When Wertham Comes A-Calling

I’m working through David Hajdu’s excellent The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. While it’s a story that I already knew well, Hadju has collected a lot of interesting reminiscences from comic-book creators of the 1940s, 50s and 60s and from some of those involved in the public attack on comic-books in those years.

Hadju does a good job of capturing how the public attack on comic-books was something that the artists, writers and publishers didn’t really see coming or didn’t take seriously until Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent pushed a steady mid-level chorus of attacks past the tipping point into a middle-American consensus understanding, which the Hendrickson hearings then drove home. Hadju also does a good job of distinguishing the leading edge of the attack on comic-books from the leading edge of McCarthyism, reminding us that McCarthyism was fueled by anti-elitism, while the comic-book critics were largely high-culture snobs or experts who were first and foremost offended by what they saw as the vulgarity and luridness of the comics.

When I finished the chapter in which Hadju recounts Bill Gaines’ testimony in front of the Hendrickson committee, I was struck by the depressing sense of deja vu, the feeling of helplessness I get when I consider the recurrence of panics about mass media and civic institutions. In Hadju’s account (as well as some other histories of Wertham and the comic-book panic), Gaines’ testimony is a kind of tragic denouement. He starts with a strong prepared statement, and then follows with an impromptu response to one of Wertham’s many stupid, deceptive and ham-fisted misreadings of comic-book text which incidentally undercuts the premise of Gaines’ initial statement. Gaines then is drawn deeper and deeper into a swamp of contradictory defenses of comic-books which end with a lame, half-hearted response to an explicit image of gory horror brandished to the mainstream audience, a response which pretty well surrenders the field.

But Hadju makes clear that in many other ways, the game was already up by the time Gaines appeared before the committee. The political and social fix was in, the common sense was already manufactured. There were really only three politically plausible counter-narratives ever available to the comic-book publishers, all of which were before their time in the early 1950s. The only one even in circulation at all was the one that Gaines and others (including comic-book readers) fitfully offered: a defense of free speech against any censorship, even the censorship of civil society. The other two would be a defense of the popular or middlebrow against high culture snobbery, and an endorsement of the importance of fantasy, horror, and speculative narrative for the development of children’s imaginative and creative abilities. It’s hard to imagine how any of these could have been mobilized successfully in 1947 or 1955: it took decades of cultural conflict to make these credible propositions to any degree, and all three are still very much wobbly foundations to stand upon. I know any time I’m talking to parents of my own child’s peer group, the odds are high that no more than a small fraction of them would agree that fantastic or speculative culture is good for children. Many of them would be perfectly happy to sign on to a renewed campaign for censorship or civic authority over some aspect of the cultural consumption of children.

So when you’re looking out at that hearing through Gaines’ eyes, it’s not really clear what he or any other comic-book publisher or creator should have done in the early 1950s. Plenty of respectable experts pointed out that Wertham was an intellectual fraud, or that his conclusions were dubious. Many of the politicians who agreed to give the complaint against comic-books some public airing were appropriately diligent and moderate and pushed back on the wilder claims made by Wertham, Sterling North and other critics. The judiciary was largely moving in the opposite direction from the pro-censorship activists in case law on indecent or obscene content. Lots of the readers of the comic-books developed able, literate defenses of their own tastes and preferences.

Moreover, though Wertham was a fanatic and demagogue, his particular exegesis of many comic-books was more or less on the money. The problem was with his arguments about media effects and with his latter-day Comstockian mania for control of cultural production, not with what he said was actually in the comic-books. William Moulton Marston’s version of Wonder Woman was loaded with bondage and fetishism, very much intentionally so. There was a kind of homosexual vibe between the Golden Age Batman and Robin. Superman did raise some weird, interesting questions about power fantasies. The EC horror comics were astonishingly vivid and grotesque and many of their stories were critiques of the nuclear family, adult authority and civic institutions. Mad Magazine was a broad assault on conventional wisdom and middle-class respectability. To feel outrage today about Wertham’s crusade is not to say that none of this was true; it is to say that all of this was in some fashion good and wonderful and interesting. We don’t want to retreat into the proposition that it was harmless or had no effect whatsoever on readers then (or later); we need to say that if some fifteen-year old in 1952 had pervy, unclean thoughts after seeing Wonder Woman tied up for the umpteenth time, good for him.

