March 13, 2008

Little Man with a Gun in His Hand

Wow, Nicholson Baker proves to be even more of a dumbfuck (would that be dumberfuck?, as Baker might once have asked) than I had begun to think (only yesterday, or really early this morning, see earlier post).

I just read about
his new book arguing that we should have appeased Hitler rather than fought him. Good grief, how does this kind of thing get published? It is one thing to be an idiot, but another entirely to get someone to publish idiocy. Being a darling of the publishers allows you to smear any sort of shit on the page

This seems to be an all too typical overreaction of the response to a terrible president like Bush. The angered and righteous all of a sudden begin to think the strangest things. The calculus seems to be "if the Iraq war is bad, then all wars are bad."

First Philip Roth went from being simply tiresome and overblown to, via his Bush hatred, discerning (in "the plot against America") proto-fascism in the US when in fact the opposite was extant.

Now Baker obviously has been drinking the wrong kool aid.

I am all for WWII revision and criticism of the American war effort and the many mistakes made, and so on. But just because the analogy of Saddam-as-Hitler is fatuous does not mean that the actual Hitler was not Hitler. The Hitler analogy is overworked in contemporary discourse, and calling all warmongerers and asshole "fascists" is overblown sophomoric stuff. But back in Germany in those days there really were men in shiny black suits cramming people into ovens and otherwise senselessly slaughtering millions of people, and they really did need to be destroyed totally.

One thing that seems to set Baker's book apart is that he doesn't bother to deal with evidence and proof, such a historian might, but instead seems to prefer just making it up as he goes along, stringing together anecdotes and, one senses, nodding sagely as he does it.

Here is how one reviewer characterized it:

With a novelist's preference for the dramatic and immediate, Mr. Baker
takes most of his examples from published newspaper stories, or else from
diaries and correspondence. In fact, it was his much-publicized devotion to
newspapers — he created a personal archive to save old issues that libraries
threw away — that led Mr. Baker to write the book in the first place. As he told
a New York Times reporter recently, "Over and over again I would take out the
five most important books on X subject, and then I'd go back to the New York
Times, and by God, the story that was written the day after was by far the best
source. Those reporters were writing with everything in the right
But how does Mr. Baker know what the right perspective was?
Since when is a reporter more knowledgeable than a historian, or foresight more
accurate than hindsight? What Mr. Baker really means, one suspects, is that old
newspapers offer a sense of contingency, of different possible futures, that
histories do not. But read without a historian's judgment and knowledge, old
clippings simply reproduce old errors.

Mr. Baker is especially fond, for instance, of stories about heroic pacifists who made dire prophecies about what would happen if America went to war. He quotes Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, the only member of Congress to vote against American participation in both world wars, speaking at a rally at Town Hall in Manhattan in April 1941: "You cannot have war and democracy; you cannot have war and liberty." Mr. Baker admires Rankin, and clearly wants this message to echo resonantly. But if we take a moment to think about it, it is obvious that Rankin was exactly wrong. America had war, and still had democracy and liberty. What's more, if America had not entered the war, there would have been far less liberty in the world than there was after Germany's defeat.

It does not take much thought to puncture Rankin's slogan; but thought is just what Mr. Baker's montage-method discourages. He gives us disconnected factoids, portentous with implications, but does not give us the means to decide whether the implications are correct. Using omission and juxtaposition in place of narrative allows him to distort the real sequence of events — as when he allows the reader to imagine that America sold weapons to China for aggressive purposes, rather than to assist China in resisting Japanese invasion; or when he implies that, if Britain had made peace with Hitler in 1941, Nazi aggression would have ceased.

This technique is never more delusive than when Mr. Baker seems to take Nazi propaganda at face value. In September 1941, when the mayor of Hanover deported the city's Jews "to the East" — code for extermination — he gave as an excuse the shortage of housing caused by British bombing. "In order to relieve the distressed situation caused by the war," the mayor announced, "I see myself compelled immediately to narrow down the space available to Jews in the city." That this was a transparent and shameless lie, of a piece with all the Nazi "justifications" for their persecution of Jews — that by September 1941 the genocide of the Jews was already well advanced, and the "final solution" a matter of implicit if not yet explicit Nazi policy — cannot emerge in Mr. Baker's uncritical account. Indeed, by reproducing Nazi language uncritically, Mr. Baker effectively endorses it.

This is never more shocking than when he quotes Joseph Goebbels's description of Churchill: "His face is devoid of one single kindly feature. This man walks over dead bodies to satisfy his blind and presumptuous personal ambition." This is so close to Mr. Baker's own vision of Churchill that he seems to be citing Goebbels as a trustworthy source — an impression reinforced when Mr. Baker writes that this little rhapsody of hatred was composed after Goebbels took "a moment to look searchingly at a photograph of the prime minister."

A book that can adduce Goebbels as an authority in order to vilify Churchill has clearly lost touch with all moral and intellectual bearings. No one who knows about World War II will take "Human Smoke" at all seriously. The problem is that people who don't know enough, and who enjoy the spectacle of a writer of apparent authority turning the myth of "the good war" upside down, will think "Human Smoke" is a brave book. Already a reviewer in the Los Angeles Times has praised it for "demonstrating that World War II was one of the biggest, most carefully plotted lies in modern history." That people who think this way about the past will apply the same self-righteous ignorance to the politics of the present and future makes "Human Smoke" not just a stupid book, but a scary one.

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