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Old 31st Aug 2011, 21:05   #1
loupgarous
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Default Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke - selective history in a bound blog

Human Smoke attempts to rebut what author Nicholson Baker thinks is the false simplicity that World War Two was necessary.

However, Baker's alternate thesis is a chord of false simplicities. Among them:
- World War Two could have been avoided without giving Hitler and Tojo free rein;
- Churchhill and Roosevelt schemed to gratuitously involve the United States in the war for no good reason;
- the then-fashionable weak-tea anti-Semitism of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt was morally equivalent to the visceral, lethal hatred of Jews of Hitler and the Nazis;
- Imperial Chemical Industries and other "war profiteers" worked hand in hand with Churchhill and Roosevelt to push the Allied toward armed intervention against Hitler and the Axis;
and finally,
- the British naval blockade of Germany, their bombing campaign, Roosevelt's refusal to admit more Jewish refugees into the United States, and American involvement in the war were the necessary and sufficient causes of the Holocaust without which Hitler and his clique would have been content to resettle Jews to Madagascar or Siberia..

That last false simplicity of Human Smoke would be the worst failing of Baker's book, were it not also a transparent, intellectually dishonest picking and choosing of facts to support all four theses.

In fact, Baker doesn't really reason to support his chord of false simplicities; he instead winnowed the files of the New York Times and other sources for epigrams of one or more paragraphs - each reporting an event which to Baker was significant in proving his case.

Baker's book, then, is a massive 474-page simulated blog of what he believes was the genesis of the Second World War.

It's difficult to decide whether or not Baker's decsion to reduce his history of the events leading up to World War Two to 474 pages of short paragraphs each setting a scene, with the reasoning to support his conclusions largely implied was a conscious pandering to what one may assume is the short attention span of the modern reader (who is now accustomed but having his material spoon-fed to him in epigrammatic bites in blog entries) or whether he was led to do so by a cinematic understanding of history.

Regardless of his motives, what he's achieved is a massive insult to the intelligence of the reader with any understanding of history at all. In the bargain, he's also managed to insult the memories of countless brave men and women who fought the war while elevating the pacifist community between the wars to an undeserved sainthood.

A reasoned defense of Baker's theses would have been welcome. I personally like such books. Contrarian historical analysis isn't just useful, it can be essential to discovering new truths. Baker did the research work to support such a book.

However, he didn't actually create such a book.

Without the sinews and integument of rational discusssion, all Baker gives the reader is... meat. The sort of red meat that intellectually dishonest authors of all ideological stripes seem increasingly content to throw to their readers lately as an alternative to starting with a thesis, researching it, then going through a chain of arguments to a defensible conclusion.

Halfway through the book, I realized that I and Baker's other readers were being scammed - presented with the bound equivalent of the historical author's deck of five-by-eight inch note cards masquerading as a book on the "real" causes of World War Two.

The list of other authors praising the book on the back covers includes both Usual Suspects such as Daniel Ellsberg (himself the recipient of unearned praise for being the paleo-WikiLeaker of the Vietnam War) and authors such as Simon Winchester who actually know how to write books that explain and defend thoughts about history. One suspects that Winchester's own grounding in journalism as opposed to more conventional scholarship may have made him more sympathetic to Baker's epigrammatic approach to writing.
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Last edited by loupgarous; 17th Apr 2014 at 8:41. Reason: omitted word
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Old 1st Sep 2011, 14:57   #2
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Default Re: "Human Smoke" by Nicholson Baker - selective history in a bound blog

Hello loupgarous,
This is an interesting discussion of Baker's approach to history. I can't help but wonder whether there is a connection between his flash-card, anecdotal style of rebuttal and successful sales in the minds of the publishers and editors who accepted this work for printing. I don't think I'm being cynical when I say: this s@#t sells.

I think it is not just the (oft presumed) short attention span of the modern reader that he (and they) counts on: but also the anecdotal format itself, for its persuasiveness.

You mention the Ellsberg-wiki-leaks connection; well, underlying the connection is the assumption that "behind" the curtain of received historical 'fact' there is a hidden trove of documentation of casual complicity and scandal, the exposure of which will surely upset the received opinion and expose its manipulators. The presumption seems to be that History is a lie told by the winners (who are too stupid to burn their candid notes). Uncover the notes and you find the truth. Undeclared also is the corollary assumption, that all previous historians have been complicit with these evil and greedy manipulators in their attempts to deceive the poor, unsuspecting public. In other words, this format plays to an existing prejudice for a certain form of "facts" - the 'wiki-fact' - to make the case to an audience already prepared to receive it as true.