I think about the choices facing Gaines and his colleagues, I think about what any of us might do or should do when the fix is in, and our own cultural or civic practice is on the firing line. It’s a given that should that happen to us, at least some of the people attacking us will be malicious, marginal, on-the-make characters who couldn’t hack it in their own professional worlds, allied with unscrupulous politicians looking for scapegoats and diversions from the real problems of the day. You can’t have a reasoned, fair-minded debate with that convergence of interests. You don’t dare ignore them. You can’t just mock or sneer at them: that plays into their hands just as much as sitting down politely with them. You can’t call upon an opposing argument or moral consensus that has yet to exist. It’s hard to avoid the despairing sensation that should it happen to you, you are just screwed, that the best you can hope for is to go down periscope, head into the cultural fallout shelter, and hope that you’ll be able to poke your head back up above ground at some point. But if we’re in a better situation now than in the 1950s, it’s only because a lot of people fought hard and long to write, teach, speak and think as people in a free society should be able to.

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18 Responses to When Wertham Comes A-Calling

  1. mencius says:

    But if we??re in a better situation now than in the 1950s, it??s only because a lot of people fought hard and long to write, teach, speak and think as people in a free society should be able to.

    I assume you’re thinking of James Watson, Larry Summers and Theo van Gogh. Ah, freedom.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Always a lot more work to do. But now is better than then.

  3. mencius says:

    How Delphic! There are two ways to interpret that. And one is really creepy, so I’ll assume you mean the other.

    In fact the Comics Code, while hilariously indefensible, is an excellent indication of the pathetic ineffectuality of the McCarthyist movement, which never had the slightest chance of success. It was about as dangerous to the American governing class as a rabbit to a Burmese python. A few people lost their jobs, in some cases unfairly, during a short period over 50 years ago. Boo hoo. In other news, have you heard that the oceans are rising by three millimeters per year? Time for swimming lessons.

    Imagine a world in which McCarthy and his thick-necked henchmen made it as difficult to be a socialist at Swarthmore as it is, today, to be a racist. (Full disclosure: my grandparents were CPUSA members, and my father went to Swarthmore.) Or not just at Swarthmore, but anywhere in America. Even anywhere in the world. Imagine that at the latest World Cup, there were posters everywhere exhorting us to “say no to socialism,” and it was worth anyone’s career, in any nonmenial occupation in any First World city, just to praise the French Revolution, or wear a Che shirt, or suggest that it might be cool to have a minimum wage.

    The closest you could possibly get to this is, of course, your favorite – apartheid South Africa, maybe in the ’70s. And it isn’t even close. It was far easier to be a socialist in Pretoria than to be a racist now (or, for that matter, then) at the Kremlin on the Crum.

    I’m not, of course, endorsing racism. Or socialism. However, if one stacks up the body counts of each in the 20th century (in previous centuries, the disparity is of course even more glaring), one is left with little explanation of this odd asymmetry – let alone the weird system of persecution narratives that seems to spring from it.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    One of Hadju’s key points is that the Comics Code had nothing to do with McCarthyism, actually, and that it ultimately came more from cultural elites and middle-class do-gooders trying to exercise paternalistic control over mass culture (and their children)–the same constellation of people who would go after children’s television a decade later, and who I think are substantially behind anxiety about video games now. It wasn’t especially harmful even in the sense that McCarthyism was–it didn’t even threaten the careers of most of the artists and writers involved in comics. It just meant that some good comics that might have been made were not made, that things which could have been expressed were not expressed. I think that’s an important harm, but I also think it should be talked about for what it was and is rather than quickly collapsing the discussion into counting up the body counts for different systems of authoritarian and totalitarian misrule. But on that latter point, I think you’re right that racism and state socialism are asymmetrical in the kind of damage they did to 20th Century societies, that it’s a different kind of damage.

