It's been half a decade since Nine-Banded Books published Samuel Crowell's The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes and Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding. I remember mailing copies to a number of highly credentialed historians and scholars, thinking it might stir up some interesting discussion. Turns out I was naive. Save for a couple of disarmingly kind notes from professors who asked that I not disclose their identities (fair enough), I heard nothing back from the Registry of Important People. That's the way it goes with these things, I now understand. It's like pissing in a lake. Censorship has become quaint in a culture overseen by nabobs who know well how to tend the line that others toe. At the same time, I'm quite sure that Sherlock has been read (there are hundreds of copies are in circulation and the PDF has been downloaded over a thousand times), and there are yet occasions when, apophenia be damned, I suspect the book has made this or that ripple, always just below the current. You're free to show me to the door, but I still have the key. This is a long game, freethinkers. Books matter.
The man who writes as "Samuel Crowell" is an unassuming intellectual peripatetic (or "loose cannon," as he prefers) who thinks and writes carefully about questions that provoke epistemic discomfiture and jarring insight. I am very pleased to announce that he is back on the scene with another big Nine-Banded Book on another divisive (if far less forbidding) subject. Yes,William Fortyhands: Disintegration and Reinvention of the Shakespeare Canon is -- ostensibly -- another book about the so-called "authorship controversy," but trust me when I tell you the lure flows deeper. As with Sherlock, I am convinced there is nothing like it in the relevant literature. I'm also resigned that it will be formally ignored, even as I set about the vainly hopeful task of mailing copies to a different coterie of highly credentialed historians and scholars. It's still a lot of fun, watching for those faint ripples. And for half the price of a bottle of Laphroaig, you're welcome to join me.
Anyway. What follows a new interview with my friend Samuel Crowell. I think it'll give you an idea of what's knocking around in Fortyhands, and why the book might keep you're attention even if you haven't thought about Shakespeare since high school. With no clean transition coming to mind, let me also take a moment to acknowledge the other folks helped to make the book happen. My absurdly talented pal Kevin I. Slaughter designed the cover, which features a wicked-clever illustration by the brilliant and hilarious cartoonist Josh Latta. Editorial assistance (or just plain proofreading) was provided by 9BB veterans Ann Sterzinger and James Nulick, as well as by the soon-to-be 9BB writer Anita Dalton. Thanks, everyone! I just want to smoke crack with my friends!
Read on, fuckers. You might learn something.
THE HOOVER HOG: This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and I don’t think there’s any question that he remains the single best-known figure in the history of English literature. Middle school kids who will never learn another name from the Elizabethan era are sure to read Shakespeare (or at least the CliffsNotes) as a matter of course. Common expressions and narrative tropes trace to Shakespeare, and his name and visage have passed down to us as a kind of shorthand for high culture. As someone who expresses informed skepticism about Shakespeare’s authorial stature, what do you make of this singular, towering legacy? What does “Shakespeare” mean?
SAMUEL CROWELL: What “Shakespeare” essentially has come to represent is the greatest writer of all time in the English language, if not the greatest writer of all time in any language. This is a formulation made by Thomas Carlyle in the early 19th century but it is frequently repeated to this day. Why was Shakespeare selected for this honor? Probably because the First Folio, that is, the first printed edition of the plays, is a very large and impressive body of work, indeed one of the largest in the English language until the great novelists of the 19th century.
When we look at the history of Shakespeare studies, it’s difficult to avoid the “authorship controversy” -- but it’s also hard to avoid the fact that many of the most outspoken Shakespeare skeptics have been “eccentric” characters, if not outright crackpots. Beyond this, I think it’s fair to say that the reigning academic consensus discourages doubt about Shakespeare’s primary authorship of the plays and poems attributed to him. Given this backdrop -- a dubious intellectual heritage and a guarded consensus -- how did you come to question what expert authorities insist to be true, or at least mostly true? Are you sure you’re not a crackpot?
Well, I happened upon the controversy in the mid-60s simply by coming across a copy of Donnelly’s Great Cryptogram that I bought for a quarter while I was on my way home from school. I must admit I didn’t really understand what the controversy was about, at first. I found some of his analysis valid, and other parts quite bizarre. But I did feel that he was on to something. Then a few years later I wrote a long paper on the subject for class, and my teacher hated it and loved it: hated it because I was questioning the Immortal Bard but loved it because I was making some arguments that were challenging for her to refute.
One of the reasons I stressed my long acquaintance with the subject is that most people who write on the authorship controversy begin by describing their “Road to Damascus” moment -- the moment when they realized that there were questions about the authorship of Shakespeare. Even James Shapiro, who is generally (but not entirely) a defender of the “sole author” school, did not realize there was a controversy until rather far into his career as a Shakespearean. But I never had that moment, and I’ve just considered the authorship controversy valid for as long as I can remember.
Another reason I stressed my long familiarity with the controversy is because I have rung all the changes of possible authorship, because, if you read this literature you will find one argument or candidate convincing, and then you will begin to see that your first flush of enthusiasm was illusory, and so forth. And, incidentally, I am not proposing to end the discussion; I am only trying to propose my general solution and to draw attention to someone other than Shakespeare, Bacon, and Oxford.
Still another reason I stressed the time element is because whenever I returned to this subject I found myself bouncing back and forth, and in saying that I want to stress that I haven’t studied this subject continuously. Rather, I would read a book, and then read a few more, then set it aside for five or ten years, then pick it up again, for a month or two, then put it back on the shelf, and so on. Meanwhile I was picking up books at yard sales, flea markets, used books stores, etc. because I knew some day I would return to all of it in detail. Yet each time I returned to the question I found my perspectives had changed, partly because of the accumulation of knowledge I had made, both in this field, and other fields, and partly because of my own life experiences. That is why it seemed natural to develop the concept of hermeneutics, but in particular, Dilthey’s idea of Erlebnis or “lived experience.”
So how do I know whether I am a crackpot or not? Well, I don’t. I can say that when I decided to study this problem seriously I assumed I would simply review the arguments for individual candidates and make some judgments. I did not expect to come to more or less the same answer I came to almost 50 years ago. That surprised me a little.
I think I have tried to be fair with the evidence, not putting too much weight on one thing, nor putting too much weight on something clearly spurious (e.g., there is no record of Shakespeare’s education so he was illiterate). That and the fact that I have been thinking about this for a long time, the fact that the alternative “bad” quartos are a real challenge for explanation, and finally the fact that neutral students have uncovered many cases of plagiarism, paraphrase, and false attribution with regard to Shakespeare, inclines me to think that I am not a crackpot, but in fact, on the right track.
In William Fortyhands, you note that most “anti-Stratfordian” theories rest on the promotion of a single alternative candidate. There have been many such contenders, some of the most popular being Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. I think one of the most interesting elements of your own work is that you reject this “unitarian” approach. Without going too far afield, can you explain why you think “Shakespeare was X” is a bad start? And if it is the wrong way to approach the authorship question, why do you think it is so common?
Well, the notion of sole authorship was advertised in the First Folio, and hence anyone looking for a satisfying global explanation will aim for an explanation of sole authorship by someone else other than Shakespeare. On the other hand, the attributions of almost every single individual play of the 36 in the First Folio have been questioned, or assigned to someone else, by serious authors who have not questioned Shakespeare’s “main authorship” (whatever that is supposed to mean), and such attribution issues have been argued for over 300 years. Today, there are many more scholars who are busy parceling out Shakespeare to other authors, including Thomas Middleton, and there are still others who are now assigning other plays, and parts of other plays, to Shakespeare, where such attributions had never been made before.
I think people prefer a single author explanation because they want to believe that such a person as a Shakespeare existed; again, a total genius who embraced the entire human condition, who could write voluminously on any subject in many different styles, and who was the greatest writer in history, etc. I think in general people are pleased to have such a totem, even though, in the late 20th century, it seems clear that the adulation accorded Shakespeare is somewhat on the wane, as we may note by the relative silence on the 400th anniversary of his death this past April.
The best way to approach the problem, I believe, is to read the plays and poems, and then to start reading his contemporaries and to find out as much as you can about them. Reading or watching or listening to all of Shakespeare, maybe even more than once, will eventually make you aware of the differences in style, verse, and characterization that tend to put any sole authorship attribution into question. Reading his contemporaries, on the other hand, is a great way to learn about their styles, their work in the theater, and their plausible influence on this or that “Shakespeare” play. Reading about the period also makes clear that collaboration on plays was a common method of writing plays in those days.
“Influence” and “collaboration” are gentle words. To play on a contemporary analogy that some will find inappropriate, we might imagine sketch comics or sitcom writers or Vince Gilligan’s story editors tossing off ideas and appropriating cultural themes in currency -- probably on a storyboard. The lion’s share of credit goes to the head writer -- or director -- but the creative process is more complex. Is it something like this that you imagine having taken place among playwrights four centuries ago? If so, doesn't this pose a severe problem for the notion that Shakespeare commanded a distinctive voice? Is it possible that scholars have been embarrassingly wrong to suppose that Shakespeare sounds like Shakespeare?
To take the second part of your question first, there is no shortage of experts who insist that everything in the First Folio “sounds like Shakespeare” and no one else. But others, notably J. M. Robertson and Frederick Fleay, have taken another tack, insisting that here Shakespeare sounds like Chapman, or Marlowe, or Peele, or Lodge, and so on and so on. The response to that kind of argument, advanced by the likes of E. K. Chambers, is that Shakespeare, when he was “experimenting” could sound like Chapman or Marlowe or Peele or Lodge, but he was still Shakespeare. The upshot to this kind of argument is that it cannot be proved either way, however much someone might like to. I recall when reading Robertson’s analysis of Henry V he went into a lot of detail not only suggesting which passages were by Marlowe, etc. but which passages have been overlain on top of Marlowe by other writers. It is an extremely boring form of analysis, and since it proves nothing, it has a problem justifying itself.
As to the first part of the question, how was any given play composed, that’s also a hard question. For example, we already know that there was collaboration on a number of non-Shakespeare plays, but it is hard to determine who wrote what; as Samuel Schoenbaum was fond of saying, we know that William Faulkner collaborated on the screenplay for the epic Land of the Pharaohs (this is the film where Jack Hawkins wrestles a bull bare-chested, where the priests mumble because they’ve all had their tongues cut out, and where Joan Collins in buried alive in the pyramid’s tomb), but it would be very difficult to determine Faulkner’s contributions.
I can think of a few ways that plays could have been written. In the first place, someone would write a play, missing some parts, and then others would come in and fill in the gaps with some dialog and long speeches: this appears to be the case with Sir Thomas More. On the other hand, we can have someone preparing an outline, or treatment, and then different scenes or acts would be written by the various contributors: this method is suggested by an existing outline as well as by the pattern of Henslowe’s disbursements. Finally, we could imagine someone writing the skeleton of a play and then a partner coming in and overloading it with heavy speeches: this appears to have been the case with Hamlet, especially when you consider the quarto versions.
When dealing with the quarto versions, and in particular the “bad” quartos, it appears to me that someone -- perhaps Shakespeare -- took someone else’s play and and cut out the extravagant parts, simplified the action, and filled the gaps with quotes from still other plays. If that is the relationship between the “bad” quartos and the Folio versions, then we have to decide whether Shakespeare wrote the Folio version first, and then the abridgment, or whether he took a play put together by others and then cut it down.
Yet another aspect concerns revision. Many insist, for example, that Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus, with no other hands involved. But we also know that someone was paid for additions before it was published, but what are the additions? The same argument is made for Spanish Tragedy, because we have documentation that Ben Jonson was hired to make additions. But today, there are people who are arguing, in spite of the documentation, that Shakespeare made those additions.
Storyboards would not be necessary, because in a play that would fall under blocking and it would be the director’s job (here, Shakespeare) to determine that and all the rest of the production elements. I know this is a frustrating explanation. But I don’t think a more complete one is possible.
What is the relevance of “nescience” to the study of Shakespearean authorship? Are there other scholarly domains where this concept is invoked?
“Nescience” was a word that Edmund K. Chambers used to describe the fact that there are a lot of things we don’t know about Shakespeare and about his writing career. As Mark Twain pointed out, all of the actual facts we have about Shakespeare’s life could be listed on a single page, and not one of those single facts directly pertains to the writing of the plays. (There is a separate category of evidence that supports Shakespeare writing the plays, namely, title page attributions, but this is actually not a totally secure category of evidence, as I discuss in the book.)
Because we don’t know that much about Shakespeare there is an irresistible tendency to make up facts about him, usually by working backwards from the plays. So, for example, we know Samuel Daniel wrote a long history, in verse, about the War of the Roses. And we can see connections between that and Richard II. So people argue that Daniel and Shakespeare were friends, and so forth.
Shakespeare defenders often make the argument that we don’t know very much about Shakespeare’s contemporaries. That is also true. But part of the problem is that the literary works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, in verse, prose, or drama, is almost completely ignored by those who write about Shakespeare. As I remarked in one of the footnotes, new editions of Shakespeare are always being published. But most of his peers haven’t been published in any kind of comparable edition since the 1880s, and even then only in private editions of, say, 250 copies. That is preposterous, and only goes to show the extent to which Shakespeare’s “genius” has been allowed to completely blot out the memory of his peers.
As to other fields, there is a tremendous amount of “nescience” in most of the humanities and social sciences; this is because, particularly in something like history, the record is nowhere near as continuous as we would like to think. The offspring of nescience is constant change, as each generation is bound to fill the gaps in the record in its own way, and that’s part of the reason interpretations change over time.
I think this problem of historical understanding is neatly captured in your notion of “Milkmaid & Bucket” reasoning, which you use to describe the gap-filling process that seems to come up when we are faced with discontinuity or uncertainty.
The idea of “Milkmaid and Bucket” goes back to the old fable, and I used it to describe a certain kind of reasoning because, first, I noted that tales from the Indian folktale collection, the Panchatantra, were popping up in some of my sources, as well as in Elizabethan literature, and that is where this particular story originated. Second, I noted that a lot of Oxfordians, and even Shakespeareans, were using the same kind of reasoning in their attributions. I only listed a couple of examples, but I could have listed several more. Usually the reasoning goes in the form of, If A is X, and B is Y, and C is Z, then ABC = XYZ. It’s a very slim conditional kind of reasoning and usually has no corroboration; I noted that Harold Love described something similar as a “chain of reasoning” and I noted that Dennis McCarthy’s argument for Sir Thomas North hinged on North’s translation of an Italian translation of the Panchatantra so at that point I decided to emphasize the concept.
Can you talk a bit about Shakespeare’s Will? The document is strange in a number of ways, but the absence of any literary bequest seems especially difficult to reconcile with our notion of Shakespeare’s literary talent and erudition. How do conventional Shakespeare scholars make sense of this?
Shakespeare’s Will is the source of three of the six signatures we have for Shakespeare, and this is its main importance. It also indicates, by way of an interlinear bequest, that the William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon is the same as the Shakespeare involved with the London stage.
At the same time, the Will has an unbelievably formal and even pompous tone, not the sort of thing you would associate with someone of Shakespeare’s reputation, which makes it somewhat mystifying, and not particularly satisfying to Shakespeareans. The Will also makes no mention of any books or literary remains, which is a much more serious and counter-intuitive matter.
Those who question Shakespeare’s authorship usually point to the uninspired text, the lack of any reference to books or papers, and the crudity of the signatures as proof against Shakespeare. Shakespeareans on the other hand usually explain the Will away by insisting that the absence of evidence for books and papers is not evidence for the absence of books or papers (although no one has ever found them). So in effect Shakespeareans insist that Shakespeare’s library is somewhere out in orbit with Russell’s Teapot.
Once again, Shakespeareans will say that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries left behind no remains. Actually, as Diana Price has shown, many of them did. And while most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries died poor and intestate -- including, apparently, the Earl of Oxford -- many of them left remains in the form of literary works that were completed by others or published posthumously, as well as other items, including various letters to others (which in turn would be among the remains of the person they wrote to, not among their own papers). But again in Shakespeare’s case, who died well off and with a Will, there is nothing, not even a note that he wrote to someone else.
You’ve already mentioned the First Folio, which figures prominently throughout your book. What is the significance of this text to the authorship controversy?
Normally (with a couple of exceptions) we attribute 36 plays to Shakespeare because that is the number of plays in the first collection of his writings, published seven years after his death, in 1623. It is universally called the First Folio, as opposed to the longer formal title. Of those 36 plays, 18 had existed in different versions, but 18 had never been published before, and that’s a crucial issue for attribution, because without the assignment to Shakespeare in the Folio, we would have little or no evidence to link these plays to Shakespeare. So that’s the fundamental attribution issue with the First Folio: Are these attributions, in whole, or part, truly valid?
The casual reader of Shakespeare probably takes it for granted that everyone, except for the “Shakespeare deniers.” believes that Shakespeare wrote all of the contents of the Folio, because that is what is implied by the introductory matter in the front of the book. Such readers would be surprised to find that Shakespeareans have been disputing several of these attributions for hundreds of years.
As for the 18 plays that were not published previously, the evidence that links the plays to Shakespeare -- outside of the Folio’s title page -- depends on evidence of play performance by Shakespeare’s acting company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later known as The King’s Men.) However, that evidence, where it exists, isn’t actually very strong, because we know that Shakespeare also put on plays that no one attributes to him, including Dekker’s Satiro-mastix and Jonson’s Every Man His Own Humour.
If authorial attribution isn’t clear-cut with reference to the First Folio, things seem gnarlier when our attention is turned to the so-called “bad quartos” and the problem of title page attribution. There’s really a lot of noise in the background, yes?
Just as half of the plays in the First Folio can be questioned because they were never published anywhere else, the other 18 can also be questioned because there are twins or doubles to many of these plays.
For example, there are different versions of Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3, different versions of Henry V, different versions of Romeo & Juliet, different versions of King Lear, and no less than four different versions of Hamlet. So automatically we have questions of who wrote all of these different versions, in what order, and why. In general, I don’t believe that Shakespeare would be rewriting his own plays, but many people do. Others think that the quarto versions represent plays that were remembered by auditors or actors, or re-written for touring purposes. However, in the past 20 years or so such explanations seem to have lost their attraction, so we are back to where we began: Did Shakespeare write different versions of his plays, and if he did not, who wrote the other versions? And does this not point to collaboration in stage writing, something which we know from other sources to have been the case in the Elizabethan age?
There are other issues as well. Some of the quarto plays do not list Shakespeare as author, some do, and then don’t, others are described as “expanded” or “augmented” from the “original,” which naturally raises the question of whose original? Moreover, of the 18 plays that only appear in the First Folio, there are also several twins, that is, plays that are similar to the known Shakespeare play, but not attributed to anyone -- for example, The Taming of A Shrew versus The Taming of The Shrew, or King John versus the Troublesome Raigne of King John.
Finally, there are plays that appear in the historical record but do not fit the Shakespearean timeline: thus we have a Hamlet that comes before Hamlet, a Tempest that comes before The Tempest, and a Troilus and Cressida that comes before Troilus and Cressida.
All in all the issue of secure attribution seems impossible to reconcile with sole authorship, either by Shakespeare or anyone else.
One of the unexpected pleasures of William Fortyhands -- and I hope this will be true even for readers who disagree with your interpretation -- comes through your illuminating use of contemporary references, novel analogies, and philosophical heuristics. We’ve already discussed the “Milkmaid/Bucket” sequence, but this is probably the only Shakespeare book that considers its subject through the lens of, among other things, Philip K. Dick novels and Beat literature. Was this approach by design, or is it something that came about more organically?
In the course of thinking about this for a long time, I would encounter various things that I thought would help elucidate the concepts involved, since I know from experience that we can understand an abstraction better if we put some clothes on it and put it into the physical world. Hence, things like Milkmaid & Bucket reasoning or Vedic Expansions or Beethoven’s Staircase were natural ways of physicalizing the concepts involved. Philip K Dick came up because I liked his concept of “Black Iron Prison”; I suppose I could have used Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” instead, but I thought Dick’s invention was more apt. I should also add the notion of a kind of false reality that is all encompassing is very common from Plato to our own day, and in particular in literary, critical, historical, and philosophical schools post-Marx. But I avoided more abstruse statements of the matter.
There’s another reason I used Dick’s concept, and that had to do with John Aubrey, who I chose to use as a frame to physicalize the concepts of hermeneutics and phenomenology that I would develop later. Remember that part of what was on my mind was that I had been following this debate for many years, and my thinking would change over the passage of time. I couldn’t very well recreate that in a book, but what I could do was try to approximate it by a kind of symphonic treatment in which I would return, and return again, to certain people, issues, and so on. In this sense Dick tied in very well with Aubrey so I used his concept in the book.
Other analogies had to do with things that were unsatisfactory to me in the original treatments; the description of the “University Wits” in most literature was, in my opinion, a complete misrepresentation of what these people were actually like, so I redefined them as beatniks to get a better flavor of their alienation and chaotic lifestyle. Having created the Beats, I then created “Generation J” to emphasize the difference between that first generation of playwrights and those that followed: I think there are distinct differences not only in terms of how they handle verse but also how they handle dramatic situations, humor, and above all, in their treatment of women. I did not explore all of these to the depth that I would have liked.
Some of the other concepts, e.g., Context of Discovery, Context of Justification, had been on my mind for decades and seeing some authors use this kind of reasoning in a reductive sense, and being aware that the so-called CDJ distinction was crucial for the notion of a paradigm shift, I included those also. However, I should say that I limited the concepts I could have used, or dressed, or told amusing stories about. For example, I chose to approach the issue of the “death of the author” via New Criticism and later hermeneutics, but I could have just as easily approached it through late phenomenology or Foucault, but I am by nature a common sense empiricist and try to avoid jargon as much as possible. There is only so much one can say about subjects and objects, although there are many many ways to get there.
I think there’s also a subtle cleverness in the way the book is structured, with important historical characters and events sort of popping up at the margins and then coming into clearer focus as the study gathers momentum. I’m not sure that’s the right way to put it, but the approach makes for a very engaging presentation. Was this approach part of your own literary strategy?
Yes, the presentation was deliberately plotted for a number of reasons. I knew I was going to introduce a lot of characters, so I used any opportunity to foreshadow an appearance. Certain leading themes -- especially concerning Homer or the Bible -- presented themselves naturally, as did various folkloristic tropes. The timeline facilitated bringing Aubrey and Marlowe back again and again. I also quote extensively from the literature, and that literature often makes obscure references to other things: I wanted to try to drop those “other things” into the narrative earlier. This is part of what I meant by a “symphonic” treatment, but I also hoped to recapture something of the turning and returning of my own long familiarity with the topic.
While William Fortyhands will be approached mainly as a study of the authorship controversy, it’s also a book that seeks to rescue the Elizabethan literary milieu from historical obscurity. What would you like for readers to understand about Shakespeare’s largely forgotten contemporaries?
As noted above, most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries have been completely forgotten; they may be mentioned by name here and there but they are simply identified as “minor contemporaries of Shakespeare” or worse, as “hacks.” But when you hunt down these other authors, you find not only that there were many whose prose and poetry was very similar to Shakespeare but you also find that virtually all of them were involved in writing plays for the theater, on an ad hoc, piece-work, paid-as-you-deliver basis -- yet their contributions are largely unknown, since collaboration and anonymity were both common. Not only that -- there is also extensive evidence that Shakespeare’s contemporaries were closely involved with the theaters and theater companies of the time, including Shakespeare’s own. It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see their contributions in the Shakespeare plays, and, indeed many scholars have seen such contributions by these contemporaries in the plays since the 1680s.
These were highly educated, talented writers, and people like Robert Greene, Samuel Daniel, Thomas Nashe, Michael Drayton, Thomas Dekker, George Chapman, and Thomas Lodge -- just to mention a few -- deserve more attention than they have received in the past century. The only exception is Christopher Marlowe, but he too tends to get swamped in the either/or arguments of Shakespeareans and Oxfordians.
One of the things I would like to accomplish with this book is to move the argument away from “who wrote the plays?” to a question of “how were the plays written?” and I am convinced that that is better accomplished by aligning the writings of some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries with the body of Shakespeare. And then, instead of creating friendships and relationships for which we have no evidence, simply to stress the links between those other writers and the given Shakespeare plays. We might have to abandon a Shakespeare pageant or two, but we would be able to better situate Shakespeare among his peers, to understand the ideas and writing styles current at the time, and finally to read some excellent neglected literature.
I should add that late in my research I found that Stanley Wells had written a book that addressed Shakespeare’s contemporaries in some respects (Shakespeare & Co.), but Wells is an orthodox Shakespearean so I found his treatment a little disappointing.
Perhaps the most common objection to Shakespeare skepticism is that it is rooted in elitist or “classist” assumptions. This usually comes up over the promotion of “noble” alternative candidates, which is understandable, but I think it’s also carried along by a kind of Horatio Alger mythology -- because we are drawn to the portrait of a humble, autodidactic Shakespeare, a self-made genius of meager beginnings. To observe that he was an unremarkable student, or possibly even illiterate, strikes many people as not merely wrong, but deeply offensive. What do you make of this?
I don’t think the tendency for people to insist on noble authorship is rooted in classist or elitist assumptions, because when you go back to the earliest advocates of alternative candidates there doesn’t seem to be any aristocratic, classist, or elitist agenda. I think the fundamental assumption is that all of the plays were written by one person. If you add to that the ostentatious learning in some of the plays, along with the presumption of anonymity, one then has a profile of someone who had enormous leisure to both learn and write, but who, at the same time, wanted to remain anonymous. Phrased that way, a nobleman or noblewoman who did not want to be outed as a writer seems a natural intuition.
