ballad of black tomThis is a little unorthodox: Before I start my review of this novella (short version: it’s very good), I first need to discuss H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Horror at Red Hook, upon which it is partly based. Spoilers for both are ahead, obviously.

Red Hook is H.P. Lovecraft’s work in microcosm; showing both his best–his tremendous talent for creating a chilling weird story–and his worst–his extreme and vicious racism. It’s both one of my favorite Lovecraft stories for its plot and its atmosphere, and also one I hate the most for the way he despises all the non-WASPs at every opportunity.

The plot follows police detective Malone, who is investigating the suspicious activities of a wealthy and mysterious old man, Robert Suydam. Suydam purchases tenement buildings in the immigrant district of Red Hook, New York.

As is often the case in Lovecraft stories, the foreigners populating Red Hook are depicted as sinister, inhuman figures, controlled by the corrupted “Aryan”, Suydam. (Even the bad whites still outrank the non-whites, in Lovecraft’s world.)

Malone’s investigations of Suydam leads him to join the police in a raid of the tenement buildings, where they stumble upon inconceivable cosmic horror that nearly drives them mad. (For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the underlying concept of all “Lovecraftian” horror.)

The denouement consists of people thinking the menace is over when the buildings collapse in the police raid, but Malone, one of the few survivors, knows better; and evil foreigners in Red Hook are still heard murmuring diabolical chants.

I love the atmosphere and pacing of Red Hook–Lovecraft did a good job insinuating  occult machinations to create a powerful sense of dread. Malone is also one of his most complex and carefully-drawn protagonists. (Admittedly, that’s not saying much–more on this later.)

But I loathe calling it one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, simply because of the many paragraphs just dripping with violent racial hatred.

This is the issue LaValle’s novella addresses. The first half of The Ballad of Black Tom is told from the perspective of Charles Thomas Tester, a black man in New York who hustles to support himself and his father.

Tester is tasked with delivering a book of magic to a mysterious woman in Queens, Ma Att. This sets off a chain of events that includes a run-in with Detective Malone and his associate, an ignorant officer named Howard. Both Malone and especially Howard treat Tester with extreme racism and cruelty.

Additionally, Tester also encounters Robert Suydam, who hires him to play his guitar at one of the gatherings at his mansion. Though Tester senses something odd about the old man, he cannot refuse the pay to support himself and his father.

When Tester goes to the mansion, Suydam speaks to him of “the Outside”–meaning, essentially, other dimensions–and demonstrates his ability to move the house at will through space and time while a shocked and frightened Tester plays his guitar.

(While most of the story and characters are derived from Red Hook, this particular scene had shades of The Music of Erich Zann–one of Lovecraft’s best stories. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but I loved it.)

Suydam concludes by speaking of “The Sleeping King”–it is not clear to Tester what this means, but all the Lovecraft aficionados will know. In a panic, Tester tries to flee, but opens the door only to see Detective Malone standing in a completely different room than the one that should have been on the other side. Suydam’s manipulation of space and time at work.

Ultimately, Tester is allowed to go home with his pay, only to find that Howard has murdered his father. The policeman saw him with a guitar, which he claims to have mistaken for a rifle, and shot him dozens of times. Malone backs up Howard’s story, and they leave Tester broken and furious. This drives him to work with Suydam.

The second half of the story is told from Malone’s perspective. He learns that Suydam is taking over tenement buildings, and that he has a new lieutenant–a man called “Black Tom”.

Malone then returns to Ma Att’s house to track down the mysterious book. When he arrives, Ma Att’s house has vanished–a witness reports that it was seemingly through the supernatural power of a man matching the description of “Black Tom”.

Terrified by the power Tom and Suydam apparently possess, Malone quickly organizes a raid on Suydam’s buildings.  Being well-versed in the occult, he is able to find a hidden passage to a secret chamber that the other police miss, and there he confronts Suydam and Black Tom.