  5. mencius says:

    Nothing to do with McCarthyism in a specific organizational sense, of course. I haven’t read Hajdu’s book and I am hardly an expert in the subject, but it’s rather hard to imagine Roy Cohn and Dave Schine personally descending on Marvel Comics. Heck, at the time they were probably still reading comic books themselves.

    But “McCarthyism” is often used in a broader sense to denote the whole amorphous, societal, and largely spontaneous reaction by the American petty-bourgeoisie against their ruling class, which started in the late ’40s when Americans realized how brutally and cynically their intelligentsia had duped them as to the nature of Stalin, Mao, and even to the some extent FDR. McCarthy rode this wave of reaction because he was not very smart, foolhardy and very stubborn. Powell in the UK rode it out of a genuine, aristocratic sense of principle and history. Both experienced brief flashes of popularity in the 70-80% range, but they had no chance and I assume at least the latter knew it.

    The Comics Code came out of this cultural backlash, whose vague ripples in vastly diluted form can still be felt today, and it was far more harmful than McCarthyism. It actually suppressed an art form – a minor one, true, but still. Whereas the main harm of McCarthyism was been the poisonous legacy of anti-anti-communism, whose victory made “McCarthyist” a far more deadly slur than “Bolshevik” ever was. It’s certainly difficult to regard the trials of Alger Hiss, the self-deportation of Brecht, or the career glitches of the Hollywood Ten, as much on the same scale as, say, Katyn.

    Are you attempting to justify or explain the disparate treatment of racism and “state” (is there any other kind?) socialism? They are certainly different in that racism is reactionary, whereas socialism is progressive. To some of us, that’s a reason to regard the former error with indulgence and the latter with loathing. (Of course, I’m referring to the phenomenon you would call racism, ie, white rather than black supremacism. Black supremacism is quite progressive.)

    A fun experiment for you might be to address your answer not to me, but to Professor Froude, with whose work I’m sure you’re familiar. Or not. Try his The English in the West Indies: Or, The Bow of Ulysses, and explain to Professor Froude, politely and without evasion or condescension, why the twentieth century proved him so wrong that he has not a single scholarly disciple today.

  6. Ralph says:

    Tim, My recollection is that C. Wright Mills endorsed Wertheimer’s book in a NYT review. Am that correct? I’m curious about what you make of that.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, he did, and Hadju points that out. (He also discusses how the attack on comic books in the UK was spearheaded by Communists and leftists.) I don’t find it particularly surprising that Mills should have done so, because Wertham’s basic message was appealing to a lot of left intellectuals at the time: they were just as prone to see comic books (or slightly later, television) as vulgar and crude, and just as predisposed to some kind of legal or regulatory intervention. Paul Gorman’s book Left Intellectuals and Popular Culture is a really good overview of the history that I think predisposed Mills to appreciate Wertham.

    What’s equally interesting is that Wertham’s critics were a really mixed bag in political terms, but most of all they were simply careful readers–so that even if they weren’t particularly enamored of comic books (virtually no serious adult intellectual in 1952 was going to admit liking EC’s horror comics), Wertham’s critics actually paid attention to the rank manipulation, quackery and self-aggrandizement of Wertham’s writing and activism. What I didn’t know as much about until reading Hadju, however, was Wertham’s enthusiasm for the early civil rights movement, and his activism in Harlem.

  8. mencius says:

    Dear Professor Burke,

    Now that you’ve turned on the deflection shield, I can really give you a piece of my mind.

    The message is: so far as I can determine, you’re a tenured full professor at Swarthmore and you are considerably under the age of seventy. Which is also considerably less than the age of the corrupt theopolitical machine to which – despite increasing evidence of a very real conscience, you have contributed and still contribute your energies. Is there any way in which it’s professionally necessary for you to maintain this allegiance?