That idea gains support when you find that there is evidence that there was speculation about hidden noble contributions to literature at the time. The notion existed, probably because Elizabethan England was something of a surveillance state, and that helps foster paranoia. But the existence of the notion doesn’t mean it had strong roots in reality.
I think the main reasons why people propose noble alternatives to Shakespeare is based on a number of false assumptions. First, that plays were written singly, whereas the only evidence we have suggests that collaboration was the norm, at least until Ben Jonson’s folio. Second, that only nobles were educated, whereas, in fact, there were many highly educated people around, even people of common background, such as Marlowe, and the England of that time did make allowance for bright youngsters from poor backgrounds (which naturally raises the question as to why Shakespeare never received such an opportunity). Third and finally, the idea that if the plays were written by someone else, that person would have needed to remain anonymous, otherwise why hire Shakespeare as a front? And so again we are led to the conclusion that the only reason why someone would want to remain anonymous was because of their noble rank.
The reaction to all of this is to dismiss those engaged in the authorship controversy as being “elitist” or “classist,” even though there is a sizable literature arguing that Christopher Marlowe, the son of a shoemaker, wrote the plays. The Marlowe candidacy makes some sense because we know that Marlowe was very bright, had a subsidized education, and spent seven years at Cambridge, while Shakespeare had no higher education and was married with three children by the time he was 21. However, high profile candidates like Bacon and Oxford were noble, and that serves as the lead to calling doubters “snobs,” even though the vast majority of authors on the subject have been Americans, who simply do not have the elitist and class issues that are common in Great Britain.
Those that argue that a poor glover’s son could have written all of the plays are arguing from a laudatory egalitarian and democratic perspective, but I don’t think they even believe what they are saying, if they actually think that poverty and a lack of education are not severe impediments to success, let alone literary success. It seems particularly strange that any academic would want to argue that a university education is superfluous.
I would be remiss not to mention your more notorious acquaintance with dissident history, by which I refer to your previous writings on Holocaust revisionism (See: The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes). You and I both know that this will be seized upon by some critics to advance the notion that Shakespeare skepticism is just another brand of “denial” that can be dismissed and ridiculed without further inquiry. But as you discuss in Fortyhands, that idea is already a part of the authorship controversy. So let’s talk about it. What is the connective tissue, if any, between between Sherlock and Fortyhands? And what do you make of the contemporary intellectual habit of shaming unorthodox thinkers as “deniers”?
Well, “Denial” nowadays is largely an argument that someone isn’t accepting a particular judgment either out of bad faith or mental incompetence. Right away, then, “denial” involves a species of intolerance, in the sense that it does not allow one to question someone else’s firmly held belief. Actually Mark Twain recognized this over a century ago, when he wrote his own book on the authorship controversy, except that he phrased it in terms of “irreverence”: If we are bound to respect everyone’s sacred beliefs, then pretty soon we will have to solemnly respect, and refuse to question, everyone’s beliefs, and thus we will have not only the death of our personal freedom to say what we like, but the death of irreverence itself. It seems to me that this idea resonates with the way stand-up comedians describe performing on college campuses today.
The linking of “Holocaust Denial” with “Shakespeare Denial” has become fashionable in the past 20 years or so. Denial has also been extended to many other realms, including stem cell research, vaccines, autism, evolution, climate change (aka anthropogenic global warming), and many other things, so it has emerged as the go-to epithet for shutting down, or derogating, an opponent. It should be said that “denial” or “refusal to accept” a certain judgment is often due to a conflict with other beliefs (e.g., religion and evolution), or a contrary belief that is untrue (e.g., vaccines and autism), or it may stem from other reasons. And I think it would be wrong if we were to suggest that all public policy issues should defer to “reason,” when sometimes people clearly prefer tradition: the American English measuring system and the illogical nature of English spelling being two obvious examples. The remedy, in any case, is to respect your opponent. Try to reason with them in terms of what they accept, and see if you can progress. Nothing is achieved by name calling.
In my case, I have always thought that there was something to the authorship controversy, and I was happy to let it lie in suspense. On the other hand, when I discovered that there were questions about some aspects of the Holocaust I was quite surprised, but it wasn’t my field so I just assumed someone else would handle it. Later, when I found out that “questioning the reality of the Holocaust” (whatever that is supposed to mean) was going to be made a crime in Great Britain I decided to try to defend what I felt were the underlying historical issues involved and that resulted in The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes. I suppose the upshot of that book is not that the “Holocaust did not happen” but rather that some of the revisionist arguments had merit and shouldn’t be criminalized.
In the process of studying that issue, however, I found myself confronting a number of widespread beliefs that, under close analysis, did not have the evidentiary basis I thought they had. So I had to try to explain to myself how that was possible. My overall conclusion is that there are a number of popular beliefs that are not in fact very solidly grounded and that questioning those beliefs shouldn’t be declared off limits. Furthermore, the question of how these beliefs grow and hold sway, to say nothing of how they are overturned (many examples in the history of science), is very hard to explain.
As a result of this I have found myself more and more interested in issues of “how we know something is true” (epistemology). I had been reading on this general problem since my teens, but perhaps paradoxically, as a result of my study I have found myself more and more sympathetic toward those who hold alternative beliefs. This resonates with the authorship controversy because there is also a weak evidentiary base for some strongly held beliefs about Shakespeare -- this is the “nescience” referred to earlier -- and as a result there are a wide variety of alternative explanations. Many of these alternative explanations, even if wrong, can be very illuminating in other ways.
My writings about the Holocaust concerned a vast human tragedy and I wrote under the threat of direct and consequential censorship. But the authorship controversy is nothing like that; it’s just a literary and historical argument, and therefore I was able to be a bit more relaxed in my handling of the subject. Following up on the various philosophical, literary, and epistemological issues is also an ongoing process of discovery, and self discovery. If I conclude by summarizing a number of psychological and rational traps that people fall into when attempting to explain the inexplicable, I do not mean to exclude myself.
If our epistemic premises are subject to change and historical evidence is bound by discontinuity and uncertainty, it seems fair to ask what sort of evidence would convince you that you are, in some general sense, wrong in your interpretation of the Shakespeare authorship problem? You don’t seem to be anchored by an idée fixe (perhaps the opposite), but it’s a question I like to ask myself whenever I feel may have cornered something true.
Well, rightness and wrongness, in any form of study, is a matter of degree. The growth of knowledge and our more comprehensive understanding of things is not actually brought about by “smoking guns” or documentary “gaffes.”
The basic form of historical evidence is documentary evidence, followed by forensic and archaeological evidence. Nowadays, with scientific analysis, you could add chemical and biological (genetic) evidence. However, for determining the authorship of the Shakespeare plays, only documentary evidence will do, and the only real documents we have about playwriting in the Elizabethan era -- Philip Henslowe’s Diary, and the manuscript for Sir Thomas More -- both point to collaboration for plays, rather than individual authorship.
One theme that has habitually popped up in this field is that, if we could only find the manuscripts in the hand of a favored candidate that would solve the problem forever. Or, if we could find a book or books inscribed with Shakespeare’s name. Or, if we could find an authentic piece of paper with some writing by Shakespeare. As a result, those kinds of things have been discussed, and proposed, rather frequently. However, none of those things would solve the problem of the quartos, or the chronology, or the plays that are referred to before they were supposedly written, or the notion that several of the plays were written in the 1580s, before Shakespeare became active.
I think I have settled on an explanation that gives Shakespeare due credit, but which, at the same time, allows ample room to acknowledge the handiwork of his many gifted peers. That thesis is capacious enough that it is hard to refute in general, it really is a matter of how much of Shakespeare’s grandeur one is willing to trade off to put the spotlight on his contemporaries. As to “finally” determining who wrote this or that, I doubt that will ever be settled; it’s a little late in the day to find a Henslowe’s Diary for Shakespeare’s company, or a full manuscript of a Shakespeare play in an identifiable hand. And that’s fine: the authorship controversy is really about widening the contexts to make it possible to understand the plays, and how they were written, and that attempt will likely never come to an end.
I think “due credit” will strike some readers as disingenuous. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that your general interpretation is vindicated and the Shakespeare canon can no longer be traced to this singular fountainhead, to the genius of William Shakespeare himself. What then becomes of Shakespeare’s legacy? How are we to regard him as a human and historical figure?
My basic interpretation is not all that far removed from traditional scholarship. For example, while the ordinary layperson may regard it as axiomatic that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare,” the point of view is actually rather naive. For example, any serious student is aware that the plays are largely derived from other works, either literary or historical. On top of that, students who study the literature are also aware that the plays have numerous instances of paraphrase, copying, and plagiarizing from other works. Moreover, there is a growing school that argues, as was argued a hundred years ago, that significant parts, or even almost entire plays, in the canon were written by others. So my argument, that Shakespeare’s indebtedness to other authors, or the intervention of other authors in Shakespeare’s plays, is very extensive, is actually a rather modest step forward in terms of the arguments that are once again finding currency.
The difference in my approach is that while I see the First Folio as something of a compilation, I don’t think there was some kind of super-intelligence that put it together, and this is the main point that distinguishes my interpretation from those of other “groupists.”
I don’t think anything will affect the First Folio if it comes to be regarded as more a compilation than the sole product of one gigantic mind. There might be some diminution of Shakespeare’s status as the “greatest writer of all time,” but there should be, anyway, since there were a number of playwrights whose dramatic work was as good as almost any in the First Folio -- for example Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, or Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday.
Nor do I think Shakespeare’s posthumous career will suffer much, because there is no question that he was a very successful man of the theater, and very instrumental in the development of the dramatic arts not only in England, but by extension, the rest of the world. To say that he might not have written the words -- or, at any rate, not all the words -- does not dispute that he took the scripts and created the productions which were so popular in his time. This might be an overly sanguine forecast, but I seriously don’t think that Shakespeare’s accomplishments should be undermined because of the ethos of anonymous collaboration common in his time.
The same could be said for most of the alternative candidates. Marlowe needs no pardon. Neither does Lord Bacon. Indeed I have to question how anyone could claim Shakespeare even approaches Bacon’s intellect. The other noble candidates, including the Earl of Oxford, should be credited, where sufficient evidence exists, for their contributions to the English Renaissance. In the case of Oxford, I believe his contributions were probably very extensive, even if they did not involve a lot of writing.
I think I would be satisfied if the reader of my book came to the conclusion that the authorship controversy is a legitimate aspect of Shakespeare criticism, that addressing the controversy requires something more than a unitarian quick fix (“it wasn’t Shakespeare, it was X!”), that collaboration and anonymity were normal for the time, and that Shakespeare was surrounded a number of highly talented and gifted writers, who also made numerous contributions to drama, and whose known works should receive a revival of interest.
In closing, I want to bank off of your motivating question: “how we know something is true?” It’s a toughy, isn’t it? I frankly suspect that most people, most of the time, don’t have the predilection to wade far beyond the first page of Google results. Yet there really are so many enduring problems and mysteries -- in science, in history, in literature, and in countless other domains. And inquiring minds must choose where to cast a line. What’s next for Samuel Crowell?
Well, one of these days I am going to have to go back and look at the issues in philosophy and literature that I originally meant to focus on, that involves a number of German and Russian authors and philosophers over the past two centuries. I would also like to someday have something to say about Hungarian literature, since I have spent a fair amount of time on it.
However, my next project concerns an exploration of what I might call the “process monism” of Heraclitus and Lao Tse. I want to situate it in the 1970s, because a lot of what has been felicitously described by Sarah Perry as “insight porn” was published in that decade and the books I mean to discuss all rely heavily on very particular readings of Heraclitus or Lao Tse. But I am going to take my time on that project.
In the meantime, I think I will also touch on some other literature pertaining to psychology, epistemology, and some minor historical issues that pop up in my readings. But I don’t want to go into too much detail right now.
With regards to “truth”: There is a scientific method for determining “truth” and it is based on replication. However, that method is useless for the human sciences. I should say upfront therefore that I don’t believe that unquestionable truth is really possible, and I don’t mean to come off as a nihilist in saying so. One can reach a fairly decent approximation of what must be the truth, but to argue for absolute finality in truth-seeking is, if you stop to think about it, not something that anyone really wants -- because if that were the case we’d run out of questions to study in short order. What we can do in the meantime is attempt to correct or redirect each other’s arguments, and their underlying assumptions. And that’s the sort of thing I am interested in doing.
Samuel Crowell's William Fortyhands: Disintegration and Reinvention of the Shakespeare Canon may be ordered directly through the following sources:
Review and examination copies are available. Send serious inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about Samuel Crowell's work, visit his (soon-to-be-updated) website.
A Personal History of Moral Decay will remain available for sale as a physical book, but I am also making the entire book available for free. Click the image below to download your copy of the PDF. It's a very good book.
When the last parcel I sent to Lou was returned, I assumed I had gotten the address wrong. I'm bad about that. So I set the thing aside and made a mental note to check it against the information I had on file, maybe give him a call to see if he'd moved. I let a couple of days pass. Then I looked closely at the "undeliverable" postal stamp, at the box marked "deceased." Fuck.
I considered that it might be an error, but when I contacted one of Lou's few acquaintances the news was confirmed ("I'm afraid rumors of Lou's death have not been exaggerated at all").
Well, fuck. There was unfinished business. There always is.
Lou Rollins, better known to his small but devoted readership as "L.A. Rollins," was probably the least sentimental person I have ever known. When we were putting together The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays he sent me an obsessively comprehensive list of acknowledgments to close the book, but when he discovered that one of the people on his rollcall had died (I believe it was Samuel Konkin) Lou was emphatic that the name be removed before press. There was no point, he insisted, in thanking the dead.
I'm not that hardcore. Selfishly and pointlessly, I want to acknowledge Lou's time on this whirling rock. I want to thank his ghost for a few precious laughs, and for the shape of thoughts, now mostly forgotten, that he once inspired or ignited.
Over the past few years, Lou saw to it that the Nine-Banded PO box was perpetually stuffed. Seriously, it was with some now regrettable annoyance that I would unlock the copper-plated box to find another batch of hand-addressed, multi-stamped business envelopes bulging with news clippings as well as Lou's own satirical poetry, occasional essays, and -- the burden of it -- a seemingly endless supply of new or slightly revised material for a long-planned update of Lucifer's Lexicon. All of it was in longhand, scrawled with nary a spelling error on hastily ripped spiral notebook pages. I have the lot of it compiled in these giant three-ring binders. A teeming, taunting transcription nightmare.
The last piece of such correspondence with a legible postmark was dated April 16, 2015. Lou's body was discovered in his apartment on May 6. Call it from there.
I don't know the cause of death. Last I heard, the coroner was investigating and would share a report with next-of-kin. That's probably done by now. Could have been any number of undiagnosed afflictions. Cancer. Heart failure. Maybe a fatal slip and fall. I don't suspect suicide (or ISIS assassins), not that it matters. Lou was, I think, 66. By all accounts, he was a ruined alcoholic -- a devotee of what one of his friends described as "cheapest, most godawful rotgut whisky imaginable." He was a hermit. He didn't tend to his health. People die.
Here is a "Lexicon" entry that he sent a couple of months ago:
Death, n. A life going off, after having gone on.
L.A. Rollins received his B.A. degree in philosophy from California State College at Los Angeles in 1970, which happens to be the year I was born. Throughout the glorious decade that followed he edited and published a sporadic fringe-libertarian newsletter called Invictus: A Journal of Individualist Thought (Good luck finding a copy). As a freelance writer he contributed to a number of publications, including some respectable magazines like Playboy, Reason, and Grump, as well as some not-so-respectable (but far more fun) marginal outlets like Samuel Konkin's New Libertarian, Bob Banner's Critique, and, ahem, The Journal of Historical Review.
(Regarding that last one... Yes, I understand that Lou's straightforward -- and actually highly critical -- engagement with Holocaust revisionism proved to be "a bridge too far" for some otherwise amused readers. To me, it just made him more interesting. It's one thing to indulge in cheap talk about slaying sacred cows; it's quite another to wield the bolt-gun. Lou didn't think twice about this shit. And as for the prophet Muhammad, piss be upon him.)
So, Lou did that stuff. But I think it's a safe bet that L.A. Rollins will be best remembered as the author of two books, both of which were originally published by Loompanics Unlimited (where Lou worked as a copyeditor) in the 1980s.
The first of these, which would probably be better described as a tract or monograph, was The Myth of Natural Rights. Still notorious in certain circles, The Myth was a sharply honed attack on the moral and political concept of "natural law," especially targeting such rebranded iterations of the concept that figured in the writings of libertarian luminaries like Tibor Machan, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard. It's an underground classic.
Rollins' second book, Lucifer's Lexicon, took up the project of the Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary (albeit in a less universal key) to showcase Lou's satirical nous, aphoristic flair, and so much wicked wordplay. It was in Lucifer's Lexicon that Lou memorably defined "Libertarian Movement" as "A herd of individualists stampeding toward liberty." That's the one people seem to remember, but there were other good'ns. Here's a ripened batch, plucked more or less at random from Allah's stinky butthole:
Americanist, n. One who knows that America is the freest country on earth, but has no idea which is the second freest. One who loves the Liberty Bell, and resembles it as well.
Anti-Semite, n. 1. One who hates Jews. 2. One who is hated by Jews.
Belief, n. A fig leaf used to cover up one’s ignorance.
Cynicism, n. The sin of doubting the sincerity of hypocrites.
Doubt, n. The philosophical device Descartes so cleverly used to prove everything he previously believed.
Egoism, n. The only “ism” for me.
Fountainhead, n. The very best kind of head, the kind that Ayn Rand used to give to Nathaniel Branden.
God-fearing, adj. Afraid of nothing.
Happiness, n. A wild goose (disguised as a bluebird) which everyone has an inalienable right to chase.
Iconoclast, n. An axiom murderer.
Klansperson, n. A racist who is not a sexist.
Libertarian, n. One who believes in liberty, just like a Christian believes in Christ.
Lynching, n. An application of participatory democracy to the judicial process.
Marijuana, n. The hemp plant, whose leaves and flowering tops are exhilarating when smoked or ingested but which can cause a deterioration of mental functioning and a tendency toward paranoia in chronic non-users.
Nihilist, n. One who believes nothing is sacred, and venerates it.
Objectivist, n. A person of unborrowed vision, who never places any consideration above his own perception of reality, who never does violence to his own rational judgment, and who, as a result, agrees completely with Ayn Rand about everything.
Pedophile, n. One who loves children, as so many parents do.
Philosopher, n. One who grasps at the essences of straws. One who loves wisdom, not wisely, but too well.
Quaker, n. One who follows the lunar light into outer darkness.
Religion, n. A cult with clout.
Skeptic, n. One who doubts what he does not want to believe and believes what he does not want to doubt.
Time, n. Our mortal enemy. We’ve got to kill time, before time kills us.
Unanimity, n. Completely concealed disagreement.
Vain, n. A foreign domain in which many a soldier has died.
White Supremacist, n. An inferior white man.
Xmas, n. A day celebrating the birth of our Savior, Malcolm X
Yahweh, n. Not my way.
And my personal favorite:
Zygote, n. A human being, just like you and me. Hath not a zygote eyes? Hath not a zygote hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick them, do they not bleed? If you tickle them, do they not laugh? And if you wrong them, shall they not revenge?
That last one wasn't in the Loompanics edition; it first appeared in The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays -- the revised and edited collection of Lou's writing that Nine-Banded Books put out way back in 2008. I'm responsible for that one -- for the book, that is. I regret that I didn't do a better job of it. The layout is amateurish, and there are some ugly typos. Too bad Lou won't be around to see the next shiny thing.
Make the most of it.
I'm not sure what else to say. The last time I spoke with Lou was over a year ago. He was going on about Jesse Walker's book The United States of Paranoia. He liked it. He knew the history. He told me, not for the first time, that I should read something by James Branch Cabell. I made a note. He pointed out a couple of typos in Ann Sterzinger's novel NVSQVAM. I made another note. I encouraged him, not for the first time, to get a fucking Internet connection. He said the world had passed him by.
A few days later Lou left me a drunken voicemail in the middle of the night. He was belting out the chorus to "Eddie's Teddy" from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Key of Dr. Scott. Dead on, actually. It made me laugh. I never called him back.
Lou Rollins was a smart guy. He was a true iconoclast. He was a wit, a jokester, a drunk, a writer, a friend.
I'm not going to review or analyze David Roger Mitchell's innovative horror film It Follows. I thought it was very good. You keep thinking about it after the last frame. Even the flaws are interesting.
I do want to remark on the central motif. And to be clear, I'm not referring to the sexual contagion premise, which I take, for the most part, to be an intentionally distracting plot device that's economically drawn from genre vocabulary. No, I'm referring to the horrific motif where one is being stalked by a lumbering unseen malefic identity-shifting human-in-appearance entity. It sounds like something that's "been done" when I describe it that way, but no, it really hasn't. Not like this.
I found this to be authentically creepy specifically because it recalls with laser precision the content of a recurring nightmare that I have had since I was very young. I watch a lot of films (and I've seen tons of horror movies) but I have seldom seen something from my intimate dream life depicted with such weird tonal exactitude (an exception is the "Winky's Diner" sequence in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which I have elsewhere cited as an unexpected example of palpable Lovecraftian horror).
Being curious about some of the literary and cultural references in the film, I did some Googling and soon came upon an informative article that calls out a quote by David Roger Mitchell from a Newsweek interview. Here's an excerpt from the first article, where the quote is framed:
“The basic idea of being followed by something that is slow but never stops is from a nightmare I had when I was a kid,” writer-director David Robert Mitchell told Newsweek. “I would see someone in the distance, and they would just be walking very slowly towards me, and I would turn to the people around me and point them out, and they wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I immediately knew that this was a monster, something that was going to hurt me. And I would run away from it and wait, and then eventually it would come around the corner. I could always get away from it, but what was horrible about it was that it just never stopped. It was always coming for me.”
So it's not just me then. Seriously, that's my recurring dream in its exact form. It still visits me now and then, and I still sometimes wake in a bolt of ridiculous terror. Is this more common than I imagined?
Like I said, no analysis. I know this one is going to be discussed to death. I'm sure there are haters, and I'm just as sure that favored interpretations are going to get predictably stuck on the wrong stuff. I have my own tunneled notion of what It Follows is "saying," but while others go on about it being a wink-wise genre throwback, I wanted to record my strong impression that the scary core of the film is as thrillingly original as it is eerily familiar. That's all.
Remember a few weeks ago when I posted a reprint of my review of David Cole's Republican Party Animal -- the review that originally ran in Inconvenient History? Remember where, in my introductory remarks, I expressed mild surprise that David had not acknowledged the review? That was rather self-important of me, wasn't it? Yes, it was.
Well, no matter. Not long after the post went up I received a note from David. He explained that he had been set back by personal matters over the past year and that he was only beginning to regain his footing. He offered to submit a response if I wanted to run it. I said sure, that I'd be happy to post such a response. I assured him I would run it in long form, right here on The Hoover Hog where it's all but guaranteed to go unnoticed.
So I received David's submission a few days later. It's a real humdinger. Reading it through, I was reminded that David is a very smart guy, and a pretty damn entertaining writer. I was also reminded that he's the kind of guy for whom open debate is a full-contact sport. That's not how I prefer to play, but I set up the pieces and I won't complain.
As attentive readers would expect, David's rebuttal banks off of the substantive points of criticism that I raised by reference to a small section from Samuel Crowell's The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes and Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding (the Nine-Banded Books edition, which you can download for free HERE). While David has kind words for me, he's pretty rough on my friend Crowell. I suppose that's the way it goes with these things. Sticks and stones. It can only be useful, in any case, to have some criticism of Crowell's work on file since his book has received little attention -- critical or otherwise -- to date.
Am I going to reply to David? And what about Samuel Crowell? Is the elusive "negationist" (as Robert Robert Jan van Pelt dubbed him) going to fire off his own contrapuntal missive in rejoinder to David's rebuttal of my summary of Crowell's relevant argument in my review of David's book?
Speaking for myself, I think I will have a few things to say at some point. But not now. For one thing, it would be bad form. But I'm also very busy with other stuff, far removed from Holocaust history. I will say that I think David raises some interesting points. I think he is wrong to characterize Crowell as a "denier," but it's also clear that he's casting a wider net so ... whatever. I don't think he has stolen the show from those (including me and my pal) who, unicorns notwithstanding, continue to regard that remaining third of the extermination narrative with qualified skepticism.
As for Crowell, I gave him a heads-up. He said he may respond eventually, but he's dealing with personal matters of his own right now. He is also focused, as much as time permits, on finishing his next book, William Fortyhands: Disintegration and Reinvention of the Shakespeare Canon, which Nine-Banded books will proudly publish, hopefully later this year.
Oh, my. I've gone on far too long, haven't I? Yes, I have. This was supposed to be a one paragraph introduction to the invited remarks of an honored guest. I'm a bad host. I'll shut up.
Unicornville and the Holocaust Deniers
By David Cole
I was sadly remiss last year in not responding to Chip Smith’s excellent review of my book, which appeared on Inconvenient History. I’ve known Chip (through correspondences) for nearly twenty years, and he put a great deal of work into analyzing my book. What resulted was a very thoughtful, literate, and detailed review. I should have publicly expressed my gratitude, and responded to the section in which he examined my Holocaust conclusions, but the time constraints due to personal matters that plagued the entirety of my 2014 made that a daunting task.