Surely, there have been political and social scandals and discoveries of hidden agendas. But it is interesting to note how very little the recent inquisition in Britain uncovered about the run-up to war in Iraq, and how little of importance - if anything at all - was revealed by the actual wikileaks info-dump.

Perhaps Baker is not trying to persuade; hence, he needs no argument. Instead, he is supplying fodder for already existing and precisely aimed pacifist cannons. I.e., he's preaching to a choir in the name of a pacifist, anti-government war-machine agenda. But a lie, even in support of a good cause, is still a lie. And it is not history.

Unfortunately, for too many, it will serve as well as the truth!
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Old 1st Sep 2011, 16:39   #3
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Default Re: "Human Smoke" by Nicholson Baker - selective history in a bound blog

A couple of years ago, we had a fun conversation about this book and its methodology (or lack of) in the comments section to John Self's review (here) that you might be interested in. There was a defender of the book (Richard), and our very own KevinfromCanada came in to take him to task.
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Old 1st Sep 2011, 18:28   #4
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Default Re: "Human Smoke" by Nicholson Baker - selective history in a bound blog

Yes Mookse,
that discussion is a beauty (I just now looked into it.); rarely do we see such spirited give and take.
It makes me want to re-address and re-stress my point about lies. Baker seems convinced that taking things (like quotes and diary entries) "out of context" can be a revealing way of looking at the issues they are associated with. This seems to me patently false--even ridiculous. If it reveals anything, it is only the bias of the editor/writer who selects and edits. What is more, it begs the question of editorial fairness; a question we can only answer by doing all the research ourselves. The format alone gives me cause and reason to suspect - as loupgarous does - that the book is a scam.

Writers who are not professional historians can and should (if they so desire) write books about history. But they will be judged then, as they should be, as historians. A well phrased lie is still a lie.
And 'out of context' excerpts are lies--or, just as bad, historical asymptotes, as insignificant and meaningless as directional street-signs which are still in the shipping container.
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Old 4th Sep 2011, 5:12   #5
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Default Re: "Human Smoke" by Nicholson Baker - selective history in a bound blog

Quote:
Originally Posted by kjml View Post
Hello loupgarous,
You mention the Ellsberg-wiki-leaks connection; well, underlying the connection is the assumption that "behind" the curtain of received historical 'fact' there is a hidden trove of documentation of casual complicity and scandal, the exposure of which will surely upset the received opinion and expose its manipulators. The presumption seems to be that History is a lie told by the winners (who are too stupid to burn their candid notes). Uncover the notes and you find the truth. Undeclared also is the corollary assumption, that all previous historians have been complicit with these evil and greedy manipulators in their attempts to deceive the poor, unsuspecting public. In other words, this format plays to an existing prejudice for a certain form of "facts" - the 'wiki-fact' - to make the case to an audience already prepared to receive it as true.

Surely, there have been political and social scandals and discoveries of hidden agendas. But it is interesting to note how very little the recent inquisition in Britain uncovered about the run-up to war in Iraq, and how little of importance - if anything at all - was revealed by the actual wikileaks info-dump.

Perhaps Baker is not trying to persuade; hence, he needs no argument. Instead, he is supplying fodder for already existing and precisely aimed pacifist cannons. I.e., he's preaching to a choir in the name of a pacifist, anti-government war-machine agenda. But a lie, even in support of a good cause, is still a lie. And it is not history.

Unfortunately, for too many, it will serve as well as the truth!
I agree with your suggestions; Baker's giving us reams of data, saying "there it all is," and failing to justify the conclusions he reaches in any serious way.

By way of contradistinction, Herman Kahn's controversially-famous On Thermonuclear War (instantly denounced by one side of the political polarization for dispassionately discussing what by its publication date in 1960 had become the global political issue) is a masterwork of structured presentation and discussion of facts and their implications. Kahn brought in similar volumes of data but never neglected to frame it in a discussion remarkable for its logic and enviable communication of the besetting problems of the arms race; his observations on future nuclear proliferation proved eerily prescient.