LaValle shows us more explicit horrors than Lovecraft ever would, but the real difference between the climax of Black Tom and Red Hook is that the former balances cosmic horror with personal motivation–LaValle never loses sight of what draws Tom (or Suydam, or Malone), to the weird and the sinister. In the final chapter, Tom makes it clear it was the cruel racism he experienced that drove him to become a monster.

Lovecraft rarely bothered to explore motivations. It was a deliberate artistic choice–he said in some of his letters that human concerns bored him, and so he preferred to focus on the horror of cosmic indifference.  That’s a legitimate storytelling decision; and many of Lovecraft’s successors have gone too far the other way, and overemphasize human emotions, to the point where it dilutes the cosmic horror. (Even the great Stephen King is sometimes guilty of this.)

LaValle gets the balance just about right, in my opinion.  The characters are human enough that we are interested in them, but the cosmic horrors are bizarre enough that we never lose that “dread of outer, unknown forces”, to quote Lovecraft himself.

I bought this book expecting it to be a “critique-by-way-of-story” of Lovecraft’s work and attitudes. And it certainly was that, but what I frankly did not expect was that it would also be a cracking good weird tale in its own right. Good cosmic horror is rare, and good cosmic horror balanced with other genres and techniques is even rarer.  As such, I highly recommend The Ballad of Black Tom to fans of the genre.

I heard an interesting program last week on This American Life about Forrest Carter.  The only work of his I was at all familiar with was the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales, starring Clint Eastwood. Carter wrote the novel that it was based on.  I haven’t read the book, but I remember that the movie featured a trite “Wise Old Native American” type of character, who was a companion to the aforementioned outlaw, a man whose house and family get destroyed by Federal troops, prompting him to join the Confederacy.

Carter also wrote a book called The Education of Little Tree, a purportedly autobiographical account of his upbringing by his Cherokee grandparents. It was a hoax, however; the guy’s real name was Asa Earl Carter, and he had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He was also a speech writer for the pro-segregation Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, allegedly writing the famous line of Wallace’s: “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” He had not been raised by any Cherokee grandparents, and had no immediate Cherokee ancestry.

What’s weird is that for a long time, Little Tree was accepted and beloved by many people. Although his deception was noticed by some in the late 1970s, most people didn’t find out about it until 1991.  (There’s something that could only happen before the internet.) And during this time, the book was apparently considered uplifting and inspirational by a lot of open-minded, New-Age types, who liked its environmentalist message.  (So I’ve heard–I haven’t read the book myself yet.)

What I can’t quite tell–and maybe no one can–is what exactly Carter’s motivation was in all this.  Did he just think it was funny to have people going around reading a book written by a white supremacist?  Did he come to have a change of heart in his later years, and become more open-minded?  Was he just crazy and came to delude himself into believing his own fabricated history of his life?

Or was it just that his Confederate nostalgia made him sympathetic to the Native Americans simply because they were also in opposition to the Federal troops, just as the Confederates were?  No matter how you look at it, it is quite a bizarre story.

Counter-factual history novels almost always seem better in theory than in practice.  They always sound interesting at first, but too often they end up feeling very contrived and ham-handed, at least in my experience.

In any event, there is one entitled Dominion by C.J. Sansom, about an alternate history wherein Britain and Nazi Germany are allied.  I have not read it.  I have only heard about it because of Peter Hitchens’s column addressing the book’s controversial portrayal of Enoch Powell. If you don’t know who Enoch Powell was in real life, the short answer is that he was a British politician who got a reputation as a racist because in 1968 he said:

A week or two ago I fell into conversation with a constituent, a middle-aged, quite ordinary working man employed in one of our nationalised industries. After a sentence or two about the weather, he suddenly said: “If I had the money to go, I wouldn’t stay in this country.” I made some deprecatory reply to the effect that even this government wouldn’t last for ever; but he took no notice, and continued: “I have three children, all of them been through grammar school and two of them married now, with family. I shan’t be satisfied till I have seen them all settled overseas. In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

I can already hear the chorus of execration. How dare I say such a horrible thing? How dare I stir up trouble and inflame feelings by repeating such a conversation? The answer is that I do not have the right not to do so. Here is a decent, ordinary fellow Englishman, who in broad daylight in my own town says to me, his Member of Parliament, that his country will not be worth living in for his children. I simply do not have the right to shrug my shoulders and think about something else…

The most famous part of the speech is his conclusion:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.

