From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez

Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship

[Amazon Link]

Back in the pre-blog dark ages (mid-1980s or so), I read a fine book, Political Pilgrims, by Paul Hollander. It chronicled the voyages (physical and intellectual) taken by some Western intellectuals to the Communist world, and how they reported back glowingly about the wonders they found. The book was both ludicrously entertaining and damned depressing, I remember.

So I requested Professor Hollander's new book from Interlibrary Loan. UNH's crack library staff got it from UMass/Amherst, where Hollander is an Emeritus. (Given what I've read about UMass/Amherst, Hollander must be sort of a sore thumb there.)

To avoid treading the same ground as Political Pilgrims, Hollander concentrates about intellectuals' attraction to dictators, rather than to ideologies. There's some overlap, of course, but it's a fruitful line of inquiry. Intellectual objects of affection have included Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez, and a host of less-major tyrants. Hollander does his forensic duty, combing through the works and biographies of various Deep Thinkers who found these dreadful people admirable, looking for common threads.

It was not a matter of "charisma": although some of these guys had it (Castro, Hitler, Mussolini,…) others did not (Stalin, Mao, …). Instead, it seems that (as Hollander's subtitle implies), there's a bit of "worship" involved. A cult-like secular devotion develops as a replacement for more traditional religious feelings. (As Chesterton (never quite) said: "A man who won’t believe in God will believe in anything."). Some of the sycophantic quotes Hollander unearths in this regard are telling and (should have been) embarrassing. Example, I. F. Stone on Che:

In Che one felt a desire to heal, and pity for suffering. It was out of love, like the perfect knight of medieval romance, that he had set out to do combat with the powers of the world. […] In a sense he was, like some early saint, taking refuge in the desert. Only there could the purity of the faith be safeguarded from the unregenerate revisionism of human nature.

The intellectuals chronicled also seemed to be united in their hatred of bourgeois liberalism, capitalism, and individualism, which seemed "empty" to them (and, significantly, tended to not afford them the respect they thought they deserved). This found a natural partnership in revolutionaries striving to overturn the corrupt and decadent, replacing it with something shinily egalitarian and communitarian. So much that when such revolutions inevitably turned to terror, mass murder, and repression, intellectuals were ready with a panoply of excuses: it's all America's fault, the "good intentions" of the dictators must be respected, etc.

Intellectuals' sycophancy was also nourished by whatever camaraderie they could extract from the objects of their affections. Dictators obviously found such devotion useful, and did their part to encourage intellectual gullibility.

The book appears to have been lightly edited. Page 94 tells us of two "Noble" Prize winners, "Philip" [should be Philipp] Lenard and Johannes Stark, who were early Hitler cheerleaders. And page 166 contains a nod to Joseph Needham, who hailed Stalin "in the 1903s". I got these mistakes without looking, so it's safe to assume there are some more, hopefully none more significant that typos.

All in all, a fine entry in the educational/entertaining/depressing genre of historical research.


Last Modified 2017-03-27 6:59 AM EDT

URLs du Jour

2017-03-27

■ Proverbs has been hit-or-miss lately, either wackily incoherent or devastatingly on-target. Let's see about 28:21:

To show partiality is not good-- yet a person will do wrong for a piece of bread.

I am not even sure what that means. The other translations on that page are not much clearer. Maybe something like this:

You might expect fairness from people as a matter of common decency; but, in fact, they'll sell you out, and they'll do it for cheap.

"There, I fixed it."

■ Last week I went on a mini-rant about the UNH/Carsey "study" that purported to show that the public's "concerns about scientists" might "undermine efforts" in public health (specifically Zika). Or, in other words: "those darned science-haters are gonna get us all killed."

Since then, I've been a little more alert for items in the same vein. One candidate is a recent book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Thomas M. Nichols. Here's a bit of the cover blurb:

People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

At Reason, there's a review of the book by Noah Berlatsky: The Limits of Expertise. Berlatsky starts off with a pretty good shot:

Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, is an expert on Russia and national security; he is not, however, an expert on expertise. His hand wringing about kids today is not grounded in a scholarly background in education policy or the history of student activism. He is a generalist dilettante writing a polemic against generalist dilettantes. As such, the best support for his argument is his own failure to prove it.

Ouch. I'll probably get around to reading Nichols' book, but not without Berlatsky's review at hand.

■ Steve Chapman (also at Reason) answers your unspoken question: Why Trump Can’t Fix Health Care.

Because he's not a dictator? Well, somewhat. The actual problem is, well, you and me. But also: them. As in the American voting public, who want (1) health care, but (2) not to pay for it. But:

You can't have it all. Our aversion to this simple truism has yielded a dubious achievement: Compared with other Western nations, we have more people without insurance, spend far more of our national income on health care and are less happy with our system. That's what you get when you resist fundamental tradeoffs.

Americans who want a solution that has no downside don't really want a solution. Not to worry: They won't get one.

Keep your fingers crossed for a "muddle through" solution. That's probably the best we can hope for.

<voice imitation="professor_farnsworth">Good news, everyone!</voice>. At Hot Air, Jazz Shaw informs us: AP style guide is updated to normalize “gender” as not being related to sex.

In terms of the Social Justice Warriors and their efforts to discard millennia of science in favor of gender impersonation, the Associated Press has taken a large and alarming step toward the normalization of such thinking. Their stylebook has now been updated with cautions issued to authors about being too old fashioned when referring to men, women and the gender definitions of our species.

The link goes to a Washington Times story.

I'm all for being polite and respectful to people who, for whatever reason, find themselves mentally uncomfortable with their own biology. But when ideologues attempt to leverage that general decency into enforceable dogma…, well you get things like AP Stylebook changes, and worse.

■ And our Tweet du Jour is from California's junior US Senator, Kamala Harris, pointing to her reasons for opposing Neil Gorsuch's confirmation to the Supreme Court:

Hey, I think that's our state's ex-Senator, Kelly Ayotte, over there on the left!

Now, the link goes to Senator Harris's op-ed in the SF Chronicle, and you can go there if you want. But the bottom line, the key phrase she chose to tweet, is that, ohmigod, Gorsuch goes by "legalisms".

Also known as: the law.

I'm relatively sure our own state's senators, being predictable partisan hacks, will oppose Gorsuch. One can only hope that their stated rationales will be as entertaining as Senator Harris's.