Sunday, April 26, 2009

Human Smoke signals

Oppressors don't fear pacifism. They fear aggression. Baker quotes a demonstrator's placard: 'WAR MEANS FASCISM'. The truth is the exact reverse.
This is the end of Max Dunbar's review of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, which has just been published in paperback. Isn't the reverse true only because the phrase is chiastic? Whichever, it is meant as the triumphant rebuttal of Baker's support for pacifists in the 1930s. Looking back in the knowledge of the Holocaust, Baker's position seems not only dubious but downright callous. Back at the beginning of the review, it's clear Dunbar agrees and quotes Orwell in support of the suggestion that pacifists are "secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty". And, before he begins to address the book, he also quotes three other reviews that take issue with the morality of Baker's project (though how all four can be described as "professional historians" is a question that'll have to remain for others to answer - Adam Kirsch, for instance, is a poet and literary critic). The potential reader is well-primed to be suspicious.

For me, otherwise unperturbed by the challenge of Human Smoke, the reception has been troubling because the issue of the Holocaust has been raised to address and, at the same, to obscure the reviewers' responsibility for more recent atrocities. For all the reviewers haughty disgust at Baker, the fact is the British did not declare war on Germany to end oppression of European Jewry. Forgive me for repeating the obvious, but it was only when Nazi Germany invaded a sovereign nation that war began. It's worth pointing out too that those, like Max Dunbar, who supported the invasion of Iraq, it wasn't Saddam's oppression that prompted the US and UK governments. Indeed, he was toppled at his least oppressive, least dangerous time. In the 80s, at the height of his well-sponsored reign, the powerful whose aggressive policies Dunbar so admires, encouraged a terrible war on Iran and, in order to maintain military support, turned a blind eye to the gassing of civilians that would later be used to back-up spurious warnings of WMD that were themselves used to justify an invasion.

Moreover, oppressors do fear pacifism. The Nazis were so fearful of The White Rose movement that they beheaded a 16-year-old girl. We might wonder whose "power and successful cruelty" Sophie Scholl admired - Orwell's perhaps? And more recently, in Iraq, there was a campaign of non-violent resistance which, Chomsky observes, "compelled the United States, step-by-step, to back away from its programs and its goals". Insurgent aggression, it could be said, enables the oppression the US seeks to impose on Iraq as it had previously relied on Saddam to do (overthrowing once he became too weak) - enables it, that is, to present the oppressive occupation as "resolve" and "determination" to bring "freedom" at some vague point in the distant future.

Finally, Dunbar observes that Baker's juxtaposition of fragments "becomes a technique for lazy moral equivalence". I can see how this is likely. Yet Dunbar himself uses suggestion when he asks "how honourable were the war's opponents?". For example, Gandhi, he tells us, was "a committed racist". If one decides every pronouncement made by each individual quoted by Baker is relevant then juxtaposition becomes impossible. Surely absences is as much the point of juxtaposition as presence, or is thinking for one's self - awareness of resonances and alternatives - problematic for some? Still, let's avoid laziness and rely on definitions supplied by international law. The recent invasions by US and UK forces are direct equivalents of the Nazi assaults on Poland and Russia in that they violate the sixth Nuremberg Principle and the 1949 Geneva Convention. Those with executive power in each nation are potentially guilty of the supreme war crime - the waging of a war of aggression (they have to be tried first of course). This isn't a mere technicality. As we know, the death toll as direct result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq has risen well above one million civilians. Reading the overt supporters and covert apologists of aggression, one has to ask: what part of Never Again don't they understand?


  1. Dunbar's review is irritating, but to be fair, he's not making his so-called argument any worse are than the people he cites. But I'm particularly interested in his use of Ghandi, who does not come off well in the book at all. The quote he uses is of course found in Human Smoke itself, yet Dunbar, and others, assume that Baker must necessarily endorse his frankly monstrous views on the Jews' predicament, simply because he was a pacifist. His further assumption is that readers of the book are too stupid to judge Ghandi's words for themselves.

  2. Second half of first sentence in my comment above is garbled. It should read: "he's not making his so-called argument any worse than are the people he cites" etc

  3. Thanks Richard. I didn't realise Baker had used the quotation. That makes Dunbar's argument even weaker.

    Here's a link to a post on Nick Cohen's book mentioned in the review:
    Plenty of evidence of Cohen's secondhand research. How honourable is that?

  4. Anonymous8:30 pm

    I don't recall the quote being used in Human Smoke (do you have a page ref?) and don't necessarily believe Baker endorses it.

  5. Anonymous8:36 pm

    Oh and that Cohen review does not address any of his points about pacifism during WW2.

    Incidentally, anti-occupation Iraqi trade unionists are not 'ignored' in What's Left, again contra Stuart A's piece.

  6. My apologies. The quote does not appear in the book. This quote, however, does:

    "I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators." The discipline of nonviolence--ahimsa--worked most efficaciously in the face of terrible violence, Gandhi said: "Sufferers need not see the result in their lifetime."

    I had conflated the two. The quote Dunbar uses is attributed to him by a biography, which in turn was cited by Orwell, in the article linked to by Dunbar. The phrase "collective suicide" is Orwell's (which is not at all clear from Dunbar's use of it).

    I don't see much difference in the passages, frankly, but I apologize for the confusion.

    The main point holds: the idea that Ghandi and the other pacifists are presented "uncritically" is laughable. Is not Ghandi's quote above, the one that does appear in the book, monstrous on its face? As I mentioned, Ghandi comes off horribly in the book (he struck me as quite callous, at best), not much better than Churchill.

  7. Anonymous7:51 am

    That is nonsense. I don't recall a single passage where Ghandi is treated critically. This is in contrast to the hammering Churchill gets - often with good reason.

  8. No, it's not nonsense. There is very little commentary from Baker in the book. I'm suggesting that he's giving the reader more credit than you are.

  9. Anonymous3:21 pm

    Baker achieves his effect not through commentary but through selective quotation and juxtaposition.

    Anyone who's got through Nicholson Baker deserves credit from me.

  10. Anonymous3:42 pm

    "As we know, the death toll as direct result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq has risen well above one million civilians."

    I was a bit surprised by this claim, since the respected Iraq Body Count has documented 92,000 civilian deaths. Moreover, this figure includes killings by insurgents, and these deaths are not a direct result of the actions of coalition forces.

    The IBC records 9,270 civilian killings by coalition forces between 2003 and 2005, and around 500 per year since then.

    I wondered what data had produced the dramatic figure you cite, and I was not entirely surprised to learn that it is the highest estimate ever published, and that it is based on extrapolation from a survey of 1,500 Iraqis.

    Some deaths have probably gone unrecorded. But to estimate this number is to extrapolate beyond what is known. The IBC website makes some extremely sensible criticisms of the extrapolated figures.

    Now of course the death toll recorded by the IBC is still terrible and unacceptable, and highlights the tragic trajectory of Iraq in the years after the invasion.

    In fact, the numbers arguably don't matter, because no number of civilian killings can be justified. There's no formula for working out when the number of civilian deaths is "proportionate" to the goals of the campaign, and indeed the very concept strikes me as disgusting.

    Yet taking this view does not imply Bakerian pacifism. We can coherently maintain that removing Hitler or Saddam was a justified end, but that some of the means taken to that end were very bad.

  11. Oh dear Underthought, where have you been? The "respected" IBC has long been discredited. And haven't you heard of the scientific, peer-reviewed studies?



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