Chip’s a good guy, and I want to express my gratitude for the time he put into writing that review. It was a genuinely good piece of work; I’m grateful.
In his review, Chip recommended that I take a look at a new (as in, added for the Nine-Banded Books edition) section in Samuel Crowell’s The Gas Chambers of Sherlock Holmes:
For what it’s worth, the relevant discussion is framed in the seldom-read fourth part of Crowell’s book, “The Holocaust in Retrospect,” where – I’m trying to save everyone time here – the most succinct statement of an “alternate explanation” (though Crowell would probably call it an “interpretation”) is advanced in the fifth section, “Aktion Reinhardt and the Legacy of Forced Labor,” beginning at page 339. Without wading too deep into the morass, Crowell offers a contextual reading of several key documents to support the revisionist position that “Aktion Reinhardt was about wealth seizure and SS control of Polish Jews, chiefly for labor purposes: It was not about mass murder.”
I devoted thousands of words last year to explaining my position regarding the “Reinhardt” camps. However, Chip is a gentleman, and, out of respect, I took a look at the section he pointed to (the rest of Crowell’s work I read a good long time ago). Please bear in mind that regardless of any criticisms I have of Crowell’s work, I’m glad that someone like Chip is there to publish those kinds of books. The world needs guys (especially publishers) with Chip’s dedication to free speech and open debate.
Having said that...
I can sum up my problem with Crowell’s conclusions in one word: “Brazil.”
Crowell presents section VII of a report that Globocnik prepared for Himmler (dated early January 1944):
VII. The office is considering giving to relocated persons a certificate of what they will have left behind in the way of houses, farms, livestock and belongings of which inventory may be made, without, however, making any commitment for an obligatory compensation thereof. The future will decide whether such compensation must ensue some day in Brazil or in the Far East. It is only necessary to give transferred persons the feeling that there will ensue, later on, an indemnity for possessions left behind.
Crowell’s commentary? “The missing paragraph (section VII) supports the idea that the deportees are still living. On the other hand, since Globocnik’s report also includes some discussion of ethnic German and Polish population movements, one could argue that this paragraph pertains to them. However, the reference to future compensation in places like Brazil and the Far East presupposes emigration, and therefore I am fairly certain that Globocnik had in mind the future claims of plundered Polish Jews.”
Crowell’s “fair certainty” that the reference to Brazil points to Polish Jews instead of ethnic Poles shows why his work is of such limited value. Crowell is not a historian. He’s a “Gas Chamber Guy.” “Gas Chamber Guys” are a unique breed of limited-purpose researchers who know nothing of the WWII era beyond a stretch of rebar and a sampling of mortar.
Gas Chamber Guys had their day. Thanks in no small part to me, we all know about windows and manholes and door locks and nonexistent blue stains. Great. But Gas Chamber Guys are worthless when it comes to examining aspects of the Holocaust in which there is no rebar to examine and no mortar for chemical analysis.
Back in the early ’90s, I was on the road to becoming a Gas Chamber Guy, and I decided against it. And now, like a former street gang member lecturing inner-city kids about the dangers of gang life, I’m here to tell Gas Chamber Guys that they’re on a one-way path to irrelevance. It’s a bad life, man. Leave the rebar and mortar behind and git yo’self an education! Be a real historian. Learn more about the big picture.
Because if Crowell had any knowledge of European history, he’d know that pre-war Poland had a policy of colonization in Brazil that consisted of sending ethnic Poles, primarily farmers, to create Polish “colonies.” It was seen as the only way a nation like Poland could get into the colonial racket (lacking the military might of, say, England). This was not a case of expelling unwanteds (i.e., the Nazis’ Madagascar plan for Jews). Just the opposite. The idea was to send Poland’s best and brightest to stake out land, much of which was purchased by Poland’s Maritime and Colonial League. So successful were these ventures, Brazil’s leaders began putting limits on Polish expansion, because they were perceptive enough to see Poland’s larger scheme.
By 1938, Brazil was tied with the U.S. for having the largest number of Polish immigrant “settlers” outside Europe. To this day, Brazil ranks second to the U.S. with the largest number of people of Polish descent outside Europe.
That Globocnik would mention Brazil in his cynical attempt to give “transferred persons the feeling” that one day, in the future, they’ll receive compensation for things like farms and livestock specifically points to the fact that he was referring to ethnic Polish farmers (who were being pushed out by ethnic Germans). To an ethnic Polish farmer in 1944, invoking Brazil would make sense regarding a future location where he might reclaim the livelihood and property the Nazis took. Crowell gets it completely backwards, because he doesn’t know history. He knows rebar like a sonofabitch. But history? Not so much.
Am I being hard on him? Sure, the same way I was hard on myself back in ’94, when I finally wrangled me a girlfriend who had an all-encompassing love of history, and I found myself sputtering to answer certain questions beyond door locks, windows, and fucking rebar. I stopped doing talk shows and lectures, and started spending a lot more time in archives.
Crowell’s inability to understand the meaning of the Brazil reference aside, there are other equally important things he misses about that Globocnik report.
In the “Brazil” section of the report, Globocnik is not speaking about Jews. Elsewhere in the report, when Globocnik does speak about Jews, he says so. However, in section VII he is referring to “fremdvölkischen,” a neat little term the Nazis used to refer to native people who were now classified as “foreign” in their own lands (an important semantic step ahead of the process of Germanization and colonization).
Even Graf, Mattogno, and Kues admit that the Globocnik report demonstrates the fact that “the resettlement entrusted to Globocnik was not limited to Jews, but comprised Poles and Ukrainians as well” (Sobibor, page 250).
Alright, enough about that. Next point? Crowell interprets the Korherr Report in a way that defies all logic:
The motive for the report: Himmler wished to present a short report to the Führer showing how the Government General of Poland was now free of Jews; that is the clear import from a comparison of the short report and the longer one. In the same manner, the number of Polish Jews remaining, about 300,000, corresponds precisely to the benchmark that Himmler indicated in July 1942 that he wanted to achieve by the end of the year. In other words, there was a powerful incentive for the numbers in this report to be cooked.
In other words, the figures of “evacuees” are high and remaining Jews low because Himmler wanted to “cook the books” to look good to Hitler.
That’s just asinine. The first version of the report, the lengthy, detailed one, was for Himmler’s eyes only. Upon receiving it, he specifically forbade it being distributed further. So, according to Crowell, Himmler told Korherr to phony up a report so that Himmler could read the phony report and then sit on it and show no one. That’s just loony. That’s as bad as the deniers who try to get around fully authenticated and very uncomfortable passages in Goebbels’ diary by claiming that Goebbels was lying to himself in his own diary.
There was an episode of Popeye, back in the Fleischer days, in which he encounters a lookalike. In a quest to see which “Popeye” gets to eat the hamburgers Olive Oyl has prepared, the fake Popeye tricks the real one with confusing wordplay, prompting the real Popeye to exclaim, “Oooh, I fooled me!”
This has now become a standard denier device. Whenever someone in the know like Himmler or Goebbels writes something privately or secretly that goes against denier orthodoxy, the standard response is to exclaim “he fooled himself.” Sad. Stupid.
In fact, Himmler requested the Korherr Report for the exact reason Korherr stated in the letter in which he acknowledged having been instructed to prepare a short condensation of the main report for Hitler. The goal was to report “which Jews are working for the war effort, which are in concentration camps, which are in the Ghetto for the Elderly and which are partners in privileged mixed marriages, so that the remainder are thereby available for immediate evacuation.” (Korherr to Brandt, 4/19/1943)
Clear enough? You want chemtrail skywriting to spell it out for you? The report had a goal. There it is. And, as is painfully obvious from that tell-tale sentence, the “evacuees” were not classified as Jews in camps or Jews working for the war effort or Jews in Theresienstadt or Jews with exemptions. As Korherr states in the long version of his report, they are classified as “departed.” The point of the report was to determine how many Jews not involved in labor and not exempted by age or marital status could be “immediately evacuated.”
Korherr is blunt in the aforementioned Brandt letter that it’s very difficult to get exact figures. If Crowell’s ambitious bit of nonsense about Korherr cooking the books at Himmler’s insistence is true, why show any concern over the difficulty of being exact, if the numbers are just BS anyway?
Common sense 1, Crowell 0.
Crowell’s other attempt to cast doubt on the Korherr Report involves the apparent fact that Franke-Gricksch found more Jews in Lublin than Korherr’s “estimated” figure of 20,000. Crowell needs to learn to read things a bit more carefully. Korherr quite clearly states that regarding his Lublin figures, “Not included are the Jews accommodated in the concentration camps Auschwitz and Lublin within the scope of the evacuation action.”
In other words, the fact that there were more Jews in Lublin than enumerated in the report is quite clearly stated in the report. That Franke-Gricksch found more Jews than Korherr “estimated” only proves the accuracy of the report and the honesty of its author.
By the way, the meaning of “Jews accommodated in the concentration camps Auschwitz and Lublin within the scope of the evacuation action” is an interesting topic for debate. Way more interesting than Crowell’s desperate nonsense about Himmler asking Korherr to cook the books so that Himmler could fool Himmler with cooked figures requested by Himmler for a report that only Himmler would see. I mean, that’s just nutty.
Korherr’s figure of “evacuees,” of “departed” Jews that are not accounted for in ghettoes, camps, work enterprises, or emigration, might be off by tens of thousands. But with a figure of almost 2.5 million human beings, take away even a few hundred thousand and you still have a massive number of people to be accounted for.
And deniers can’t account for them. They have no alternate theory to debate. I have made this point again and again.
So you know what? I’ll just turn Bradley Smith’s own language around on you guys. Bradley’s demand, repeated endlessly over the decades: “Where’s the budget? Where’s the budget for the Holocaust?”
If you think that the “evacuees” were sent someplace to be resettled, to be kept alive, to be fed, clothed, and housed for three years until the end of the war, where’s the budget for that? “Where’s the budget” is no longer lookin’ like a great talking point, is it, Smith? I mean, if you take nearly 2.5 million people on a one-way trip to being killed, the “budget” won’t necessarily have to be so big. I mean, you won’t have to take into account lodging, food, clothes, medical treatment, etc.
But caring for 2.5 million people for three years? Uh, dudes, there’ll have to be a pretty large fucking budget for that. And whereas it’s plausible to say that the mass murders during the Reinhardt period were paid for “off the books” because it was an operation so secret that Goebbels in his own diary stated that it should not be spoken of in detail, if the “evacuees” were treated with kindness and compassion, why hide that budget?
I guess I’m just sayin’, if you expect to see a “budget” for a secret and short-term murder program, why don’t you expect to see a budget for the long-term care and feeding of almost 2.5 million “evacuated” Jews? It’s insane to expect a budget for one and not the other.
So where’s the budget, man? Think of the expenses...food shipped to the “relocation town,” or “resettlement village,” or call it what you will (since it’s fictional anyway, I might as well call it “Unicornville”). Clothes, housing, medical supplies, sanitary facilities, running water, etc. Funny, but there are documents concerning the feeding and medical care of concentration camp inmates, and documents concerning the care and feeding of the Hungarian Jews sent to Auschwitz in ’44. But no documents, not one, concerning almost 2.5 million “evacuees” sent to Unicornville in 1942?
Not one? So the Nazis meticulously kept records of food (literally down to calculating calories, and literally down to Himmler suggesting meals for Hungarian Jewish women) and medical care for the camp inmates, but no documents covering the same concerns for Unicornville and its millions of residents?
Where are records of the shipment of supplies to Unicornville? Where are the records of the deployment of guards? Internal memos and coded transmissions about security concerns or black market trading (which we have for the camps, the General Government ghettoes, and the Ostland ghettoes)?
See, wherever Jews were kept alive, the Nazis kept records. Wherever Jews were kept alive, things like food, medicine, guards, security concerns, and black marketeering concerns were recorded. And no single camp would have had the enormous population of Unicornville.
Yet not a single document for Unicornville exists.
Shit, it seems to me there’s not one bit of evidence that Unicornville ever existed. Whereas, as I’ve painstakingly pointed out before, there’s plenty of evidence from contemporaneous documents that death was the ultimate destination of the majority of Reinhardt “evacuees.”
I am no longer going to debate the existence of Unicornville. It’s not up to me to prove it doesn’t exist; it’s up to the deniers to show evidence that it did. And if your point is, “Dave, don’t be silly. There wasn’t one resettlement reservation, there were probably several of them,” then show me proof of at least one Unicornville.
And thus endeth my lecture. So remember, kids, all you young punks who wanna be Gas Chamber Guys because you think it’ll earn you respect, esé, because you think it’s cool, pachuco, it ain’t, man. Cuz I was there, and I’ma tellin’ you, it’s a nowhere road. Stay in school, learn to read, respect your moms and your elders, and don’t try to kidnap Elie Wiesel. Peace out!
* * *
David Cole is the author of Republican Party Animal: The "Bad Boy of Holocaust History" Blows the Lid Off Hollywood's Secret Right-Wing Underground. He is also a semi-regular columnist at Taki's Magazine. His archived writings may be perused at his website, countercontempt.com.
I remember an old episode of the Dr. Ruth radio show where she read a letter from a man in his 50s who as still a virgin. The guy seemed distressed. He seemed desperate. Or that was the impression I got from her reading of his letter. Dr. Ruth's advice was to be patient, wait for the right woman, be yourself. She assured him that his perfect someone was out there and the magic day would come. It would be special, she said, and worth the wait. Her tone was friendly and encouraging and oozing with professional condescension, like she was consoling a coworker who had been passed over for a promotion. Hang in there.
No, I thought. Wrong. Very bad advice. Clearly, what this man needed was a whore. "My good man," I would have said, "you missed the gun. Now your virginity has become a guarded habit. Since you haven't made peace with your fate, the only way to break this habit is to pay for sex. If you are religious, know that your god will forgive you. If you fear the law, get your ass to Nevada. If you fear disease, remember there are cures at little cost. If you feel shame, get the fuck over it. Don't jerk off. Watch some porn. Let it build. Then go to the yellow pages and make the appointment. It's like ordering pizza. When she shows up, you can tell her your wife died and that you are lonely. Or you can tell her the truth. It won't matter. You don't want to die without fucking someone, do you?"
That was at least thirty years ago. I figure the guy's dead by now. I bet he died without ever getting his dick wet. A lot of men do. It's better never to have been, but if you're not so lucky, you should get laid while you're here.
When Dr. Ruth would get calls about anal sex, her advice was always the same. Lots of lube. Go slow. Vagina then butt and never vice versa. Respect your partner. Discuss everything in advance. Condoms. All bad advice.
A few months back I wrote a long review of David Cole's book Republican Party Animal for Richard Widmann's revisionist web journal Inconvenient History. While I work on something else, I thought I would post a slightly link-notated version of the review here, prefaced with a few remarks.
At the time, I half-expected that David might respond, but he never did -- at least not directly (he has written extensively in defense of his interpretation of the "Reinhardt" camps [Cole's scare quotes, not mine] on his blog, most notably here, here and here), though without addressing the documentary issues that, by reference to Samuel Crowell's work, I raised in my review.
I should emphasize that I don't read anything into Cole's lack of a response. Nor, for the record, do I read much into Cole's subsequent performance pieces where, for one thing, he turns mean on my pal Bradley Smith. I find such animosity, if that's even what it is, to be petty and unfortunate and frankly difficult to take seriously. I might as well make it clear that I also don't think Michael Shermer -- who Cole justifiably criticizes -- is a rapist.
Here's what Hoffman wrote:
I managed to find the time to read the well-written and generally fair-minded review of David Cole’s autobiography. I realize you do not publish letters to the editor, but a few corrections are in order.
While it is true that many revisionists do not engage in on site forensic investigation, the pioneer in that field is Ditlieb Felderer, who visited Auschwitz-Birkenau some 27 times in the 1970s, expertly documenting the facility in approximately 30,000 color photographs. The fact that this achievement is unknown or forgotten is troubling (most of Felderer’s priceless collection was, I am told, destroyed in the arson which razed Ernst Zündel’s home in Toronto in 1995. My video of a sideshow presentation Ditlieb gave in Ithaca, NY in the mid 1980s – “Tour of Auschwitz Fakes” – offers several dozen for viewing).
Moreover, it is news to me that Mr Cole inherited ADL double-agent David McCalden’s “files.” If David Cole read “everything,” then, unless the files had been sanitized by a 3rd party before conveying them to Cole, Mr Cole should have come across evidence of McCalden’s double-dealing (for the record, Mr. McCalden was not an Irish nationalist, he was a Scotch-Irish, Ulster “Orangemen,” very much opposed to the IRA and other armed manifestations of Irish nationalism).
Cole demonstrates affection for Ernst Zündel as a likable nincompoop. Such an opinion overlooks or discounts this writer’s book-length account (The Great Holocaust Trial), of the highly organized and brilliantly orchestrated first Zündel trial in Toronto in 1985, where Canada’s national media, with whom I shared the press gallery, were shocked and disoriented by the defense which Ernst, Doug Christie and Robert Faurisson were able to mount; including having, for the first time in recorded history, the testimony of “infallible” Survivors and august “Holocaust” historian Raul Hilberg publicly shredded in a court of law. Mr. Zündel documented his trials via video recordings of news coverage and daily de-briefings by defense attorney Christie in the basement of Zündelhaus. Some of this this can be glimpsed in my film, also titled “The Great Holocaust Trial.”
Ernst’s second trial, the huge transcript of which has been preserved and published by Barbara Kulaszka, documents the breadth and depth of his defense, which left virtually no stone unturned in doing justice to the revisionist cause and the defense of the German people.
Mr. Cole is a revisionist for the Millennial generation. His book will likely serve to reach new people who would otherwise be oblivious to the “other (revisionist”) side” of the chronicle of the Second World War. Nonetheless, I am old-fashioned enough to be distressed by the casual and sloppy manner in which Mr. Cole demeans men like Ernst Zündel and Prof. Faurisson, the latter having been the first revisionist to have been recognized by a head of state for his enormous scholarly achievement and who, even as an octogenarian, continues to inspire the radical avant- grade in France to high profile defiance and satire of the sacred relics that are at the heart of the religion of Holocaustianity.
Mr Cole will be a more effective writer and educator when he learns to moderate his frenzies and refrain from dalliances with the fringes of false witness. A bit more humility might have prevented him from misrepresenting, indeed even smearing, revisionists who have never recanted in the face of beatings, bombings and imprisonments which far surpass anything the Republican Party Animal has endured.
Fair enough, then. I think my take on Cole's semi-important book can stand without much correction, inasmuch as I was making generalizations to convey the author's often colorful and gossipy post-revisionist revisionist perspective. If I were given a do-over, I suppose I would make note of Hoffman's point about Ditlieb Felderer's early work (in my defense, I did note that there were "exceptions" to Cole's distinction as a pioneering field researcher, but the fact that Felderer's stuff was destroyed in an arson attack is important enough to have mentioned, even if the guy seems to have since gone completely fucking batshit insane).
Hoffman also correctly points out that IHR founder David McCalden was a Scotch-Irish "Orangemen" (rather than an Irish nationalist as Cole writes). So noted. I'm not in a position to evaluate Hoffman's claim that McCadlden was acting as a "double agent" for the ADL. Could be there's something to it, but suspicions of internicine double-dealing among revisioinists don't really interest me. I figure the rabbit hole is deep and gnarly and exhausting enough without introducing further layers of subcultural cloak & dagger intrigue.
I might also have found space to better emphasize Cole's substantive discussion of the Zündel trials, where he does a pretty good job of making the very points that Hoffman makes in his reply to my review. It's true that Hoffman's book on the subject remains important as a matter of record. But on the same front, I think Cole's book is also important -- and more likely to be noticed.
Cole's row with Robert Faurisson is more inside drama that doesn't much interest me. It's tooth-gnashingly personal and traces to specific events and marginally public contretemps, with, I think it's fair to say, ill-will on all sides. I happen to think Faurisson is a prone to rhetorical overreach and that revisionists are poorly advised to place him on a pedestal, but whatever. Again, I was mainly trying to convey Cole's somewhat jaundiced point of view. Faurisson has run the gauntlet over his long and strange career, and his position in the broader scheme of revisionist literature is, for better or worse, assured.
Concerning Hoffman's final point, I'm certainly not in a position to criticize Cole's decision to "recant." That decision was made decades ago, under credible and genuinely scary pressure. Having never been on the receiving end of a JDL-sanctioned death threat, I'm all about empathy here. I will say that for all his subsequent baiting and bluster, David Cole has remained steadfast in defending and acknowledging the sacrifices of revisionists who have been censored, prosecuted, and persecuted for expressing their historically and politically incorrect views. It's a travesty, not a contest.
Anyway, my original review, with a thin smattering of links added, is posted below.
by David Cole, Feral House, Port Townsend, WA, 2014, 319 pp.
Republican Party Animal is a layered chronicle of David Cole’s short but storied public career as a “Jewish Holocaust denier” and of his equally unlikely “second life” as David Stein, when he would come to play an influential role as an event organizer and Op-Ed dynamo among the guarded ranks of Hollywood conservatives before having his heretical past exposed by a vindictive ex-girlfriend. The dual biographical narratives converge in a morally conflicted tale of downfall and personal reinvention, of intersecting identities and of consequences wrought in the whirlwind momentum of a life less ordinary.
Cole’s telling is breezy, surefooted, and entertaining throughout; he gives the impression of a natural raconteur, punctuating his episodic memoir with revealing anecdotes, ironic observations, and self-effacing humor, all while providing the kind of sympathetic yet critical discussion of Holocaust revisionism that, coming from a reputable imprint with wide distribution, is rare if not unprecedented.
“I will most likely come off as an asshole in this book,” Cole announces at the outset. And while I suspect that will indeed be the conclusion of certain readers (including one well known magazine editor who has since threatened legal action), it isn’t mine.
No Country for Jewish Revisionists
Cole’s curious – and curiosity-driven – initiation into the intellectual quick (though never the dominant political culture) of Holocaust revisionism started off, as he tells it, “innocently enough,” in the late 80s as a capricious detour during his youthful adventures train-hopping political movements for kicks and edification. Being intrigued by IHR co-founder David McCalden’s category-defying ideological profile as “a militant atheist, an Irish nationalist, and a Holocaust revisionist,” Cole wrote to him asking for literature and information. When McCalden instead showed up at Cole’s doorstep in full-on confrontational mode (he thought Cole was “a ‘Jewish infiltrator’ trying to cozy up to him for nefarious purposes”), Cole assured him that he was sincere and there followed an apparent meeting of minds. Following this encounter, Cole read McCalden’s hand-picked literature and found it to be “[i]ncredibly amateur crap.” Yet he was left with questions. “The problem” he discerned, was that “mainstream historians would never address revisionist concerns, and the revisionists, for the most part, were sloppy and (mostly) ideologically motivated.”
Preoccupied, Cole soon went to visit McCalden, only to receive the news that the guy had died of AIDS, leaving behind a massive collection of books and private correspondence that, by default, fell into Cole’s possession. Whatever inchoate doubts or questions Cole had entertained about the standard Holocaust historiography, it seems fair to surmise that his “identity” as a non-dogmatic Holocaust revisionist crystallized in the months-long binge of immersive reading that followed. I imagine it was with some nostalgia that Cole recalls his underground education:
I rented an apartment with two stories so that I could devote one entire floor just to the books. And I read every single one of them, making notes, bookmarking pages, and indulging in what would become, in less than a decade, the lost art of reading hard-copy books without a computer in sight.
By the early to mid-90s, Cole would be riding a wave of public notoriety as an intrepid, Hollywood-bred independent researcher and documentary filmmaker making the rounds on daytime TV talk shows professing informed skepticism about the received history of the Holocaust. In those days, which I remember too well, Cole could be seen alongside IHR spokesman Mark Weber on the Montel Williams Show (where, in an ironic twist recounted in Republican Party Animal, his appearance led to the reunion of two Holocaust survivors – brothers who had lost contact after the war, each assuming the worst about the other’s fate). He appeared with CODOH founder Bradley Smith and Skeptic editor Michael Shermer on a rather tense episode of Donahue. He even went on the Morton Downey Junior Show, where he suffered the late host’s outrageous nicotine-expectorating spleen with pluck.
The first and most conspicuous thing that distinguished Cole from other Holocaust revisionists (as they were still referred to in those days, when the artifice of civility had yet to give way to the “denier” shibboleth), was, of course, the fact that he was, perhaps more than nominally, Jewish. Cole’s Jewish identity was at once a hook and a problem. On the one hand, his Jew-cred ingratiated him to many revisionists who understandably wanted, for the most part sincerely, to disassociate their work from the thick funk of anti-Semitism that surrounded it. On the other hand, the specter of a “Jewish Holocaust revisionist” rankled the guardians of orthodoxy for whom the public image of a Jewish gas chamber skeptic presented a dangerous rift in a carefully crafted Manichean narrative that had long served to marginalize and stigmatize – and across certain borders, criminalize – critical engagement with what I like to call “the other side of genocide.”