Like Daniel Ellsberg, Julian Assange and the US Army private who diverted hundreds of megabytes of classified diplomatic cables to publication, Baker assumes that this information he has painstakingly assembled has significance without some sort of logical analysis.

Actually, like the bulk of the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks cables, Baker's factoid epigrams are mostly old news. We knew, for example, that racism, eugenics and anti-Jewish bigotry were all rife at the highest levels of American government until the wake of the Second World War; it was Harry Truman, not Franklin Roosevelt who ordered the US Armed Forces to racially integrate, and it was Richard Nixon's Justice Department, not Lyndon Johnson's, who widely enforced racial integration of public schools and made affirmative action a fact.

Curiously, lost in all the condemnation of the Nixon Administration during the Pentagon Papers scandal was the complicity of the Kennedy Administration in the assassinations, sectarian violence and other abuses of power that led to US involvement in the Vietnam War. Facts are meaningless when those who wield them aren't inclined to actually reason toward valid conclusions.

Passion and emotional conviction can also lead people astray from the truth - Baker's feelings about the plight of the Jewish refugees are admirable but he somehow missed the import of the fact that the split in the anti-interventionist camp between conservatives like Herbert Hoover and Charles Lindbergh, the Communists (who weathervaned with Stalin in their attitude toward World War Two), and the apolitical pacifist community was more than just a fractionation of the anti-interventionists between "pure" pacifism and "political" pacifism. Baker also fails to share with us what might have happened had his estimate of Hitler as being inclined to sit in Fortress Europa and not expand Germany's frontiers any farther (given vigorous German naval activity in the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the Atlantic) had been accepted by the Roosevelt Administration at face value. Roosevelt had his cousin's experience of German naval expansionism at the turn of the century as argument to the contrary, and in any case his job was not to be an even-handed judge of the Nations, but to protect the safety and security of American citizens. The practical argument for pacifism, it seems, is destined to founder on the rapacity of despots - who are stubbornly determined not to settle for what they can have when they can easily take more.

Hoover certainly had nothing to gain politically by trying and trying and trying to feed the starving displaced people of Europe. He did not fit the profile either of a "political" or a "pure" pacifist. Neither did an outspoken spokesman against American participation in the Second World War who Baker completely failed to mention. Retired US Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler (twice decorated with the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry in battle) actually went as far as publishing a pamphlet, War is a Racket (available online at http://www.lexrex.com/enlightened/ar...risaracket.htm - caveat: this is a political advocacy web site) in which he attacked modern war generically and the then (1937) impending Second World War specifically. Butler walked much farther out from his presumed zone of comfort as a military man who had actually been shot at many times in denouncing war. I find it very curious that Baker overlooked to present vignettes from Smedley's many lecture tours against war.

Baker missed the chance to really contribute to our understanding of the lead up to the Second World War by failing to analyze the data he assembled. And it's a pity, but perhaps it required someone with greater intellectual tools - certainly more rigor in discussing the subject matter.

Your coinage of the "wiki-fact" has some basis in fact - anyone can publish a WikiPedia article and anyone can edit what the author has published - and the process for truth-testing of WikiPedia articles can be long and cumbersome, during which utter crap can creep into what is otherwise a splendid resource of factual information (WikiPedia probably has a lower incidence of failures in objective presentation of the facts than most printed encyclopedias, specifically because of the wide array of editors, some of whom are actually competent and objective. WikiPedia has outgrown its early deserved reputation for apocryphal information, by and large).

I am a WikiPedia editor (specializing in Cajun culture and the history of nuclear weapons and warfighting doctrine). I have shouldered my share of the burden of making WikiPedia articles as factual and objective as possible (lately battling an odd confusion between neutral point of view - the saving grace of WikiPedia and one of its pillars - and political correctness, as when we had to fight for well over a year over whether or not to include the Fort Hood, Texas massacre of 2009 in a list of terrorist incidents). Too many WikiPedia articles suffer from the same problem as Human Smoke - anyone with research skills and facility with words can publish a ream of facts. A somewhat smaller portion of the populace can draw valid conclusions from those facts. Fortunately, there is a constantly renewed and vigilant WikiPedia community whose members mostly agree that if facts are worth including in WikiPedia, they are worth presenting accurately and objectively.
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