November 6, 2015 – Laqueur, Bannon, and Late Night

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Three items for the weekend. Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s new book is the subject of a devastating review by Walter Laqueur. Bloomberg/Business Week reports on Steve Bannon who they call “the most dangerous political operative in America.” And we have a double strength issue of Late Night Humor from Andy Malcolm.


Yale Historian Timothy Snyder made waves five years ago with the publication of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010). It had been previously suggested that the World Wars of the 20th century could easily be called the first and second Ukrainian Wars. Thus, a book about the conflict between Germany and Russia over that piece of the world was well received. Then, mining the same sources, Snyder published Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. 2015. Pickings offered a review of that book in September. As readers can see, Snyder has made a leap from historian to environmental scold. Here are pull quotes from that review;

In my 2012 book, Merchants of Despair, I exposed the role that Malthusian thought — the belief that the world cannot support a growing human population — has had in motivating most of the worst atrocities of the past two centuries, notably including those of Nazism and more recent antihuman movements operating under the “population control” and “environmentalist” banners. Now prominent Yale historian Timothy Snyder has written Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, which also lays out the Malthusian ideology behind the Holocaust.

But instead of forcefully rejecting the axioms of Malthusianism and the claims of its modern adherents, Snyder argues there’s something to them. The world faces catastrophe from the overconsumption of fossil fuels, anthropogenic global warming, and impending food and resource shortages, he says — echoing similar pernicious claims of the 1930s — and for this he blames the U.S. …

… But Snyder has it horribly wrong. Competition for scarce resources (land, food, energy) is effective as a demagogic myth, but it is not reality. There was no ecological crisis in the 1930s, any more than there is today. What there was then, as there is today, was ideological insanity. The Nazis’ war had no rational basis. Germany never needed more “living space.” Germany today has much less land per person, but a far higher living standard, than it had under the Third Reich. The problem was all in their heads.

Similarly, today there is no resource crisis. There are far more resources available per capita today than ever before in human history. That is because resources are defined by human creativity. Thus, contrary to Malthus and all of his followers, the global standard of living has continuously gone up as the world’s population has increased. The more people — especially free and educated people — the more inventors, and inventions are cumulative.

In this respect, America has been the most productive of nations. It is an anti-American — and anti-human — lie to say that we are destroying the world’s resources. The opposite is true. …

… The real lesson of the Holocaust for our time is this: We are not threatened by there being too many people. We are threatened by people who say there are too many people. …

… The fundamental question boils down to this: Are humans destroyers or creators? If the idea is accepted that the world’s resources are fixed, with only so much to go around, then each new life is unwelcome, each unregulated act or thought is a menace, every person is fundamentally the enemy of every other person, and each race or nation is enemy of every other race or nation. The ultimate outcome of such a worldview can only be enforced stagnation, tyranny, war, and genocide. …


Worse for Snyder has arrived in the November issue of Mosaic where his new book is reviewed by Walter Laqueur one of the pre-eminent historians of European History. Laqueur is 94 years old and it would have been better for Snyder if he had held publication until the Mr. Laqueur had passed to his reward.

… The reception given to both of Snyder’s books has generally been rapturous, if more so in the United States than in Europe, and more so in some circles than in others. They have been called epic, haunting, brilliant, profoundly original, groundbreaking, provocative, erudite, challenging, unforgettable—exhausting the thesaurus. Most of those cheering, however, are not historians who have specialized in the study of Nazism, Eastern Europe, or the Holocaust. Within that more select group, a number have entered serious reservations and criticisms of Snyder’s work, and some have voiced harsher and more heated judgments; a harvest can be found at the website Defending History. …

… The belief in the need for German expansion—Lebensraum—did indeed exist and had an impact on Nazi policy, as seen in Hitler’s invasion and seizure of the breadbasket regions of Eastern Europe. But as far as the Holocaust is concerned, it was hardly a decisive factor. Besides, if Hitler really did experience “ecological panic” (Snyder’s term), he would not have kept it a secret. It would have prominently figured in his Table Talk, in the writings of those closest to him (see Joseph Goebbels’ multi-volume diaries), in orders passed on to his ministers, and so on. It does not. By the same token, the central role in Germany’s economy would have been played by Walther Darré and Herbert Backe, the two key operatives in the regime’s agricultural policies, and not, as was really the case, by the banker Hjalmar Schacht in the 1930s and by Albert Speer in the 1940s.