But it wasn’t all talk-show theater. Because the second, and ultimately more important, thing that set Cole apart from other revisionists was his knack for getting his hands dirty. He conducted – and documented – on-site investigations in the “Holiest of Holies” where the worst conveyor-belt atrocities were believed (“by all the best people” as Bradley would have it) to have gone down. Cole's groundbreaking guerilla Auschwitz documentary, David Cole Interviews Dr. Franciszek Piper remains a case in point. Rather than simply lay contextualizing narration over the usual stock footage of marching brownshirts and bulldozed corpses, Cole did what other revisionists, a few notable exceptions notwithstanding, would not – and to be fair, could not – do; he visited ground-zero and critically examined the physical structure of what was then presented to tourists as a homicidal gas chamber in its “original state.” Cole put questions to the museum staff and even scored a groundbreaking interview with then-curator Dr. Franciszek Piper – who, at little prompting, admitted what revisionists alone had long contended – that the “gas chamber” displayed to tourists as the genuine article was in fact a postwar “reconstruction” (though of course, revisionists would more likely call it a “fake”). While other revisionists buried their noses in books (which is, of course, important), Cole took matters into his own hands. He was inquisitive. He was tenacious. He was clever. And just as important, he had the testicular brass – and the “Jew face” – to go where others feared to tread.
To Phil Donahue, Cole was “the Antichrist” (seriously, Donahue called him that, to his face!). To professional “Skeptic” Michael Shermer, he was a “meta-ideologue,” or what we might now call a high-functioning troll, who reveled in the role of the contrarian, stirring up trouble “for the hell of it.” To revisionist king-of-the-mountain Robert Faurisson, he was a dangerous upstart, a loose cannon who couldn’t be trusted to toe the line. To Irv Rubin – crucially, the late Irv Rubin – David Cole was something worse.
Cole’s history with the man whom, from the other side of eternity, he describes as the “lovable and murderous head of the Jewish Defense League” began in a violent altercation when Rubin tried to shove Cole down a section of stairs at a 1991 UCLA speaking engagement. It ended, more or less, a few years later when a threat of mortal violence changed the course of Cole’s life. The pivotal turn – or plot point, since we’re in Hollywood – came in late 1997, when, for a variety of reasons, Cole had more or less absconded from his public dalliance with revisionism. That’s when, “[f]or reasons known only to him,” Rubin took to the nascent World Wide Web to place a $25,000 bounty on Cole’s head.
Evoking the lurid prose-style of a forgotten dime-store pulp novel, Rubin’s accompanying screed described Cole as “a low-lying snake that slithers from dark place to dark place, [spreading] his venom to innocent victims.” And when Rubin fulminated that “an evil monster like this does not deserve to live on this earth,” it wasn’t mere bluster; it was an incitement. Rubin had long been suspected of (and has since been implicated in) a number of arson attacks and fire bombings directed against revisionists and revisionist organizations so there was every reason to believe that he – or more likely one of his psychotic JDL lackeys – might rise to the task. Like the leader of some torch-wielding mob in an old horror film, Rubin wanted to kill the monster, not metaphorically, but literally. And he offered cash money to anyone who would do the bloodwork or provide information to make it easier. “This world would be a happier place, indeed,” the avuncular zealot declared, “when all the Jew-baiters and Jew-haters have disappeared, especially the most vicious hater of them all, David Cole.”
But the event proved to be fateful rather than fatal. There’s been a good deal of hazy speculation over just what happened, with some people, myself included, speculating that Cole’s subsequent “recantation” (such a silly word to use in the 21st century) was ghostwritten by Rubin and signed under duress, and with others suspecting that Cole’s public declaration might have been, if not sincere, at least in line with what seemed to be his increasingly ambivalent stance toward revisionism. The truth as revealed in Cole’s book, is shaded grey.
In short, Cole took the threat seriously. He considered going to the police but rejected that option because of the unwanted publicity it would entail. In the end, he opted to simply call up his bête noir and offer up an unequivocal, notarized recantation in exchange for his life. He wrote it himself. It was bullshit, of course, but it also provided a way out. A clean break from the public existence he had entered with perhaps too much reckless disregard for what might follow.
In Republican Party Animal he is clear that “The recantation was Cole’s ‘death.’ ”
I had already left revisionism, so I figured why not “kill” Cole, especially if it saves my actual hide. Once someone like Cole recants, there’s no going back. Your credibility is shot. If you try to recant your recantation, people will always wonder, “was he lying then, or is he lying now?” I agreed to the recantation not just to get the bounty removed, but to burn all Cole bridges. I knew that the revisionists who were already getting pissed at me in 1995 would truly hate me when they read what I gave Rubin. I wanted to “kill” Cole in a way that would make it impossible for me to go back.
But David Cole didn’t die, literally or figuratively. It might be more accurate to say that he receded, only to resurface as the script demanded. It remains an open question whether Cole’s ensuing life adventure resolves in measures of liberation and redemption or in desolation and ruin. Unlike a Hollywood script, life isn’t so tidy.
Toasting Team America
As the curtain closes on the first act, Cole finds himself in a funk, “limping back to square one.” When a fashion-mad actress-girlfriend leaves him spiraling in debt, he spends some time “pining and whining” before eventually moving on to some shady but apparently lucrative Internet business ventures where he cynically leverages his by-then-encyclopedic knowledge of Holocaust history to play “both sides” for what financial gain could be had. Having for practical reasons already adopted his new identity as “David Stein,” he invents other pseudonyms – “one to sell books and videos to Holocaust studies departments around the world, and one to sell books and videos to revisionists.” And the vultures, from both sides, take the bait.
Cole’s account of what might be considered his transitional phase is tinged with moral ambivalence and, ultimately, regret. “The truth is, I can’t defend it,” he writes at one point. “The only thing I can say is that after I was forced out of the field by the death threats of the JDL and the lies of people like Shermer [more on Michael Shermer later – CS], I had to emotionally divorce myself from the subject matter…. unlike my revisionist work, which I’ll still defend, and unlike my conservative work, which I’ll still defend, I can’t defend the period in between.”
Following this episode, Cole soon walks into another bad relationship, adopts yet another name (“David Harvey,” if you’re keeping track), and pulls off another death-faking caper, this time to escape the physically abusive clutches of a woman he now refers to only as “the Beast.” Then he goes off the grid, ensconcing himself in the beach city environs of El Segundo, where he soon becomes restless. Teaming up with a fellow film editor referred to as “Fat Frank,” Cole eventually re-enters his old turf to do some shadow revisionist – or quasi-revisionist – work, shooting a still-unreleased interview with Mel Gibson’s dad (!), making a short documentary about the persecution of Ernst Zündel and Germar Rudolf, and ghostwriting an important free-speech manifesto entitled “Historians Behind Bars.”
In the course of “one thing leads to another,” Cole’s friendship with Fat Frank leads to a friendship with actor Larry Thomas, best known for his role as the “Soup Nazi” on Seinfeld, which leads to a relationship with a blonde vixen, which leads to a bout with erectile dysfunction, which leads, fatefully, to yet another bad bet romance, this time with a “six-foot-tall redhead with an amazingly big smile” named Rosie – the actress-model who would eventually play a key role in blowing David Stein’s cover. If Republican Party Animal were film noir, I guess Rosie would get billing as the femme fatale – except that by most accounts she was bad news from the start. One inescapable conclusion to be gleaned from Republican Party Animal is that David Cole has abominably bad judgment when it comes to the ladies.
While Cole’s introduction to revisionism is clearly delineated in Republican Party Animal, it is somewhat less clear how he came to identify as a “South Park conservative.” He provides a hint that the Left’s shambolic response to the end of the Cold War in 1989 might have been a germinal factor, but it is almost in passing that he mentions, in a prelude to a discussion of his involvement (working with the legendary Budd Schulberg) in the restoration of Pare Lorentz’s 1946 documentary Nuremberg, that he had “over the years” somehow found time to pen a number of conservative (mostly anti-Islamist) op-eds for the L.A. Times under yet another “revolving series of pseudonyms.”
The lack of a clear-cut conservative origin story is a point of minor frustration for me if only because during my brief correspondence with Cole in the mid-90s, I had come away with the impression that he identified as a liberal. Maybe it was his abortion rights activism, or maybe it was his outspoken atheism (which he now disavows, also without much explanation) that tripped me, but when the stories broke about l’affaire Cole-Stein, my first thought was: David Cole is a Republican?
No matter, Cole seems sincere. “I don’t mind being defined by what I’m against,” he explains, “And I’m against the left.” More insightfully, he goes on to distinguish ideology from principle:
Principle is not the same as ideology. As an example, Islamism—the set of beliefs adhered to by Muslims who want to impose their worldview on others—is an ideology. But opposition to Islamism isn’t necessarily an ideology. It can be, but not by necessity. One can oppose banning women from voting or driving on principle. You can be right, left, moderate, or totally apolitical, and still, on principle, say “that’s a bad and oppressive idea.” The fact that I dismiss ideology and ideologues doesn’t mean I don’t have principles, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t care passionately about them. And, generally speaking, the right side of the spectrum, more often than not, reflects my principles.
Fair enough, then. Cole is a conservative as a matter of principle, not as a matter of dogma. He’s more P.J. O’Rourke than Russ Kirk. More Hayek than Rand. I get it. I even sort of agree.
The same hands-on approach that had distinguished Cole’s career as a revisionist researcher would prove instrumental in guiding his meteoric rise in the demimonde of Hollywood conservatives – or “Friends of Abe” as he came to know them. So successful was he in navigating this semi-secretive social network that after proving his mettle as a party organizer in various settings he would brand his own offshoot organization, the “Republican Party Animals,” hosting liquor-doused GOP fundraisers that were attended by outspoken and semi-closeted rightwing celebrities, pundits, and proles.
Cole took careful notes along the way and while I suppose his insider’s account of so many soirees and mixers will be chum for certain political junkies, I personally would have preferred more in the way of a sketch. As it stands, Cole’s reminiscences about this period of his life seem burdened by a surfeit of anecdote – too much detail at all turns, too much dwelling on interpersonal contretemps. But while I can’t shake the sense that a measure of time and distance would have advised finer editorial discretion, the truth is I have yet to read an autobiography that doesn’t suffer from this tendency. It may be that the occasional pangs of boredom I felt in reading Cole’s play-by-play can be chalked up to selective incuriosity. I felt the same way about Jim Goad’s Shit Magnet, and Goad is one of my favorite writers.
The Feral House promotional copy pitches Republican Party Animal as a kind of inside-politics-inside-Hollywood tell-all. And indeed, there’s scuttlebutt on offer if that’s your fix.
On the revisionist side of the aisle, we learn, or we are reminded, that David McCalden – the guy who played a formative role in introducing Cole to revisionist theory – was a sexual as well as intellectual outlaw who gave his wife AIDS (before dying of it himself) back when a viral load meant a one-way ticket to the morgue. We learn – or we are reminded – that Robert Faurisson, was sufficiently pinpricked by Cole’s ungovernable audacity that he huffed and puffed and spread rumors that Cole was a “World Jewish Congress infiltrator.” (Cole’s grave sin, incidentally, was to break with revisionist dogma by broadcasting his opinion that the Natzweiler gas chamber in France, unlike those on display at Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Dachau, etc., was the real deal, albeit a highly eccentric outlier in the scheme of the received mass-gassing narrative.)
Aside from such morsels, however, Cole’s recollections about his exploits among the maligned revisionist milieu are mostly reflective, evenhanded, and often fond. He gives David Irving due credit as a once-formidable narrative historian with a narcissistic penchant for self-sabotage. He expresses warm regard for CODOH-founder Bradley Smith (“we don’t agree on everything, but he’s a lifelong friend”), and his thoughts on certain egregiously persecuted revisionists (or, in some instances, “deniers”; Cole insists upon the distinction) are presented with judicious attention to the underlying free-speech travesty that somehow still eludes many outspoken civil libertarians. Ernst Zündel (whom Cole describes as a “denier,” again if you’re keeping a ledger) is a good example. Cole appraises the repeatedly imprisoned German-Canadian pamphleteer as a harmless crank who “really loves Hitler,” yet he channels Voltaire in voicing unqualified support for a man who has spent a significant part of his adult life behind bars, often in solitary confinement, for what can only be described as thoughtcrime. “I never said anything in support of his views,” Cole writes, “but I supported his right to be free from prosecution for simply writing a book, and I still do. On that subject, I’d stand with him again today.” Cole is equally resolute in his defense of Germar Rudolf (“revisionist”), a German chemist who was extradited from his legal residence in the United States to be locked up for years in a German cell, all for the “crime” of writing about blue stains on old concrete.
Turning to the celebrities and politicos on the other side of the aisle, Cole’s grievances are moderate and his gossip is less salacious than I would have expected. John Voight comes off as a harmless lush. Gary Sinese is a “mensch” with some unknown skeletons in his closet. D-listers Pat Boone and Victoria Jackson are unsurprisingly depicted as conspiracy-mongering loons. Clint Eastwood is aloof in a good way. Kelsey Grammer is aloof in a creepy way. David Horowitz is described as “a huge dick” who “reacts to a request to shake hands as most men would to a request to grab the penis of a rotting corpse.” There’s a blowjob story featuring Oliver Stone’s batshit crazy son. There’s a funny story about Michael Reagan’s war on gophers. And, yeah, it turns out that Cole’s deadbeat dad was “apparently” the doctor who served Elvis that fatal dose of Demerol. Gotta mention that.
You might think that Cole’s harshest score-settling would come in for Rosie and the Lolita-chasing neocon-cum-Disney-scripting hack with whom she tag-teamed to out David Stein as a Holocaust denier … in which case you would have another think coming. Because the dirtiest dirt in Republican Party Animal is reserved not for the people who exposed Stein as Cole (nor for Irv Rubin, the man who tried to have Cole murdered), but for an accused rapist (as Cole never tires of emphasizing, for reasons more subtle than they first appear) who has for some time served as “the media’s go-to guy for the selective skepticism of hipsters who hang out in coffee shops in Silverlake.”
Let’s warm up with a bit that made me laugh:
After Shermer contacted me, we hung out a few times. The first time I was at his house, he asked me if I’d like any coffee. I drank coffee religiously in those days (my pre-alcohol days), so I said yes. And Shermer proceeded to re-heat a pot of coffee that was stone cold, presumably brewed that morning, hours ago.
“Uh, can you maybe brew up some fresh?”
“No need, it’s just as good reheated.”
Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter as much as the big ones when you’re trying to gauge someone’s intelligence. Here was a supposed “scientist” with no concept of how fresh-brewed coffee gets worse when it gets cold.
Cole goes on to describe Skeptic editor Michael Shermer as “one of the most dishonest human beings I have ever known,” and he has the goods – specifically transcripts of recorded phone conversations – to back up his spleen. It’s little surprise that Shermer unleashed his lawyers in an unsuccessful bid to prevent Cole’s book from being published. What’s more surprising is that the man still enjoys his inflated reputation after being so thoroughly exposed as a mendacious opportunist who repeatedly betrayed and libeled Cole and who has deceitfully misrepresented his – and other revisionists’ – work at every conceivable turn. I won’t go into detail about just what dirt Cole has against “Shermy,” but I will say that his prolonged and hyper-documented animadversion is worth the cover price.
So there’s juice for those who come a-lookin’. Some of it may be petty, but some of it is well justified and even newsworthy. Still, I would politely insist that the “tell-all” aspect of Republican Party Animal ultimately amounts to a wink-sly bait-and-switch. Cole’s thematic gravamen, tucked between so much confessional digression and tittle-tattle, concerns the burden of conscience and a man’s abiding struggle to maintain a modicum of personal and intellectual integrity while inhabiting two worlds where cynicism and suspicion hold sway.
Cole’s story is thus laced with insight bearing on such threads of connective tissue that, moral equivalence be damned, unite revisionism with movement conservatism. When Cole dwelled in revisionist circles, he inveighed against Faurisson-branded “No holes, No Holocaust” rhetoric and pled for sanity against the seductive force of sundry conspiracy theories. When Cole dwelled in the world of conservative politics, he found himself in the same futile rut, taking pubic issue with Breitbart-branded trench warfare tactics and pleading for sanity against the seductive force of sundry conspiracy theories. “I’d rather gouge out my testicles,” Cole quips, “than accept the accolades of the lunatic fringe.”
Whether you find the tone colorful or off-putting will be a matter of taste, but I think Cole is especially good on this front. One of my longstanding gripes with movement revisionism (I pay less attention to movement conservatism) is that it blends too easily with rank crackpottery. The revisionist affiliation with – and tacit affinity for – various threads of wildly conspiratorial speculation may be understandable when we consider that respected World War II scholars have largely been driven away by very real threats of prosecution and ruinous public censure, but in the atmosphere that prevails under a black cloud of taboo the loudest voices tend to be the looniest. It’s an insidious catch-22 that in turn makes it only too easy for consensus-mongering guys like Michael Shermer to paint the whole project in broad strokes as a manifestation of hate-fueled paranoia. Cole puts the matter more bluntly when he notes that “[c]leaning up flaws in the historical record after a major event like a world war is not the same as claiming that all 27,000 residents of Newtown decided to fake a mass shooting.”
While I may not share Cole’s explicitly “pro-Zionist” views, it is thus without qualification that I endorse his stridently expressed contention that:
The people who think that revising the history of the Holocaust will somehow topple Israel are idiots. Israel’s existence is not based on whether or not there were gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1944. If, tomorrow, Yad Vashem declared that Auschwitz had no killing program, it would not make one damn bit of difference. Israel would be fine, because Israel’s Muslim foes don’t give a good fuck about historical subtleties. No one in the Muslim world is studying forensic reports, thinking “if I can’t find traces of cyanide residue in the Auschwitz kremas, I’ll hate Israel and try to destroy her. But if I can find the traces, by gosh, I’ll love and support her.
We are faced with a subject so clung up with emotive gravity that Cole’s elementary defense of disinterested inquiry is difficult for people to grasp, which is why it bears repeated emphasis. There is nothing inherently hateful or even political about revisionist research. This is fundamentally true regardless of what personal motives impart to individuals who persist in such research, and it is fundamentally true regardless of what political arguments or agendas may latch to such research. While motivated ideologues can be counted on to use revisionist scholarship as a cudgel against their imagined enemies, the underlying investigative project is simply and eternally a thing apart; it is an empirical and interpretive process that, once the fog has lifted, will be judged on its relative merits and deficiencies – the same as with other “problematic” species of skeptical inquiry, such as concerning racial differences or climatology or various aspects of human sexuality. Once this much is understood, it becomes possible to distinguish the substantive core of revisionism from the cranked-up clamor that invariably surrounds it.
Being wise to this difficulty, Cole anchors his own interpersonally fraught micro-history of foibles and resentments to the project of historiography writ large. A memorable passage taps the messy truth:
…in every massive conflict between nations you see the exact same things that occur in conflicts between individuals—the same jockeying and maneuvering, the same collecting and testing of loyalties, the same measuring of risk against gain. The difference is only the scale. I used to make that point when I lectured. Never elevate or excoriate historical figures to the extent that they stop being flesh-and-blood humans. Don’t make Hitler the devil, and don’t make the Founding Fathers gods. They were still human, no matter their impact on history.
Is the task really so difficult? I’m afraid it is. Humanity is long in the weeds, and we are burdened with heavy baggage. For all his sarcasm and ventilation, Cole ends up counseling humility before the big questions. Who will notice?
Gas in the Gaps?
Given his past investment in the subject, it’s a safe bet that many readers will be interested in David Cole’s present take on Holocaust history and revisionism. Although he expresses understandable reluctance about holding court on the subject anew, the truth is that Cole is never more in his element than when he writes about history. He’s attentive to detail and he presents his theses logically in clear language that stands in welcome contrast to the palaver-laden cant of certain professional obscurantists. He would be a good teacher.
Revisionism comes up at tangential and direct turns throughout the biographical narrative – significantly in “The Idiot’s Creed,” which provides a fascinating account of Cole’s “behind the scenes” interactions with a number of prominent public figures during his revisionist days – but Cole’s present views are explicitly teased in an early chapter none-too-subtly entitled “So Just What the Hell Do I Believe, Anyway?” and are more carefully developed in a 24-page appendix that should be of special interest to traditional Holocaust historians and revisionists alike.
The unavoidable headline is that Cole stands by his early research, rejecting the standard claim that Auschwitz and many other infamous camps served as killing centers equipped with homicidal gas chambers. “Auschwitz was not an extermination camp,” he writes:
Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland, and Dachau, Mauthausen, and the other camps in Germany and Austria, were not extermination camps. They were bad, bad places. People were killed there. Jews were killed at Majdanek by shooting, and Jews were killed at Auschwitz in 1942, most likely due to decisions made by the commandant in defiance of orders from Berlin.
In the following paragraph, Cole writes:
However, Auschwitz was not the totality of the Holocaust. Not by far. Serious revisionists (David Irving, Mark Weber, and hell, I’ll throw my own name in there) don’t dispute the very provable mass murder of Jews (by shooting) during the months following the invasion of Russia. And at a camp like Treblinka, there is a massively strong circumstantial case to be made that the Jews who were sent there were sent there to be killed. It’s circumstantial because very little remains in the way of documentation, and zero remains in the way of physical evidence. But revisionists have never produced an alternate explanation of the fate met by the Jews sent to camps like Treblinka and Sobibor, with empty trains returning. However, accepting that Treblinka was a murder camp but Auschwitz wasn’t means that the Holocaust was not as large in scale or as long in operation as the official history teaches. So taking Auschwitz out of the category of extermination camps is seen as lessening the horror of what, even shorn of Auschwitz, was still a horrific situation.
While Cole’s summary may come laced with a bit more anti-Nazi editorial invective than is typically found in the currents of dissident Holocaust scholarship, his take on the history of Auschwitz in particular pretty much distills to a grounded recitation of revisionist theory, at least insofar as he rejects the standard claim that the site was renovated to be an ever-efficient killing factory during the latter phase of the war. In his more detailed treatment, where Jean-Claude Pressac’s work figures prominently, he deftly summarizes myriad forensic and chronological problems to advance the openly revisionist conclusion that the most infamous extermination camps were nothing of the kind.
And in case anyone other than Phil Donahue still believes the propaganda about the Dachau “gas chamber,” Cole is at the ready with a sobriety check:
Eventually, by the 1970s, the Dachau museum admitted that the “gas chamber” was never used. The fact that the “phony shower heads” were created by the army prior to the visit of U.S. dignitaries in ’45 is the biggest open secret in the field. The current claim at Dachau is that the room was “decorated” with dummy shower heads, which replaced the real shower heads and thus made them useless, in order to fool the victims, and once they were inside, gas pellets were thrown in from chutes in the side wall. And the half-measure “revision,” that the chamber was “never used,” really needs to be meditated on for a moment to grasp its stupidity. We’re supposed to believe that the Nazis took a working—and very necessary—group shower room at the camp, and replaced the working shower heads with fake ones, because they wanted to fool the victims into thinking they were walking into a shower room, which they would have thought anyway if the original shower heads had simply been left intact, and then the Nazis decided not to ever use the gas chamber, but now the room was unusable as an actual shower because the real shower heads had been replaced by fake ones, fake ones that were supposedly necessary to fool victims into thinking that they were walking into a shower room which is exactly what the victims would have thought they were walking into without the fake shower heads because the room actually was a shower room which could have still been used as one in between gassings if not for the dummy heads that replaced the genuine ones.
If you want a down-and-dirty distillation of Cole’s current views, the most tightly packed summation is probably provided in the following two paragraphs:
The evidence of the mass murder of Jews was largely buried or erased by the Nazis long before the end of the war. At the war’s end, what was there to show? What was there to display? And something had to be displayed. World War II is a war with an ex post facto reason for being. The war started to keep Poland free and independent. At the end of the war, when Poland was essentially given to the USSR as a slave state (not that there was much the U.S. could have done to stop it from happening), none of the victorious powers wanted folks to start asking, “wait—sixty million people dead, the great cities of Europe burned to the ground, all to keep Poland free, and now we’re giving Poland to Stalin?”
So Hitler’s very real brutality against the Jews had to become “the reason we fought.” Except, those brutalities began in earnest two years after the war started. But why quibble? Russia had captured Auschwitz and Majdanek intact (more or less), and the U.S. had captured Dachau totally intact. So, those camps became representations of a horror for which almost no authentic physical evidence remained. At Auschwitz, an air raid shelter was “remodeled” to look like a gas chamber (as the museum’s curator admitted to me in a 1992 interview). At Majdanek, mattress delousing rooms were misrepresented as being gas chambers for humans (as the museum’s director admitted to me in 1994). And at Dachau, the U.S. Army whipped up a phony gas chamber room to give visiting senators and congressmen in 1945 a dramatic image of “why we had to fight.”
Attentive readers will note how Cole, at certain points in the above-cited excerpts, parts company with many revisionists. This is made clearest in the appendix, where, in a nuanced counterpoint to the long-rehearsed revisionist emphasis on lack of a clearly discoverable “master plan” authorizing the wholesale extermination of Europe’s Jewish population, Cole plausibly argues that there were actually a congeries of “plans” floated and hatched at various stages in the wake of the infamous (and still profoundly misunderstood) Wannsee “protocols,” with such plans being molded by shifting goals and expediencies as the Nazis pursued an overarching yet decentralized injunction to resolve the “Jewish question” one way or another with only instrumental regard for the welfare of Jewish people. Sometimes this meant the exploitation of Jewish labor. Sometimes it meant the mass transfer or “evacuation” of populations. And sometimes it meant mass killing, including by gassing.
From this vantage, Cole focuses on the question of intent, discerning clues in the sequence of contemporaneous communications and pronouncements, many culled from Joseph Goebbels’s writings, to support his conjecture that for a time – specifically from “1942 through 1943” – Jews were dispatched to genuine extermination camps, specifically “Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Chelmno,” otherwise known as the Aktion Reinhardt system, where they were lined up and shot, or, in classic Holocaust style, queued up and fed to gas chambers (albeit of the truck-rigged must-have-been-carbon-monoxide-not-diesel-exhaust variety, not the pellet-inducted Zyklon B variety) and then burned (in pits, not crematoria).