I don’t know if he was a racist or not, but I think on the evidence of that speech, we can safely say that he had an intense dislike of immigrants.

So, that’s real-life Enoch Powell for you.  Meanwhile, in this book Dominion, Powell is portrayed as very friendly to the Nazi-government that fictional Britain is allied with.   Peter Hitchens–though not really a Powell fan–doesn’t like this one bit, writing:

Powell was one of the first to volunteer for war in 1939. He was , as it happens, deeply opposed to the policy of ‘appeasement’ .  It is infantile leftism to imagine that there was anything in common between his conservative opinions and the exterminationist Judophobia of the German National Socialists. In fact, I think it typical of the unthinking modern Left, that they cannot see the difference, and indeed do not want to see it.

Well, now this is kind of an interesting question.  If we conclude that Powell was an ardent nationalist, who opposed foreigners mixing with the native population, I think it is fair to say there is something in common with the ardent nationalism and protection of German soil that characterized the Nazi party.  You could say they are not the exactly same thing, and that Powell would never have gone to the same violent and evil lengths in service of his views, and by all appearances this is true.  But still, there is something in common.

But again, this in itself proves nothing.  The Nazis also wore uniforms and had weapons, thus giving them “something in common” with every other military in the world.  This does not automatically mean that they are all the same thing.

In his book Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, Patrick J. Buchanan wrote:

By its nature, nationalism, especially a virulent strain like Nazism, is difficult to export. When Britain went to war, Oswald Mosley, the head of the British Union of Fascists, volunteered at once to fight for Britain. [p.346]

Exactly.  Fanatical nationalists will ultimately end up fighting against any foreign influence, including attacks by other fanatical nationalists.  (Mosley, by the way, also is apparently in Dominion, also as a pro-Nazi.) You may disagree, but Buchanan seems like a good person to consult about this, since he and Powell seem, based on their writings, to be almost of one mind on the immigration issue.

So, Hitchens is probably right, although not in the way he thinks. A nationalist like Powell would naturally have fought the Nazis–after all, they were foreigners!  This is the thing about nationalists: not only do they fight other people who are not nationalists, they also frequently end up fighting each other as well.

In the first three parts of this series, I have established what I see as the logic of the American political system as it stands today.   Now, we need to examine the flaws and the potential dangers in this system.

It is first of all the case that nationalists—as opposed to patriots, the distinction between which you can see analyzed here or here—have been on the losing end of things since the 1960s.  Cosmopolitan liberals have been gaining since then, and this the nationalists will not abide.

But still, the clear winner over this time period has been the materialist business interests, for whom the nationalists vote based on their promises to cut the size of government, and with whom the cosmopolitans are obliged to compromise in the interest of seeing their gains on social issues protected.

The Thomas Frank question is: why do the nationalists continually vote for the anti-government big money people when they never do actually do anything to help the nationalists in their quest to abolish gay marriage, feminism, and secularism and restore militarism, flag-waving culture, traditional families and Christian dominance?

One hypothesis is that the nationalists are, by and large, ignorant hicks.  They certainly do hate the education system, bastion of liberalism that it allegedly is.  Thus, they can be duped every four years by some businessman who spouts slogans about “family values” and “sanctity of marriage” and who once elected cuts the capital gains tax and curtails welfare benefits.

When you add in that most nationalists are rural, and that many of them are Southern, where the schools have never been as good as the North or West, it looks compelling to say that they are just easily-tricked bumpkins.  Some liberals pity them, some liberals mock them; but they are seen widely as buffoons.