    Because if not, well, shit. I mean, I’m not suggesting you become a conservative, or anything. The world is full of campus conservatives. The conservative is an enemy of democracy who doesn’t understand that he’s an enemy of democracy. As a result, he has this stupid idea that the opinions of the Swarthmore faculty should actually correspond with the opinions of the moronic petty-bourgeois hicks whom he cajoles at the polls. In a society which proclaims democracy as its supreme principle, however hypocritically, he can hardly be blamed for taking it this seriously. But he can be pitied.

    The world, however, has no campus reactionaries. Well, basically none. And certainly none who are tenured full professors at Swarthmore.

    I linked you to a book. In this book, whose author was Regius Professor at Oxford, there is a discussion of a dispute between the leading poet and the leading statesman, respectively, of a society which no longer exists. Find the major texts which presented their points of view in this dispute. Then reevaluate the quarrel in the light of hindsight, and ask yourself again how you feel about “declinist narratives.”

    For extra credit, American history since independence can be divided into three major periods, each begun by a major war.

    To reevaluate the third period: read little-known two biographies of the man under whose leadership this period began, one written by a leading journalist of the previous era who initially supported the great man himself, one by a minor journalist whose initials are F.F. (The former is on line.) Add a memoir of the war by its most effective American staff officer, a man who was a direct report to George Marshall.

    Also, if their own propaganda is to be believed, the tumultuous economic history of the period is not properly understood except by a minor, if persistent, and perpetually unfashionable Continental school of economics. But is it to be believed? We report, you decide.

    And if you care for verse, there is a book of poems, many of which touch on the period, whose author was arguably America’s leading poet – until he published this book, twelve of whose poems were in fact suppressed by the publisher. (They are restored in newer editions, of course.)

    To reevaluate the second period: read two biographies of the man under whose leadership began, one by an author who at the height of his career was arguably America’s leading poet, one by a historian who was also a senator. Perhaps the best perspective on the whole era is provided by a member of a famous presidential family. Also, there is a memoir of a visit from a prominent religious figure from one side of the conflict to the other (before the war), whose conclusion is strongly counternarrative. Evaluate the credibility of this figure and of his perspective.

    I am not quite ready to reevaluate the first period, so I’ll keep that one to myself.

    But also, a book from a marginal publisher recently appeared with a title which is almost, but not exactly, Human History Understood. I think a better title would have said Human Prehistory, but up to 1500 or so it’s pretty good, I think. Feel free to research some of the factual claims made in this book – they are quite solid. One group science blog on which the issue is much discussed has a staff of pseudonymous writers who in at least two cases I know of teach at R1 universities.

    Or, of course, you could just stay on the bus. I’m sure that would be fun, too.

  9. DougLathrop says:

    While you’ve mentioned video games, Tim, I’d be interested in your thoughts on any parallels between the comic book scares of the 1950s and the uproar over pop-music lyrics in the 1980s-early 1990s. Your comments on Gaines remind me of Frank Zappa’s testimony before Congress, in which he offered up a highly intelligent critique of the whole controversy and a passionate defense of free expression but then wound up shooting his own cause in the foot because he couldn’t hold his sarcasm in check. I also recall the whole panic as being a bipartisan one, taking in not only reactionaries like Charleton Heston but also old-school liberals like Al Gore and Paul Simon. Thoughts?

  10. mencius says:

    (All I mean by “deflection shield” is that my comments seem to be suffering intermittent moderation, for no reason that I can determine. But perhaps it’s just a software issue.)

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Mencius, I’m presently travelling, so I’m not able to check in on the blog constantly. WordPress has a moderation filter that triggers somewhat unpredictably, but often when people embed a link in a comment. (It sometimes moderates *my* comments, which I then have to rescue out of the filter). I like having it on, as it does sometimes catch spam. But it’s not intended to be aimed at you or anyone else.

    I will say I’m having a hard time doping out how this particular post triggered the degree of antagonism in your comments. I kind of get the feeling I’m acting as a synecdoche for a complaint you have about a larger group of people, institutions or positions.