The theory that the Holocaust was decisively motivated by German domestic needs does appear in the writings of a few “unorthodox” researchers. But those writings mainly date back a quarter-century or so, when environmental concerns figured less prominently on the agenda of intellectual and academic politics; instead of ecological panic, they tend to ascribe Hitler’s decision to plunder the Jews on the need to finance his “social state,” that is, the various social services that added much to the popularity of the regime. In any event, I suspect it is to this general source that one should look for Snyder’s misplaced inspiration. …

… There is a great deal more in this very crowded volume, including its bizarre and much commented-upon concluding chapter with the “warning” promised in the book’s subtitle. Here are the supposed lessons for today that lie hidden within the calamitous and genocidal events of yesterday—lessons about all the terrible and mistaken ways that people react in the face of impending dangers, real and perceived. And here the narrative shifts from the barbarism of the Nazis to global warming, from Auschwitz to Rwanda, from the gas chambers in Eastern Europe to greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere, from the Holocaust, which took place, to all kinds of ecological horrors that may or may not take place. I need not dilate further. …

… In general, despite the range of his research and his touted command of many languages, Snyder is more reliable when writing about Eastern Europe (though not necessarily about Russia) than about Germany and the West. Little slips give much away. Thus, discussing Rosa Luxemburg, the famous Marxist revolutionary and propagandist of the early 20th century, he refers to the “immensely influential” German journal Die Neue Zeit. In fact, Die Neue Zeit was a close runner-up for the period’s most boring publication; one doubts Snyder ever had an opportunity to consult it. And was it ever influential at all, let alone “immensely influential”? Hardly.

Or take the treatment of Carl Schmitt, Germany’s best known political philosopher of the 20th century, frequently quoted by Snyder as the man who gave Hitler many of his anti-state ideas: “Throughout Hitler’s career, Schmitt had provided elegant theoretical support for the Führer’s actions.” Here, too, reality is otherwise. Schmitt was indeed a member of the Nazi party—which, however, he joined only after Hitler came to power—and he wanted to be the new rulers’ supreme legal authority. But beginning in 1936 he ran into serious trouble, was charged with many ideological sins, and had to resign from all but two of his official positions.

Then there is the matter of the book’s approach and its tone. I’ve already referred to Snyder’s oft-proclaimed confidence in his originality and Newton-like authority. Another nettlesome quality is his tendency to senationalize minor or inconsequential details and magnify them out of all proportion to their historical significance.

One example: the Jewish personality most frequently and copiously quoted in Black Earth is not the eminent British Zionist Chaim Weizmann (who rates a single mention) or David Ben-Gurion (none at all); neither is it a communal leader in prewar Poland, a commander of the Jewish underground, a prominent East European Zionist, Bundist, or Jewish Communist, or one of the heads of the ghettoes appointed by the Germans. Instead, Snyder’s top Jewish witness is a young man in his late twenties named Avraham Stern (codename “Yair”), the head of the Zionist right-wing paramilitary group in Palestine known as Leḥi or the Stern Gang, which split off from the Irgun in 1940.

Stern, who was shot and killed by a British policeman in Tel Aviv in February 1942, is a tragic figure: a poet, a man of great bravery, and unfortunately, when it came to political judgment, something of a hopeless naif if not a fool. Before the war, he and his followers were involved in talks with Polish officials aimed at expediting the emigration of Jews from Poland to either Palestine or Madagascar. Later on, emissaries of his little group were sent to Beirut to talk to German diplomats there, evidently in the quixotic hope of establishing a common front against the British, then the Mandatory power in Palestine. All of these initiatives went nowhere.