There is some evidence against this hypothesis, however.  That is why I read the works of Oswald Spengler or the political writings of H.P. Lovecraft.  They were both nationalists and, abhorrent though their views may be to me, there can be no doubt they were very intelligent men.

Moreover, you can see intelligent, educated nationalists even in the present day: a loose association sometimes called “the alt-right”.  I had a brief exchange with one of their number, OneSTDV, that some readers may recall.

Many of them are quite intelligent and well accustomed to philosophical debate and reasoning.  And they hold political views which I think many people supposed were now extinct in this country.  For example, they are fairly open about their admiration for fascism. They are more reactionary than most liberals can even imagine.

There are a few mainstream figures as well—Pat Buchanan is one—who may be classed as reasonably well-educated nationalists.  So, it is possible for such people to exist. Their philosophy is surprisingly intricate, and they can prove quite formidable in debate.

Given that, why keep voting for the materialist business interests, which care nothing for nationalism except insofar as it dictates the currency whose flow dictates their actions?  Well, in some cases, the nationalists don’t.  But in general, the reason is simply that both sides have common cause in that they hate the government. (With the exception of the military, in the case of the nationalists.)

They have different reasons: the nationalists hate it because it is populated by liberals.  (Most Republicans in government are far too liberal for their taste.)  Materialist corporate-types hate it because it has the power to take their money.  This fact means that business interests have a much easier time compromising with government than nationalists do.  Business wants to keep the government from getting its money; nationalists hate the actual people in the government .

Nonetheless, the nationalists’ plan is therefore rational: allow the Randian-minded businessmen to screw with the government long enough and it will eventually become weak.  Once it is weak, they will be in fine position to send in a candidate who really does mean to take us back to the 1950s. But clearly that day has not yet come.

Liberals are semi- cognizant of this threat, but it is very difficult to make the connections and realize that the nationalists may not be merely an angry group of people, but actually followers of a philosophy; one that is internally consistent and entirely antithetical to liberal values.

When I had my exchange with OneSTDV, many of his readers commented on my blog.  Interestingly, the topic that they focused on was this part:

[OneSTDV’s] belief that blacks are inherently inferior to whites intellectually. He calls this idea “Human BioDiversity” or “HBD”. I call it “racism” myself, and I believe it to be false.

Most of their comments centered on this point, and there was a lot of back-and-forth about the validity of it. One thing that caused some confusion—and this is my fault—was disagreement over whether “HBD” was the same thing as “racism”.  To my mind, they amount to the same thing: the belief that different races are in inherently different in non-trivial, especially mental, ways.  Now, some HBDers seemed to object to my effectively calling them racists, but I didn’t mean to imply that they are all klansmen; merely that they see race as an important factor in determining how well a person’s mind functions.

That’s an aside, but I wanted to get that bit of terminology clarified before proceeding.  What was especially interesting to me about the response to my OneSTDV post was a comment by “Ken S”:

“I am a fairly liberal HBD’er and I also frequently find OneSTDV’s blogging distasteful.  But don’t let that turn you off from finding out more about this viewpoint, there is much evidence in support of some of the non-political tenets of HBD…

While I like might like what you have expressed in the context of the arts, this is not the proper context that HBD lies in.  HBD itself is a scientific idea and the politics expressed at blogs like OneSTDV are responses to scientific data that question whether or not current social policies are doing more harm than good.  Even if he is wrong about the politics it would not make him wrong about the scientific findings that he uses to support his position.”

I also discovered the writings of a blogger named “John” at the sadly now-removed blog Stream of John, who also holds fairly liberal political views while still agreeing with the validity of “HBD”.  (I assume that he discovered my blog through reading OneSTDV)

Together, these two go to demonstrate a very interesting point: agreeing with the HBD hypothesis does not automatically determine one’s political beliefs.  After all, if these two can be liberals while still agreeing with the HBD view of things, it shows that there is no political philosophy that automatically follows from it.