    Doug, the lyrics controversy is another good example (Tipper Gore!) and Zappa’s a great example of the dilemma someone faces when they have to try and figure out what to say back to a cultural panic. Zappa was a smart guy, so he may well have known that history tends to vindicate those who stand against censorship and prudery, but that’s not much comfort when you’re trying to hold off the creation of laws or bureaucracies which will be a burden for years or decades to come.

  12. mencius says:

    Indeed, and I apologize for accusing you of something you didn’t do. Typically when a later comment from the blog owner crosses an earlier comment from a guest, it’s safe to assume that the latter has gone down the circular file.

    Unfortunately WordPress also does not provide a thread in which one can criticize a blog as a whole. So I thought I’d simply insert my lumps on the latest, which displays all your usual “narratives” if in a minor form.

    But I find it odd for a professional historian to be so unconcerned about whether he’s on the right side or the wrong side of even the smallest issue. If you’re not willing to defend your perspectives, what’s the use in having them? If small errors in moral judgment are permissible, large ones can hardly be far away. “We will kill for President Zuma!”

    Also, since I’ve criticized you several times from afar (google “Unqualified Reservations”), it strikes me as only fair to give you an opportunity to respond. Indeed you make an excellent example (why say “synecdoche” when one can say “example”?) of your ilk.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    There’s too many “have you stopped beating your wife lately” questions in there, some of which suggest to me that you’re taking me as a “typical” or abstract figure rather than working from specific posts or arguments I’ve made. I’m hardly a defender of President Zuma, for example. Replying to a lot of what you’ve said would basically make me into a monkey dancing to an organgrinder’s tune, which isn’t why I blog nor would I find it appealing for others to feel the same obligation at their own blogs. On the few occasions where I’ve argued that people on other blogs should be writing something other than what they write, or answer some charge I’ve laid on them, I’ve regretted it and sometimes said so in this space.

    I’m going to try and blog about the situation in Zimbabwe later today if I get time: that might be a good opportunity for you to take up some of your comments about racism. I’d appreciate it if they were taken up as part of a conversation rather than an indictment.

    I do think your comments on J. Anthony Froude (which could just as easily extend to Froude’s best known interest, Thomas Carlyle) are interesting. A few modest thoughts, some of which may strike you as pedantic. I don’t think there are *any* late Victorian or Edwardian British historians or intellectuals who are in a straightforward or linear fashion the progenitors of contemporary scholarly practice. There are philosophers like Mill or Bentham who certainly have scholarly “disciples” even today but even in those cases there are many intervening layers of later writing and study which more immediately shape contemporary work. And Froude, whatever else one might say about him, did not really write in a way that was broadly theoretical or philosophical. I’d also suggest that there is a complicated intellectual history that connects postmodernism/poststructuralism with what Berlin called “Counter-Enlightenment”, of which I think Carlyle and Froude might be said to be a part.

    What you may mean more is, “Does Froude have any admirers”, to which I would say, “Just about anybody who ever wrote anything in the past probably has a few scholarly or intellectual admirers today”. Or perhaps you wish he had stylistic descendants, and this is why you ask, “Where are the reactionaries in the contemporary academy?” If you regard “reactionary” as a fixed set of beliefs that were established by Froude or other past thinkers (say, as an orthodox Marxist might apply a purity test to contemporary leftist activists to ask whether they’re ‘really’ Marxists), then I don’t know how to answer that because I don’t know quite what you would sum up as the fixed or essential beliefs of a ‘reactionary’ in that mode. (Froude strikes me as a hard person to systematize.) If you mean, are there any people who stylistically strive to be ‘reactionary’ in the academy, I’d say, sure. Not a lot, but there are both people who I think have a fundamentally negative take on contemporary American society and see a past social or political order as strongly preferable and people who are eccentric, unpredictable, iconoclastic, and so on.

