Tuesday, 24 August 2010

History is what you make of it? Johann Hari's review of Wolf: The Lives of Jack London suggests that its author, James Haley, says nothing about its subject that has not been long known.* The only people who would be surprised by the facts of Jack London's life and life of mind, then, are those who know nothing about him, like Ilya Somin, who uses the occasion of Hari's review to condemn the group he describes as "early 20th century Progressives," claiming London’s simultaneous advocacy of racism and socialism was no anomaly among early 20th century Progressives. Was London a racist and a socialist? Absolutely. Did he believe in progress? He did. Did he align himself with the Progressives? He absolutely did not.** Not only did he despise the lukewarm commitment of populists like Williams Jenning Bryan to the socialist cause, he publicly quarreled with the Progressive Party's one and only Presidential candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, five years earlier, when the then President declared him a "nature fakir" after reading his account of a lynx killing a dog-wolf. Far from being a Progressive standard-bearer, London couldn't even agree with this lot about the finer points of dog psychology. The first problem with Somin's argument, then, is that he applies the term "Progressive" to someone who was an avowed "Socialist." London was a capital-S Socialist who believed in lowercase-p progress, but he was not a capital-P Progressive. Teddy Roosevelt was a capital-P Progressive, but he didn't believe in progress and was neither a socialist nor a Socialist. These are distinctions with difference to everyone who cares more about history than contemporary politics. They must be made to obtain. The second problem with Somin's argument is that its logic lacks logic. Smudging your greasy fingers on the glasses of history only obscures your view of its record: The racist elements of Progressive ideology don’t prove that economic interventionism is racist by nature, or that the policies Progressives defended in large part on racist grounds can’t be justified in other ways. Still less do they prove that modern left-wingers are necessarily racist as well. But they do undercut claims that racism is primarily a product of the “right” and that economic leftism and racial progress necessarily go together. Proving that Jack London was a racist only proves that Jack London was a racist. It weakly suggests, and then only by extension, that those who shared his ideological commitment to socialism—which, it bears repeating, is only the same thing as Progressivism if you consider Teddy Roosevelt a socialist—might be racist. What it does not and can never prove is anything at all about people who were not London and did not share his beliefs. Anyone who thinks otherwise was likely also impressed by Jonah Goldberg's masterful Liberal Fascism: Two Words Next To Each Other, and deserves to be taken about as a seriously. *Part of the reason that the details of London's life are already familiar is that, as he wrote S.S. McClure at the beginning of his career, “[he] took the...
As a "republican," Sarah Palin must have supported the salting of Carthage in the wake of the Third Punic War. Ilya Somin's response to my London post is a nifty little walk-back, but he does have a point: “Progressive” is a general term routinely applied to all those early 20th century writers and political activists who supported large-scale increases in government control of the economy. That's not it. That is a definition so broad as to be utterly useless. The trusts "supported large-scale increases in government control of the economy" as a means of putting and keeping labor in its place; manufacturers lobbied first for higher, then lower, then higher tariffs; but I doubt Somin wants to include those interests among his "Progressives." The point he does make is this: Perhaps Kaufman was confused by my use of a capital “p” rather than a lower-case one. I was, but only because I applied a standard that's been around for about a hundred years instead of Somin's idiosyncratic non-distinction. Those who ignore this distinction typically did so for practical political reasons, like the fellow who wrote this introduction, who wanted to include lowercase-p progressives under his uppercase-P umbrella in order to make his newly founded party look a little more substantial. I'm not saying this is a distinction universally upheld, only that it's more common than not in contemporary scholarship for the simple reason that most scholars abide by the rules of capitalization: proper nouns refer to unique entities and are therefore capitalized. The niceties of orthography are a side show, however, because the main problem with Somin's post is that he still claims that London was both spectacularly racist and, as he wrote in the first post, "no anomaly among early 20th century Progressives." London's racism still only differs in degree, not kind, because as he wrote in the second post, "it was part of a broader pattern of racism among many Progressives of that era." Except that it wasn't. London's atypical in all respects, and as I demonstrated in my earlier post, neither part of the "Progressive movement" proper and only obliquely involved in the humble-mumble of internecine conflict that defined leftist and liberal politics at the turn of the last century. But I've repeated myself. Very dull. How about we venture into the comments over there? It appears that Scott Kaufman is maintaining the faux history that progressives aren’t either fascists or socialists, when the plain fact of the matter is that they are both. Or maybe not. If elements of that crowd can't tell from my post that London couldn't have been a progressive because he believed they were insufficiently radical, the cause is already lost. But I'm a soldier, so once more into the breach: As far as I can tell, Google says that Kaufman is the only connection between “nature fakir” and Jack London. And, FWIW, that part about “Darwinian determinism” is nonsense. Seriously? The first return from Google is too far for someone to tell? What could be closer? Wait, wait, these could be swells of stupidity in an otherwise tempered sea. Let me...

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