Which is interesting, for it implies that OneSTDV and I would still have cause to quarrel even if one of us were somehow able to persuade the other on issues of race.  More broadly speaking, it shows that the divide between cosmopolitans and nationalists runs much deeper than even racial issues.

At bottom, these are whole philosophies of life that clash; they cannot be reduced to beliefs about race, or gender, or economics or any of the other issues.  The philosophical battle encompasses all of these.  If this hypothesis is correct, it in turn implies that there will never be consensus, and thus there is constant tension the political system.

So, in case you haven’t heard, John Derbyshire was a writer for National Review. He wrote an essay, not for NR, but another publication last week. You can read it here, but the gist of it was: if you are not a black person, you should minimize contact with black people, especially large groups of black people.

John Derbyshire is no longer a writer for National Review.

I have a few points that I offer in counter to Derbyshire’s. He thoughtfully numbered his, so I will give my rebuttals and list in parentheses which of his statements they apply to.

Ready? Let’s go:

(10a, 10c, 10d, 10e,10i) All of these points would be equally good advice if the word “black” were stricken from them. Avoiding large crowds of strangers, and not talking to strangers on the street are always good rules of thumb regardless of the stranger’s race. Derbyshire’s advice is kind of like saying “if a guy in a red shirt comes running at you screaming with a big, bloody chainsaw, you should try to get away or stop him somehow.” Guess what? That’s true if the guy is wearing a blue shirt, too.

(10b, 10f) the evidence for these is purely anecdotal; maybe good advice, maybe not, but his evidence is two incidents.

(10g) This is foolhardy. Scrutinize all politicians’ character closely. Why the hell would you ever not scrutinize them all to the best of your ability?

(10h) This is similar to my first point, but there’s more to it. First of all, the article he links to in order to illustrate this point is quite dubious. There is every reason, on reading it, to conclude that the “Good Samaritan” tried to help the woman, and was simply defeated by the younger man from whom he was defending her. The witnesses could easily have misinterpreted what they saw. In which case, he did exactly the right thing, and simply (tragically) lost the fight. In any event, this is an unusual case. It’s true that criminals–regardless of race–sometimes do try to attract victims by faking a need for help, but one can usually use one’s own judgement to figure out who is genuinely in need of help and who is best avoided.

So, to summarize, Derbyshire has some obvious rules of thumb, into which he throws racial terms needlessly, he has some rules which he supports with anecdotal evidence, he has one extremely bad rule which would inevitably lead to failure to detect bad politicians, and he has one rule that makes a blanket statement where individual, case-by-case judgement is perfectly adequate.

Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, wrote after firing Derbyshire:

His latest provocation… lurches from the politically incorrect to the nasty and indefensible. We never would have published it, but the main reason that people noticed it is that it is by a National Review writer… So there has to be a parting of the ways. Derb has long danced around the line on these issues, but this column is so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation.

Here’s what I would have written, were I in Lowry’s place:

John Derbyshire’s column is full of bad advice that, if obeyed, will lead to needless errors. Because Mr. Derbyshire has shown himself capable of such poor reasoning, we have decided to terminate his employment with National Review.

But I suppose Lowry can’t fire people just for offering bad advice. Most Republican/Conservative advice is bad advice. Given that, why not keep Derbyshire? He fits right in!

“Nameless One – ‘Then this is my final question: What can change the nature of a man?’
Transcendent One – ‘THE QUESTION IS MEANINGLESS.’
Nameless One – ‘Nonetheless, before there is an ending between us, I will hear your answer.’
Transcendent One – ‘THEN THIS IS MY ANSWER, AND YOU ARE THE PROOF. *NOTHING* CAN CHANGE THE NATURE OF A MAN.'”
–Dialogue from Planescape: Torment.