    One of the reasons there are not more of the latter, I’ve argued here many times, has less to do with any specific political dogma and more to do with professionalization and careerism in the post-1960 American academy. But maybe there were always more Mencken-like writers outside the academy than there were inside of it, and maybe it’s never really something we’ve expected of the professiorate since 1900 or so. Think about the really memorably iconoclastic or even politically reactionary intellectuals of the last century. Not a lot of them were full-time professors.

  14. mencius says:

    Professor Burke,

    IMHO, it’s very easy to say what a reactionary in the academy today would believe. There is already an adequate supply of antiracists, anti-imperialists, and anticolonialists on any university campus today. There is perhaps a slight shortage of racists, imperialists, and colonialists. Wouldn’t you say?

    Forget Froude. Let’s try a more recent figure – Godfrey Huggins. Dr. Huggins once observed that it might not be the most prudent policy in the world to entrust the political franchise to a population which still seriously trusted in the entrails of goats. “Obviously, Dr. Huggins,” one might reply, “you’ve been proven quite wrong about that. This is why, where I work, we refer to your position as discredited.”

    What I mean is: does anyone take Froude seriously? Or Carlyle, for that matter? Is anyone interested in the problem of explaining to these gentlemen in what way their positions, which were of course racist, colonialist and imperialist, were wrong? “Well, Professor Froude, we did give Jamaica a constitution – you Nazi, you – and nowhere on the island today is there anything like a ditch full of rotting garbage, the sight that so appalled you when you spent a few hours in Port-au-Prince. No! In Jamaica is all sweetness and delight, mon. So much for your racist, colonialist imperialism.”

    And along the same lines, I certainly can’t accuse you of being a defender of Zuma, or of Mugabe. I do think I can accuse you, however, of being a part of the movement whose result was the accession to power of these fine gentlemen. Were you in a shantytown on a college quad somewhere, in 1989 or 1990? What would you say if your older self had come up to you and whispered deep in your ear: we will kill for President Zuma…? Come on, I can’t believe you haven’t had a few twinges of conscience along the way. Your blog is practically littered with them.

  15. Doug says:

    Slightly OT, but this looks rather like a moral panic in the works:

    “[Gloucester, Mass.] officials have been reeling for a week since Principal Joseph Sullivan told Time magazine that girls had gotten pregnant on purpose, celebrating with high-fives and plans for baby showers when they learned in the school health clinic they were expecting.” (AP, June 24, 2008)

    Laura at 11D notes this as well:

    “What were these middle school girls thinking when they posed topless for cell phone pictures?

    “Some say they weren??t thinking at all.

    Pascack Valley High School??s recent discovery of racy photos of more than 20 girls on school laptops has caused a furor of discussion over why students would do something so degrading and potentially dangerous.”

    Can we pick out a latter-day Wertham targets ahead of time?

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, Mencius, if you’ve been reading the litter of my blog, you would have seen that in fact yes, I have thought a lot about the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s and my own participation in it, and about the shortcomings of that movement, the things we didn’t understand. Which were many. On the other hand, I do recall that the one person stupid enough in my local anti-apartheid group to chant along with the AZAPO slogan, “one settler, one bullet” was pretty much howled out of the room. There were people just that stupid involved, but more typical was a kind of vague liberal do-goodism.

    Now I would not class among our shortcomings an insufficient appreciation of Godfrey Huggins saying these people are not ready for democracy. That’s also screwed up in various ways. Eugenia Herbert has an interesting, very short book on the Central African Federation, which she argues was a genuine alternative to standard-issue nationalism rather than a simple interregnum. You could look for a similarly interesting and complex case of successful transition in Botswana, which I think is about the “deep history” of late 19th Century Tswana state formation and its particular intersection with British colonialism. It’s not “these people” as in all these people, it’s “this history, this process, these structures, these particular individuals, these bad and venal decisions and actions”. More importantly, I’m struck not by the discontinuities between the late Rhodesian state and the Zimbabwean state but the continuities. Mugabe took most of the capacities of the post-UDI Rhodesian state for censorship, police surveillance, suppression of civil liberties, propaganda and violence and extended them while removing whatever few inhibitions the Rhodesians still had about their use. Most of the administrative culture of that state were eventually undercut, but the RF had already set about undercutting a lot of the capacities and professionalism of the bureaucracy from pre-1965, replacing a lot of long-term administrators with its own political loyalists. So even there ZANU-PF was given a tutorial.

