Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Tributes to Totalitarians

Anyone who remembers his American history courses in grade and high school – when American history was still being taught, because very little of it is today – will also remember all the glowing, adulatory accounts in standard textbooks of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. One encountered nary a disparaging word about them. They "saved the world," were "forward looking," or "ahead of their time," and "served selflessly" the cause of "democracy" and "social justice." These particular presidents appeared in those textbooks as squeaky clean, literal saints, and were held up as models of political and national leadership.

They could do no wrong, and if these real-life Dudley Do-Rights failed in their missions to reorient the electorate to be more easily led to moral adventures, the New Frontier, and Great Societies, it was all the fault of greedy obstructionists and other Snidely Whiplash villains in Congress or the Supreme Court.

Worse still, it was implied ever so subtly that we the people didn't deserve to have them as leaders. They were too good for us. We'd be punished for not living up to their expectations, for eschewing the need for "leaders."

And we have been punished: We got Barack Obama.

Wilson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy were not totalitarians, but their basic political agendas, at first interventionist and regulatory, are the groundwork for eventual total government. It was not for lack of trying. A statist principle cannot be applied only half-way, not in the long term. Sooner or later, if not checked and repudiated, it must be fully applied, across the board and over everyone and everything. As statist policies are implemented incrementally, the electorate must be made incrementally receptive to them, surrendering their liberties piecemeal over time in exchange for ever-dwindling but more expensive messes of pottage.

School textbook portrayals of historical persons are based on what respected historians have written about them. What students have read in textbooks about the forenamed presidents is but a thin gruel distilled from approving weighty biographical tomes and sycophantic histories of movers and shakers. And of destroyers.

Recently, Eric Hobsbawm, a respected British historian, died and received glowing obituaries in British and American newspapers.

Eric who? When I first read the surname in a Daily Mail article, I immediately presumed it was either a name borrowed by J.R.R. Tolkien for a character in his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or one invented by J.K. Rowling for a character in her Harry Potter series. Then, to my surprise and dismay, I learned he was an actual person, that he was an unrepentant Communist, that he taught history from the Marxist perspective in the best British schools, and that he wrote a number of histories from an unapologetic Communist standpoint.

Then I saw the Daily Mail's photograph of him. I immediately nicknamed him The Horrible Hobgoblin of History.

As he was revered, so were his books. At least they were in Britain. The New York Times ran a long article on him, while The Washington Post ran two, one an extended obituary, another a fond retrospective of his work.

A.N. Wilson, writing for The Daily Mail, enlightened me about Hobsbawm and just how revered he was:

On Monday evening, the BBC altered its program schedule to broadcast an hour-long tribute to an old man who had died aged 95, with fawning contributions from the likes of historian Simon Schama and Labour peer Melvyn Bragg.

The next day, the Left-leaning Guardian filled not only the front page and the whole of an inside page but also devoted almost its entire G2 Supplement to the news. The Times devoted a leading article to the death, and a two-page obituary.

You might imagine, given all this coverage and the fact that Tony Blair and Ed Miliband also went out of their way to pay tribute, that the nation was in mourning. Yet I do not believe that more than one in 10,000 people in this country had so much as heard of Eric Hobsbawm, the fashionable Hampstead Marxist who was the cause of all this attention. He had, after all, been open in his disdain for ordinary mortals.

Yet the nation was not in mourning. Wilson suggests that most Britons were left scratching their heads trying to recollect just who this person was and why well-known persons such as Blair and Miliband were shedding tears over his passing.

Unlike Wilson at The Daily Mail, William Grimes of The New York Times penned a nonjudgmental, praising article about Hobsbawm, subtly implying that if Americans hadn't heard of him until now, then they ought to have, because he was a very important person.

Eric J. Hobsbawm, whose three-volume economic history of the rise of industrial capitalism established him as Britain’s pre-eminent Marxist historian, died on Monday in London. He was 95….Mr. Hobsbawm, the leading light in a group of historians within the British Communist Party that included Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, helped recast the traditional understanding of history as a series of great events orchestrated by great men. Instead, he focused on labor movements in the 19th century and what he called the “pre-political” resistance of bandits, millenarians and urban rioters in early capitalist societies.

Grimes thought it apropos to quote an admiring professor of history from 2008:

“Eric J. Hobsbawm was a brilliant historian in the great English tradition of narrative history,” Tony Judt, a professor of history at New York University, wrote in an e-mail in 2008, two years before he died.  “On everything he touched he wrote much better, had usually read much more, and had a broader and subtler understanding than his more fashionable emulators. If he had not been a lifelong Communist he would be remembered simply as one of the great historians of the 20th century.”