It is an odd thing, to read the thoughts of your opposite. In my readings of conservative blogs, I have come across a blogger who calls himself “OneSTDV”. I am not quite sure of the meaning of this name but I believe it has something to do with his belief that blacks are inherently inferior to whites intellectually. He calls this idea “Human BioDiversity” or “HBD”. I call it “racism” myself, and I believe it to be false.

 

This is not the only area where we differ. OneSTDV is also quite anti-feminist. While I would call him a misogynist, he himself would probably claim he is not, so we’ll compromise and say he is openly and extremely sexist. On every political issue that I have ever seen him address, his views appear to be the complete and total opposite of mine.

The differences do not stop even here. Our tastes are also completely opposed in the realms of literature, film, art and what qualities we find attractive in women. I am a vegetarian, OneSTDV is a carnivore, and quite proud of it–and more than that, he is openly hostile to vegetarians.

So, why do I read his blog? I admit it can be quite upsetting–his ideas strike me as terrible. When reading him, I always think of the line in P.G. Wodehouse’s story Comrade Bingo, when Bertie Wooster says to the Communist revolutionary: “The whole hub of the scheme seems to be to massacre coves like me; and I don’t mind owning I’m not frightfully keen on the idea”.*

But I read his blog anyway, because I believe it is very useful to expose yourself to thinking in total opposition to your own. It clears the mind, and allows you to focus on what you really believe; and through testing your convictions, you make them stronger.

I tried for some time to analyze my visceral dislike for his ideas, to comprehend what it was that made us different. It seemed to me that perhaps there was some underlying principle from which all our differences logically followed. I believe I found it when OneSTDV wrote in one post:

“In the end, we just can’t escape biology.”

That may be the key. It is to some extent true, of course, and those who would arrogantly try to escape fundamental facts of nature often end up like Icarus. But there is a way in which OneSTDV seems to revel in this fact, as if he is perfectly content with seeing everyone as just “moist robots”, as Scott Adams would say.

It is perfectly true that we cannot escape biology–but it is my contention that this doesn’t mean we ought not to try. For in trying, we become more than just biological entities–we achieve something more meaningful. It is this desire, I think, which underlies all Art and Literature.

Again, my favorite quote from Ayn Rand applies here:

“The conservatives see man as a body freely roaming the earth, building sand piles or factories—with an electronic computer inside his skull, controlled from Washington. The liberals see man as a soul freewheeling to the farthest reaches of the universe—but wearing chains from nose to toes when he crosses the street to buy a loaf of bread.”

Now, Rand believed we could have our cake and eat it too; be free in both the physical and psychological realms, where as I see it as more of a trade-off. But in essence, I believe that she was right in that quote above. Liberalism means freeing the mind to do mental work, Conservatism means freeing the body to do physical work.

And that, I think, is what OneSTDV is striving for. He wants to obey his herd instincts–not a bad thing necessarily, as they got to be instincts for a reason–and this is what most of his ideas are directed towards. The vegetarian issue is a perfect example: as I recently noted, I am a vegetarian because I want to be different, OneSTDV is not a vegetarian because he vehemently does not want to be different.

It may be that I am wrong in my assessment. This is just my feeling from reading his posts. No doubt he would be quite annoyed to learn I was doing even this much armchair psychology on him–especially as I suspect he finds psychology in general to be a web of liberal lies. I confess I find it odd as well, but the truth is that I am actually trying to understand myself by understanding him. (He is welcome, should he ever read this, to perform the same sort of analysis on me.)

The larger point here, beyond the strange (and sort of humorous) disagreement between two pseudonymous bloggers, is that sometimes there is something to be gained from reading views alien to your own. It may help you keep your own mind sharp, and prepare you to defend your beliefs.

*Note that I mean this only as a humorous exaggeration. I do not mean to imply that OneSTDV actually intends violence.


UPDATE 1/20/2012: Mentioned this in the comments, but just to make sure everyone sees it: my responses to the comments on this post are collected here.