Since nothing Stern did or failed to do was of genuine consequence, why has he been singled out for such extended treatment in Black Earth? What point is Snyder striving toward? That not all Jews were political geniuses? This is not exactly news. Was our author ignorant of the fact that Stern’s poignant story has already been thoroughly covered by historians of the period? Was he personally just so captivated as to conclude it therefore warranted greater publicity? Or was it the opportunity to bring into the picture Menachem Begin, a successor head of Irgun/Leḥi and a former member of the Polish anti-Nazi fighting force known as Anders Army, that he found irresistible? Whatever the motive, his elaborate treatment of this one figure is characteristic of an approach that tends repeatedly to favor the striking or outré at the expense of the relevant and important …

… It is not easy to do justice to Snyder. When he is not operating under the compulsion to play the role of a Newton, or to present versions of history radically different from those of his predecessors, or to indulge his mania for exaggeration and sensationalism, or to waste his own and his readers’ time encapsulating serious and complicated topics in shorthand, he deserves attention, respect, and some of the epithets bestowed on him by his admirers. On certain topics and on certain issues, especially concerning Eastern Europe, his work can be valuable and even innovative. If I have dwelled more on his shortcomings and misjudgments than on his merits, it is because seldom if ever can I remember having encountered so maddening a combination of right and wrong, imagination and fantasy, good sense and absurdity located together in such close vicinity.

In the end, one can say this: Snyder’s obfuscating and half-baked “discoveries” about the Holocaust do further harm to a field of study already disfigured by the work of emissaries of one school or another, not to mention outright deniers. His book will not be the last such venture in misguided interpretation—the varieties are unlimited—but it will lengthen the time needed to repair the damage.




When the book Clinton Cash appeared last winter, it was amazing to see how the book was featured prominently by many in the main stream media. How those circumstances were created is just one of the themes in Bloomberg/Business Week’s long and exhaustive story on the man they call “the most dangerous political operative in America” - Steve Bannon. He is the head of the Breitbart organization and the lower key Government Accountability Institute.

… Bannon’s life is a succession of Gatsbyish reinventions that made him rich and landed him squarely in the middle of the 2016 presidential race: He’s been a naval officer, investment banker, minor Hollywood player, and political impresario. When former Disney chief Michael Ovitz’s empire was falling to pieces, Bannon sat Ovitz down in his living room and delivered the news that he was finished. When Sarah Palin was at the height of her fame, Bannon was whispering in her ear. When Donald Trump decided to blow up the Republican presidential field, Bannon encouraged his circus-like visit to the U.S.-Mexico border. John Boehner just quit as House speaker because of the mutinous frenzy Bannon and his confederates whipped up among conservatives. Today, backed by mysterious investors and a stream of Seinfeld royalties, he sits at the nexus of what Hillary Clinton once dubbed “the vast right-wing conspiracy,” where he and his network have done more than anyone else to complicate her presidential ambitions—and they plan to do more. But this “conspiracy,” at least under Bannon, has mutated into something different from what Clinton described: It’s as eager to go after establishment Republicans such as Boehner or Jeb Bush as Democrats like Clinton.

“I come from a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats,” says Bannon, by way of explaining his politics. “I wasn’t political until I got into the service and saw how badly Jimmy Carter f—ed things up. I became a huge Reagan admirer. Still am. But what turned me against the whole establishment was coming back from running companies in Asia in 2008 and seeing that Bush had f—ed up as badly as Carter. The whole country was a disaster.”