Anyway, here’s the money shot:
From 1942 through 1943, Polish Jewry was subjected to one of the most brutal campaigns of mass murder in human history. Because of the secrecy surrounding those four extermination camps, and the fact that they were ploughed under and erased from existence in 1943, it’s difficult to be precise about certain details. And we do know that some Jews were sent to those camps as a throughway to other destinations (as recounted multiple times in Gerald Reitlinger’s 1953 masterwork The Final Solution). But, more than enough circumstantial evidence exists to show that for most Jews, the train ride to those camps was one-way, and final.
Not being an historian (and not having the constitutional fortitude for serious historical research), I will leave it to revisionist scholars to engage Cole’s interpretation of the timeline, the documentary mens rea and such other circumstantial evidence that might or might not support the conclusion that the eastern camp system served for a time as a full-on gas-and-burn death factory. I’m confident they’ll have plenty to say, since this whole area seems to have assumed prominence as the focal point of revisionist (and anti-revisionist) critique over the past decade or so, as evidenced by the widely viewed video documentary, One Third of the Holocaust, by the forensic researches of Fritz Berg, and by the voluminous output of guys like Germar Rudolf, Carlo Mottagno, Thomas Kues, Jürgen Graf and others, often in rebuttal to the mud-slinging gang of anti-revisionist gadflies over at the “Holocaust Controversies” site. Cole may not have come looking for an argument, but he’ll have one if he wants it. One can only hope that the debate, if it comes, will proceed with a modicum of civility. Whether Cole’s argument is sincere or tactical (and I’m inclined to believe he is sincere), it should be received as an invitation for revisionists to clarify and supplement their mounting counterargument in a spirit of good faith.
Regardless of how it will be met among active revisionists, I am sure that Cole’s argument will seem positively baffling to the average reader who has been groomed to regard Auschwitz as synecdoche for the canonical Holocaust story. While it may be understood that Cole is correct when he points out that “Auschwitz was not the totality of the Holocaust,” ordinary readers who come to Republican Party Animal with the usual engrained preconceptions will be hard-pressed to digest his “gas in the gaps” counter-narrative. I imagine it will be a bit like being told that yes, there was a Battle of the Alamo, but it actually took place in North Dakota!
No matter where the chips fall, I do think that Cole’s “exterminationist” interpretation of the Aktion Reinhardt system is superficially plausible and therefore useful. Whether it can withstand more intensive scrutiny is a different matter. Being a dilettante at best, I can only say it’s not how I would bet. Presumably for reasons of brevity, Cole neglects to directly address the copious revisionist literature in this area, so when he states that “revisionists have never produced an alternate explanation of the fate met by the Jews sent to camps like Treblinka and Sobibor, with empty trains returning” I am left to wonder whether he has read Samuel Crowell’s carefully documented treatment of the Aktion Reinhardt camps in the Nine-Banded Books edition of The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes. For what it’s worth, the relevant discussion is framed in the seldom-read fourth part of Crowell’s book, “The Holocaust in Retrospect,” where – I’m trying to save everyone time here – the most succinct statement of an “alternate explanation” (though Crowell would probably call it an “interpretation”) is advanced in the fifth section, “Aktion Reinhardt and the Legacy of Forced Labor,” beginning at page 339. Without wading too deep into the morass, Crowell offers a contextual reading of several key documents to support the revisionist position that “Aktion Reinhardt was about wealth seizure and SS control of Polish Jews, chiefly for labor purposes: It was not about mass murder.”
While Crowell’s analysis does not – indeed cannot – exclude the possibility that these sites were at some point devoted to the crudely mechanized destruction of human beings, including by mass gassing, I think he is persuasive in his interpretation of documents that render the scenario less likely than Cole asserts. For example, the authentic Franke-Gricksch inspection report (which wasn’t discovered until 2010 and is not mentioned by Cole) explicitly discusses the eastern program as a plunder operation, makes no reference to gassing, and includes population assessments that are plainly at odds with the numbers in the “final” Korherr report (which, it should be noted, has been disavowed by Korherr himself).
Crowell’s discussion of the top secret 1944 Globocnik report to Himmler along with its addendum also provides clear support for the interpretation that the AR system was primarily devoted to wealth seizure and includes an important note about “relocated persons” being given chits as a kind of bullshit assurance that “future compensation” would be rendered for their assets “some day in Brazil or in the Far East.” If the reference to “relocated persons” meant Jews – and there is a strong contextual reason to assume so, given the geographic presumption in the wording – then this addendum is difficult to reconcile with the notion that Jews were being systematically snuffed upon arrival at the camps.
While I make no apology for assigning Crowell plenipotentiary status in this arena, I realize it may be considered bad form since I am his publisher. Let this be my disclaimer, then, if such be warranted. I may be biased, but I am convinced that the importance of Crowell’s research has not been fully appreciated, and I think that his concise but granular study of extant documents hovering around the AR camp system are relevant and need to be considered along with the forensic and testimonial issues that revisionists will likely raise in counterpoint to Cole’s argument. In any case, when you grapple with informed disagreement, it is wise to seek out what philosophers of knowledge call “epistemic peers,” if only as a safeguard against the conceit of certitude, and I think the views of Crowell and Cole can be usefully considered as a proximate peerage; they’re intelligent men evaluating the same evidentiary chain, presumably in good faith, yet reaching different conclusions.
I should mention also that it is largely due to Crowell’s better known socio-cultural study of mass gassing claims that I am inclined to view particular gassing claims from a default perspective of skepticism. World War II mass-gassing stories are so bedeviled with conflation, confabulation, and culture-bound confusion – and for delineable reasons – that it is well, in the absence of clear-cut physical evidence, to weigh sociogenic explanations against the kind of literal interpretation that holds sway in the standard historiography.
Shadows and Mirrors
In forms of storytelling low and high, we have come to recognize a narrative device. By allusion to Dostoyevsky, it may be referred to as the Doppelgänger or the “Double.” It’s also sometimes called the “Shadow,” which I like better. I’m never sure about these things. I don’t know if it’s a modern invention or one of those Jungian archetypes that Joseph Campbell used to go on about. I’m not even sure whether it’s a trope or a motif, or some other lit-crit flavor I never learned. All I know is that it comes up often enough. Think of Humbert Humbert playing his cat-and-mouse game with Clare Quilty in Lolita, or think of the drug-addled narc in Phillip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly – itself a re-imagining of Nabokov’s The Eye – unwittingly stalking himself until the damage is done. Think of Marlow and Kurtz, or think of lycanthropic myths, or, if you’re a simpleton, stop at Jekyll and Hyde or – why not? – The Nutty Professor. Jerry Lewis version, please.
The Shadow may appear as a liberating demon like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, or as a beastly projection like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. But the underlying psychology isn’t so moveable; it always settles around the problem of the divided self, and around such conflict as arises when one mask is dislodged to reveal the secret face that haunts or entices. And, to bastardize Robert Burns, when a Shadow meets a Shadow, there must come a reckoning.
It’s tempting to read David Cole’s unexpected and possibly important memoir as a kind of real-life Shadow story. The hallmarks are there. It’s about a guy haunted and lured by the former self he had hoped to bury, and the reckoning, obligatorily foreshadowed, comes as it must.
But if that’s the template, we are just as soon confounded by questions. Who is the Shadow? Is the Shadow David Cole, the once and again infamous “Jewish Holocaust denier” who left an indelible mark on one of the most abominated intellectual movements in modern history? Or is the Shadow David Stein, the titular “Republican Party Animal” who penned influential op-eds while organizing mixers for Hollywood’s “right-wing underground”? Is the Shadow flickering in the multiplicity of lesser pseudonyms and guises the author created as a matter of camouflage or whim as he stood in two circles? Or does the Shadow dwell elsewhere, perhaps in the hearts and minds of those who cast aspersions upon the man in subterfuge?
It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. Or of sympathy. Or maybe it’s just a false start. Cole’s story is, in any case, ultimately not so much about a self divided as it is about the burden of irrevocable choices and what cornered insight may be gained in the wake of so much preposterous tumult, when every cover is blown and there’s nowhere left to hide.
“I don’t want to be here,” Cole emphasizes at the beginning of his story. In the closing chapter, he plays on a recurrent Coen brothers theme to assert that he has “learned nothing.” I believe one of these voices. I am deeply suspicious of the other.
It's been a while since I've seen the billboards, but I suppose those "Tough Man" or "Rough and Rowdy" amateur boxing competitions are still being booked at civic arenas across the heartland. I know they once drew big crowds in my neck of the woods.
If you go, try to make it for the early elimination rounds. That's when you'll see the really unevenly matched fights, which are more entertaining. Expect a queue of pasty Scotch-Irish doughboys whirling and throwing blind haymakers at the bell. There's little form to behold. Very few jabs. No one covers or blocks. And the ones who don't walk wide-open into a lucky cold knockout in one of three two-minute rounds are often so winded upon reaching their corners that you find yourself looking at the ringside EMT crew, half expecting they'll be called to intervene on account of a coronary.
Watching these volunteer fighters (many of whom I suspect are also volunteer firefighters -- and I grew up around these guys) may leave you with a deeper appreciation of the grace and science of "real" boxing. But if you have good seats and you don't get too drunk, there's a good chance you'll come around to enjoy the action for what it is. Pick a favorite for starts. Maybe a viable underdog. Behind the ludicrous sight of so much inelegant fury and flurry, you may begin to discern the pulse of a deeper romance that belies the gawking nose-bleeding redneck sideshow spectacle as advertised. These are men after all. They work as security guards and pipefitters and box-store warehouse laborers and pizza slingers, or they don't work at all. They drove in from the sticks, and at least they came to fight. Their girlfriends are watching. There'll be winners and losers, even if there's a ringer at the end.
Year after year I half-joked that I should throw my name in the ring. What I lack in reach I figured I made up for in brute strength; figured I could work out a good inside game, that I could train for stamina, plot a defensive first-round strategy to wear my opponent down. Kill the body in the second, look for an opening -- a clean uppercut -- in the third. More likely I'd've tasted canvas in the first. Fuck it, I was too much of a pussy to even find out.
No matter. What you need to know is only that the fights play in rapid succession, each lasting all of ten minutes, max. Less for the knockouts, of which there will be quite a few. And what you need to understand -- not so easy from a soft chair -- is that a full-on two-minute round, however clumsily executed, is physically and mentally exhausting for the men in the ring. This element of exhaustion is especially pronounced (it comes as a shock, I think) for the ones who haven't trained for such an event, which is obviously the case where so many "Tough Man" contenders are concerned. Drunken parking lot brawls don't count as training.
So I remember this one I saw in Huntington maybe two decades ago. The first half dozen fights were the usual slopwork. A few knockouts. A few decisions. Plenty of graceless pirouettes and rabbit punches and flailing windmills in between. Ridiculous fun. But then there came a fight -- an uneven match, but not especially so -- and what happened was that the more out-of-shape guy, when he lumbered back to his corner after the first round, well, he just called it. He motioned to the ref: "I'm out." So the crowd booed and the other guy raised his gloves in default victory.
But that lame play, it changed the temper of the hall. The very next fight was a repeat; another mid-round quit. And there would be others -- more towels thrown, in accordance with this newly established ethos -- over the course of the event. You sensed the crowd's growing frustration as the bouts played out with more fighters "opting out" after taking their blows. The atmosphere was less charged now that anticlimax was a live option
This is something I still think about. I've thought about it as an atom of cultural evolution. I thought about it when I read Charles Murray's Coming Apart. I thought about it when I saw the documentary Oxyana. I've thought about it more or less every time I've reflected on social policies where an "out" is made more attractive, or, insidiously, less damnable. It seems quaint and a mite insincere to mount a half-assedly conservative critique of no-fault divorce, especially when I'm more than convinced that divorce makes many people happier. Yet it's clear enough that a trend was set and a stigma revoked, and it's just as clear to me that the burden -- yeah, I think it just might be a burden -- has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of left-side-of-the-bell-curve working class men for whom a such a bedrock institution might have meant something more than a fucking cake party.
In Oxyana, the focus is on the culture of pharmaceutical drug abuse that has spread like kudzu over coal country. The filmmakers, at whatever documentary-coy measured distance, imply that something is to be done, but their framing is such to permit only the conclusion that prescription mills run by venal and unscrupulous absentee doctors are to blame. It seems never to occur to them that the rampant culture of addiction that they depict in wallowing first-person interspliced narratives is more deeply rooted in the now-entrenched disability benefit culture that has entrapped and emasculated this sorrowful landscape since a welfare reform deal was brokered and let to irrevocably alter the choice horizons of people who might have had a better shot at a meaningful existence. Who was the first guy to throw in the towel? I imagine his back was aching and the rent was due. Who was the next guy, the one who was informed by the helpful pug-faced candy-scented female representative that a bipolar diagnosis counted and you just need to fill out a different form? Do you think his girlfriend was standing ringside, cheering him on? Do you hear wedding bells in their future?
I don't blame the first guy who called it from his corner. But for a lucky cut, he was bound to lose anyway. He saw it play out and he decided -- rationally -- that the pain wasn't worth the pain. He was hurting. You don't know until you've been there. He thought his fucking heart would explode. But I do wonder how he felt on the drive home. Whatever gnashing pangs of regret might have crept to mind, I bet they were salved by the simple knowledge that others followed his lead.
Just fill out this form.
So I haven't written much here over the last year. There was a time when I was very nearly obsessed with the "project" that was and is "The Hoover Hog." I thought it had "groove and meaning," to paraphrase Frankie Valli (or Barry Gibb, if you're a stickler). I imagined it would be a good thing to play fast and loose with fire, and that I was somehow going to cut it just right. Or that was the only-ever-vague aspiration. Being out of step seemed like an outgroup advantage. Being honest seemed like a neat trick. Being more or less alone seemed like a cozy redoubt.
One problem that has been called to my attention is that I'm really not a very good writer. I suppose this wouldn't matter were it not for the fact that I half-secretly want to write well, and frankly (unreasonably) in a state of sustained inspiration -- which is what all of the manuals advise against.
One of my greatest pleasures in life is to read at a local bar after work. I make time for this and during such time I can feel my mind alight with pinprick insight. I make connections and jot down precious thoughts on a napkin or a notepad that I will later discard. I return to the book of the moment and I feel myself being transported into a smooth electric hum that gives way to useless idiot excitement when I step out for a smoke. I make plans and resolutions. Nothing ever comes of it. Or nothing much. After six or seven beers, my thoughts begin to cloud. Returning home, the intensity fades. Perhaps I start something that I will soon abandon. Just as likely, I will fume over such ordinary constraints that beset every human path. I've had the same day job for over fifteen years and lately it feels like I'm on borrowed time. I seldom talk with anyone at work. When I do, it's in the stilted manner of professional decorum. Time drags, and I feel -- irrationally and egotistically -- like a hostage.
I'm still convinced that it is a valuable thing, at least for some of us, to engage "dangerous" ideas. Over the years I like to think I've drawn up -- or appropriated -- a few useful heuristics that elevate fetish to craft. I am mindful of epistemic limits. I spot hoaxes early. I see religion in the strangest nooks. I attach asterisks to everything, and I vouchsafe my own nagging biases under files labeled "aesthetics" and "sacred residue." I've also learned to break down stories. The trouble with this is that you may eventually turn your attention to the really big stories, until everything is broken. Sarah Perry, perhaps in oblique revision of Camus, claims that what's then left is "epilogue." I suppose that's the backdrop for everything Beckett ever wrote. And it's the deadpan rejoinder to every hollow pronouncement celebrating the grandeur of a scientific worldview. Yet it's what remains. What we're left with. It won't sustain a civilization, but that's none of my business.
I'm 44 years old. I insist that's too old for new plans. It's not too old, however, for some measure of refinement and resolution. In 2014 I resolved to "go vegan" (fuck you), mostly for the hell of it but also, I admit, because I care very much about animal welfare. I made exceptions for holidays. I was soon surprised at how easy it was, at how I felt the same (I expected to feel a worsening of some specific kind). My suspicion of dietary politics has sharpened as a result. There's so much moral residue in this area, which is very curious. I even have a theory about why. Perhaps I'll share it with you at another time. I'm sure it's wrong. Most theories are.
Anyway, what I've done over the past few years is I have published books. I attach a great deal of (surely illusory) importance to this endeavor, and this I fully suspect this will continue. I think I'm a better editor than I am a writer. I just need to get up earlier. So there's one resolution of a manageable variety: Keep doing that shit. Try to do it well, and in a way that honors the work of those writers who have been so kind and generous to allow me to publish there words and ideas. There's good stuff in the queue. You'll see.
The other thing, fuck it, is to write. In the spirit of experiment, I mean to simply let go of such writerly bugs that have proven uselessly debilitating and just get on with it. I'm going to try to put something up here at least weekly, without overmuch attention to form or structure or even thematic consistency, to give in to a the simple curiosity of seeing where it leads. So this space may become a journal. Expect stories, reflections, false starts, stream-of-conscous drivel, minor confessions, bad writing, worse jokes, typos. The idea that I've been mulling is simply to retoggle the source of so much banked frustration, to see if it can be made, in some inconsequential way, liberating. It's selfish of me, I know.
Wish me luck. Thanks for reading.
A little over a decade ago I launched Nine-Banded Books by publishing a slender novella by Bradley R. Smith. It was called The Man Who Saw His Own Liver. I didn't know what I was doing at the time and I still am not sure what I'm doing. I know I priced the book too high and printed too many copies. It never sold well, but that didn't matter to me. All that mattered was that I liked the manuscript and I wanted very much for it to exist so that some few readers might discover it and perhaps treasure it in the way that people sometimes do with books. It's heartening to see that Liver is getting some attention these years later. It really is a good read. It's one of those books that sets a spell.
The backstory I might have mentioned before is that Liver wasn't my first choice. When I initially approached Bradley it was with the idea of publishing a different manuscript -- a sprawling and never quite complete collection of autobiographical stories he had assembled over the years called A Personal History of Moral Decay. Bradley's concern was that the manuscript needed work, so we agreed, for the time being, to do Liver instead. It was a good place to start. The right place to start, I suppose.
As the years passed I would occasionally approach Bradley to ask if he wanted to go forward with Moral Decay and he would invariably respond in the same way by saying "it needs work." The last time this happened I was moved to go back and read the thing a bit more carefully with my best editorial instincts. It was true enough that it needed work, but only in the sense that all manuscripts require a bit of gingerly attention and investment. But the words rolled smooth as milk and honey on oats, and the stories had a strange and distinctive thematic resonance that only deepened on repeat.
What happened was, there came a point when I was moved to reflect on what I was reading and what I will say is that I knew it was a great book. Not a good book. A great one. I imagine I'll stand by that statement until I die. A thousand bad reviews couldn't dissuade me of this conviction. A Personal History of Moral Decay is a great book. I consider it a rare privilege to bring it into print.
But back to Bradley, the author. It was with a greater sense of urgency that I approached him this time. I told him we needed to do the book -- that it was important to do it now. I meant while he was still alive but I didn't say that. I told him it was good -- I don't think I said it was "great" but that is also what I meant -- and I tried to explain the reasons why. I dropped names like James Salter and John Cheever and Richard Brautigan and I said that the book was a throwback to what such men once did on instinct, before MFAs and writing workshops and Oprah-branded book clubs and sentence-obsessed literary memoirs and feminist sensibilities descended to have their ruinous way with a world of letters that once teemed with immediacy and life. I said, or I might as well have said, that it was the sort of book that some few readers might discover and perhaps treasure in the way that people still sometimes do with books.
And Bradley, perhaps he sensed the urgency in my words. Because this time he said what the hell. It'll never be perfect. Let's do it, kid.
I love A Personal History of Moral Decay. It's one of my favorite books. You can order a copy through Amazon here or directly through Nine-Banded Books here. The cover design is by Kevin Slaughter and it is based on the old Obelisk editions of Henry Miller for reasons you may come to understand. I hope you'll buy a copy for yourself and I hope you'll buy another one for your dad. Here's a fine write-up from over at Taki's that artfully touches on the unavoidable subject that I am now avoiding for reasons you're wrong to suspect.
There is an art to pain. Overwhelming kills you, knocks your mind out. Too little, and you forget you’re nothing. Just the right amount and you’ll hurt bad like everybody else. It’s all in the application—how you manage it. It hurts, she told me. But all I did was bring out the hurt from within.
—Paul Bingham, Down Where the Devil Don't Go
With roots in American noir, adventure pulps, and dirty realism, the quartet of stories on offer in Paul Bingham’s debut collection, Down Where the Devil Don’t Go, rake beneath the sodden mulch of contemporary writing-workshop-descended lit-fic to remind us, if only for a lazy afternoon, of a time when an Angry Young Man of letters knew his fucking job.
With one eye on the shifting reel of pop-cultural signage that keeps us in a state of bleary hypnosis, Bingham never loses sight of the dirt beneath his – and our – feet. His prose is trenchant and mordant, subtle and sly, funny and ugly and absurd and edged with preposterous, violent truth. He tells stories. He entertains and provokes. And he knows more about equine podiatry than you ever will.
Like Hobbes’ view of life, Bingham’s fiction is nasty, brutish, and short. So is this interview. I do hope you’ll read his book.
THE HOOVER HOG: So, what's the deal with Kenny Chesney?
PAUL BINGHAM: Long answer: I wrote these stories eight years ago. It was a cool time in the history of “alternative” country music, but hardly anyone outside of the scene was aware of it. Alternative artists couldn't get played, but guys like Kenny Chesney were on heavy rotation and if you worked construction in the South, you were guaranteed to hear too many Kenny Chesney songs per hour. Artificial arrangements, tired voice, lyrics written to appeal exclusively to women. You couldn't escape him. On the job, in stores, bars, restaurants. Anywhere. For a lot of underground artists and their fans it was a stab in the ear every time that contrived, untalented hack was hailed as a sex-symbol, getting his songs played a dozen times an hour.
When Jack Sparks had his radio show and that hilarious blog promoting Alt-Country in the middle to the late oughts, he used Kenny Chesney as an example of everything that’s wrong with modern country music. Since he started on Kenny in 2003, there have probably been a few derisive songs written that name-check him as the country music Antichrist. Kyle, at Savingcountrymusic.com still clobbers him every now and again.
Short answer: George W. Bush is a fan of that lip-syncing, faggot's music.
THH: Well, I like how the references are sort of threaded through the stories. It's a light touch on one level, but I suppose the artifice of "country" assumes more thematic weight in “What the Dead Men Fear,” which is a kind of western – or cowboy-outlaw – yarn filtered through so much postmodern noise. And it occurs to me that a female country star is at the center of it all, both as a damsel in distress and as a kind of unwitting heroine. Without giving too much away, can you talk about how you came to write that one?
PB: “What the Dead Men Fear” was the second in a series of short stories I wanted to write that featured American 21st century realism and my favorite subjects of pain and death. Maybe I'm not a better poet than writer, but poetry, or perhaps a sense of poetic prose was the principal motivation behind the interconnected references.
Most short stories are boring because the people who write them lead boring lives. It’s hard for a desk-bound individual to write about a smoke-jumper, or commercial fisherman or a rodeo cowboy, and most practitioners of exciting trades don't do a particularly good job of writing about what they do. For example, I wrote “I Feel Alright” after reading a poorly written story by a combat veteran in some libertarian publication in Alaska. I'm not blaming him. I don't have his experience, or his demons. But his college degree, or any other background he might have had in creative writing essentially ruined his ability to tell a story. Men of action need poetry not education to convey their thoughts.
The gentleman upon whom the protagonist is based is in his thirties, graying, with two or more kids, and a boring factory job. I tried to envision a more heroic ending for him. As for Cheyenne, she's an example of a large number of celebrities who lose track of who and where they are.
The story was written while I was recovering from a concussion acquired from training a self-destructive horse. It's more realistic than one might imagine. I've omitted some key details that might possibly make it seem a bit less fanciful.
I have to say that I get a stronger sense of Carveresque realism in the opening story, “Population I,” which we'll discuss in turn. To my ear, “What the Dead Men Fear” is more hardboiled, more two-fisted – it seems to fall somewhere under the long shadow of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, certainly Jim Thompson for his violent excess. Are you influenced by those guys, by whole American pulp-noir tradition?
And the horse work – that's pretty far from the desk. You're still at it, yeah?
PB: Strangely enough, I've never read Chandler, Cain or Thompson, though I quite liked Dashiell Hammett, Charles Willeford, Bill Branon, Alan Stang and half dozen other authors whose names never come to mind when they should. What influenced me to write “What the Dead Men Fear” was, oddly enough, O'Henry's “The Four Million.” Of course in O'Henry's day, violence was more unpleasant and painful, so people weren't quite so interested in it. Today, pain and violence interests me because our society is anti-pain. And contemporary violence is often as absurd and unrealistic as what’s portrayed in these stories.
Actually, Sam Peckinpah is a big influence. He was first and foremost a writer. Like him, I think of myself as a voyeur of violence. Sex isn't that interesting and everyone else talks about it. Not everyone has the stomach to deal with violence or its aftermath, subjects the inquisitive spectator and combat bum alike must face.
I still dabble in training, and I work part-time as a farrier. That's one craft the robots won't be taking over anytime soon. And I prefer the company of horses to people, for the most part.