I have to say that I’m not at all surprised that NASCAR fans booed the First Lady and the Vice-President’s wife at the race yesterday. In fact, when I saw the words “Michelle Obama” and “NASCAR” in the headlines, I was pretty sure it was not going to go well.

I like Michelle Obama, so I don’t understand booing her. Beyond that, though, I don’t think I could even boo somebody whom I really couldn’t stand. It would just feel weird to me. Booing is a sort of mob-mentality thing, and that just doesn’t hold any appeal for me. It seems really impolite; I was taught that you should be polite in person even with people you really dislike.  But people can get away with it in a large group, because no one can really be held accountable.

The really interesting thing to me about this is why my immediate reaction was: NASCAR fans will not like Michelle Obama and Jill Biden. I mean, any other sport and it could go either way, really. I could imagine them being booed or cheered at a football game, for instance. But with NASCAR, it seems to me that booing is virtually inevitable.

So, why? Most liberals reckon it’s racism on the part of the NASCAR fans. Well, maybe, but I’m not convinced they wouldn’t have booed Hillary Clinton, or John Kerry, or George Clooney, or basically any prominent Democrat just as much. And even if it is racism, why should fans of one particular sort of auto racing be overwhelmingly racist? I can’t see any reason for that.

Using the more neutral theory that NASCAR fans are “conservative”–meaning “Nationalistic”–and liberals are cosmopolitan intellectuals still doesn’t bring us any closer to the answer. Why should that sort of person have a particular affinity for NASCAR? There’s no logic to it that I can see. And yet my first reaction–and most peoples’, I suspect–was “NASCAR fans and Michelle Obama–they won’t get along.”

*Technically, for symmetry, it would read better to call the Vice-President’s wife the “Second Lady”,  but that just sounds weird to me.

In addition to the other points I made in this post, I should add that it’s not in fact true that lower-class whites are depicted as the sole source of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s true that the Ewells are the most egregious example, but really everyone except Atticus Finch “goes along” with racism. Even educated people, such as the Judge, are going along with the racist system, even if they do have some feeling that they ought not to.

That’s sort of a major point of the book, actually, and I’m surprised how many people miss it.

Via Ta-Nehisi Coates, a review of the film The Help, which in passing says something with which I strongly disagree. The reviewer, Patricia A. Turner, writes:

“Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.”

This is an interesting, and typically overly class-focused, charge to level at To Kill a Mockingbird–both the film and the book–and I have to say that, especially in the latter case, I disagree with it. First of all, while it is a stereotype, I suspect it was true that those who had received an education from the schools–which were largely established by the North during Reconstruction–would be more likely to have more liberal views on race,  and those who didn’t–like the Ewells in the novel–would be less likely to.

Moreover, it is believable that the lower-class whites would be more likely to have to resort to racism at that time. I hate to keep quoting Paul Graham all the time, but once again, he put it very well:

“To launch a taboo, a group has to be poised halfway between weakness and power. A confident group doesn’t need taboos to protect it. It’s not considered improper to make disparaging remarks about Americans, or the English. And yet a group has to be powerful enough to enforce a taboo.”

This offhand comment in Turner’s review is symptomatic of an increase in hostility towards not only the film adaptation, which I suppose is reasonable, but also towards Harper Lee’s excellent book itself in recent years. About a year ago, the Wall Street Journal published a critique of it by Allen Barra, in which he criticized the book for being too simplistic. Barra claims–correctly, in my view–that “[i]n all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity,” but then goes on to say that “[t]here is no ambiguity in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird'”. However, Barra does make one interesting point when he compares the character of Atticus Finch to the portrayal of Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons.

Barra’s choice to make this comparison is interesting to me, first because I love both To Kill a Mockingbird and A Man for All Seasons, and second because it sets up an interesting compare and contrast exercise. Take, for instance, my favorite exchange from Bolt’s play, when Roper is demanding that More have someone arrested and More refuses:

 “ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? 

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that! 