As befits someone with his peripatetic background, Bannon is a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde figure in the complicated ecosystem of the right—he’s two things at once. And he’s devised a method to influence politics that marries the old-style attack journalism of, which helped drive out Boehner, with a more sophisticated approach, conducted through the nonprofit Government Accountability Institute, that builds rigorous, fact-based indictments against major politicians, then partners with mainstream media outlets conservatives typically despise to disseminate those findings to the broadest audience. The biggest product of this system is the project Bannon was so excited about at CPAC: the bestselling investigative book, written by GAI’s president, Peter Schweizer, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich. Published in May by HarperCollins, the book dominated the political landscape for weeks and probably did more to shape public perception of Hillary Clinton than any of the barbs from her Republican detractors. …

… While attacking the favored candidates in both parties at once may seem odd, Bannon says he’s motivated by the same populist disgust with Washington that’s animating candidates from Trump to Bernie Sanders. Like both, Bannon is having a bigger influence than anyone could have reasonably expected. But in the Year of the Outsider, it’s perhaps fitting that a figure like Bannon, whom nobody saw coming, would roil the national political debate. …

… What made Clinton Cash so unexpectedly influential is that mainstream news reporters picked up and often advanced Schweizer’s many examples of the Clintons’ apparent conflicts of interest in accepting money from large donors and foreign governments. (“Practically grotesque,” wrote Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, who’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination. “On any fair reading, the pattern of behavior that Schweizer has charged is corruption.”) Just before the book’s release, the New York Times ran a front-page story about a Canadian mining magnate, Frank Giustra, who gave tens of millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation and then flew Bill Clinton to Kazakhstan aboard his private jet to dine with the country’s autocratic president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Giustra subsequently won lucrative uranium-mining rights in the country. (Giustra denies that the Clinton dinner influenced his Kazakh mining decision.) The Times piece cited Schweizer’s still-unpublished book as a source of its reporting, puzzling many Times readers and prompting a reaction from the paper’s ombudswoman, Margaret Sullivan, who grudgingly concluded that, while no ethical standards were breached, “I still don’t like the way it looked.”

For Bannon, the Clinton Cash uproar validated a personal theory, informed by his Goldman Sachs experience, about how conservatives can influence the media and why they failed the last time a Clinton was running for the White House. “In the 1990s,” he told me, “conservative media couldn’t take down [Bill] Clinton because most of what they produced was punditry and opinion, and they always oversold the conclusion: ‘It’s clearly impeachable!’ So they wound up talking to themselves in an echo chamber.” What news conservatives did produce, such as David Brock’s Troopergate investigation on Paula Jones in the American Spectator, was often tainted in the eyes of mainstream editors by its explicit partisan association.

In response, Bannon developed two related insights. “One of the things Goldman teaches you is, don’t be the first guy through the door because you’re going to get all the arrows. If it’s junk bonds, let Michael Milken lead the way,” he says. “Goldman would never lead in any product. Find a business partner.” His other insight was that the reporters staffing the investigative units of major newspapers aren’t the liberal ideologues of conservative fever dreams but kindred souls who could be recruited into his larger enterprise. “What you realize hanging out with investigative reporters is that, while they may be personally liberal, they don’t let that get in the way of a good story,” he says. “And if you bring them a real story built on facts, they’re f—ing badasses, and they’re fair.” Recently, I met with Brock, who renounced conservatism and became an important liberal strategist, fundraiser, and Clinton ally. He founded the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America and just published a book, Killing The Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot to Derail Hillary and Hijack Your Government. Brock’s attitude toward Bannon isn’t enmity toward an ideological opponent, as I’d expected, but rather a curiosity and professional respect for the tradecraft Bannon demonstrated in advancing the Clinton Cash narrative. What conservatives learned in the ’90s, Brock says, is that “your operation isn’t going to succeed if you don’t cross the barrier into the mainstream.” …



Late Night Humor from Andrew Malcolm.

Fallon: New York City Mayor De Blasio signs a bill requiring stores to keep their doors closed when the air conditioning is on. So apparently De Blasio is not only our mayor, he’s also our dad.

Meyers: The Vatican has announced that Pope Francis will visit Mexico next year. Now that he’s met all the Catholics in the United States, he wants to see where they’re from.

Fallon: Yellowstone National Park has set a visitor record. Officials credit cheap gas, good marketing and kids being so distracted by their phones that you can drive them anywhere.