have to make decisions. Little leaps of faith.
Otherwise you end up treading water in a puddle of philosophical skepticism, or unable to choose between increasingly baroque conspiracy theories. As the saying goes, don’t have such an open mind that your brain falls out.
Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Smith wrote:
We know the airplanes actually existed. We know that the World Trade Towers existed. We know the airplanes really did crash into the Towers. There really were great fiery explosions. Immense columns of smoke really did lift up into the heavens. There were hundreds if not thousands of “eye-witnesses” to the same specific event. People really did jump from windows eighty and a hundred floors above the ground. The towers really did fall down. Are there going to appear “deniers” now who will try to dismiss the destruction of the World Trade Center as a hoax? Will they try to “revise” the story, claiming that the planes missed their mark? That the towers did not really collapse but are still standing? That there really was no deliberate plan to kill the people in the towers? Not likely. Very different from the “gas-chamber” stories — or don’t you think so?
Time has rusted this argument with a thick layer of irony. The various and weird “9/11 Truth” theories and theorists rival those of the Holocaust deniers in spite of the many living eyewitnesses, the photographic evidence, and so forth. It’s just one of those things. Some people think the Earth is hollow and there are folks living on the inside. Some think the world is ruled by alien reptiloid shapeshifters masquerading as such notables as Queen Elizabeth. Some people think they speak with Jesus every night before bedtime. Can you prove them wrong? — if you’ve ever tried, you’ll know better than to try again.
If you spend too much time amongst such people and your mind is sufficiently open, you too will come to realize that all of the proof that the world isn’t hollow and that Queen Elizabeth isn’t a peerless chameleon is remarkably shoddy and circumstantial. Furthermore, suspiciously few credible experts will give your arguments on these matters anywhere near the attention and respect needed to refute them — evidence, perhaps, that they are ultimately irrefutable. Before you know it your brain’s fallen out.
Smith went on spread the good news that the Holocaust didn’t happen after all. This was thankless work that didn’t pay well and exposed him to danger. He lost friends and was unable to contribute much to the support of his family. His writing career was derailed, as he spent most of his writing energy putting together words that no publisher wanted anything to do with. His Holocaust denial writing appeared as self-published newsletters or as paid advertisements and supplements in college papers (which, even as such, were rejected at least as often as they were printed).
His brain fell out some time ago. Now he’s a believer. He combs the minutae of eye witness stories of gas chambers for implausibilities with his skeptic’s hat on, but then credulously accepts the testimony of a clown like Fred Leuchter who concludes there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. His unbalanced standards of judgment show up most blatantly during his attempt to discredit Jankiel Wiernik’s writings about his experiences as a prisoner at Treblinka.
Wiernik, to save his own life, agreed to do construction and other work at the camp, while his fellow prisoners were being murdered — indeed, he says he helped to construct some of the gas chambers in which the murders took place. He later took part in an uprising in which he escaped, and he wrote of his experiences. After the war he testified in the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel.
Smith compares Eichmann and Wiernik: “Eichmann’s defense was that he knew nothing about exterminations in such camps and, in any case, he had been following orders. He was hanged in Jerusalem. ¶ [Wiernik] claims that he knew everything about the exterminations at Treblinka and moreover that he helped build the chambers in which they took place. His defense was that he followed orders. Wiernik survived Treblinka and the war and lived out the remaining 30 years of his survivor life in Israel as an honored citizen. In university English classes the professors call this sort of thing irony…”
It’s offensive and intellectually dishonest arguments like this that ultimately deflate the proud “free inquiry” balloon. The reason it’s called free inquiry instead of “free verse” is that it has an aim — one that requires intellectual honesty and a love of truth. Otherwise it’s propaganda, axe-grinding, or annoyance and doesn’t get to wear the same handsome clothes as “free inquiry” does.
So why did I finish his book? It’s a little rough around the edges but charmingly written for the most part. Smith himself is an interesting character, and the autobiographical and introspective parts of the book have a value of their own without reference to the whole Holocaust thing. And I’ve got an affection and some hard-earned sympathy for lonely oddballs who write furiously to cover some eccentric and mostly unloved subject matter....more
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The reporting is good and inspiring and seems well-researched. The book could have used a better or more persuasive editor, though, and the philosophiThe reporting is good and inspiring and seems well-researched. The book could have used a better or more persuasive editor, though, and the philosophical asides didn't add much to the story....more
This book is something like a conversation between philosophers taking place over three hundred years on the topic of evil. I've started to visualizeThis book is something like a conversation between philosophers taking place over three hundred years on the topic of evil. I've started to visualize this conversation, as Neiman reports it, as though it were a Facebook-like discussion, here: http://sniggle.net/Experiment/index5.......more