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down and the Devil turned round on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man’s laws, not God’s–and if you cut them down–and you’re just the man to do it–d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.”

Compare the philosophy espoused here by More with the final scene of To Kill a Mockingbird. The sheriff says he’ll do exactly what Roper would do: ignore the law to see what he considers “Justice” done, despite Atticus’s hesitation. Who is right?

Both Atticus and More are what D&D players call “lawful good”.  And both of them pay for it; Atticus’s children get attacked by Ewell, and it is only by the actions of Boo Radley that they are saved. Radley and the sheriff, not Atticus, are the ones who ultimately save the day. In A Man for All Seasons, More pays with his own life for his insistence on adhering to both his conscience and the law.

You can can look at them as exemplary, flawless heroes–or you can look at them as naive, holier-than-thou types who cause needless grief to their loved ones because of their own righteousness. The point is, there’s more moral complexity here than some people realize.  

Having apparently gotten bored of attacking Woodrow Wilson–or perhaps surprised by Wilson’s unresponsiveness–Glenn Beck has decided to turn his attention to George Soros, a wealthy businessman who funds various left-leaning activism groups.

Beck’s much-hyped two-part report supposedly “reveals” that Soros has a five-step plan for destroying countries. It is as follows, in Beck’s own words with my comments in [brackets]:

  1. “Form a shadow government using humanitarian aid as cover.”
  2. “Control the airwaves. Fund existing radio and TV outlets and take control over them or start your own outlets.” [Beck apparently believes that funding Media Matters, NPR and Huffington Post constitutes “controlling the airwaves”.]
  3. “Destabilize the state, weaken the government and build an anti-government kind of feeling in this country. You exploit an economic crisis or take advantage of existing crisis — pressure from the top and the bottom. This will allow you to weaken the government and build anti- government public sentiment.” [An old saying about pots and kettles occurs to me.]
  4. “You provoke an election crisis. You wait for an election. And during the election, you cry voter fraud.”
  5. “Take power. You stage massive demonstrations, civil disobedience, sit-ins, general strike, you encourage activism. You promote voter fraud and tell followers what to do through your radio and television stations.”

The first thing one can do with this is to ask just how much of it describes what the Conservatives do, but apart from that there is also the fact that all the other governments Soros has taken on in the past have been communist governments. That Beck, the man who fears that President Obama is a Marxist, conveniently  fails to mention that reveals–as if there were any revealing to be done–the dishonest nature of his whole operation.

Most of the criticism of Beck’s piece, however, has revolved around allegations that it is anti-semitic. Beck’s use of words such as “puppet-master” and  “blood sucker” to describe Soros, they say, call to mind Nazi propaganda.

The terminology is similar, there’s no doubt, as is the unbelievable and convoluted conspiracy theory. Still, it must be admitted that Beck never said Soros did the things Beck alleges because he is Jewish. Beck’s story is one of a supposedly evil man who happens to be Jewish, and I never felt like Beck was trying to insinuate anything else.

As Beck himself pointed out at the outset of his show, he [Beck] is a more hard-line supporter of Israel than is George Soros himself. For once, I think he’s not lying; this does indeed seem to me to argue against the charge that Beck is anti-semitic. Indeed, the vast majority of Conservatives/Republicans are fervent supporters of Israel, and more to the point, hard-line opponents of the Palestinians. There are exceptions, such as Pat Buchanan, but for the most part this is the case. So, why would Beck even want to encourage anti-Jewish feeling among his Conservative viewers? It appears to be inconsistent with practically everything else that goes on on Fox.

(One possible explanation is that Beck really is as insane as he acts. However, I doubt this because it’s hard to imagine he would even show up at the studio reliably were that the case.)

Frankly, I think that Beck’s problem with Soros isn’t that he’s Jewish, it’s that he funds Democratic-leaning stuff, and Democrats, of whatever religion, ethnicity, sex, and so forth, are viewed by Beck and most of the Fox news crowd as illegitimate, evil and generally undeserving of representation.