    If you want an ardently pro-imperialist figure today, you don’t have to look any further than Niall Ferguson–a prolific historian who is widely read. You can even find a few racists here and there, though they’re not exactly regarded with respect and admiration. Is your point that they should be? That we should have a healthy admixture of racists in our professioriate? If so, I’d be curious about why, and if that’s your vision of ‘reactionary’, why stop there? Why not have intellectual projects from the 15th, 12th, 9th, or 5th Centuries represented intact in the contemporary academy? Even if you don’t believe that history is progressive (and yes, I do believe in progress, if that’s the crime of which you mean to accuse me), surely you believe that history is *change*.

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that’s an interesting story, Doug. I strongly suspect as with many similar stories that what’s being reported now is not at all what really happened. But even if it did, I think it’s also right to say that moral panics build from recounted anecdotes that become urban legends. So keep your eye on this one. We could have a futures market…

  18. mencius says:

    Professor Burke,

    Look at the remarkable structure of rationalizations you’ve constructed in order to blame the crimes of Mugabe and his ilk on the people who tried to prevent him from coming to power, and excuse the people (including yourself) who brought him to power. Needless to say, this is a narrative that could only exist in a reactionary-free environment. Otherwise, someone might be tempted to laugh.

    Of course Mugabe inherited the Rhodesian state. You gave it to him. (Specifically, as I’m sure you know, South Africa forced Rhodesia to surrender in a misguided attempt to appease the “international community,” ie, you and your friends.) And I’m sure that you would prefer if, rather than having so rashly attempted to defy you, Rhodesia had surrendered earlier. The French have a saying: cet animal est tres mechant; quand on l’attaque, il ce defend. “This animal is very wicked; when you attack it, it defends itself.”

    No doubt you’re familiar with the phrase “Exeter Hall.” Richard Francis Burton dedicated his Wanderings in West Africa to “the true friends of Africa – not to the ‘philanthropist’ or Exeter Hall.” Read his description of Sierra Leone, and ask yourself what he would make of Africa today. He would say: you gave all of Africa to Exeter Hall, and Exeter Hall turned it all into Sierra Leone.

    A “vague, liberal do-goodism” is indeed an accurate description of the mood under which the Exeter Hall movement, and its modern successor the aid-ocracy, operates and has always operated. If good intentions guaranteed good results, Africa would have grown into a paradise under your loving care.

    It has not. And what is astounding is that, when history records that figure X predicted that if policy P was followed, the results would be A, and figure Y predicted that the results would be B; P was followed, and B resulted, you have constructed a little cottage industry which devises explanations of why X was right and Y was wrong. (If you need names for X and Y, try Garfield Todd and Godfrey Huggins.)

    Do I believe that the ideas and policies of Froude, Carlyle, Burton and their ilk were perfect? Or the governments of Verwoerd and Smith? Of course not. But if your goal in studying history is to represent the past as it really was, wie es gegentlich gewesen, rather than to fulfill the Orwellian dream that who controls the past controls the future – why not start with those whose analysis of reality was actually confirmed by actual events?

    Moreover, there is another narrative that can be constructed around Exeter Hall. In this narrative, “vague, liberal do-goodism,” while still the sentiment in everyone’s heart, is not the real emotion that drew so many followers to the flag of “a man, and a brother.” The real emotion is the desire in every human’s heart, or at least every male human’s: to exercise influence over events in the world. Ie, to wield power. Surely you can’t deny that the philanthropic movement has wielded quite a bit of power.