To judge by Hobsbawm's political prejudices, had he not been a lifelong Communist, he might not have been an historian at all. Where's the fun in reporting and narrating facts? In discussing real causes and real effects? No, the Communist philosophy of history is to fit it all into a cockamamie ideology, and to dispense with facts if they won't cooperate. Very much the philosophy of Nazi history, and Islamic history, as well.

Christopher Hitchens, in a 2003 book review of Hobsbawm's autobiography, neatly distilled the author's life as others did or would not:

Eric Hobsbawm has been a believing Communist and a skeptical Euro-Communist and is now a faintly curmudgeonly post-Communist, and there are many ways in which, accidents of geography to one side, he could have been a corpse. Born in 1917 into a diaspora Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt, he spent his early-orphaned boyhood in central Europe, in the years between the implosion of Austria-Hungary and the collapse of the Weimar Republic.

This time and place were unpropitious enough on their own: had Hobsbawm not moved to England after the Nazis came to power in 1933, he might have become a statistic. He went on to survive the blitz in London and Liverpool and, by a stroke of chance, to miss the dispatch to Singapore of the British unit he had joined. At least a third of those men did not survive Japanese captivity, and it's difficult to imagine Hobsbawm himself being one of the lucky ones.

No, it is unlikely Hobsbawm would have survived Japanese captivity. He was an intellectual snob who would have been an abrasive fellow prisoner-of-war. As Wilson writes:

Hobsbawm came to Britain as a refugee from Hitler’s Europe before the war, but, as he said himself, he wished only to mix with intellectuals. ‘I refused all contact with the suburban petit bourgeoisie which I naturally regarded with contempt.’ Naturally.

Naturally, but not so inevitably. Hobsbawm must have witnessed the turmoil in Berlin and the street battles between the Communists, Nazis and other political groups vying for power in the expiring Weimar Republic. Spartacus, a self-educational blogsite connected with the left-wing Guardian, noted:

When Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933, what was left of Hobsbawn's [sic] family moved to London. He later recalled: "In Germany there wasn't any alternative left. Liberalism was failing. If I'd been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they'd become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you didn't believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed."

It must have been hard choosing sides in Germany then, one gang of thugs battling another gang of thugs, both gangs fighting for the right to impose their brand of totalitarianism on a whole nation. Hobsbawm must have tossed a mental coin and it came up tails: Communism. After all, the Nazis allowed businesses and industries to keep their property, if only to have it serve Nazi purposes. The Communists were more thorough in such an expropriation; they took it all.

Douglas Murray, writing for Gatestone, is just as scathing as A.N. Wilson in his appraisal of Hobsbawm:

A writer in the Times recalled the dead Communist to have been – "a man of deep intellect, humility and charm" – on his only meeting with him; going on to claim that the talent the man had shown had "superseded" the ideology.

I do not see how this could be so. This man's career was spent whitewashing, minimizing, excusing and stooging for some of the worst crimes in human history. Having been given ample years to recant his views, he resisted the call, instead holding them to the end. The system he supported prevented many people reaching even a quarter of the age he was fortunate enough to live to. But for him human life always took an – at best – secondary importance. The really crucial thing was communist ideology – surely, along with Nazism, the most bankrupt and destructive ideology the world has ever seen? Asked in a BBC television interview in 1994 whether the creation of a communist utopia would be worth the loss of "15, 20 million people," he replied clearly, "Yes."
But Nazism, or fascism, lost the coin toss. Communism lost it, too, at least in Russia. Murray hypothesizes:

Had he joined the Hitler youth voluntarily in 1933 and stayed inside fascist movements until his death; had he denied the Holocaust and said that the death of six million Jews and many millions of others would have been worth it for the achievement of the ideal Nazi state he would have died in ignominy. He would not have been celebrated in his life and he would not have been celebrated after death. Irrespective of any consideration of his works he would not have had plaudits from politicians of any stripe, let alone the leaders of political parties of the right.

Formal Communism is certainly dead. China has a "communist" ruling elite, which is more fascist than communist. Britain is nominally "socialist," but is governed by a kind of watered-down, kid-gloves brand of fascism subscribed to and disguised by both major parties. The United States has been creeping unopposed, yet ever so cautiously, in the direction of fascism ever since FDR's first term in the White House. The current occupant has deliberately albeit pragmatically accelerated America towards a full national socialist polity.

But, in the end, it matters little which brand of totalitarianism governs men, because the results are always the same: slavery and death and destruction. Historians like Eric Hobsbawm – and there are more of his ilk in academia, pale pinks and flagrant reds and retiring grays – give short-shrift to that slavery and death and destruction. They claim it's all part of a price to pay to shepherd the survivors – the meek, the humble, the morally lame and the halt – in the direction of that collectivist City on the Hill that is actually a prison built to save mankind.

Hobsbawm preferred one style of totalitarian architecture; Howard Zinn another.

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