THH: I like “voyeur” in this context. It never really made sense to me, the way artists are expected to justify depictions of violence as if sensation needs an apology. And Peckinpah was a guy who never heard the end of it until he sort of called the critics' bluff with Straw Dogs. That was a brazen “fuck you,” wasn't it? – Like he was saying, “you think I don't know I'm playing with fire? Let me show you what I know.” Your stories are similar, I think, in that you let things happen. The violent content may be comic or sadistic, meditative or propulsive, but it never feels morally contrived. It's just something that erupts in a closed universe. Yet there is a moral resonance – or residue – isn't there? Perhaps something tuned to grate against modern sensibilities?
PB: Well, Peckinpah was heavily influenced by Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris and his point remains that the Western world has lost its understanding of the morality of violence. For example, of the principle causes of PTSD in American combat soldiers is their pre-combat state of mind. Peckinpah witnessed the carnage of WWII without actively participating in the killing and I have been around the aftermath of a fair amount of violence. It's interesting because violence is neither as scarce nor as senseless as society likes to imagine. Our methodology for contemplating it is brittle, so we simply revert to platitudes.
I think all this talk about micro-aggression is fascinating because it's absolutely true; the powers that be have arranged to suppress human instincts like aggression, and to gratify others like appetite. But that only works for so long. Everyone can feel the violence simmering beneath the surface of our world, Steven Pinker's “better angels” notwithstanding. The feminists, being women, are sensitive to this, but they don't fully understand what they feel. Preppers are aware of it, but they get it wrong, too. It's a general feeling of impending doom and the inability to deal with it. Maybe that in itself would be the cause of the future bloodshed. I don't know.
THH: I think you've provided a good segue to the opening story, “Population I,” which happens to be my favorite. The other narratives in the collection are concerned with men of action, where violence literally explodes. But here we encounter the violence that simmers, as you put it. I think the story is at once sad and comic, and I suspect many readers will find it unsettling. It's about a writer – a blocked writer. That's familiar terrain, as at least one critic has noted, but there's more going on isn't there?
PB: I never thought of writer's block as the subject. The way these stories are put together, it’s an unintentional homage to Mishima's novel, Kyoko's House. We have two desk men and two men of action. I quite like the two men of action, but they lack a sense of poetry and thus fall short of the heroic or tragic.
Most of these characters and situations are stolen rather than made up and the inspiration for that story was some lit-fiction writer, an aspiring D.F. Wallace type. Completely forgettable, but I remember he mentioned in an interview that he'd posed with a Gibson guitar on the back cover of a novel he'd written, and he admitted that he could not, in fact, play the guitar. There was also some mention of writer's block and some liberal platitudes. Nobody has writer's block these days, though. Nobody can afford to have writers block. My main concern is never putting words on paper; it's that the words be up to a certain improvised or self-imposed standard.
The whole story is a satire of the creative writing industry, or the burnt out hull of what was the creative writing industry back in the opulent Bush years.
THH: I would say that writers block, in context, can be read as a metaphor for a more numbing impotence. The Skinhead's taunt about "guitar lessons" is telling, and the comic sadness I mentioned is fully pronounced in the guy's one sexual experience with his roommate Rose, where she gives him “a prostate rub" because she “could just want a guy's touch.” I think it would be easy to say, well the writer is a repressed homosexual (another old trope), especially when he begins to eroticize his mentoring relationship with Jamal, but that seems like a contemporary fixation that misses what's really unfolding, or unraveling. I think I read the story three times through before it hit me – and I may be wrong – that it's about unrequited love, or love unrealized. I mean, I wouldn't call myself a traditionalist exactly, but I see these characters sort of wallowing in this cultural wreckage, grasping for meaning in identity politics and perversity, and I can't help but imagine an alternative universe where Rose and the Writer are happily married. There's just a palpable sense that something has gone awry. Does any of this ring true with your intentions? Am I being sentimental?
PB: It's about two people who in any other era would be in a relationship with each other. The writer isn't necessarily a repressed homosexual; he's just sexually repressed. Rose, on the other hand, has overdosed on her sexuality. I'd pretty much agree with Uncle Gore that there are homosexual or heterosexual acts but not individuals. Often, only the mentally imbalanced will tend toward the former if the latter is also available.
I don't think the Writer and Rose could be happily married. Married, yes, living in some dismal suburb of a college town and going to the local supermarket together of an evening to buy cheap wine and cat litter, maybe.
THH: Let's talk about your other "desk man," network executive Mort Schnellenhammer. I like that Mort starts off expressing concern that there are no "really evil villains" in this cult sci-fi show that has him on edge, and then he proceeds to become one himself. But in the end – and I suspect I'm in the minority here – I can't help but like Mort. He's clueless about so much that's going on around him, yet he's very decisive in his paranoia. It's almost charming, the way he rationalizes every twist in his despicable plot. You can talk about the inspiration for “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Hollywood,” but I'm just as curious to know how you size up your farcical corporate antihero. I'm sure some readers will say he's nothing more than an anti-Semitic caricature. I mean, you sort of set the bait. But I don't think it breaks down so clearly.
PB: Mort is the eternal middle-man. He's really no worse than his grandfather was. Jacob lived in more innocently riotous times. After many herculean struggles with the middlemen of our managerial society, I've often thought to myself, “how does this man live with himself?” And the answer was simply: quite well, actually. That's how “Protocols” came into being.
If Protocols has a point, it's that scapegoating is a lot harder than ideologues might think. I've been tracing the structures of power to find out who was actually in charge, calling shots, in various influential organizations. And the answer is no one. It's a blind alley. Obviously there are individuals and groups making decisions, but they might as well be in another universe from ours. Or from Mort’s, for that matter.
THH: He's honest with Hasan, pointing out that he merely “allows” programs to be made.
PB: Mort’s making the best of things. The late, great Fred Phelps inspired this story. I failed to take advantage of opportunities to interview him on several occasions, to my eternal chagrin.
THH: Your use of religion in the story – it's the only one that features religion, at least in an explicit way – is interesting. Hasan is a Palestinian Christian. Many of the rabid fans turn out to be Jehovah's Witnesses. Were those calculated choices?
Hasan is a tragic figure to my mind, as are the Palestinian Christians. Jehovah's Witnesses are always knocking on my door. I'm not easy to find, but they never give up. They may be insane, but they've got class. I remember two of them came over while I was writing this story, and I invited them in, not knowing what denomination they were. “Come on in, some of my best friends are Mormons.”
THH: You should say that no matter who knocks. Even if it's the cops. How are you feeding your brain these days? Anything I might have missed?
PB:Well whether I like it or not, doing the full-time dissident thing. There's an account on FB about one of my “activisms” as we jokingly call them, preventing a platoon of cops from beating a sovereign citizen who was a resisting an unjust arrest. (He'd just left a courtroom hearing where everything went too well for him, and the judge sent a small army of cops, deputies and state troopers after him to search his vehicle and give him another citation for no license/insurance/tags.)
It's a form of ecological activism, as sovereign citizens are an almost extinct species in the body politic. I don't agree with his stand at this time, but he's a good, productive man and a freedom-lover. he took on this battle intentionally, despite the fact that he works full time to feed his family. everyone should kick in a couple dollars towards his defense fund (Mike Wasson, PO Box 118, Oldfield, MO 65720).
I'm into some other things that I'll talk about in a decade or two, assuming we're still alive then and the tribulation has not yet come upon us.
THH: I let Down Where the Devil Don't Go sit on the burner for a while. This was never my intention, and I've apologized. At the same time, I think your stories seem more relevant today than when they were originally written near the end of the Bush years. What's it like to revisit the work now that we're deep into a new era of hope and change? Has the half-life of satire reached its terminus?
PB: It has some stamina. And prescience. Satire has prescience because one is positing that things can always get worse and we can find amusement in the collapse.
Evelyn Waugh's Love Among the Ruins and Auberon Waugh's Brideshead Benighted were large influences. Satire has its place. It's less funny when crazy things you write about actually happen and there's no time to say “hey, I told you so.”
THH: I understand that you've kept up with the writing. So, What's next?
PB: A Rock Opera based on Mein Kampf. I know, you're thinking The Producers and “Springtime for Hitler,” but this is more of a serious work, a rather austere appraisal of Hitler as a dreamer, a man of vision, from a neutral perspective of course. There's a lot of Harry Partch as well as martial industrial music, Death in June type folk, even a little country-rock that might scandalize David Irving. I think Hitler would have liked Marty Robbins and Hank Williams.
There's also another novel in the works, a Bowdenesqe piece. May I say without kissing ass that you being Jonathan Bowden's last publisher is one of the reasons I find Nine-Banded Books to be cool and why I'm happy to have my collection put out by your imprint. Anyway, it’s called Carnival of Pain. Been working on it for several years. I call it my Shoutbox Novel because parts of it are written in chatroom style. It has several layers of plotting, the first about a brave, handsome, patriotic Navy Seal who undergoes a sex change in order to infiltrate a terrorist hideout in the guise of a beautiful woman to liquidate a terrorist leader. Meanwhile a cast of diverse characters gathers to watch the Seal's travails on his path to becoming Ms. Congeniality and fulfill his mission. There's more to it, but that's about all I feel qualified to explain at this time.
Paul Bingham's Down Where the Devil Don't Go may be ordered from Nine-Banded Books HERE or from Amazon HERE. Copies are also on the shelf at Quimby's Bookstore in Chicago and it will soon stocked at Atomic Books in Baltimore.
Check out the Gun Fag Manifesto blog! It may or may not come to serve as a repository for GFM-style content, but for now you can use to mine for promotional images, request review copies, or to learn a bit more about the book before you throw down some of the hard-earned cash that you'd set aside for beer and ammo.
Order soon if you want to receive a copy in time for Christmas.
Gun Fag Manifesto goes to press next week. It's an insanely entertaining book. Above is a sneak peek of the cover design by Kevin Slaughter of Underworld Amusements (the co-publisher). Nine-Banded Books will be begin taking advance orders in the next few days.
Next up in the 9BB publishing queue:
I do expect a few intervening surprises, but these are the top priorities. All I can say for sure is at this point is that Down Where the Devil Don't Go will be next. It's going to be a busy year.
If you are very rich and very ill, please consider making a bequest to 9BB in your will. It'll help move the conveyor belt.
Sade was one of several short works of self-styled polemical scholarship that Jonathan Bowden produced in the early 90s. I don't think many people have read it. It's hard to say just where it fits in the broader scheme of Sade studies, if it has a place at all. I like to believe it has a place.
Bowden approached the scholarly monograph much the way Dubuffet attacked a canvas. His perspective was that of an outsider and he wrote with casual disregard for the formal strictures of any discipline, favoring a kind of neurotically invested free-associative abandon to the worn path of disinterested criticism. It is this quality, however untrustworthy, that I believe marks his psychobiographical portrait of the infamous Marquis de Sade as something of lasting impression. The insight Bowden brought to a "problematic" subject still represents a peculiar disturbance in the literature -- one suffused with feverish, flesh-borne vitality.
Despite its slight heft, Sade is a densely layered book. At digressive turns, Bowden devotes appreciative yet discerning attention to the work of Kathy Acker, Andrea Dworkin, William Burroughs, Wilhelm Reich, surrealist polemicists, and such other aesthetic and metapolitical expressions that may be considered under the long shadow of the Bastille. Whether the relevant pronouncements anticipate the author's reactionary turn is a question for the jury.
I'm very proud to bring this book back into print. I only regret that it is being released after the author's untimely death. I wasn't expecting that. Jonathan Bowden was a pleasure to work with. The world is less interesting without him.
Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents Publishing recently interviewed me for his lively and interesting Euro-traditionalist website/bookshop. I'm glad he did, because the interview gave me the opportunity to think about and try to explain what I do as a small-time publisher of outre books as well as to discuss some of the issues and controversies that have held my attention over the years. It also provided a platform -- which no one should give me! -- to promote a number of past, present, and future 9BB projects and to talk personally about the writers whose work I have had the pleasure and honor of publishing. I also managed to work in a reference to Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case.
The interview went long (my fault), so it was presented in a series of three installments. With Greg's kind permission, I am reprinting below the full text with header links to each of the original segments. I have preserved the original links throughout but may add a few of my own as time permits.
Chip, tell us a bit about your background: where you are from, where you went to school, who your people are.
I was born and bred in central Appalachia. Working class family. Child of divorce. Not much to tell. A lot of people leave this area when they wise up, but for some reason that never occurred to me. After I nearly flunked out of high school in the late ’80s, I managed to get into a low-rung state college where I learned a few things and earned a useless degree. When I failed to secure professional employment, I did construction work for my father until the day when I ran into a former philosophy professor who offered me a job at a used bookstore that he managed. I liked that job very much, and I learned a lot about books—about regional literature, identifying first editions, the book trade from a distance. My book collection grew exponentially, and I read a lot.
After a few years the bookstore gig was up and I returned to the want-ads. Worked in a dry-cleaning plant. Did shitwork for a local print shop. Maintenance for an apartment complex. Some other stuff. Eventually, I stumbled into something more gainful and I stuck with it. The publishing thing—it was always on my mind, but money was an impediment. I don’t make money publishing books.
As to my “people,” well, I’m not sure. Maybe having the surname “Smith” makes genealogy seem less romantic, or maybe it’s that I never got on that well with my family, but for whatever reason, I never really felt the itch to investigate my lineage. If you’ve read Albion’s Seed, you’ll know that Appalachia was overwhelmingly populated by Scotch-Irish in the grungy fourth migratory wave from the British borderlands. From what little I understand, my roots may trace more to a Dutch-British line, but nothing would surprise me. I’d get a kick out of calling myself a Melungeon, but my blond hair and blue eyes make that implausible.
If I were to consider the question in more cosmopolitan terms, I guess I would list skeptics, misfits, monomaniacs, contrarians, sentimental losers. Anyone who ever had a heart, to quote Lou Reed (with the understanding that I alone stand in judgment of whose heart is true). Such, I suppose, are “my people.”
When did you found Nine-Banded Books, and what is the significance of the name?
Well, Bradley Smith’s book—The Man Who Saw His Own Liver—went to press in late 2007, so I guess that’s when 9BB got its formal start. I had approached Bradley maybe a year earlier about publishing his loosely biographical novel, A Personal History of Moral Decay, but he felt it needed work so we did Liver instead. It’s a novelization based on a one act play that was actually produced and prominently reviewed in the early ’80s, before Bradley came to be associated with Holocaust revisionism. I think it works really well as a novel, though I understand that some readers will find the Cold War anti-nuke sentiments to be a bit dated. I tried to address this in my preface, while making the case for Bradley Smith as a writer of little-remarked literary import. His stuff reminds me of Richard Brautigan.
Still, I’m not sure there was a founding event as such. Since I was a teenager, I’ve followed independent presses the way music geeks follow record labels, and I was always drawn to the idea that one enterprising individual could sort of take the reins and brand a body of literature over time. I think this is essentially what Barney Rosset did with Grove/Evergreen, and his example was one source of inspiration to me.
Another was Adam Parfrey of Amok and Feral House. I remember reading Apocalypse Culture when I was maybe 17. It was such a mind-blowing book at that time, and I came away with a sense that publishing was—or could be—a kind of garage punk performance. Parfrey had keen curatorial instincts that made all the difference. Apocalypse was billed as a kind of intellectual freakshow, but the bait and switch is what kept things interesting; once you were in, you discovered that the dark carnival being barked was about more than just tweaking bourgeois sensibilities.
Retrospectively, I think Parfrey was serving up a heaping dense platter of what Sister Y (Sarah Perry) has since described as “insight porn,” the sort of head-lit that tends to re-route mental polarities—that, in her words, gets you “epistemically pushed off of your reality.” Shock value only counts when there’s resonance, and with Parfrey’s literary provocations—and here I would be remiss not to also mention Rants and Incendiary Tracts and Cult Rapture—the afterburn has lasted for decades.
Anyway, that was the germ. The one that stands out in hindsight. Of course, it would be years before I got around to publishing books. The Hoover Hog came first, and I’m not entirely sure what I was doing there. I know that I had been ordering lots of “fringe” literature and haunting the stacks at local university libraries, just following one book or article or footnote to the next until I was sort of immersed in these controversial hot spots that absolutely demanded my attention.
At the same time, I really liked what Jim Goad was up to with ANSWER Me!—the wicked humor and literate personal investment he brought to troublesome topics. So I guess that provided the template when I began to channel these disparate threads—criminology, aberrant sexology, revisionism, sociobiology, bioethics, etc.—into a kind of low-rent journalistic hobby. Zine culture was running full-on back then so I threw two issues of The Hoover Hog into the din, to no consequence. They really weren’t very good.
I know this seems like the sort of thing you should grow out of, but I just never did. I was a latecomer to the Web, but I know that when I revived the Hog as a blog in I’m thinking 2005, I was firmly committed to the idea of publishing books.
The name? Just a nod to our friend the nine-banded armadillo. The story is that they were referred to as “Hoover hogs” during the depression when people in dire straits were reduced to dine on dillo-meat in lieu of pork. “Nine-Banded Books” just gilds the lily. There’s no deeper meaning, though I know that some readers have assumed that “Banded” is meant as a near-homonym for “Banned.”
The background is that when I was in college I wrote a paper about the use of armadillos in leprosy research and I found that I kept thinking about the little fuckers—to the point where armadillo imagery sort of melded with whatever I was reading. So, I don’t know, maybe I was trying to cure a neuro-quirk. They’re really interesting animals. They have litters of identical quadruplets.
Your authors Tito Perdue, Jonathan Bowden, and Andy Nowicki fall into the New Right or Alt-Right sphere. You also publish revisionist works by Bradley Smith, L. A. Rollins, and Samuel Crowell, the readership of which tends to be on the far Right. Tell us about your intellectual and political views. How did you end up publishing thought-criminals?
The alt-right association is more accidental—or incidental—than you might assume. There’s just so much low-hanging fruit on the right side of the vine—some really insightful and provocative and excellent writing. Mainstream publishers don’t want to touch it because, perhaps ironically, their decisions really are governed by political sensibility. I’m much more naïve. I just want these books to exist.
I made contact with Andy after reading his stuff in the right-anarchist journal, The Last Ditch. When he sent me the manuscript for Considering Suicide, I read it in a couple of sittings and found myself in profound disagreement with much of his—or his narrators’—worldview. At the same time, I thought the book “worked.” I thought it had a sly edge, and perhaps because I am a convinced atheist, I liked the idea of publishing a novel that thrummed at these weird, theo-reactionary, Kierkegaardian chords. It seems that everyone plays on “teams” these days, but my view is that a partisan mindset is anathema to the reading life. For me, an abiding virtue of literature is that it allows you to set aside your priors and get into the headspace of someone—whether it’s a character or a scholar or a polemicist or a psychotic or all of the above rolled into one—who sees the world through a different lens. I like to think there was a time when this was better understood.
My political views have always skewed libertarian, or anti-authoritarian. It’s the sort of thing I might have argued passionately about when I was younger, but nowadays I’m more resigned to the idea that politics is largely an aesthetic trench. I hate taxes and gun control and drug prohibition and censorship for the same reason I hate Kevin Smith movies and the smell of sun-baked roadkill—because I’m constitutionally predisposed to viscerally abominate things such that harsh my buzz or stink up a room.
I’ll also admit to being susceptible to romantic or nostalgic vagaries, at times to the point of being a bit of a curmudgeon. I miss smoke-filled bars and free-range neighborhood dogs and casual drunk driving and the homosexual as cultural outlaw and dangerous playground equipment, and I remain stubbornly ambivalent about seatbelts. Do such tendencies enhance my crypto-reactionary cred? I don’t know. I do think extremism is more illuminating than guarded discourse.
If I have one counter-libertarian bug, it isn’t immigration but animal welfare. At least in theory, I can imagine the negative externalities of open borders being sorted out under a propertarian regime (I realize, of course, that we do not live under such a system), but with high-yield factory-farmed livestock, I think we are faced with perhaps a sui generis instance where market efficiency overwhelmingly tends to perpetuate and conceal vast amounts of very real suffering. I’m not sure what can be done about this in a world where paleo diets are in fashion and bacon has become a byword for gluttonous pleasure, but I find it very troubling. I do view the development of lab meat as a positive turn and I am cautiously hopeful that as technology advances and taste improves, inexpensive live meat alternatives will lead to a reevaluation of the industrial treatment of animals. Steven Pinker’s recent thesis on the decline of violence is at least encouraging in this area—his focus on upheavals in moral sensitivity.
My broader intellectual disposition is maybe a bit more complicated in that I try to draw from different currents to make sense of the world. I’m really interested what might be described as collective social behavior and the sociology of belief formation, which covers a raft of subjects: popular delusions, hoaxes, mass hysteria, fads and manias, moral panics—everything from dietary crazes to war fever.
In a related sense, I am forever fascinated—and troubled—by the mysterious process whereby beliefs and ideas come to be culturally entrenched or, as Jonathan Haidt would put it, “sacralized.” You know this is happening when contrary lines of inquiry come to be stigmatized (or in some few contemporary instances, legally proscribed).
I think the “denial” shibboleth, whether it’s invoked to describe Holocaust revisionism or counter-consensus climate research or any number of other dissident perspectives, can be understood as a nasty little bug in this process. By calling someone a “denier,” the accuser is at once signaling his fealty to some entrenched consensus view while at the same time preempting the possibility of good faith intellectual engagement with contrary arguments or evidence.
This is how taboos are bred, and this is how discourse is corrupted. We see it for what it is in the context of religion proper (where “heretics” and “apostates” assume the role of “deniers”), but secular iterations are more insidious and generally withheld from critical analysis. I think many of the books I publish—certainly Crowell’s The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes—can at some level be understood as disruptive experiments against the prevailing clubhouse vocabulary.
Tell us about Jonathan Bowden’s book Mad and how you came to publish it.
I ordered a copy of the original Egotist Press edition of Mad from the Loompanics catalog back in the early ’90s. I loved it then, and I love it now. It’s a difficult book to describe. It’s sort of a feverish prose-poetic discursion centered around Hobbesian strife. Scholarship as outsider art. I’m never sure where to pin it, but I love the modernist music and urgency of the thing. I even love the syntactic idiosyncrasies, the Britishisms, and the halting clauses that Jonathan insisted be preserved for the reprint. He was emphatic, for what it’s worth, that Mad was essentially a Stirnerite experiment. That makes sense to me. He told me he wrote it when he was a teenager, which is amazing.
How I came to publish it isn’t much of a story. I found myself thinking about the book one day and soon discovered that it had never been reprinted. So I looked up Jonathan’s website and sent him a note explaining that I admired the book and inquiring as to whether he would be amenable to seeing it re-issued under the 9BB logo. He was very gracious throughout our subsequent correspondence, and we were quick to work out an agreement. I don’t think I was much aware of his affiliation with British nationalism at the time, not that it would have mattered. I really don’t think of Mad as a rightist tract, in any case.
Do you have plans to publish any other Bowden books?
Yes. Before he died, Jonathan assigned 9BB publishing rights for two books: Sade and Aryan—both of which were originally released in the early ’90s, around the same time as Mad, and read, as far as I can tell, by no one. I love the intense amphetamine groove of his “early” books, where the pedantic voice comes laced with so much crazy energy. Sade, as you might guess, is a study—an eccentrically pitched study, to be sure—of the life and work of the Marquis de Sade. It recently moved to the front burner and should go to press later this year. I’m just waiting for my cover design guy to do his thing. Aryan is a different bird, appropriating novelistic devices to explore the psychology and praxis of Nazism. Reactionary readers who come expecting an apologia will be sorely disappointed.
Tell us about Tito Perdue and how you came to publish The Node.
One day a note from Tito appeared in my inbox. He explained a little about his work and asked if I would be interested in looking at this dystopian novel he had written, something that more established publishing houses wouldn’t touch. So, knowing little about Tito’s previous writing, I began reading the manuscript for The Node and soon found myself giggling like a kid. I know that critics to date have focused on the book’s political and satirical themes, which is appropriate, but it’s such a rich stew of invention—and it is, I think, a genuine comic masterpiece.
I responded to Tito before I had finished the book, telling him it would be an honor to publish it, but I was careful — perhaps suspiciously careful — to explain that his literary reputation would scarcely benefit from his association with a dodgy, marginal publishing venture like mine. He assured me that wouldn’t be a problem, that he had already written himself into a corner and to hell with the big houses anyway. And so it went. Tito was an absolute pleasure to work with.
Of course, I’ve since had the opportunity to acquaint myself with Tito’s larger body of work—which is to say, the “Lee” novels (including, most recently, Morning Crafts). What a trove. Tito is American original, and I’m very proud to include The Node in the Nine-Banded catalog. I only wish I could do more to promote it. But that’s true with all of the books. I send out the press kits and review copies, and crickets chirp back. I always feel that I’m letting my writers down.
Peter Sotos is a writer whose name I have seen but whose work I have not read. Tell us about him.
Peter is a friend. Long ago we sort of bonded over our mutual appreciation of Andrea Dworkin’s work. He’s been very generous and supportive over the years, and I always look forward to arguing with him over drinks when I’m in Chicago. In person, he’s an incisive conversationalist and the kind of guy who puts people at ease. He’s charming, with a great sense of humor. He has a subtle command presence, as many writers do.
I also think he’s a brilliant and important artist and litterateur. There’s an epigram by Cioran where he says that only by continually approaching solecism can writing give the appearance of life. At the most granular level, I think that captures the alchemic genius of Peter’s work. Even as his writing has evolved, his literary voice has remained instantly recognizable, and I am frankly astonished by his singular command of language, by the way he constantly—and instinctively, I think—renders and reinvents modes of expression to corner and record such fragile currents of perception that would otherwise remain ineffable.