    As your example demonstrates, however, it is constitutionally unwilling to accept responsibility for the effects of its actions. If Ian Smith had brought the ANC to power, and used it (for example) as a pro-government militia which enforced order by burning its enemies alive, you would certainly ascribe its crimes to the RF. But this principle of contagion operates in only one direction. It works for Tories, but not for Whigs. And it allows you, in your reactionary-free environment, to present your hands as clean. No one at Swarthmore, certainly, will dispute this characterization.

    Thus we have power without responsibility, the harlot’s famous prerogative. Are you still surprised that I use words like “guilt” and “conscience?” And if you believe that Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts, and the like are a substitute for Froude and Carlyle, you clearly haven’t read much Froude or Carlyle. Fortunately, it’s never too late.

    As for “racism,” let me throw out a name again: James Watson. “Whereas all the testing says not really.”

    If there is one premise on which the entire Exeter Hall narrative is and always has been based, it is the assumption that Africans are, to put it crudely, Europeans with black skins. Or to put it more technically, that the human species is neurologically uniform. There has never been a speck of evidence to support this assumption, which in the light of our 21st-century understanding of human genetic diversity is almost comical. It is entirely religious in origin – a product of Christianity, not science.

    The result is that you’re designing political systems for populations with mean IQs in the 70s, based on the fact that they work (barely – like Carlyle, I am no fan of democracy) for populations with mean IQs in triple digits. And then, when these designs fail, you either are shocked and amazed, or invent some way to blame it on your enemies.

    Could anyone be this naive? Actually, I think not. You are not a serious believer in democracy. You don’t actually believe that elected officials (ie, politicians) should be making public policy. Oh, no. You believe that all the real decisions should be taken by you and your friends – the competent ones.

    In Africa, this translates into a system in which the Mugabes, the Mandelas and the Zumas are supposed to act as figureheads for Western-trained civil servants of African descent, the smartest 0.1% or 0.01%, who learned public policy at Harvard, Stanford, and maybe even Swarthmore. They will lead their countries into the new, bright future.

    In practice, at its best, this system turns into the rule of the wa-Benzi tribe. At its worst, the Mugabes and the Zumas decide they don’t want to take orders from Harvard. They would prefer to interpret the word “independence” according to its literal meaning. And since you have been going up and down crowing that you brought this wonderful good, “independence,” to the benighted peoples of Africa, you have a tough time disagreeing.

    In reality, there is one independent country in Africa. Its name is Somaliland. It is independent in the sense that “in” means “not,” and “dependent” means “dependent.” If Zimbabwe had truly achieved its “independence” in 1981 – consider, for a moment, the remarkable Orwellian quality of this interpretation – we would have seen a return of the traditional patterns and structures of government in that area of the world. I believe you are familiar with these patterns and structures.

    Instead, “independence” in sub-Saharan Africa meant the destruction of every remnant of traditional African society, and aggressive Westernization across the board. In an independent Africa, rulers would have titles like “Sultan” and “Sheikh” and “Chief.” Instead we see presidents and prime ministers galore. Ah, independence.

    If you read the writings of the Exeter Hall crowd from, say, the 1940s, you’ll see that their main critique of colonialism is that it has actually retarded the economic development of Africa, by preserving agrarian cultures and failing to create a modern, socialist, industrial state. With public-policy experts like these, who needs liars?

    I suspect that when it is finally written by honest and disinterested historians, the story of “decolonialization” will be written as a sort of second Scramble for Africa. In the aftermath of WWII, the more or less responsible and more or less Tory administrators, merchants, settlers and soldiers to whom Britain and France had entrusted colonial government were divested of their conquests, in favor of American and, more generally, Whig missionaries, diplomats, journalists and academics. The strong take from the weak, as always.

    The winners in this struggle devastated Africa to a point that made King Leopold look like a piker, in exchange for a rich and permanent supply of jobs in aid, diplomacy, public policy, etc. Africa employed more white men than ever, although fewer of them actually lived there. And, of course, they called it “progress.” The Whig never changes.

    Ever seen the documentary Africa Addio? You can get it on DVD these days. Sometimes video is just the thing for breaking through a stale narrative.

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