Of course, I am aware that the formalist defense never cuts it where Sotos is concerned, and I am just as aware of the profound stigma—there’s no other word, really—that surrounds his oeuvre. His subject, neurotically and “problematically” invested, is sex. More specifically, his subject is pornography. Yet more specifically, his subject is sexual violence as apotheosized in the forbidden language of child porn. And his form settles, for lack of better terms, around a volatile amalgam of critical and confessional extrapolation and interpretation. There’s nothing else like it.
Every biographical note will emphasize the fact that Peter was arrested for obscenity at some fateful turn, and that he was convicted for something arguably worse. Mikita Brottman calls him a “latter-day homo sacer” for good reason. I’m not inclined to argue with those who stop at revulsion, but for readers who take a wider view of art, who allow that prevailing cultural narratives—such as we may certainly document with reference to the terrain that preoccupies Peter, or, if you prefer, Peter’s writing—exist to be disrupted and subverted and, from whatever terrible vantage, understood, then I think the value of the work is self-evident.
In my introduction to Tool. [the period is part of the title—Ed.] (not the work that Peter or I would suggest as representative), I take polite issue with the “narrow defense” that some critics have proffered in justification of Sotos’ psycho-literary project—that it holds up a proverbial mirror to society’s underside and provides a commentary on media-glossed morality cum hypocrisy. I do think there is an incidental kernel of truth in this line, but the drift too often has the desperate, cloying ring of apology. And frankly, Peter deserves better. I am not interested in apologizing for literature that I find at once fascinating, mysterious, revelatory, and troubling.
Rosset had Genet with Sartre’s imprimatur. Those of us who have published Sotos are strung across a chasm without a net. I don’t expect everyone to understand that that’s the appeal, but I’m betting that the literati will catch up in time.
What is your take on revisionism?
In an important sense, I think revisionism simply refers to the ongoing process of investigating and interpreting history. It’s like when we were kids and we learned that Pluto was the ninth planet from the sun. Now it’s just a rock, or a proto-planet, or whatever. Only I just read where they’ve discovered that Pluto has moons. Does that mean it will be promoted to planet status again? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Notwithstanding a few matters of seismically politicized controversy, where science is concerned most of us live with a tacit understanding that correction, or even upheaval, is part of the process, that new discoveries can supplement or overturn a given theoretical framework that’s been rehearsed in textbooks for decades or more. Once in a while this will manifest in a full-on paradigm shift, and most of us layfolk are yet resigned to adjust our understanding perforce, even if it takes a while. I still have fun arguing with people who believe that peptic ulcers are caused by stress.
When it comes to history, however, people feel a kind of personal investment in the fixed narrative. This fealty can be intensely partisan, and it often comes with deep cultural and emotional moorings, as was evidenced by the recent row over the discovery of the skeletal remains of King Richard III. Such sentiments may be understandable, but they are often at odds with the scholarly enterprise of history, which, like a proper scientific discipline, favors continual revision.
Of course, when most people think of historical revisionism, they have in mind something different. Rather than being rooted in disinterested investigation and interpretation, the kind of revisionism that typically arouses suspicion or hostility has a dissident character that tends—or seeks—not to merely supplement a standing historical narrative but to uproot and replace it with a radically different historical counter-narrative.
This has always been the sticking point with Zinn’s labor-centric alternative history of the United States, to cite one well-known and acceptably controversial example. There are countless other examples of “dissident” revisionism that we could mention without being kicked off the reservation: Windschuttle’s study of the Tasmanian genocide, Michelle Malkin’s defense of Japanese internment during the Second World War, David Graeber’s contrarian study of the roots of money and debt, as well in their general drift as works by Tom Woods, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and the granddaddy of American revisionism, Harry Elmer Barnes.
I think there’s also a meta-revisionist cast to the neoreactionary cultural critique that Mencius Moldbug keeps annotating, and I would say the same regarding Errol Morris’s investigative studies of iconic photojournalism.
In a similar sense, I would say that a nascent strain of dissident revisionism can be detected in a spate of recent books that question aspects of the “Good War” and the corresponding mythos of the “Greatest Generation.” Here I would mention Mary Louise Roberts’ What Soldiers Do, Charles Glass’s The Deserters, and, tracking back a bit further, Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (which I reviewed for Inconvenient History).
Properly understood, Holocaust revisionism—which I suspect is really what you’re asking about—draws on elements of positivist (or disinterested) historical revisionism along with more motivated (or dissident) currents. I find the subject fascinating not least because of the unique aura of taboo—and the very real threat of prosecution (and persecution)—that surrounds it, but also because it is one of very few areas I can think of where the intellectual substance of a body of scholarship exists at such stark remove from public understanding. I’m loath to even discuss the controversy on interpersonal terms because there are vast swaths of misapprehension and bad faith to be overcome before you even get to the point of rational disagreement. And there’s a very real possibility that you’ll lose friends in the process.
So, with that much as backmatter, I guess I might offer my take on Holocaust revisionism in the following way.
First, I think it is well to note that the subject comes with a long pedigree; that is, for as long as the “court narrative” of Nazi atrocity has been codified, there have been scholars who have professed skepticism about certain elements of the orthodox account.
Second, I think it is important to note that over this long haul, the outline of the revisionist critique has, somewhat remarkably, hovered around three obdurate themes: 1) that there is no credible documentary evidence of an official order or administrative chain of command decreeing the extermination of European Jewry; 2) that there is no credible evidence that homicidal gas chambers were used for the purpose of mass killing or could have operated in the manner posited; and 3) that the purported number of Jewish people who were killed or who died under the yoke of Nazism has been profoundly exaggerated.
When someone is accused of being a “Holocaust denier,” it is generally because he has said or written something that tends to support one or more of these claims. Yet with reference to each of these three points of critique, the scholarship that has followed in the wake of modern Holocaust revisionists like Robert Faurisson and Arthur Butz can, I think, be fairly characterized as hyper-empirical, drawing as it does on cliometric, forensic, demographic and other broadly non-speculative and replicable methods of historical investigation.
Finally, I would emphasize that it is instructive and important to distinguish credible Holocaust revisionist scholarship from various species of “conspiracy theory” with which it is commonly associated and rhetorically conflated. Because of my open interest in proscribed areas of inquiry, people are sometimes surprised to learn that I am skeptical of most conspiracy claims and that I am generally dismissive of that more nebulous goblin, “conspiracy theory.” But there’s no real inconsistency in this, and the reasons matter.
If you think about something like “9/11 Truth” (or “critical 9/11 studies,” to avoid pejorative implications), for example, you find a kind of argument that, however it proceeds at the technical level, ultimately rests on the implicit assumption that acts of profound magnitude, complexity, and enormity can be carried out from behind a credulity-defying veil of impenetrable secrecy. This is always the tell with CT—the psychologically seductive notion that strings are being pulled from on high by eternally shadowy figures, leaving nary a trace of clear-cut evidence behind.
Now, it may be possible, in the strictest metaphysical sense, that such nefarious plots are being hatched and directed from behind a wizard’s curtain, just as it’s possible that Satanists constructed an elaborate network of tunnels underneath the McMartin preschool where they ritually tortured kids during lunch breaks.
The problem is that such notions simply do not comport with any useful account of reality, to say nothing of how State actors—or human beings—actually operate. And without real evidence, we’re left with these endless spirals of dragon-chasing, dot-connecting, spider-sensey speculation. “Just asking questions,” as the conspiracy theorist will insist. Only when answers are provided, the questions shift and widen to re-anoint the sinister mystery in perpetuum.
Now, when we turn to Holocaust scholarship, do we find a narrative centered on covert machinations and some vastly interwoven skein of surreptitiously issued directives? Indeed we do. Only instead of being evident in the outline of the revisionist critique, as Michael Shermer would have us believe, such features actually constitute the salient core of the dominant extermination-by-killing-machine narrative that we find in movies and textbooks.
When hard evidence of gas chambers collapses under scrutiny, we’re next assured that those preternaturally resourceful Nazis covered their tracks at all turns—that the archived blueprints for showers and shelters were gas chamber plans in subterfuge, that extermination orders were concealed under an elaborate euphemistic code, that budgetary allocations are slyly nested under the copious camouflage of quotidian expense reports, work orders, and so on. It’s all right there in Walter’s Laqueur’s The Terrible Secret, or in just about any standard history you care to pick up in the Holocaust studies section of your local Barnes & Noble—all the hallmarks of conspiracy theory surreally accorded the stature of a master narrative.
Of course, some people will counter that such ostensibly preposterous claims are more than outweighed by the sweeping absurdity of the revisionist position. Yet what strikes me about the revisionist line is that once you mine past some generally plausible accounts of the (very real) role black propaganda in the war effort and such internecine affairs on the part of the Allies as have been either demonstrated or suspected, the counter-story basically proceeds after a prima facie reading of the evidence.
You had these vast population transports—never a good idea—and there were typhus outbreaks that followed and that had to be controlled. It is no longer a point of controversy that the vast majority of the insecticide Zyklon B was used for its label-intended purpose, nor is it a genuine point of controversy that large scale cremation (which would have been profoundly offensive to Jewish religious tradition) was utilized for hygienic purposes.
Nor, of course, is there any question that Jewish people at the camps and throughout Eastern Europe were treated cruelly under Hitler’s regime. People were uprooted and looted and imprisoned, and people were lined up and shot. There are logs, without code words, that attest to all of this. Just as there are, rather curiously, medically authorized death reports from Auschwitz that attest to vast infirmity and mortality. Reams of them. None of this is denied in the broad scheme of Holocaust revisionism, the skeptical gravamen of which has remained narrowly focused on the instrumental administration of Nazi extermination policy.
I’ve gone on at too much length already, but realize this subject is a problem for many readers and I want to note that my general impression of Holocaust revisionism—that it has demonstrable scholarly value and shouldn’t be subject to censorship or criminalization in any case—goes some way toward explaining why I chose to publish Samuel Crowell’s book The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes and Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding, which, I am convinced, is a truly important book.
But there’s another reason that tracks back to what I was saying earlier about my interest in mass psychology and moral panics. The annoying thing about much—not all—revisionist literature, to my mind, isn’t that it codes an anti-Semitic or Germanophilic agenda (though you can certainly find instances of both overlapping tendencies) but that so much of it tends to proceed in the Aspergery absence of any nuanced understanding of how people—State actors and common people—behave in a state of crisis.
Butz sort of nicks the surface in his discussion of the witch trial parallels and in his remarks on the Wilkomirski affair, but Crowell’s work stands apart because it isn’t, to borrow van Pelt’s term, “negationist,” but genuinely and humanely illuminating (it’s not for nothing that the subtitle of his book makes explicit reference to “Historical Understanding”). He’s the only guy in the room who seems to appreciate the powerful role of rumor, media feedback, and sociogenic belief formation that, to whatever extent, clouded and molded contemporaneous accounts of mechanized atrocity, potentially fueling a kind of mass delusion rooted in the fog of culture-bound fear.
I don’t doubt that there are bases for good faith disagreement with Crowell’s theses, but I defy anyone who actually reads the 9BB edition of The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes to locate a trace of anti-Semitism or Nazi apology, and I defy anyone who comes to Crowell’s empathic framing of Mary Antin’s memoir not to be hooked. The book is a scrupulously sourced page-turner.
My only real regret as Crowell’s publisher is that I haven’t been able to do more to get his work into the minds of people who, quite understandably, view Holocaust revisionism with suspicion. I sent examination and review copies to so many scholars and professors. With the exception of a couple of supportive emails from sources I am obligated not to divulge, there has been no response. Crowell doesn’t worry about it. Alas, I have a more restive temperament.
One final point. I know that after all of this, certain readers will be convinced that I am avoiding the pregnant question: Do you deny the Holocaust? The problem with this question, I think, is the precept that “the Holocaust” can be reduced to a falsifiable—or deniable—set of claims. This kind of toggle-switch mentality unfortunately gets a lot of mileage on both “sides” of the revisionist controversy. It’s obtuse.
Along with most intellectually mature people, my understanding of the Holocaust is that it is, in a very crucial sense, an extra-historical narrative—Crowell calls it a signifier, and he’s not wrong—that encompasses and memorializes the trajectory of a multitude of calamitous events that European Jews experienced under the reign of a virulently anti-Jewish German State. It refers in broad outline to the scheme of events that saw innocent people dragooned and pillaged and executed and transferred to camps where the ravages of war and pestilence and starvation wrought catastrophic consequences, effectively destroying deeply rooted communities and branding a particular narrative of suffering and persecution and destruction that has at turns been garbled and mythologized and seeped into legend.
Some revisionists like to minimize the central ordeal of Jewish suffering—just as some antebellum revisionists like to minimize the injustice of slavery—but not one, if you read carefully, denies that a lot of terrible shit went down. Nor, obviously I hope, do I. I am inclined to doubt that millions of people were murdered in Nazi gas chambers for essentially the same reason that I take a skeptical view of Gulf War syndrome or Satanic ritual abuse allegations—because such cases exemplify the kind of extraordinary claims (all believed by millions of people, it should be noted) that, lacking hard evidence, can be more parsimoniously apprehended as evanescent episodes of media-facilitated epidemic hysteria. Presented with compelling evidence, I would change my tune in an instant.
At the risk of overkill, I can and will add unequivocally, even if I won’t be believed, that I am not afflicted with what John Derbyshire calls “the Jew thing.” To be clearer, I think anti-Semitism is an intellectual rut. I have no use for it.
Do you know Bradley Smith, L. A. Rollins, or Samuel Crowell personally?
I know all of these guys through ongoing correspondence and occasional phone conversations. I had the pleasure of meeting Bradley in person a few years ago when my wife and I were in San Diego. The three of us went out for dinner and had a great time. He said—I remember this—that I was “much prettier in person” and he encouraged me to switch up the dated mugshot that sits at the top of the Hoover Hog website. He’s a great guy—a natural raconteur and just a really decent, easy-going centered person with a relaxed old-school California manner and a trove of stories. He gave me an autographed copy of the original playbill for The Man Who Stopped Paying (the production title for The Man Who Saw His Own Liver). When I think of Bradley, I have to remind myself of his notoriety. To me, he’s just a writer—a great writer—in the thrall of a subject. I look forward to publishing A Personal History of Moral Decay.
For the past few years, Lou Rollins has been drip-feeding me (by post) these hand-written installments for the next edition of Lucifer’s Lexicon. I should really get off my ass and publish the thing. He’s a trenchant humorist who can claim some marginal renown in the history of the American libertarian movement (I think, but I might be wrong, that his old journal Invictus is mentioned in a footnote in Brian Daugherty’s Radicals for Capitalism—and of course, he memorably defined “Libertarian movement” as “a herd of individualists stampeding toward freedom”).
Lou is also a bit on the eccentric side of the spectrum, and it’s probably accurate to describe him as a hermit. I don’t think he’s logged onto a computer in years. He speaks in a low monotone and his vocal register puts me in the mind of late night AM radio.
Publishing The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays was a big deal for me because the titular essay had a big impact on my thinking when I was young. I guess it broke the Rothbardian spell I was under, though I still have warm regard for the crotchety old fart (referring to Rothbard, not Rollins; The Ethics of Liberty is such a fun book to argue with).
I think it’s odd that Lou gets bunched in with the Holocaust revisionist crowd just because he once wrote a few articles and book reviews for the IHR. The longest—previously unpublished—revisionist-themed essay that I included in the “Other Essays” portion of his book is actually a relentless evisceration of the many “falsehoods” that can be documented in the relevant revisionist literature. He’s a skeptic in the best and truest sense of the word. He doesn’t play for any team.
Crowell, I’ve already mentioned in substance. I can add that he’s one of the most intelligent and insightful people I’ve come to know through my publishing venture, and that’s saying a lot. He’s a (mostly classical) music aficionado, a serious collector of original vinyl and wax recordings, an animal lover, a polyglot and polymath, and a formally trained scholar. It was Crowell who introduced me to Ricardian historiography (a movement that has curious parallels with Holocaust revisionism), and it was Crowell who inspired me to adopt and internalize a kind of soft hermeneutical strategy in my reading of everything from Foucault to Family Guy. He’s like that one great professor who stands apart from the rest of the faculty.
“Samuel Crowell” is, of course, a pen-name, and it still amuses me to admit that I once suspected that he might have been Elaine Showalter in drag (but never the other way around). I wish he enjoyed a wider readership and I’m confident that he will in time. One thing I can mention here is that 9BB will be publishing at least one more book by Samuel Crowell. It’s called William Fortyhands: Disintegration and Reinvention of the Shakespeare Canon, and, as the title suggests, it offers a novel perspective on the “authorship” controversy that has shadowed Shakespeare studies since forever.
I have been asked before whether I agree with the theses and ideas on offer in the books I put out. The stock answer is, not necessarily. I am, however, convinced that antinatalism (I tend to shear the hyphen) taps an acid truth—that every birth is tragic.
Earlier you asked about my political and intellectual disposition and, mindful of context, I tried to answer honestly. But if you want to play it down to the quick, I suppose my deeper worldview can be reduced to a toxic blend of scientific materialism and deep pessimism. In other words, I allow that reality can be apprehended through reason and experience, but I think the conclusions that follow tend only to affirm our worst suspicions—that, to borrow Thomas Ligotti’s perfect phrase, the universe is not just meaningless, but malignantly useless.
Some people might describe this as nihilism, but I am aware of the logomachian squalls that attend the term. To be a bit clearer, then, I don’t think that “nothing is true” in the sense that not even that grammatical utterance is true, but I do ascribe to a kind of nihilistic (or profoundly pessimistic, in the key of Schopenhauer not Ehrlich) default that counsels absolute skepticism where the polestar of meaning shifts into frame.
Put it this way: I think that Camus was right to reject political and philosophical appeals; I think he was wrong to make nice with the abyss that remains after such appeals have been filed and cert. denied. Mortality salience is key—“your death and mine,” as Jim Goad puts it. It’s just that I am no longer convinced that the inevitability of death endows a life—or “life itself”—with any special significance. The inarguable fact is that every one of us has been dropkicked into a life we didn’t ask for, that leads to death. And the world ends when you die. Not a metaphor. Zeros don’t multiply. The apple isn’t just rotten; it’s shot through with poison.
You say this kind of thing and people respond in predictable ways. I will be enjoined to throw myself off the nearest bridge. I will be advised to man up for the struggle. I will be told that I am a coward or that God is the answer. Don’t think for a second that I haven’t thought it through. There are plenty of shiny distractions to keep my interest for the time being. There are animals to be fed, deadlines to be met, and I want to see how Breaking Bad ends.
But deep pessimism is where aesthetics breaks down for me. In particular, it’s what impels me to reject appeals to transcendent “survival” that resound in racialist and environmentalist rhetoric. Pace every zombie movie ever made, I don’t think “survival”—in the literal, generational, tribal, or metaphorical sense—is anything to celebrate. It’s just a Darwinian tic.
I believe I first came to think about antinatalism when I was reading Murray Rothbard’s essay on “children’s rights” in The Ethics of Liberty. It’s an infamous bit of libertarian theory that sort of tests the limits of the non-aggression principle. The weird result is that Murray, ever the stickler for consistency, ends up defending some repugnant conclusions, such as that parents have no strict ethical obligation to care for, or even feed, their children. The reasoning follows after an ethical abhorrence of the initiation of force. While we might condemn the category of inaction that permits a helpless infant to die for lack of provision, Rothbard argues, strict libertarian ethics precludes the imposition of force—such as by dint of legal sanction or punishment—against non-intervening bystanders, including parents who do not actively aggress against their offspring but merely allow them to die.
Now I am aware that there are many ways out of this knot, including some that don’t violate Rothbard’s cherished non-aggression axiom. But I was trying to think it down on his terms, just for the sport of it, and when I considered carefully his emphasis on initial force, well, it occurred to me that maybe he wasn’t being so bravely consistent as he liked to imagine.
Wasn’t the hypothetical child’s life itself the result of a more germinal initiation of force—the procreative force that would inevitably result in a human death? Well, it certainly wasn’t something that he consented to, any more than so many subsequent floggings and taxes and zoning ordinances that he might endure and that Rothbard would surely condemn if said hypothetical child were lucky enough to be sheltered and fed through his helpless phase. I might emphasize that my armchair rejoinder was little more than a nostrum, nothing epiphanic. But it did stick with me. And then one day I was revisiting the whole business in conversation with a friend, who suggested in turn that I read this new book by a philosopher named David Benatar.
The book was called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Most people think the title alone is absurd, and when they first hear about the hedonic asymmetry that undergirds and informs Benatar’s antinatalist conclusion, they think it’s just plain silly. I think most people haven’t thought very hard about it and don’t want to. I think it’s also possible that most people accept the asymmetry at face value, but recoil when they sense were it leads. The asymmetry is simply a formalized way of expressing the relationship between pain and pleasure, and perforce, harm and benefit. It’s usually shown in a box divided into quadrants (like Pascal’s Wager), but it goes like this:
1) The presence of pain is bad; and
2) The presence of pleasure is good.
3) The absence of pain is good (even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone); but
4) The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation
The conclusion that’s intuitive to some but repugnant to others is that no matter how much good stuff occurs in a given human life, the alternative of never being brought into existence is always better. Sure, never being brought to life means never enjoying a slice of pizza or such other arguably more refined pleasures that you might care to name. But it also means never experiencing an iota of pain. It means never experiencing the pain of a pricked finger or the pain associated with any number of possible infirmities and misfortunes, from broken bones and influenza to the more emotionally resonant anguish that comes with, for example, the loss of a loved one.
You might think that a super-duper perfect life is enough to offset the imbalance. It’s not. This is because the special category of absence that applies to those who are never brought into existence entails the absence of deprivation. The person who is never born may never know the pleasure of pizza-eating or the pain of a pinprick, but he is eternally spared the latter and he experiences absolutely no sense of deprivation in missing out on the former.
Now, one reflexive response that many people come up with when they first encounter the pleasure/pain asymmetry is some version of the counterclaim that “Pain is NOT bad!” People will say, “I had cancer, and I’m a better person for it!” or “My divorce was terribly painful, but later I met the love of my life, and I’m better for it!” or they might hang their rejection on the textbook case of the a child who naïvely touches an open flame thereby triggering a nerve-sensory response thereby inculcating the useful lesson that, as Phil Hartman’s Frankenstein character would put it, “FIRE BAD!”
The problem with this kneejerk response, of course, is that it confuses the instrumental value of (some) pain with the underlying quality of pain itself, which is always, by definition, bad. That’s why it’s pain. If you don’t accept that, you can just as easily tweak the formulation to apply only to “non-instrumental pain,” which invades every human life.
A more sophisticated objection rests on something called the “non-identity problem,” or simply “non-identity.” This refers to the notion that qualitative states (pain and pleasure) cannot be meaningfully applied to nonexistent or potential beings and that therefore the absence of pleasure or pain is only relevant when applied to already-existing beings.
It sounds impressive at first blush, but people who rest their counterargument on non-identity usually fail to consider how intuitive and commonplace non-identity premised reasoning is in our day-to-day experience. At the front, it’s worth noting that most practical and moral decisions are brokered in consideration of some potential—but presently non-existent—state of affairs. Otherwise no one would take out insurance policies, plan for retirement, save for college, etc., and the entire legal basis for negligence would be nonsensical.
The same intuitive orientation is just as common where the future welfare of potential humans goes. Think of the childless couple who chooses to buy a home near a “good school” because they are “planning a family.” Or think of the last baby shower you were dragged to. Or, if such examples seem a mite trivial, consider the case where a husband and wife both carry the gene for Tay Sachs and contemplate having a child. Does anyone really think that the “non-identity problem” obviates the moral dimension of a decision that entails a 25% chance that a child will be fated to live a short life characterized by excruciating pain? The truth is that the non-identity problem is taken seriously only when it is posited in countermand to philanthropic antinatalist reasoning. It’s more of a refuge than a serious philosophical problem.
Beyond the fact that I happen to be an antinatalist, there’s much that interests me about the subject. I find it fascinating that antinatalist conclusions can be derived from—or “are consistent with” to cite that bordering-on-meaningless refrain—so many different religious and philosophical vantages. I’m an atheist, but for Christians who believe in the reality of eternal damnation, the decision to create a human life comes with the risk that a child may fail to toe the scriptural line and thus be consigned to an eternity in Hell. For deontologists who place a premium on autonomy, procreation poses the problem that no person can consent to his own creation. Anti-abortion votaries who base their argument on the premise that the life begins at conception might consider that the biological continuum they so cherish also ends foreseeably in the harm of death, that the act of procreation is as much of a death sentence as a D&C procedure. For utilitarians, particularly those who skew toward a negative utilitarian calculus, the problems are obvious.
There is also the fact that antinatalism is spectacularly provocative. I’ve observed first-hand how people who come to the subject convinced that the idea is merely silly often become hostile if not downright vituperative as the discussion progresses. And such hostile reactions aren’t confined to popular forums; there’s a scholarly article by Sami Pihlström that argues, inter alia, that antinatalism falls under this weird category of “ethical unthinkabilities” that should be proactively refused entry into the open court of academe. In this regard, my interest in antinatalism overlaps with my interest in other taboo subjects that tend to provoke acrimony, such as Holocaust revisionism, human biodiversity, and a number of troublesome bioethical issues, such as the unorthodox exploration of suicide ethics that animates Sarah Perry’s work. Controversy, when it has a prickly, emotive quality, can be a gateway to insight.
Jim’s book (Confessions of an Antinatalist) is a great one, and it seems to have found a bit of a cult following. I can announce that a revised second edition is in the offing. The new edition will feature an expansion of the “Faux Q&A” section, along with a new afterword by Jim, an introduction by me, a new cover design by Kevin Slaughter, an interview with Jim, and maybe—probably—an annotated bibliography that will be useful to people who want to explore the subject further.
I was probably premature in my announcement of Sarah Perry’s forthcoming book, Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide, since she’s still plugging away at it. But I’ve had the opportunity to read several chapters, and I can assure her readers that their patience will be rewarded. For those who don’t know, Sarah hosts an excellent blog called “The View from Hell” under the pseudonym “Sister Y.” I’ve learned as much from her as I have from anyone online, including Steve Sailer.
In the same wheelhouse, 9BB has agreed to publish a book by Colin Feltham called Keeping Ourselves in the Dark. It’s a collection of loosely interwoven, pessimistically intoned essays that constellate around the crisis of meaning. Feltham has written a number of scholarly books, perhaps most significantly in present context, What’s Wrong with Us: The Anthropathology Thesis. I’m very excited to be in a position to publish his work.
So, do you have any children?
No. And I don’t work for the government.
Your discussion of anti-natalism is fascinating, but it gives me pause. The existence of a tightly-argued literature for basically doing away with the human race, combined with technologies like birth control, could be taken as a sign that high intelligence is an evolutionary dead end. The kind of people who voluntarily limit reproduction include intelligent people capable of foresight and planning, and socially and ecologically responsible people concerned with the common good of mankind and the planet. But that means that the selfish, irresponsible, and dumb will inherit the earth, which will just make every additional birth even more tragic.
Well, high intelligence may very well be an evolutionary dead-end. I’m certainly at a loss to come up with a good reason as to why a once-adaptive trait that you and I happen to value should enjoy special pleading before the blind algorithmic noise that is natural selection.
But even if the brawny-brained do figure out a way to defy gravity before the sun explodes, I think there are yet reasons to question whether the galloping ascent of mind is really worth cheering on. Futurist geeks will inform us that there are myriad tech revolutions afoot—all spearheaded by smarties, we may be certain. And I would suggest that such of these that converge on the gilded promise of quantum computing and nanotechnology might advise a second reflective pause—one that comes by way of Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and settles at what grim solace remains in the darkest explanations that have always surrounded Fermi’s Enigma.
Maybe I’m being cryptic. What I mean to consider is simply that the evolutionary trajectory of intelligence can, has, and may yet lead to very bad things. It may one day be possible, for example, to create sentient experience—let’s not be so bold as to call it “life”—not out of gametes but in the deep quick of qubit states, and if this much should come to pass, it isn’t so far a stretch to imagine that such intelligent simulations—okay, they’re alive—will be capable of suffering, or that such will be made to suffer, perhaps for sadistic kicks, perhaps in recursive loops of immeasurable intensity that near enough approximate the eternal torture-state that’s threatened in every fevered vision of Hell to render the distinction moot.
What I further mean to consider—again against the hope we assign to intellectual progress, caught up in the story as we are—is that if and when the problem of scarcity is tidily resolved under the reign of nano-bots, that maybe then we’ll be left with basement nukes on the cheap. Or perhaps it’ll be some other smarty-tech-hatched wizardry with which to hasten the final curtain. We haven’t heard from the ETs is all I’m saying, and there’s a reason.
Or perhaps no such things will happen, or perhaps they aren’t worth considering in any case. Could be we’ll just march forward a bit longer, getting slightly stupider or slightly smarter or somehow holding onto the present equilibrium, each of us meeting our own private ends—little apocalypses all—as we continue to behold the dumb show of a natural order that seduces us at turns with chimerical notions of progress and myth and meaning. A bit more of the same, let’s say.
Well. The sun will still explode.
I don’t mean to be impossible or captious. Because the problem you’re getting at—it’s actually one of the more gnarly consequentialist objections to philanthropic antinatalism that I’ve encountered since I first dipped my toes into these turbid waters. The relationship between happiness, dysgenics, and antinatalism is parsed a bit further in an online comment thread that I’ve kept on file. Feel free to click the link and put on your thinking cap, but the meat is nested in the exchange between Sister Y and Jason Malloy, where Malloy’s statistically informed speculation is that antinatalist memes may indeed fuel a kind of “idiocracy effect” leaving more people exposed to greater suffering in a social environment that would tend to be hostile toward the escape valve of suicide.
To amplify the crux of your question, then, it could well be that belief in the philanthropic case against reproduction practically entails unintended consequences that would perpetuate, rather than alleviate, the very harm it seeks to avoid. I think the matter is yet to be empirically resolved, and I’m actually quite serious when I point to the potential dark side of intelligence worship. Still, I’ll admit it’s a troublesome wrinkle.
What’s important to keep in mind is that the reality of an “idiocracy effect” does not refute the descriptive or axiological bases for the view that it is grossly indecent (or worse, if you’re a deontologist) to force new people into existence. For antinatalists who are also committed consequentialists the problem may carry more difficulty, but for those of us who have a constitutional aversion to treating people as means, the idea that we should bite the bullet and have children—or simply refrain from promoting antinatalist reasoning—in order that the aggregate measure of human suffering should diminish or remain stable is unpersuasive. It’s a bit like asking a conscientious objector to take up arms because there’s a calculable scenario under which one more war is likely to reduce the likelihood of future military engagements.
Of course, the problem could be addressed in other ways, which reminds me of Aschwin de Wolf’s provocative discussion of antinatalism in Cryonics, where he suggests that there’s an illiberal seed at the core of antinatalist ethics. I’ve gone on long enough, but if you’re interested in understanding why I think there might be something to Aschwin’s suspicion (though not in the sense he means), my relevant comment is preserved here.
The long and short is that there’s this other idea that we might think of as antinatalism’s mutant conjoined twin, like Belial in Basket Case. It’s something that, as far I know, has yet to be formally exposited, though it has penumbral resonance in the hard logic of negative utilitarianism, and it may, more arguably, be deciphered through a Straussian (i.e., paranoid) reading of David Benatar’s long-form argument. The idea has a name: promortalism. I don’t know what to do with it. Let’s just hope our future “Friendly AI” overlords don’t catch wind.
Your anti-natalist arguments appear to be based on essentially individualistic assumptions. What if individual suffering really did not matter that much, and the object of concern was the nation, the race, or the welfare of the universe itself? What if one did not regard each human life merely as an end in itself, but as a means to higher ends, such as the unfolding of high culture, grand politics, science, exploration, etc.? That sort of vision would give intelligent and responsible people reasons to reproduce, and also furnish an argument for reducing the reproduction of the selfish, dumb, and happy-go-lucky.
I’m not blind to the romance of human achievement. If I were, I wouldn’t bother publishing books, and my reading list would start and stop with instruction manuals. But the Greater Good always strikes me as being a cunt-hair shy of the Greater God, and I lack the imagination to believe in either.
Such abstract objects of concern that could be enthroned above the intractable reality of forced mortal suffering can be better understood, I think, as distractions—or as secular iterations of the transcendental temptation. In Confessions of an Antinatalist, Jim Crawford discusses some of the “escape strategies” that people deploy to avoid confronting the prospect that the universe might reduce to so much useless malignancy, and he makes the important point (I touch on this above) that stories of trans-generational “survival”—whether of races or nations, humanity or Christianity, or even knowledge—are really stories of vicarious (which is to say, fake) survival. If you’re in thrall to the romance of the long march, there’s little I can say to dash your enthusiasm. You should be aware, however, that the soldiers you conscript for the grand mission may not share your sense of adventure, and are sure to die in battle.
Jim cuts it to the marrow when he says, “Hope is my enemy.” And however it’s phrased, the hope of “tomorrow’s promise” (also Jim’s line) is subsumed under the broader teleological conceit that I reject on all grounds. It’s the granddaddy of delusions, this notion that there’s a purpose to any of it. It’s the monster “conspiracy” that lurks above Ligotti’s marionettes.
Your combination of scientific rationalism and pessimism brings to mind H. P. Lovecraft. Are you a reader of his work?
I made the usual rounds with Lovecraft’s fiction when I was young, but it never reached the point of obsession. I just loved the stories—the sense of dread, the adverbially layered, almost schizophrenically-tinged descriptions of nameless, timeless, inchoate horror. It always seemed that he was trying to capture that rushing apocalyptic frisson that wakes you from a nightmare just as some terrible apocalyptic truth is about to be revealed.
There’s a scene in David Lynch’s film, Mulholland Drive, that reminds me very much of this aspect of Lovecraft’s horror writing—the part that takes place at Winky’s Diner, where the guy anxiously recounts a recurring dream that’s been traumatizing him . . . as the details he describes quietly manifest and the day-lit environment assumes a sinister pall. I mention this only because the horror that Lovecraft was plying seems at once so fragile and so familiar; like it wants to vanish upon analysis.
Those other aspects of Lovecraft—his voluminous antitheist writings, the criticism, the rational-pessimist philosophical essays, the traditionalist conservatism—that all came to my attention much later, mostly by way of Houellebecq’s biographical portrait and Ligotti’s brilliant treatise, The Conspiracy against the Human Race. A few of Joshi’s essays, too. I have yet to delve as far as I really should.
It does strike me how this dire appraisal of the universe that resonates in the work of Schopenhauer, Zapffe, Lovecraft, and some few others, stands at such implacable remove from the delusional, smiley-faced brand of “new atheism” that’s championed these days by writers of sundry polemical bestsellers. This is something I explore—without, alas, explicit reference to Lovecraft’s importance—in my introduction to a collection of the nonfiction work of Edgar Saltus that’s being put out soon by Underworld Amusements. Saltus’s works on offer—The Philosophy of Disenchantment (about deep pessimism) and The Anatomy of Negation (about antitheism) —were written around the turn of the 19th century, and it’s such a bracing shock to contemplate the gulf that separates his dismal viewpoint from such cheery cant that animates the present-day Dawkins cult. I suppose I would be tempting a joke if I were to call it depressing.
I see you are bringing out Hollister Kopp’s Gun Fag Manifesto with a Preface by Jim Goad. Tell us about that project
Yeah. This one’s a hoot. I’m doing it in collaboration with Kevin Slaughter of Underworld Amusements, so it’s actually a 9BB/UA release—hopefully the first in a series of “Resurrection” reprints of great zines. We have others in our sights.
Gun Fag Manifesto was one of my favorite things to come out of the halcyon days of zinedom, and, as with so many other DIY publications from that micro-era (the mid-’90s), it seems to have disappeared down the memory hole. The subtitle said it all: “Entertainment for the Armed Sociopath.” GFM was lovingly, obsessively, psychotically, and irresponsibly devoted to guns, gun culture, gun counterculture, gun rights, gun art, gun porn, and . . . ammo. The writing is obsessive and funny as hell, blending a hilariously over-the-top (but not ironic) pro-gun editorial stance with a powder keg of smart-witted gonzo reportage in the spirit of ANSWER Me! I’m really tickled that Jim Goad will be kicking off the festivities. His name belongs on this thing for reasons that go way back.
The book itself is just what you’d want: a facsimile reprint of all three issues with a perfect new introduction by Hollister and, of course, Goad’s preface. There’ll be some new artwork to jazz things up at the edges, and maybe a cool promotional gimmick, but that’s the gist. I’ve been wanting to do this one for such a long time, but Hollister was hard to track down. Once I found him, it didn’t take much to convince him. He’s one of the good ones.
What do you envision for the future of Nine-Banded Books? Where would you like to be in ten years?
I remember seeing an interview with John Waters where he described his cinematic achievement as “a footnote that fought its way into a paragraph.” The footnote seems like a cozy enough redoubt for what I do, but I’m content to operate further below the cultural radar—beneath even the footnotes and the asterisks appending the footnotes—as long as I can continue to publish some few books each year that I believe matter in whatever way. There’s no shortage of ideas; I enjoy following my instincts and being surprised by the next obsessive charge that comes. I think I’m a reasonably good editor (though I’m a crappy proofreader, which is why I rely on Ann Sterzinger’s laser eye), and I enjoy working closely with writers. In practical terms, I guess I’d like to fatten up the stock of non-9BB titles on offer, if only to better showcase more of the provocative and overlooked literature that catches my attention. There’s good stuff being put out by other niche publishers. The catalog will grow is all I know.
As far as more immediate future plans go, I can make at least a few relatively firm announcements about what’s on the front burner—some things that haven’t been mentioned above.
First, there’s this nasty little collection of short fiction by Paul Bingham called Down Where the Devil Don’t Go. I’ve been sitting on it for too long, but it’s very nearly ready for press now. I’d describe it as a kind of postmodern picaresque—or “houellebecqesque” if I may coin a silly term. Despicable characters leading despicable lives in a loosely interconnected sequence of misanthropically intoned, pulp-noir-descended stories revolving around themes of alienation, anomie, and cultural degeneration. The flavor is reactionary, and the satirical inflection is pitch-black.
Next in the queue might or might not be Jesus Never Existed: An Introduction to the Ultimate Heresy by Kenneth Humphreys. Ken is an articulate and reliable gadfly for the “mythicist” opposition to the regnant Jesus historiography, and this book presents the thesis in entertaining bite size chunks. It’s a primer, sort of like those “Very Short Introduction” monographs that Oxford has been churning out over the years.
Let’s see . . . I’ve already made note of Colin Feltham’s book and the future releases by Crowell and Bowden, so that leaves me to mention The Nine-Banded Sourcebook and Reader, which is this giant-ass compendium I’ve been working on in fits and starts for some time. I guess you might call it a “magalog” in that it features flagrantly self-promotional content cheek-to-cheek with a bunch of interviews and articles—some reprints, some new—that sort of coalesce around the 9BB brand, such as it is. If you remember the old Whole Earth catalogs or the Loompanics Unlimited annuals, well, that’s sort of the spirit I’m hoping to capture. The cover art is by Billy Spicer, and it’s a fucking knockout.
If it’s not too far afield, I’d like to close with a plug for two writers in the 9BB stable whose work has thus far gone unmentioned. These writers are Ann Sterzinger and Mikita Brottman.
Ann’s books may not mesh so obviously with the countercultural and metapolitical currents that provoke rubbernecking, but I dare anyone to read her novel NVSQVAM (nowhere) and not agree with me that she’s a criminally overlooked writer. I’ve since had the opportunity to read the first draft of a science fiction novel that she’s still perfecting, and it was so good it made my elbows itch (or maybe that was spilled salt on the bar? . . . regardless). I hope to hell she gets her shot with a top-drawer publisher before the last call. I think she will. She deserves it. She’s worked for it. I do worry sometimes that I’ve jinxed the odds by publishing her first.
And then there’s Mikita, whose subversive cultural studies have made such a lasting impression on me. Mikita Brottman is that rare bird who can turn out razor-sharp interdisciplinary scholarship in one stroke and pitch-perfect psychological fiction in the next. She gets in your head, and under your skin. Just read Thirteen Girls. You’ll see.
Thank you Chip, this is been an amazing, mind- and world-expanding interview for me and my readers. I look forward to your future writings and publications.
There's a gift in being born. It says so right on page 203 of Grit Bonderson's book Being Born: 50 Essential Things to Do. Bonderson quotes the singer Malivia Fewton-Kohn as saying this about her "journey through life": "I see it [life] as a gift. I know it sounds strange. But I don't think I would have grown in the areas I did without this experience."
Then Bonderson urges his readers to "Seek the gift in being born. It's there."
Bonderson's way of putting things is no fluke; the life-as-gift trope is all too popular. Mort McKnibbon used it in writing for The Daily Creep, and Barbie Ehrenright reports (but does not buy into) other examples over at The Gordian.
In the decades since I was brought into existence, I've not succeeded in locating any gift in life. I have discovered that, with the steadfast love and support of family and friends, I can deal with the effects of life, ranging from discomfort to fatigue and the overwhelming dread of it all. It's hard work, this being alive.
But maybe the gift is yet in hiding and will appear sometime in the next decade as the living and, later, the dying continues?
I don't think so. And let me clarify one thing: The hundred ways, large and small, that I'm shown logistical and emotional support from those who care about me is because of the generosity of the people in my life. In no way does being born get the credit for that.
Ehrenright is one of my guides on this topic. She concludes her essay on "the sad science of positive thinking" this way:
"Surviving a suicide attempt, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a 'gift,' was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before — one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate."
Another of my guides is Lina Bonerchick Badams. Badams, also a writer, and a person who has come to regret being born, is a friend of mine — although we know each other through social media only, she is a friend nonetheless. On life-as-a-gift, she writes in a blog post something that resonated with me:
"A gift is something you want to share.
"Something you want to give to someone else.
"Something [about which] you say 'Next time I need to give a special gift to show someone I care, this is what I want to give.'
"Life is not that thing.
"The words we use to describe life, death, and emotion are important — we should choose them carefully."
How right Badams is: Language matters.
Bonderson, in Being Born: 50 Essential Things to Do, urges people to "reframe" their existential fate and see it as "an inspiring challenge rather than a threat." He also suggests some affirmations for the pessimist, ranging from I am filled with hope to This is going to turn out perfectly and I am in charge of my life.
It's no gift to suggest these last two affirmations to people who suffer under the affliction of life and the pall of death.
There is no gift in life.
I corresponded with David Cole for a time back in the mid 90s when I was assembling material for the second print issue of The Hoover Hog -- a substantial section of which was to be devoted to "the other side of genocide." I'd been following Holocaust revisionist arguments from a safe distance for a couple of years and the whole subject fascinated me for a number of reasons that still hold, not least because I had come to suspect that the bad guys were probably right about a thing or two, including, probably, the legendary status of the Nazi gas chambers. After seeing Cole's guerrilla Auschwitz documentary and reading his breezy essays in Pat Hartman's sadly forgotten zine, Salon, I figured he might have something to contribute. He was easy to contact, and he gave me permission to publish some good stuff. The fact that he was Jewish served to tweak the narrative, I suppose, but it really wasn't that important. What seemed to matter far more was that, unlike so many other agenda-driven revisionists, David seemed to share my freewheeling sense of intellectual adventure. He seemed, in fact, like a smarter (and much braver) version of myself.
I expected that our correspondence would continue, but it wasn't long after I pushed out the second -- and, as it turned out, final -- saddle-stitched Hoover Hog that David ran into trouble. You may know what happened. It's been documented at the margins. But in case you don't know, what happened was that the JDL -- which at the time meant Irv Rubin -- publicly threatened to kill (as in murder, or, um, exterminate) David if he didn't renounce his traitorous, Holocaust-denying ways. This should have been big news because it was well known that Rubin and his thugs didn't fuck around. But it wasn't big news. If you weren't tuned to certain dark frequencies, you probably wouldn't have heard about it at all. Anyway, what happened next was that David, understandably fearing for his life and for the safety of his family, signed what I imagine to have been a ghostwritten "recantation" in which he announced that his new friend Irv had shown him the error of his ways. After that, David slipped off the radar. I might have sent him another letter or two, but I never heard back. Nor did I expect to.
David struck me as a good guy. Smart and nebbishy and a bit cocksure, but a really decent guy with a studiously skeptical take on the world. He made it clear that he was an outspoken atheist and a liberal, and when I sent him a tentative outline of the issue in which his work was to appear, he requested a draft copy of my article, "Fetal Fallacies: A Libertarian-Atheist Argument against Legal Abortion" because he was staunchly pro-choice and wanted to write a rebuttal. He later replied with a short missive, assuring me that my argument was even crappier than he had expected and that he would take pleasure in dismantling it piece by piece. I regret that that never happened.
I don't know if David's rejoinder would have convinced me of much back then. But as it happens, I'm no longer an anti-abortion mutant (in fact, I would now describe my relevant views, for reasons that would only annoy you, as resignedly "pro-abortion"), though I have no regrets over my engagement with logical arguments that really should be taken more seriously by those who make it their business to promote abortion rights. I also do not know if David's views on the subject have since changed, but it was, in any event, a genuine surprise to learn that has spent the last several years of his life in exile putting on his best P.J. O'Rourke to promote the ranks of "Hollywood conservatives." I had heard through the grapevine that David was working in Hollywood, but I figured it was something more quotidian -- that maybe he was editing commercials or striking sets, or tending bar.
But here we have the news of David's "unmasking." It's a nutty story in some respects (turns out David's dad was the doctor who supplied Elvis with his Demerol fix), but the reporting doesn't strike me as being especially biased or unfair. The Guardian reporter even uses the term "revisionist," a rarity these days (though this usage is comically qualified: "fringe scholars known then as Holocaust revisionists, subsequently renamed denialists").
So here's the meat of it, picking up after l'affaire Rubin:
... Cole, his credibility shredded on all sides, adopted the name Stein, chosen because it was simple and short, he said. Only a few close friends knew the secret.
The recanting was fake, he said. Cole today still challenges established Holocaust scholarship, including the certainty about Nazi gas chambers. "The best guess is yes, there were gas chambers" he says. "But there is still a lot of murkiness about the camps. I haven't changed my views. But I regret I didn't have the facility with language that I have now. I was just a kid," he said this week.
As Stein, however, he shielded his views, not least during the next stage of his career odyssey: the maker of respectable, conventional Holocaust documentaries. He knew the subject, needed an income and US schools and universities had budgets to commission such projects. He said: "I gave mainstream audiences what they wanted."
At the same time, he started writing op-eds under Stein and other pseudonyms, expressing what he said was his growing fervour for a hawkish foreign policy, a strong Israel and conservative social policy. Posts on his acerbic blog were picked up by mainstream news outlets.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Cole sensed opportunity. Inspired by the writer PJ O'Rourke's brand of rollicking, liquor-fuelled conservativism, he said he launched Republican Party Animals, a networking circle for libertarians and social conservatives which promised spice – "scantily-clad women, drink, fun, loud music" – but not too much. There would be no cocaine or illegality.
"Do you like your conservative politics mixed with a healthy dose of whiskey, fine cigars and kickass rock n' roll?" its website asked. "Do you live in a city filled with morons wearing Che T-shirts as they mindlessly cling to tattered, faded 2008 'Hope and Change' posters? Then WELCOME, friend – this is the group for you!" Blog posts assailed Obama, Occupy protestors and alleged anti-semites.
It is further noted that Cole's -- ahem, Stein's -- cover was blown by a friend ("an exceptionally vindictive young lady," in David's words) in whom he had confided about his past and with whom he subsequently had a "falling out." Typical.
Of course, the article doesn't address the questions that pique my curiosity -- such as what led David to embrace the hawkish conservative line. Maybe it was the bit with the twin towers. Or maybe he just needed to pick a new fight. I'm not inclined to play at armchair psychoanalysis.
Nor is any detailed account provided of the "conventional Holocaust documentaries" that Cole produced under his assumed identity, when he felt obliged to give "mainstream audiences what they wanted." That seems significant, since Cole's most lasting contribution to Holocaust revisionism, as I've already mentioned, is itself a pretty compelling documentary -- David Cole Interviews Dr. Franciszek Piper, Director, Auschwitz State Museum -- that is nowhere mentioned in the article.
What's interesting, though, is David's present take on his youthful dalliance with a dangerous idea. I mean, given the circumstances it would have been easy enough for him to unequivocally disclaim his former views in terms sweeping and definitive. The "recantation" line was hanging like ripened fruit, after all. But I think it is to his credit that he shades it grey instead. "The best guess is yes, there were gas chambers" he tells the reporter. "But there is still a lot of murkiness about the camps. I haven't changed my views. But I regret I didn't have the facility with language that I have now. I was just a kid."
That term, "facility" -- I imagine it was carefully chosen.
David says he now feels guilty about the whole episode. In a social environment that consigns gas chamber skepticism to the lowest rungs of unforgivable transgression, I suppose that much is understandable. He deceived people, and now they're left to clean up the mess.
But what a curious mess it is.
When Nine-Banded Books published Sam Crowell's opus, The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes: And Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding, I really wanted to send a copy to David. I even contacted Bradley Smith to see if he could maybe forward it, but Bradley assured me that it wasn't the best idea. He said that David had moved on and probably wouldn't take well to the gesture. Brad was probably right. Not moving on is my problem.
Yeah, this is happening.
Peter and I did this thing a few weeks back at Quimby's in Chicago, and by most accounts it went well enough. So we're doing it again -- this time at the great Atomic Books in Baltimore (the same venue that graciously hosted Nine-Banded author, Mikita Brottman, upon the release of her fine book, Thirteen Girls, which you should read).
The present occasion is the concurrent release of two books by Peter -- Tool. and Mine. I will introduce Peter and, if we are to follow the Quimby's template, I may also have a few semi-coherent remarks concerning the curatorial role of independent publishers -- and Nine-Banded Books specifically -- in promoting controversial and overlooked literature during these precious latter days of the post-Gutenberg era. Peter will talk about his work and show a short film, and he will of course be available to sign books that you can mark up and sell on eBay when the rent is due.
Anything else to note? Only that Mikita is expected to be there, along with Kevin Slaughter ("The Chip Kidd of underground book design®" who also runs the always interesting publishing venture, Underworld Amusements). Oh, and I'm to understand that "adult beverages" (we're all adults here, yes?) will be on offer, compliments of the house.
Anyway, the festivities are scheduled to begin at around 7pm on Saturday, April 13. Here's the Atomic Books Facebook page for the event. And here's the announcement on their website. Please do try to come if you're in the neighborhood and have some idea of what you're signing on for.